Part two of my write up of the GA2020 conference - Thursday 19th April.
Thursday 19th April.
I missed the first talk, by Dr. Gurdev Khush from IRRI ("Towards global food security: what are the priorities?") and arrived towards the end of Prof. Jikun Huang's talk ("Economic role of agriculture in developing country economies"). Although Prof. Huang has a good command of English, his diction is poor so it was very difficult to understand what he said.
Some of the points he raised were:
Agriculture cannot expand - land and water use are nearly at their limits. Institutional reform was the driver from 1978 onwards. Rural areas got more and more income from 1980 to 1998. As the share of agiculture in the economy declines, so its role in the economy increases.
Next was Prof. Martin Parry of the Jackson Environmental Institute at UEA, who spoke on "Climate change, water and future food supply". He set the scene for what is predicted to happen to the climate this century. Globally, temperatures are expected to rise between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celsius and total precipitation is expected to rise too. There are different predicted levels of temperature rise partly because of the effects of sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere, which has a cooling effect.
Climate change is expected to exaggerate existing differences between arid and wet areas, so the tropics get drier and the equator and higher latitudes get wetter. Water stress is likely to be more common. A two degree rise in temperature will increase yields of many crops but a further increase of two degrees will cause yields to drop. Thus crop yields are likely to increase in North America, northern Europe and Russia, while they are expected to fall in Africa, much of Asia and South America. Africa is likely to be the worst affected, with increased aridity.
Planting dates, plant spacing and which varieties of crop can be grown are all likely to be affected. Food security is likely to be adversely affected. How much adaptation is possible? Local impacts are likely to have a major effect.
We need cuts in emissions to address these problems - a cut to 550ppm CO2 is not enough!
Prof Michael Jeger (Wye College) - pests and diseases not included in projection: they will further exaggerate the situation. Prof John Beringer (University of Bristol) - as will sea level rise, huge local impacts with knock-on effects for millions: salinity comes with flooding as well. There will be severe storms and droughts, especially in equatorial regions.
Dr. Robin Simpson (National Consumer Council) was next to speak and he outlined changes in food production in Britain in the last thirty or so years. Consumers have had a small influence on food production, whereas big business has had a large influence and this trend is continuing with GATT. He made the case that consumers don't go for the cheapest food available but make a trade-off between quality and price. Studies in 1990 and 1992 showed that two thirds of consumers would pay higher premiums for environmental benefits, while the rise of organic farming (up 25% in France in 1997) is further evidence of consumers' concern. Fairtrade products are also being bought in increasing quantities (currently 12% of coffee is fairtrade). However, there is a lot of resilience for products too - lots of people still eat beef, for example, even after mad cow disease.
The north has destabilised maarkets in many parts of world with dumping and "very aggressive exports" of meat and crops. Export subsidies have forced world commodity prices down 23%, with beef prices down 40%. The US subsidy for one cow equals the annual income of the poorest!
The aim of the CEO of Coca Cola is to make Coke the most commonly drunk liquid in the world ...
Dr. Idah Sithole-Niang (University of Zimbabwe) then talked about "From research to field" and outlined the sorts of biotechnology research going on in her country. Examples include using plant tissue culture to provide disease-free plants (such as sweet potato), conventional plant breeding using molecular markers (Sorghum), cultivation of mushrooms, use of inoculants of the nitrogen-fixing bacterium Rhizobium and fermentation.
Genetically engineered plants are also being developed for virus- and herbicide-resistant plants and - possibly Bt cotton. (The herbicide is Bromoxynil, which I expect is made by Aventis in Norwich.) In spite of this, clients of Zimbabwe Tobacco Research Board are not interested in GM tobacco.
A question later on pointed up the fact that Sithole-Niang and colleagues ask farmers what the problem is and then proceed to look to biotech for solutions, so farmers have no input into how the problem is addressed, and probably no understanding of biotech. Incidentally, the Free University of Amsterdam is supporting this work.
