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Flax sector slowly recovers from Day of the Triffids - Canadian Cattlemen (2012)

Flax sector slowly recovers from Day of the Triffids - Canadian Cattlemen (2012) | Ag Biotech News |

Canada's flaxseed industry continues to make progress eliminating traces of genetically modified Triffid seed from the country's crop, but there is still work to be done given Europe's very tight allowances for the gene. Triffid, a genetically modified flaxseed variety, was bred in Saskatchewan in the 1990s for tolerance to soil residues of sulfonylurea herbicides, but was deregistered in 2001 and never commercialized. Traces, however, found in Canadian shipments to Europe in 2009, effectively shutting the door to what had been the largest market for Canadian exports. In the aftermath of the original discovery, testing protocols were put in place in an effort to eliminate Triffid from Canada's flaxseed crop and reopen export markets. "We have seen the incidence of Triffid go down," said Will Hill, president of the Flax Council of Canada. Currently, about two per cent of all samples were showing traces of Triffid, which compares with 10 per cent when testing first began with the 2009-10 crop, said Hill. Of those samples testing positive now, the intensity of contamination is also much smaller than in 2009, with the overall amount of Triffid in the tests that are positive very close to the 0.01 per cent detection level called for by the European Union. In order to see the food market reopen in Europe, the percentage of samples testing positive for Triffid will need to decline further still or changes to the protocol itself will need to be made, said Hill. There is now a 0.01 per cent allowance for Triffid, but if that allowance were 0.1 per cent, Hill estimated there wouldn't be any samples testing positive at all.

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Bringing light into the discussion about GMOs? – A rather long reading list

[updated May 1, 2017]  


These days I received an apparently easy request: “Do you have any recommendations for reading about the debate on GMOs? I think there is a lot of heat, but too little light in the discussion; I trust you can send me some…” To which I answered carelessly: “Sure, I will look into it, select a few references and post them…” 


I thought I’d have a quick look into my collection of bookmarks and references and post some of the links to satisfy the request. Obviously there would be too many individual studies and crop-specific or country-specific reports, but focusing only (i) on what was published in recent years, (ii) on sources where all this information was already aggregated (literature reviews, meta-analyses, authoritative statements, FAQs, etc.), and (iii) on academic or publicly funded sources should produce a fairly concise list, I thought. 


While not unmanageable, the list has become quite long. To get a rough idea of the current state of knowledge, it may be sufficient to peruse the first 1-2 (starred *) references under each heading, and to have a quick look at the abstracts and summaries of some of the others. (Given the controversy surrounding this topic I did not want to suggest just one or two sources, but show a bit the width of the scientific consensus, and to offer some titbits of related information.) ...


Jennifer Mach's comment, March 30, 2013 9:05 AM
I admit I haven't read this list... but for future reference, I'll definitely have a look.
Karen Ashby's curator insight, April 5, 2016 4:26 AM

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Food security needs more from GM crops - Rothamsted (2017) 

Food security needs more from GM crops - Rothamsted (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Genetic modification of plants will be essential to avert future food shortages, conclude a group of agricultural scientists who have reviewed how biotechnology developments over the past 35 years have shaped the efficiency of crop production.

GM crops able to repel insect pests or to resist herbicides have transformed the farming of soybean, cotton, maize and canola, reducing costs and increasing productivity, but lack of knowledge hinders further improvements in yield, particularly in testing climatic conditions... 

Scientists have identified some genes that affect crop yields, such as those influencing grain size and leaf growth, but have still to fully understand the cellular and developmental processes, and how these processes behave in a field environment... 

“Our knowledge of the genes that limit yield in field conditions needs to be developed... At the moment, results that show promise in the lab don’t always work in the field... We are emphasising the great potential of GM, and of genome editing and emerging chemical technologies as well, but in a sense the potential of the technologies on offer is running ahead of our ability to deploy them because we still don’t know enough about the many processes and genes that determine yields.”

He highlights how GM research at Rothamsted identified a sugar... that controls the volume of starch in cereal grain and, in GM field trials, substantially improved maize yields in the field, from 10% in well-watered crops to 120% under drought conditions.

“But we got there only because field trialling was conducted in parallel with fundamental science of which genes to target and how to target them in the field environment”... 

Such a strategy is necessary... “if GM and future genome editing approaches and chemical technologies are to deliver on their promise of step changes in yield in a range of environments.”

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Genetically Boosting the Nutritional Value of Corn Could Benefit Millions - Rutgers (2017) 

Genetically Boosting the Nutritional Value of Corn Could Benefit Millions - Rutgers (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Rutgers scientists have found an efficient way to enhance the nutritional value of corn – the world’s largest commodity crop – by inserting a bacterial gene that causes it to produce a key nutrient called methionine... The... discovery could benefit millions of people in developing countries, such as in South America and Africa, who depend on corn as a staple. It could also significantly reduce worldwide animal feed costs.

“We improved the nutritional value of corn, the largest commodity crop grown on Earth... Most corn is used for animal feed, but it lacks methionine – a key amino acid – and we found an effective way to add it”...   

Methionine, found in meat, is one of the nine essential amino acids that humans get from food... It is needed for growth and tissue repair, improves the tone and flexibility of skin and hair, and strengthens nails. The sulfur in methionine protects cells from pollutants, slows cell aging and is essential for absorbing selenium and zinc.

Every year, synthetic methionine worth several billion dollars is added to field corn seed, which lacks the substance... “It is a costly, energy-consuming process... Methionine is added because animals won’t grow without it. In many developing countries where corn is a staple, methionine is also important for people, especially children. It’s vital nutrition, like a vitamin.”

Chicken feed is usually prepared as a corn-soybean mixture, and methionine is the sole essential sulfur-containing amino acid that’s missing...  

The Rutgers scientists inserted an E. coli bacterial gene into the corn plant’s genome and grew several generations of corn. The E. coli enzyme... spurred methionine production in just the plant’s leaves instead of the entire plant... As a result, methionine in corn kernels increased by 57 percent...  

