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From the Green Revolution ...

Rice is the world's leading staple food crop depended upon by half of the world’s people. Over centuries, Asian farmers bred and selected hundreds of thousands of local varieties, land races and cultivars that are adapted to specific environments and farming systems. Among others, this lead to varieties with tolerance to drought, flooding, salt, pests and diseases, as well as to different characteristics and flavours, textures, nutritional values and cooking qualities.
However the Green Revolution brought major change. Research funded by industrialized countries and companies focused solely on the rice plant to improve grain yields, and ignored other factors of the integrated farming systems in which rice is grown such as paddy aquaculture. By focussing on grain yields only the yield of the whole plant (including straw) and the overall yield from the system of land-use such as fish and other animals in the waters, edible weeds or increased soil fertilitywere left beyond consideration. .
Emphasis was given to ‘seed improvement’ leading to the development of varieties responsive to and dependent on high chemical inputs for increased yields. This approach required monoculture production systems with little room versatile planting and support systems. This approach also led to high levels of pests, necessitating increased use of pesticides, which further impacts ecological balances and support systems.
... to Golden Rice
Today's GE rice research still persists in pursuing the same goals, threatening farmers and food security as the Thai farmer Daoreung Pheudphon explains in an interview with EcoNexus.
The best-known GE rice is probably the so-called Golden Rice, rice that has been modified to contain pro-vitamin A (beta-carotene). After more then a decade of initial research resulted in a crop that yielded very small levels of pro-vitamin A, alterations were made to the GE design. Some improvements have been announced and the web of patents surrounding its development have been somewhat reduced. The creation of the GE rice with increased pro-vitamin A levels was first announced in January 2000 in an article in Science. Yet a decade later there is still wide criticism of the GE approach to Vitamin A deficiency when so many alternatives are readily available. Health concerns regarding appropriate (minimum and maximum) amounts as well as concerns about the role of patents in agricultural research are also still valid.

Techniques and effects of genetic engineering

Genetic engineering (GE) changes the genetic make up of an organism by adding, removing, inhibiting, exchanging or relocating genes or DNA sequences. The DNA sequence used to produce a genetically modified organism (GMO) may be sourced from the same species, a completely unrelated species or may be assembled from synthetic DNA.

Numerous studies have focused on the intended traits and functions associated with particular gene sequences, also covering the performance of GMOs with regards to the introduced trait, for example herbicide tolerant maize. Econexus focuses on the unintended, unpredictable or unexpected changes that take place and has examined the technologies used in GE and the unintended effects these have on the genome.

In a detailed report about Genome Scrambling, EcoNexus examined the numerous mutations in GM crop plants caused by the transformation processes themselves. The report analysed the scientific literature on the two most frequently used plant transformation methods (Agrobacterium-mediated transformation and ‘particle bombardment’ or ‘gene gun’). The results are also published in BGER, - Analysis and biosafety implications– and are also summarised in the Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology - The Mutational Consequences of Plant Transformation.

The transgenic inserts engineered into plants come with intrinsic risks. Just like normal genes, transgenic inserts need to be activated. For this they require a promoter sequence. In most GM plants this sequence has for many years been the same strong CaMV 35S promoter (derived from the cauliflower mosaic virus). It was introduced without an appropriate risk assessment. A number of pure assumptions were also made about how it would behave. However, the notion that the viral CaMV 35S promoter would only be active in plant cells, but not in bacteria, fungi, mammalian or human cells has by now been proven wrong, but the potential consequences are still not sufficiently assessed.

EcoNexus also studied horizontal gene transfer, such as transfer of the transgenes from the plant to other organisms, for example the horizontal gene transfer of viral inserts from GM plants to viruses.

Genome Scrambling – Myth or Reality?