Next on was Michael Paske, Vice-President of the NFU, who is a horticulturalist. He even grows some organic crops but not, as he was at pains to point out, for ethical reasons - just for the money. As you would expect, he's a fan of globally traded agricultural produce. He favours what he calls high quality, value added products - processed foods, organic foods and biotech crops and the use of the countryside for leisure. Crops could also be used as a source of renewable energy. Farmers are "waiting for the outcome of [GM crop] trials".
In the questions that followed, Jonathan Jones, who is an outspoken supporter of GM (see his website at http://www.jic.bbsrc.ac.uk/sainsbury-lab/jonathan-jones/GMO-pieces/), suggested that GM would be of use to organic farmers and wants "a regulatory system to accomodate both [GM and organic]"....
Like a breath of fresh air, Prof. Martin Wolfe, who does research at Elm Farm Research Centre (http://www.efrc.com/research_main.htm) and has an organic farm in Suffolk, was next to speak, with a talk entitled "Recognising and Realising the Potential for Organic Farming".
He used to do research on powdery mildew on cereals and used crop mixes to reduce the effect of the disease. He then discovered that organic farmers aren't troubled by this disease and that led to his work at the Elm Farm Research Centre and his becoming an organic farmer.
Rather than summarise it here, I'll send out the full text of his paper separately, as I think is well worth reproducing in full.
After this we had a lunch break and I managed to chat with Martin Wolfe.
Incidentally, the quality of the food served was unintentionally an advert for food fortification. In spite of advance warning vegetarians had the choice of very plain egg or cheese sandwiches made from nasty white bread, while vegans were limited to strips of carrot and pepper. It's a bit worrying when a conference on feeding the world can't even feed itself...
Dr. Guy Della-Cioppa, from the Large Scale Biology Corporation, provided a complete contrast, with a talk entitled "What can genomics and plant-breeding give us - the basic molecular biology". He is growing chimaeric virus particles in tobacco plants to produce huge yields of vaccines for diseases such as feline parvovirus ("for pigs and companion animals" - i.e. cats and dogs). This is done at the University of Kentucky, where there is a 21 acre "bioprocessing campus". He is proud that the USDA has allowed his organisation to be the only one in the World to release recombinant viruses in the field.
His Geneware(R) technology can transform plants on a massive scale and is being used for work on biopharmaceuticals and functional genomics as well as vaccines. I was interested to find out that a therapeutic vaccine for non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma is being developed. (Presumably in response to all the cases caused by pesticides manufactured by biotechnology/chemical companies. Or am I just being cynical?)
Apparently, the technology being used has been shown to be safe over the last ten years...
Dr. Hei Leung, from IRRI in the Philippines gave a talk entitled "Rice Functional Genomics: A Public Research Platform for Gene Discovery and Crop Improvement".
Dr. Leung talked about recent research in rice genomics. Genomics lets scientists decipher the genome's structure and function in totality. The structural aspect gives the DNA sequence, while the functional aspect looks at individual genes to higher levels of genetic and biochemical interaction. Once the biological problems are understood, there is a choice whether to use GM or marker-assisted breeding. There are also societal factors such as what will benefit society, what are its pressing needs and the ownership of genes and traits.
Complete gene sequences are known for several species. These are yeast (1996, 6000 genes, 13million base pairs), a nematode (1998, 19000 genes, 97 million), Drosophila (fruit fly, 2000, 14000 genes, 180 million), Arabidopsis (thale cress, 2000, 26000 genes, 150 million) and humans (2001, 35000 genes, 3000 million). Rice is being sequenced by a public effort involving several countries and separately by Syngenta. 18% was sequenced this March but Syngenta will probably finish initial mapping this year (50000 genes, 430 million base pairs). Rice has 12 chromosomes
Cereals show a large amount of gene conservation so it should be possible to predict what genes do in other cereals by extrapolating from rice.
Ways to achieve new varieties are use of the Tos17 retrotransposon (in Japan, presumably as an insertion vector for GM?) and, at IRRI itself, treatments to induce mutations such as the chemical diepoxybutane, fast neutron treatment and exposure to gamma rays.