Then the scientists conducted a chicken feeding trial... and showed that the genetically engineered corn was nutritious for them... “To our surprise, one important outcome was that corn plant growth was not affected”... 

In the developed world, including the U.S., meat proteins generally have lots of methionine... But in the developing world, subsistence farmers grow corn for their family’s consumption. “Our study shows that they wouldn’t have to purchase methionine supplements or expensive foods that have higher methionine”...

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RNAi as an emerging approach to control Fusarium Head Blight disease and mycotoxin contamination in cereals - Machado &al (2017) - Pest Manage Sci

RNAi as an emerging approach to control Fusarium Head Blight disease and mycotoxin contamination in cereals - Machado &al (2017) - Pest Manage Sci | Ag Biotech News |

Fusarium graminearum is a major fungal pathogen of cereals worldwide, causing seedling, stem base and floral diseases, including Fusarium Head Blight (FHB). In addition to yield and quality losses, FHB contaminates cereal grain with mycotoxins, including deoxynivalenol (DON), which are harmful to human, animal and ecosystem health. Currently FHB control is only partially effective due to several intractable problems. 

RNA interference (RNAi) is a natural mechanism that regulates gene expression. RNAi has been exploited in the development of new genomic tools, which allow the targeted silencing of genes of interest in many eukaryotes. Host-Induced Gene Silencing (HIGS) is a transgenic technology used to silence fungal genes in planta during attempted infection and thereby to reduce disease levels. 

HIGS relies on the host plant's ability to produce mobile small interfering RNA (siRNA) molecules, generated from long double stranded RNA (dsRNA), which are complementary to targeted fungal genes. These molecules are transferred from the plant into invading fungi via an uncharacterised mechanism, to cause gene silencing. 

Here, we describe recent advances in RNAi-mediated control of plant pathogenic fungi, highlighting the key advantages and disadvantages. We then discuss the developments and implications of combining HIGS with other methods of disease control.

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Are we at a tipping point with weed control? - U Illinois (2017) 

Are we at a tipping point with weed control? - U Illinois (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

If farmers could no longer control weeds with existing herbicides, Americans would take notice pretty quickly. “I think the future of cheap food is strongly related to the availability and effectiveness of existing herbicides”... without working herbicides, food could get a lot more expensive... 

“I believe if we fully lost chemical control of certain weeds, and if farmers continued with the corn-soybean rotation, they’d be forced to reduce their acreages as they spend more time and money managing weeds. And the cost of the end product, our food, would go up as well”... 

If you’re not in the farming industry, you might not be aware that weeds... can reduce corn and soybean yields anywhere from 30 to 80 percent, and that those weeds are developing resistance to available herbicides... resistant weeds simply can’t be killed by herbicides.

There are lots of herbicides on the market, but they all fall into one of 16 categories describing their mode of action (MOA), or specific target in the plant that the chemical attacks. Because of various regulations and biological realities, a smaller number of herbicide MOAs can be used on any given crop and the suite of weeds that goes along with it. At this point, many weeds are now resistant to multiple MOAs.

“In some areas, we’re one or two MOAs away from completely losing chemical control for certain weeds. For example, in east central Illinois, we have common waterhemp that is resistant to five out of the six relevant MOAs in a corn-soybean rotation... And there are no new herbicide MOAs coming out. There haven’t been for 30 years.”

The lack of new herbicides is only one factor that led us where we are today... herbicide susceptibility in weeds should have been viewed as a finite resource all along, like the global oil supply. As resources start to dwindle, prices should theoretically go up as a way to prevent overuse and total resource exhaustion. But unlike oil, herbicide prices have actually decreased over the past 30 to 40 years.

“The assumption is that, in a rational market, people will use less of a dwindling resource because it gets more expensive or they notice a problem. It’s not happening for herbicides”...  

The rollout of crops engineered to tolerate herbicides like glyphosate (RoundUp) may have added to the problem... their availability led to greater reliance on chemical solutions to weed control, rather than the diverse mix of weed management practices that used to be the norm... farmers were spraying herbicide more frequently.

But weeds are wily. Like all organisms, they evolve in response to their environment. With more exposure to a certain environmental pressure (in this case, the herbicide), the more opportunity there is for adaptation. Over time, random genetic mutations allowed some weeds to withstand herbicides. Offspring from those plants grew, survived, and reproduced. And so on, until the majority of plants were left with the mutation.

It sounds dire, but... “I believe there’s hope... but it requires that we take action to diversify weed management now.” Just what would it take to bring us back from the brink of total weed domination? ... the “middle way,” which bridges the gap between the traditional corn-soy rotation with its heavy herbicide inputs and a diversified organic system.

“Right now we have a dominant system where we have two summer annuals following each other. Because we don’t have any change of phenology (timing of development) of the main crop, we have the same weed spectrum in both crops. We never destabilize it. But if you introduce a small winter grain or a forage legume into that system, you begin to make it difficult for summer annual weeds like waterhemp to become dominant. So you can get about 90 percent there just with a good crop rotation.

“Then you build in things like weed suppressive cultivars, banded herbicides, row spacing, cultivation, harvest weed seed control, and all these tactics together can add up to really effective weed management systems. We’ve shown you can reduce herbicide use by 90 percent in diversified systems and get the same amount of weed control. Same profit, same productivity, but two orders of magnitude reduction in environmental pollution, and a 90 percent reduction in fertilizer use. It’s not hard to do for the grower”... 

The hard part... is thinking about economic and regulatory incentives that will help growers diversify their management practices...

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Zinc partitioning in basmati rice varieties as influenced by Zn fertilization - Chand &al (2017) - Crop J

Zinc partitioning in basmati rice varieties as influenced by Zn fertilization - Chand &al (2017) - Crop J | Ag Biotech News |

Zinc (Zn) ferti-fortification using different sources and methods in Zn deficient soils is being advocated to increase Zn concentration in rice kernel as an alternative to pursuing greater Zn-use efficiency (ZnUE). 