Internationally, safety regulations of transgenic (genetically modified or GM) crop plants focus primarily on the potential hazards of specific transgenes and their products (e.g. allergenicity of the B. thuringiensis cry3A protein). This emphasis on the transgene and its product is a feature of the case-by-case approach to risk assessment. The case-by-case approach effectively assumes that plant transformation methods (the techniques used to introduce recombinant DNA into a plant) carry no inherent risk. Nevertheless, current crop plant transformation methods typically require tissue culture (i.e. regeneration of an intact plant from a single cell that has been treated with hormones and antibiotics and forced to undergo abnormal developmental changes) and either infection with a pathogenic organism (A. tumefaciens) or bombardment with tungsten particles. It would therefore not be surprising if plant transformation resulted in significant genetic consequences which were unrelated to the nature of the specific transgene. Indeed, both tissue culture and transgene insertion have been used as mutagenic agents (Jain 2001, Krysan et al. 1999).

Transformation-induced Mutations in Transgenic Plants

Plant transformation has become an essential tool for plant molecular biologists and, almost simultaneously, transgenic plants have become a major focus of many plant breeding programs. The first transgenic cultivar arrived on the market approximately 15 years ago, and some countries have since commercially approved or deregulated (e.g. the United States) various commodity crops with the result that certain transgenic crop plants, such as herbicide resistant canola and soya and pest resistant maize, are currently grown on millions of acres.

Agrofuels and the Myth of the Marginal Lands

It is claimed that growing agrofuels on marginal lands will bring development benefits to Southern countries, while avoiding the negative impacts on forests, food security, climate change and land rights, brought about by agrofuels so far. But a closer look finds that growing on “marginal” lands will not avoid these problems, but exacerbate them.

Why 'marginal' land does not solve the biofuel problems

Partly in order to respond to accusations that agrofuels compete with food production, some propose that agrofuel crops should only be planted on marginal or idle land. We are told there are millions of hectares of such land around the world. But before considering what could be grown on it we must define "marginal land".
So-called marginal land may be a vital resource to local communities - especially women - to herders, pastoralists and to biodiversity.

Genetically Engineered Trees & Risk Assessment

Trees differ in a number of important characteristics from field crops, and these characteristics are also relevant for any risk assessment of genetically engineered (GE) trees. A review of the scientific literature shows that due to the complexity of trees as organisms with large habitats and numerous interactions, currently no meaningful and sufficient risk assessment of GE trees is possible, and that especially a trait-specific risk assessment is not appropriate. Both scientific literature and in-field experience show that contamination by and dispersal of GE trees will take place. Transgenic sterility is not an option to avoid the potential impacts posed by GE trees and their spread. Regulation of trees on a national level will not be sufficient because due to the large-scale dispersion of reproductive plant material, GE trees are likely to cross national borders. All this makes GE trees a compelling case for the application of the precautionary principle.

Potential Ecological and Social Impacts of Genetically Engineered Trees

It is the purpose of the Convention on Biological Diversity to protect biological diversity in all of its richness – this is also done in awareness of its importance for the functioning of vital systems such as ecosystems, climate systems and water systems. Forests include some of the world’s most important biodiversity reserves with some forest soils alone containing thousands of species. Many of these species are endemic to particular ecosystems and the fragmenting of forest ecosystems has left these species highly vulnerable to new threats. It is therefore crucial that the CBD address emerging issues such as genetically engineered (modified) trees with an eye to ensuring that forest biological diversity is in no way negatively affected.

GE Rice

"Rice is the world's most consumed staple food grain, with half the world's people depending on it. It is harvested on about 146 million hectares, representing 10 per cent of global arable land. The yield is reported as 535 million tons per year and 91 per cent is produced by Asian farmers, especially in China and India (55 per cent of the total)."

Agrofuels: Towards a Reality Check in Nine Key Areas

This document focuses on particular types of ‘biofuel’ which we prefer to call agrofuel because of the intensive, industrial way it is produced, generally as monocultures, often covering thousands of hectares, most often in the global South.

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