Rice yields have increased most in wholly or partly irrigated systems (approx 3 to 6 tons/hectare and approx 1.5 to 3.5 t/ha respectively) and least in rain fed systems (approx 1.5 to 2 t/ha) between 1967 and 1997, so effort is likely to be in drought tolerance. Resistance to the main rice diseases (rice blast, bacterial blight, sheath blight, tungro viruses) is also being worked on. IRRI are also looking at traits such as tolerance of crops to being submerged in water, salinity tolerance, insect resistance and photosynthesis. Again, genomics is being used to track down genes and find out how they operate.
The IRRI website is http://www.cgiar.org/irri/genomics/index.htm.
Prof. Michael Dilworth (Centre of Rhizobium [a nitrogen-fixing bacterium] Studies, Murdoch University, Australia) followed this with an interesting talk on "Nitrogen requirements - more efficient inputs", in which he talked of research work in the drylands of Australia. He and his fellow researchers have been studying soils that, under agricultural conditions, rapidly become saline and therefore barren.
The reason for this is that the natural vegetation in the area is deep rooted, grows all year round and grows very densely so that most of the water is used, resulting in a low water table. Agricultural crops have shallow root systems so the water table rises. When it reaches the soil surface, salt crystallises out. If crops are to continue to be grown, the answer is to introduce deep-rooted perennial legumes into the agricultural system, to draw up the water and improve the soil by fixing nitrogen.
Not all perennial legumes are suitable because these soils are acidic, with high levels of aluminium and low fertility. Lucerne, for example, is no good here because it hates acid soil and aluminium. So Michael Dilworth and his colleagues have been using strains of Medicago murex, from Greece and Sardinia, which tolerate these harsh conditions and can grow up to 1 metre in a season.
To be really successful, legumes need to grow in association with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live in their root nodules. As the legumes aren't native to Australia, the nitrogen-fixing bacteria have to be introduced too. Different introduction techniques have been tried with greater or lesser success. Different strains of nitrogen-fixing bacteria occur with annual and perennial legumes so it's vital that strains introduced for perennials don't compromise the performance of those associated with annual legumes (by competition). (Someone from Syngenta asked about risk assessments for the introduced bacteria. Apparently they don't have much chance of survival outside root nodules, especially in the harsh climate of Australia.)
Michael Dilworth emphasised the importance that legumes have and will continue to have in agricultural systems. GM options are not promising. Acid tolerance is controlled by multiple genes, while nitrogen fixation in root nodules involves lots of genes, is very sensitive to oxygen, is energy-consuming for the plant and could lead to too much ammonia being produced.
The next speaker was Dr. Dean DellaPenna from the University of Michigan with "Modifying crops for enhanced nutrition". He is studying the pathway for vitamin E biosynthesis in plants and is genetically modifying Arabidopsis (thale cress) plants to have more vitamin E as well as more of the "right kind" of vitamin E, by introducing genes from cyanobacteria (nitrogen-fixing, photosynthetic bacteria that you may know better as blue-green algae). The strain used, Synechocystis PCC6803, has a vitamin E pathway similar to Arabidopsis.
The "right kind" of vitamin E, incidentally, is the alpha form, which is preferentially retained by humans, wheras seeds tend to accumulate the gamma form.
His predictions for the coming decade are that genes for nearly all the vitamin biosynthetic pathways will be isolated and manipulated; genes for the synthesis of many other "non-essential" compounds will be isolated and scientists will be able to directly manipulate the contents of many nutrients in crops.
And don't worry, for there has "never been a single report of a genetically engineered food harming humans". (Hmm - his subject obviously isn't tryptophan biosynthesis. Besides which, who's looking?)
After the tea break Dr. Julian Ma (Department Immunology, UMDS, Guy's Hospital) spoke about "New industrial products - 'pharming'", with great enthusiasm. He's keen to use transgenic plants to assemble tailor-made proteins, such as antibodies. The example he used was a secretory antibody that can be used to fight the bacteria that cause dental caries. Only by using plants can enough of the antibody be made to treat whole populations.