A two-year field study was conducted to assess the effect of Zn application on Zn content and uptake at several growth stages and in several parts of the rice kernel: hull, bran, and the white rice kernel. 

Variety ‘PB 1509’ with 1.25 kg Zn/ha as Zn-EDTA + 0.5% foliar spray (FS) at maximum tillering (MT) and panicle initiation (PI) stages registered the highest Zn content in hull, bran, and white rice kernel. 

Among parts of the rice kernel, Zn concentration decreased in the order hull > bran > white rice kernel, indicating that brown rice kernels are much denser in Zn content than polished rice. 

Considering the higher Zn accumulation in the bran, brown rice consumption, especially in Asia and Africa, could be recommended to overcome Zn malnutrition...

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
It makes sense to differentiate fertilisation from breeding when discussing approaches that aim at increasing the mineral content in food crops. Oftentimes "biofortification" is used for both, even though originally it only referred to breeding approaches. Here the authors use "ferti-fortification" for the fertiliser approach, but my favourite still is "nutrilisation" (nutrition through fertilisation)... 
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Leveraging plant genomics for better and healthier food - Tuberosa &al (2017) - Curr Opinion Food Sci

Leveraging plant genomics for better and healthier food - Tuberosa &al (2017) - Curr Opinion Food Sci | Ag Biotech News |

Producing better and healthier food is an unprecedented challenge that the food-supply chain will face, particularly in view of the negative impact of climate change on food security and safety. Among the different options available to meet these challenges, the recent advances in genome sequencing provide unparalleled opportunities to identify beneficial alleles at the genes controlling food properties and leverage this information for tailoring the genetic make-up of the crops that feed mankind. 

Breeding programs aiming at selecting more nutritious and safer crops increasingly benefit from the application of marker-assisted selection and genomic selection. Cloning the genes underscoring food quality paves the way for the targeted use of gene editing to fully harness the opportunities offered by native and artificially induced genetic variability... 

Cereal crops, presently accounting for 70% of our caloric and protein intake, will likely remain the cornerstone of the food and feed supply chain. The massive parallel sequencing well advanced in rice and maize and presently ongoing in barley and wheat will soon provide a detailed view of the cereals pangenome, which will greatly streamline gene/QTL cloning, particularly in wheat due to its polyploid genome. Accordingly, the recent completion of the first high-quality genome assembly of wild emmer, the ancestor of all modern wheats, will allow breeders to harness much more effectively its allelic richness for nutritional traits, most of which was lost during domestication... 

The study of metabolic pathways as a whole coupled with the use of models will eventually allow us to predict the properties of novel food made possible through a targeted manipulation of the relevant genes. Once developed, nutritionally improved crops can be deployed worldwide at no additional cost and enter the elite germplasm pool used to continue the selection process. The emerging opportunities offered by systems biology approaches able to integrate the wealth of digital databases contributed by the different -omics technologies are paving the way to move beyond the reductionist approach most commonly adopted to connect genes and food properties. 

Importantly, the future impact of genomics-assisted breeding on the food supply chain and human wellbeing may actually be more limited by regulatory issues rather than technical ones. Globally, the legal framework of edited crops remains a mostly unresolved yet fundamental issue. Classifying edited crops as GMOs would inevitably hinder their public acceptance while discouraging public and private investments in what is emerging as the most promising game-changer for breeding more nutritious and healthier crops. 

Irrespectively of the legal scenario that will eventually regulate gene editing, harnessing its full potential will require a deeper understanding of the genetic landscape relevant to food production coupled with a major boost in cloning the genes that govern food quality and safety. Combining conventional and genomics-based breeding will facilitate the selection of new cultivars with better nutritional properties while enhancing the sustainability and security of food and feed production.

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Green algae could hold clues for engineering faster-growing crops - Princeton (2017) 

Green algae could hold clues for engineering faster-growing crops - Princeton (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Two new studies of green algae... revealed new insights into how these organisms siphon carbon dioxide from the air for use in photosynthesis, a key factor in their ability to grow so quickly. Understanding this process may someday help researchers improve the growth rate of crops such as wheat and rice... 

[The] team reported the first detailed inventory of the cellular machinery... that algae use to collect and concentrate carbon dioxide... “Understanding how algae can concentrate carbon dioxide is a key step toward the goal of improving photosynthesis in other plants... If we could engineer other crops to concentrate carbon, we could address the growing world demand for food”...  

Aquatic algae and a handful of other plants have developed carbon-concentrating mechanisms that boost the rate of photosynthesis, the process by which plants turn carbon dioxide and sunlight into sugars for growth. All plants use an enzyme called Rubisco to “fix” carbon dioxide into sugar that can be used or stored by the plant.

Algae have an advantage over many land plants because they cluster the Rubisco enzymes inside the pyrenoid, where the enzymes encounter high concentrations of carbon dioxide pumped in from the air. Having more carbon dioxide around allows the Rubisco enzymes to work faster...  

With additional studies, these findings may yield important insights into ensuring the availability of fast-growing crops for an expanding world population.

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The regulatory status of gene-edited agricultural products in the EU and beyond - Custers (2017) - Emerging Topics Life Sci

Governments all over the world are struggling with the regulatory status of gene-edited organisms. Are they regulated? Should they be regulated? ... 

A stepwise analysis is performed that comes to the conclusion that gene-edited agricultural products that carry edits that can also occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination are not a genetically modified organism... 

It is difficult to require regulatory oversight that would go beyond what we now require for conventional products that can carry the same types of alterations. A regulatory approach is pleaded for that abides to fundamental principles of law making, and which allows for gene editing to develop responsibly.

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Genetically Modified Moths Come to New York - Atlantic (2017)

Genetically Modified Moths Come to New York - Atlantic (2017) | Ag Biotech News |

Earlier this spring, Anthony Shelton found himself planting a cabbage patch with members of his lab in upstate New York.

“We’re A to Z here”... If “A” is planting cabbages, then “Z” is releasing into that cabbage patch insects genetically engineered to breed themselves out of existence... If the experiment works, it could herald a new era for pest control.

The insects in this case are diamondback moths, notorious among farmers as pests that cause $4 to $5 billion of damage a year worldwide. The moth especially likes to munch on Brassica plants, which include cabbages, cauliflower, and broccoli. And it has become increasingly resistant to available insecticides. So Shelton’s cabbage patch... is the site of a long-awaited field test to see if genetic engineering could control the diamondback moths... Shelton is releasing males carrying a lethal gene that eventually kills all female offspring. Over time, the males will have no one to mate with... 

There is precedent, of a sort, for releasing sterile insects for pest control. From the 1950s to the early 2000s, a massive effort went into eradicating invasive screwworms – which burrow into the flesh of livestock – from the United States down to Panama. That campaign used screwworms raised in a factory and bombarded with radiation, which damaged their DNA so much as to make them sterile... The general sterilization-by-irradiation strategy has also been used to control the Mediterranean fruit fly and the Mexican fruit fly. 

The diamondback moths are not irradiated, though, because the irradiation strategy didn’t work. Shelton tried that back in the 1990s. “You could sterilize them, but they were not very fit. They couldn’t fly”... The radiation had damaged them too much. Genetic engineering is a more precise way make the moths unable to viable offspring, leaving them still fit enough to fly and mate... 

Whether genetically engineered insects can succeed as pest control may be location-specific. In upstate New York, diamondback moths die in the cold winters and others migrate up from the south in the spring. That means there are relatively few moths to deal with in the spring each year. The bigger the natural moth population, the more genetically engineered ones you have to release to be effective. In places where diamondback moths can live year-round, like India, their populations are much, much higher. “To think of it as a cure-all ... that’s asking a lot”... Screwworm eradication in the 20th century worked in part because its populations were relatively low despite causing a lot of damage.

Shelton has spoken at two local forums... and says they went fairly well. “We have a lot of farming community around, and people are quite proud to live in an area where they know the farmers”... One New York farmer told Scientific American, “I think using the insects is an awesome idea.” But what will that cabbage buyer in New York City think of genetically modified insects flitting around their vegetables? And should it be any different than irradiated fruit flies, which are routinely used to control pests on produce?

The fervor of the anti-GMO movement is often traced to Monsanto’s initial mistake decades ago in creating traits like innate insecticides that helped farmers, but whose benefits to the consumer were unclear...

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Contaminants in food: health risks of natural origin are frequently underestimated - BfR (2017) 

60 percent of the German population view undesirable substances in food as a high or very high health risk. The most well-known of these... contaminants are mercury compounds and dioxins. In contrast, only around 13 percent... heard of the natural contaminants pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs)... and only... one in three of those who have heard of PAs believe these substances pose a significant health risk... 

"People feel most at risk from synthetic substances and heavy metals... Appropriate risk communication on contaminants should take this subjective risk perception into account."

Contaminants are undesirable substances that unintentionally find their way into food products. They can occur naturally in the environment and in the processing of raw materials into food products or can be released into the environment through human activity and thereby enter the food chain. Contaminants are undesirable because they can impair health under certain circumstances.

1,001 people were asked about contaminants in food in the representative population survey... The most well-known contaminants in food are mercury in fish and dioxin in eggs or milk (with scores of 78% and 70%, respectively). In contrast, pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) in tea or honey (13%) and arsenic in rice and rice products (26%) as relatively new consumer protection topics are only known to a minority of respondents. Only 36% and 57% of those who have heard of PAs or arsenic see these substances as posing a significant risk to health.

General attitudes towards contaminants in food and the assessment of potential health risks also differ by population group. Compared to women, for example, men see the risks of undesirable substances in barbecued meat as being lower. Men tend to spend less time in general than female respondents thinking about the issue of undesirable substances in food. 

Younger people feel less well informed about undesirable substances in food than their older counterparts: some 41% of 14 to 29 year-olds say they are poorly or very poorly informed about undesirable substances in food compared to 15% of those above the age of 60. And it is particularly those respondents who are relatively well informed who would like additional information on possible protective measures, legal regulations and affected product groups...

Underlying study:

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Fertiliser subsidy and agricultural productivity in Senegal - Seck (2017) - World Econ

Fertiliser subsidy and agricultural productivity in Senegal - Seck (2017) - World Econ | Ag Biotech News |

One of the most complex and multifaceted agricultural policy decisions faced by African governments... whether it makes sense to subsidise fertilisers... [This paper] examine the productive efficiency of farmers who benefited from the subsidy programme in the very atypical irrigated system of the Senegal River Valley. 

The results based on farm-level data indicate that the subsidy programme seems to be working, as it appears to be associated with increased efficiency; hence, providing empirical support to the political will to revamp subsidy programmes...

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Herbicide rotation ineffective against resistance in waterhemp - U Illinois (2017) 

Herbicide rotation ineffective against resistance in waterhemp - U Illinois (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Farmers have been battling herbicide-resistant weeds for generations. A common practice for most of that time has been to rotate between different herbicides every season. But despite farmers’ best efforts, herbicide resistance has grown through the years, with some weed populations showing resistance to not one but four or five different herbicides. A new study... explains why herbicide rotation doesn’t work... 

Herbicide resistance results from random genetic mutations that keep weeds from being harmed by a particular herbicide. When farmers continually spray the same herbicide year after year, those with the mutation, referred to as a resistance allele, survive and reproduce. Over time, the proportion of plants with the resistance allele grows.

Conventional thinking says that any defense trait – in this case, herbicide resistance – should come at a cost to the plant. It might be well protected against the herbicide, but it might not grow as tall, or flower as early. When the trait reduces a plant’s reproductive output, that’s known as a fitness cost.

A fitness cost to herbicide resistance should be apparent in years when alternative herbicides are used. “If plants have glyphosate resistance, but they’re sprayed with 2,4-D, for example, the majority of those plants will die because they’re not resistant to 2,4-D. But no herbicide kills 100 percent of the weeds, resistant or not... You have to think about the small percentage that live.