(Alternatively, I suppose, people could brush their teeth regularly and reduce tooth decay and the incidence of diseases such diabetes by reducing their intake of sugar, but this wasn't mentioned.)
Dr. Julian Kinderlerer (Sheffield Institute for Biotechnology) questioned Dr. Ma about the possibility of crossing these plants with others but was reassured that there would only be a few small farms for most plants and, for the dental caries treatment, tobacco could be used, which is not a food crop and would be harvested pre-flowering.
Last speaker of the day was Dr. Luis Herrera-Estrella, of CINESTAV-IRAPUATO in Mexico, with a talk on "Development of transgenic plants better adapted to marginal soils".
20% of the world's arable land is affected by salinity, including 50% of irrigated areas. 50% of the world's arable land is infertile because of low availability of nutrients (low or high pH; phosphorus, iron and magnesium are particularly affected if pH is outside the range 5 - 8) or metal toxicity (low pH causes aluminium and manganese to be soluble to phytotoxic concentrations). Drought affects variable areas of land and reults in losses of maize of around 19 million tonnes a year. Many areas are affected by more than one environmental stress.
Strategies to enhance nutrient uptake include increasing expression of high affinity phosphorus transporters, increasing production of phosphatases in roots to release phosphorus from organic compounds and increasing the production and excretion of organic acids by roots. Water stress might be eased by altering the signal perception of the plant (so it doesn't recognise that it's under water stress). Genes regulating the opening and closing of stomata or the root architecture could also be manipulated.
Genes could also be identified and selected for using non-GM techniques (i.e. conventional plant crosses / marker assisted crossing). (This last disclosure is a hopeful sign, for I'm sure Dr. Herrera-Estrella appeared on last year's infamous "Equinox" programme.)
At 17:45 there was a workshop to discuss intellectual property rights and the balance between public and private sector research, featuring David Carmichael (a Lincolnshire farmer who is on the AEBC), Marc van Montagu, Prof. Chris Lamb, Prof. Ludovick Kinabo (Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania) and Dr. Simon Bright (Wheat Improvement Centre, Syngenta).
Chris Lamb (Director, JIC) stated that "science is very objective but its orientation is subjective". He supports patents for genes as they encourage companies to put in investment and bring money back to the JIC.
van Montagu spoke in favour of GM herbicide resistant crops.
That evening there was a peaceful demonstration outside the Sainsbury Centre at UEA, where the conference dinner was being held. The police arrived but allowed the demonstration to continue. The following was reported by NGIN on 20 April (http://members.tripod.com/~ngin):
"PROTEST AT THE BIG DINNER
Meanwhile yesterday evening protesters assembled outside the dining room of the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, where the John Innes Centre were wining and dining delegates to their big pro-GM conference behind the Centre's huge plate glass wall.
Protesters scaled the building and hung down two massive banners, hung inwards towards the big window. These read, "Feeding or Fooling the World?" & "Biohazard!'
Meanwhile, at ground level 40-50 other protesters held placards, chanted, drummed and exhanged smiles with delegates within.
The JIC organisers apparently advised those at the top table to disperse themselves amongst the lesser delegates and then waited for the demonstrators to disperse, or be dispersed, in order to proceed. But while the police were present att he event, they respected the good-natured character of the protest and stayed low key without intervening.
By 9.30 those within were obviously getting rather hungry and the (possibly somewhat overcooked!) main course finally got served.
One demonstrator reported how at one point during the evening, an African delegate was handed a bun, looked quizzically at it, then up at the big 'bio-hazard' banner, before finally exchanging a grin with protesters.
We don't know whether he summoned up the courage to eat it but reports from within the JIC conference have indicated that, fittingly enough, the quality of the food being served at the event has so far been truly excrable. And these people want us to let them feed the world?!"
Meanwhile, three of us decided to avoid the conference dinner and have a relaxing and enjoyable evening in a wholefood restaurant several miles away.
To be continued...