If there’s a high fitness cost to the glyphosate resistance allele, most of the surviving plants will be small or will flower late and they won’t produce many seeds. But if the fitness cost is low, those plants will produce just as many seeds as plants that don’t have the allele. Herbicide rotation relies on the assumption that the fitness cost is high...

This study tells us that fitness cost isn’t going to help you much in terms of herbicide resistance, so even long rotations aren’t going to work... I tell farmers, ‘Once you have resistance, you’re stuck with it.’ It gives us that much more incentive to do the right things to avoid resistance in the first place. That means using multiple herbicides, using a PRE and coming back with a POST. If you have escapes, getting out of your tractor and getting rid of them before they set seed. Because if they set resistant seed, this study tells you that you will have that resistance trait for life.”

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Researchers identify gene to help hybrid wheat breeding - U Adelaide (2017)

Researchers... identified a naturally occurring wheat gene that, when turned off, eliminates self-pollination but still allows cross-pollination – opening the way for breeding high-yielding hybrid wheats...

This discovery and the associated breeding technology have the potential to radically change the way wheat is bred... “Wheat is the world’s most widely grown crop, delivering around 20% of total food calories and protein to the world’s population... But to meet increased food demand from predicted global population growth, its production needs to increase by 60% by 2050. One of the most promising options to meet this demand is for farmers to grow hybrid wheat varieties, which can offer a 10 to 15% yield boost relative to conventionally bred varieties that are currently on the market”...

Hybrid wheats result from crosses between two carefully selected pure wheat lines. The challenge to produce hybrid wheat, however, is in the breeding and commercial multiplication of the hybrid parent seed. Wheat is a self-pollinator while the production of hybrid seed requires large-scale cross-pollination.

“Hybrids are widely used for the cereals maize (or corn) and rice but developing a viable hybrid system for bread wheat has been a challenge because of the complexity of the wheat genome... We have now identified a gene necessary for cross-pollination in wheat which can be used in large-scale, low-cost production of parent breeding lines necessary for hybrid wheat seed production”...

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Biofortification in cereals: progress and prospects - Neeraja &al (2017) - Curr Sci

Biofortification in cereals: progress and prospects - Neeraja &al (2017) - Curr Sci | Ag Biotech News |
Food security of the country has been improved due to green revolution and enhancement of cereal production. However, recent surveys showed 36% of children suffer from malnutrition in India. 

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research has taken lead for the biofortification of cereal crops based on earlier national and international research efforts, targeting the enhancement of nutrients in staple food crops... 

The significant progress made in rice, wheat, maize and millets for identification of genotypes, development, evaluation and release of the varieties with high nutrient contents and their bioavailability studies is discussed... 

Biofortification refers to the genetic enhancement of key food crops with enhanced nutrients. It differs from fortification (addition of exogenous nutrients as in iodized salt) by increasing the nutrients of crops at source through agricultural interventions, viz. agronomy, breeding and biotechnology... 

Initially research efforts in agriculture were prioritized for achieving self-sufficiency of food grains. Now the scope is also extended to biofortification of major food crops as a strategy to ensure nutritional security to address malnutrition. In India, recently, two varieties with high Zn and high protein in polished rice were developed through conventional breeding without compromising yield, and were released nationally... 

Biofortification can complement existing interventions for malnutrition with its far-reaching implications in achieving the nation’s nutritional security. Various government organizations... along with international organizations... are now converging their research efforts of biofortification for product development, testing and validation. 

With proper planning, execution and implementation, biofortified food crops will help India address the malnutrition problem with minimum investment in research and have a significant impact on the lives and health of millions of needy people of the country.

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Golden Rice: instructions for use - Dubock (2017) - Ag Food Sec

Golden Rice: instructions for use - Dubock (2017) - Ag Food Sec | Ag Biotech News |

Golden Rice is any variety of rice which makes beta-carotene, thus giving the rice a yellow (Golden) colour. It was created as an additional intervention for vitamin A deficiency. This dietary deficiency is the most significant cause of childhood blindness, and also the biggest killer of children under 5 year’s old, globally. 

White rice contains no beta-carotene, and no vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency is common in countries where rice is the staple diet. The Golden Rice technology... has been donated by its inventors for use in developing countries as an additional intervention against vitamin A deficiency. 

When Golden Rice is approved for use in a country, that country’s Government will have decided that it is safe for the environment to grow the crop, and safe for humans, and animals, to consume it. 

Regular consumption of Golden Rice by people is expected, with time, to deliver health benefits by reducing cases of partial or complete blindness, and reducing preventable deaths, especially of young children and mothers. Any amount of daily white rice consumption can be replaced by Golden Rice consumption without ill effect. 

This document suggests how people can organise themselves to contribute to Golden Rice’s adoption for growth and consumption by populations in their own country. Without adoption, Golden Rice cannot be an intervention for vitamin A deficiency, which is a major public health problem...

Studies... have clearly demonstrated that a universal source of vitamin A can prevent 23-34% of global under five years’ child mortality, and up to 50% mortality prevention in the case of measles. It has also been known for a long time that vitamin A deficiency is the most important cause of irreversible childhood blindness... 

The payback from Golden Rice adoption, that is its regular consumption by populations, will be more advantageous than almost any other use of the money.

Sophisticated science has already confirmed that the beta-carotene in Golden Rice is very efficiently converted to... vitamin A... Green vegetables are an important source of beta-carotene. But the conversion... is very inefficient. So vitamin A deficiency is common even in populations where green vegetables are easily available and consumed... 

Golden Rice has a huge, low cost and sustainable potential to help combat vitamin A deficiency, and reduce preventable blindness and death in populations where rice is the staple food, and without changing the culture...

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Genetic impact of Rht dwarfing genes on grain micronutrients concentration in wheat - Velu &al (2017) - Field Crops Res

Genetic impact of Rht dwarfing genes on grain micronutrients concentration in wheat - Velu &al (2017) - Field Crops Res | Ag Biotech News |

Wheat is a major staple food crop providing about 20% of dietary energy and proteins, and food products made of whole grain wheat are a major source of micronutrients like Zinc (Zn), Iron (Fe), Manganese (Mn), Magnesium (Mg), Vitamin B and E. Wheat provides about 40% intake of essential micronutrients by humans in the developing countries relying on wheat based diets. 

Varieties with genetically enhanced levels of grain micronutrient concentrations can provide a cost-effective and sustainable option to resource poor wheat consumers. To determine the effects of commonly deployed dwarfing genes on wheat grain Zn, Fe, Mn and Mg concentrations, nine bread wheat and six durum wheat isoline pairs differing for Rht1 (= Rht-B1b) and one bread wheat pair for Rht2 (= Rht-D1b) dwarfing genes were evaluated... 

Presence of dwarfing genes have significantly reduced grain Zn concentration by 3.9 ppm, and Fe by 3.2 ppm. On the average, about 94 ppm Mg and 6 ppm Mn reductions occurred in semidwarf varieties compared to tall varieties. The thousand kernel weight of semidwarf isolines was 2.6 g lower than the tall counterparts whereas the plant height decreased by 25 cm. 

Reductions for all traits in semidwarfs were genotype dependent and the magnitude of height reductions did not correlate with reductions in micronutrient concentrations in wheat grain. 

We conclude that increased grain yield potential of semidwarf wheat varieties is associated with reduced grain micronutrient concentrations; however, the magnitude of reductions in micronutrients varied depending on genetic background and their associated pleiotropic effect on yield components.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Seems a tricky trade-off, higher yields (i.e. less chronic hunger) vs lower nutrient content (i.e. more hidden hunger). 
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Fusarium ear rot and fumonisins in maize kernels when comparing a Bt hybrid with its non-Bt isohybrid and under conventional insecticide control of Busseola fusca infestations - Ncube &al (2017) - ...

Fusarium ear rot and fumonisins in maize kernels when comparing a Bt hybrid with its non-Bt isohybrid and under conventional insecticide control of Busseola fusca infestations - Ncube &al (2017) - ... | Ag Biotech News |

Maize production in South Africa is negatively affected by Fusarium verticillioides, an endophytic maize pathogen, as well as by Busseola fusca larval damage. Fusarium verticillioides causes ear, stem and root rot, and also produces fumonisin mycotoxins which are toxic to humans and livestock. The African stem borer (Busseola fusca) is a pest of economic importance in maize plants in South Africa. 

In this study, the interaction between F. verticillioides and B. fusca was investigated to elucidate its effects on Fusarium ear rot and fumonisin production in a Bt hybrid (MON810 event) and its B. fusca-susceptible non-Bt isohybrid. 

Field trials were conducted over three seasons... The effect of Beta-cyfluthrin and Benfuracarb insecticide applications on the incidence of Fusarium ear rot and fumonisin production in maize was also determined in an unrelated conventional hybrid... Maize ears were harvested at physiological maturity and Fusarium ear rot, total fumonisin levels, stem borer damage and target DNA of fumonisin-producing Fusarium spp. quantified. 

Significantly less Fusarium ear rot and fumonisin were produced in the Bt maize hybrid compared to the non-Bt isohybrid under natural farming conditions... Benfuracarb application to control stem borer infestation resulted in a significant reduction in Fusarium ear rot and fumonisin production while Beta-cyfluthrin did not... B. fusca damage to maize ears significantly increased when both insecticides were not applied to the B. fusca-infested plants. 

This study indicated that Bt maize and the application of Benfuracarb reduce B. fusca damage to maize ears thereby indirectly reducing Fusarium ear rot and fumonisin production...

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Given the risk of insect damage and subsequent mycotoxin contamination, eating genetically modified Bt maize turns out to be safer than eating conventional maize... 
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EU and GMOs: The case for a knowledge-based society - EURACTIV (2017) 

EU and GMOs: The case for a knowledge-based society - EURACTIV (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Albert Einstein said, “It is harder to crack prejudice than an atom.” A persistent prejudice in the EU is that against GMOs. An EU court judgment has restated that fears are unfounded... The judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union... marked clearly against unfounded fears of GMOs... This provides a timely opportunity to slow down and ask: do we really wish to have a science-based society or should we let ourselves be governed by prejudices and misconceptions?

Two farmers located in the middle of nowhere in Northeastern Italy wish to cultivate a genetically modified (GM) maize. One may ask why they wish to grow something that is so controversial to many politicians and citizens? The reason is that the traditional local food is polenta (a maize powder) and not “pasta”. However, many plant pests and diseases affect the maize fields and the two farmers are forced to spray insecticides at least twice per season; otherwise the maize will be infested by a fungal toxin named fumonisin.

Fumonisin derives from a fungus, Fusarium, which grows in wounds caused by the... corn borer. To protect the crop you have to either spray insecticides (but the farmers have their field close to their houses) or use a plant that prevents the corn borer from feeding on it; in this case a GM maize cultivar. Only one such GM maize has been approved in the EU and its commercial name is MON810, sold by most seed companies.

The [Fusarium] toxin is a probable cause of oesophageal cancer and neural tube defect during pregnancy... There are three hot spots in the world for fumonisin contamination: South Africa, China and the area where the two Italian farmers are based, the Pordenone province.

Back to the question why the two farmers wish to plant MON810. The answer is to reduce the spray of insecticides. To increase the food safety of the maize they produce. And to increase their harvest and produce [toxin-free] maize that could be sold at higher prices than traditional maize. These are excellent reasons. But they also have an additional one.

In Italy, 87% of all livestock feed contains GMOs, among which is also MON810. So the farmers ask: how come I can buy MON810 to feed pigs and cows but not grow it in my own field? The situation for the entire Europe is the same; 92% of all soybean used as feed is genetically modified. Thus we are accustomed to indirectly eating GMOs, however, we are frantic about the possibility to cultivate them ourselves. We do import plenty of GMOs to Europe.

About 70% of all cotton produced worldwide is GM. With GM cotton we produce banknotes (euros) and clothes, as well as gauzes, swabs and hydrophilic cotton that we put in contact with our bloodstream. GM cotton does not produce any allergy or have a toxic effect, and it is a fact that not a single person worldwide has been hospitalized due to the use of any plant material derived from GMO after 21 years of use on seven billion people...  

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) delivered a judgment on the demand of one of the two Italian farmers... He had complained that Italy had denied him the right to grow the MON810 maize, on the basis of an Italian law... The CJEU judgment was that the Italian law had no legal basis and thus was not valid.

But CJEU went further, saying that the Precautionary Principle does not apply post-authorisation to GMOs. We should be suspicious of something unknown, but we now have so many analyses, restrictions, evaluations and experience on the use of GMOs as food and feed (or for medical care) that we can handle the GMOs using the actual EU laws.

This sentence is a milestone. GMOs have always been a psychodrama in Europe. After years of controversy among the EU member states, the EU in 2015 lifted the white flag and with the Directive 2015/412 handed over to the individual countries the decision whether or not to allow cultivation of MON810 or any future GMOs approved for cultivation in the EU.

Now there is a contradiction in the GMO legislation. Whereas scientific evidence was necessary before to implement a national temporary prohibition, under the safeguard clause, against a GM event authorised for cultivation, it is now enough to claim grounds related to “town and country planning”, “land use”, public policy” or any other vague argument to deny farmers the right to cultivate what they want and what they need...  

The CJEU judgment has now presented a great opportunity to start recovering a rational, science-based approach. The technology to produce GMOs is already old and mainstream. Emerging genome editing technology adds to the diversity of the breeder´s toolbox and provides easy, rapid, precise and powerful means to reduce pesticide inputs as well as help plants to face climate changes.

With a strong research community, Europe has the opportunity to guide the change instead of only importing and paying for the final products. Companies have learned a lot from the GMO lesson. Scientists are ready. Farmers like Giorgio Fidenato too. Let’s break the prejudice.

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Crowning the “King of the Crops”: Sequencing the White Guinea Yam Genome - Earlham (2017) 

Crowning the “King of the Crops”: Sequencing the White Guinea Yam Genome - Earlham (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

An international collaboration... provided a genome sequence for the white Guinea yam, a staple crop with huge economic and cultural significance on the African continent and a lifeline for millions of people.

Yams are a staple part of the Nigerian diet, with Nigeria accounting for around 70% of world yam production, but at current rates of consumption demand is beginning to outstrip supply of this economically important crop with huge cultural significance.

Deciphering the yam genome is of vital importance because, unlike other staple crops such as wheat, maize and rice, the crop is relatively undomesticated. Domesticated crops have advantages compared to their wild relatives when it comes to farming them, including easier usability and higher yields. Understanding the genomics of this crucial plant will help farmers increase yields and sustainability of yams... 

The high quality draft genome sequence is available in the public databases DDBJ and NCBI. The big breakthrough... has been in identifying the regions of the genome that determine sex in yams (dioecy), and knowledge of this rare feature is vital for improving the speed of marker-assisted breeding projects... Understanding the process in yams could help in improving other economically important crops.

Most importantly for Central and West Africa, this new knowledge will help transform yams from being a neglected “orphan” crop. With assisted breeding programmes, the crop can be better domesticated, boosting food security and economic well-being in an area undergoing the world’s most rapid population expansion... 

“Having a reference sequence for the white Guinea yam gives us the unique opportunity to gain a better understanding of dioecy, a very rare trait in flowering plants, in a species that’s very evolutionarily differentiated from most of what’s been sequenced so far. Understanding this trait and having a genomic resource for white Guinea yam will be invaluable in breeding a better yam, one that will improve food security in West and Central Africa, and the livelihood of smallholder farmers there”... 

“This is an important breakthrough. It means that yam has joined those crops with a full DNA sequence, a development which started with rice some years ago. The implications are profound. The full DNA sequence will greatly facilitate our understanding of the genetic control of key traits such as flowering, diseases, and others including quality traits, and this in turn will make the breeding of new varieties both faster and more precise”... 

“This will help to overcome some of the many challenges facing yam farmers in Africa and other parts of the world. These include pests and diseases, post-harvest losses and the need to develop more sustainable systems of farming for the crop”... 

West and Central Africa, the main region for yam production worldwide, contributed approximately 96% of the 63 million tons of yam produced globally in 2013. The value of yam production exceeds all other African staple crops and is worth more than maize, rice and sorghum, combined. 

Nigeria is set to become the third largest country in the world by 2050, with a population of over 300 million, surpassing the US. It is vital we work on breeding improved crops to help feed these and the other 9 billion people expected in 2050.

Yam cultivation is constrained by many factors. Seeds are not often used as starting materials; instead, yams are commonly propagated clonally using small whole tubers (referred to as “seed yams”) or tuber pieces. Yams are also highly vulnerable to a plethora of pests and diseases that can reduce yields by as much as 90%.

There are 600 odd species of yam and 10 have been independently domesticated in West Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific and Caribbean islands. Yam tubers can grow to over 1.5 m and weight 70 kg. In June 2017, Nigeria began exporting certified yam to the UK and US for the first time.

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The impact of new Rice for Africa (NERICA) adoption on household food security and health in the Gambia - Dibba &al (2017) - Food Sec

The impact of new Rice for Africa (NERICA) adoption on household food security and health in the Gambia - Dibba &al (2017) - Food Sec | Ag Biotech News |

This paper investigates the impact of NERICA rice adoption on household food security and human health, using country-wide cross-sectional data of 502 rice farming households in The Gambia. 

We used food consumption scores and the number of household sick days per capita as outcome indicators of food security and health, respectively... 

Adoption... significantly increased household food security by 14 percentage points. This helps severely food insecure households to achieve acceptable food security status by enabling them to acquire cereals and tubers, pulses, vegetables and fruits on a daily basis. 

However, there was no significant impact of... adoption on human health... NERICA can play an important role in fighting against food insecurity in The Gambia.

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Plant geneticists develop a new application of CRISPR to break yield barriers in crops - CSHL (2017) 

Plant geneticists develop a new application of CRISPR to break yield barriers in crops - CSHL (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Scientists... harnessed the untapped power of genome editing to improve agricultural crops. Using tomato as an example, they have mobilized CRISPR/Cas9 technology to rapidly generate variants of the plant that display a broad continuum of three separate, agriculturally important traits: fruit size, branching architecture and overall plant shape. All are major components in determining how much a plant will yield. The method is designed to work in all food, feed, and fuel crops, including the staples rice, maize, sorghum and wheat.

“Current rates of crop yield increases won’t meet the planet’s future agricultural demands as the human population grows... One of the most severe limitations is that nature hasn’t provided enough genetic variation for breeders to work with, especially for the major yield traits that can involve dozens of genes. Our lab has now used CRISPR technology to generate novel genetic variation that can accelerate crop improvement while making its outcomes more predictable.”

The team’s experiments... involve using CRISPR “scissors” to make multiple cuts within three tomato genome sequences known as a promoters – areas of DNA near associated genes which help regulate when, where, and at what level these “yield” genes are active during growth. In this way generating multiple sets of mutations within each of these regulatory regions, the scientists were able to induce a wide range of changes in each of the three targeted traits.

“What we demonstrated with each of the traits... was the ability to use CRISPR to generate new genetic and trait variation that breeders can use to tailor a plant to suit conditions”...  

By using CRISPR to mutate regulatory sequences – the promoters of relevant “yield” genes rather than the genes themselves – the... team finds that they can achieve a much subtler impact on quantitative traits. Fine-tuning gene expression rather than deleting or inactivating the proteins they encode is most likely to benefit commercial agriculture because of the flexibility such genetic variation provides for improving yield traits.

“Traditional breeding involves great time and effort to adapt beneficial variants of relevant genes to the best varieties, which must continuously be improved every year... Our approach can help bypass this constraint by directly generating and selecting for the most desirable variants controlling gene activity in the context of other natural mutations that benefit breeding. We can now work with the native DNA and enhance what nature has provided, which we believe can help break yield barriers.”

Each of the mutated areas creates what are known as quantitative trait loci (QTL). In any given plant, QTL have arisen naturally over thousands of years, the result of spontaneous mutations that caused subtle changes in yield traits. Searching for and exploiting QTL from nature has been an objective of plant breeders for centuries, but the most valuable QTL – those that cause subtle changes in traits – are rare... CRISPR-generated QTL can be combined with existing QTL to create “toolkits” of genetic variation that exceed what is found in nature.

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CRISPR/Cas9 Mediated Genome Engineering for Improvement of Horticultural Crops - Karkute &al (2017) - Frontiers Plant Sci

CRISPR/Cas9 Mediated Genome Engineering for Improvement of Horticultural Crops - Karkute &al (2017) - Frontiers Plant Sci | Ag Biotech News |

Horticultural crops are an important part of agriculture for food as well as nutritional security. However, several pests and diseases along with adverse abiotic environmental factors pose a severe threat to these crops by affecting their quality and productivity. This warrants the effective and accelerated breeding programs by utilizing innovative biotechnological tools that can tackle aforementioned issues. 

The recent technique of genome editing... CRISPR/Cas9 has greatly advanced the breeding for crop improvement due to its simplicity and high efficiency over other nucleases such as Zinc Finger Nucleases and Transcription Activator Like Effector Nucleases... 

The use of CRISPR/Cas9 in horticultural crops is limited to few crops due to lack of availability of regeneration protocols and sufficient sequence information in many horticultural crops. In this review, the present status of applicability of CRISPR/Cas9 in horticultural crops was discussed along with the challenges and future potential for possible improvement of these crops for their yield, quality, and resistance to biotic and abiotic stress.

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Improved access to agricultural biotechnologies needed to help defeat hunger, malnutrition and poverty in the Asia-Pacific region - FAO (2017) 

Improved access to agricultural biotechnologies needed to help defeat hunger, malnutrition and poverty in the Asia-Pacific region - FAO (2017)  | Ag Biotech News |

Smallholder farmers in the world’s hungriest and most populous region need greater access to  biotechnologies to improve food and nutrition security and fight poverty, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization said today.

While the safe agricultural uses of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) continue to monopolize the debate, FAO is urging countries in Asia and the Pacific to adopt a more holistic approach and consider the wider range of low- to high-tech solutions present in the biotechnology toolbox. Closer attention should be paid to many of the other forms of agricultural biotechnologies in use today. These include the use of biofertilisers or biopesticides... artificial insemination... DNA-based tools to diagnose diseases of farmed fish... 

“Gaining greater access to, and utilizing, these various forms of agricultural biotechnologies can contribute to greater food security for the region and increased profits for smallholders who produce the vast majority of the food we eat each day,” said Kundhavi Kadiresan, Assistant Director-General... “If this region is to meet the ambitious SDG targets and eliminate hunger, malnutrition and poverty by 2030, countries need to look at every safe, evidence-based form of food production and ensure the benefits of science can reach the smallholders”...  

“There is significant divergence among countries... in the levels of adoption of relevant agricultural biotechnologies as well as in their capacities to develop them and in the degree of support available in each country... The biotechnology divide is widening in the region and... a subset of emerging countries moving forward very quickly while many others are not accessing or investing in recent advances in science and technology”... said Samy Gaiji, Head of FAO's Research and Extension Unit... “exchange of ideas based on concrete and practical case studies where biotechnologies have been applied to benefit smallholder farmers, food producers and consumers, especially in developing countries”... 

FAO is encouraging member countries in the region and beyond to establish partnerships through South-South cooperation, with the aim to increase effective collaboration and resourcing in this field.

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Reply: Greener revolutions for all require transparency and diversity, not secrecy - Flavell (2017) - Nature Biotechnol

[GMOs] ... the often-quoted principle that food should be judged “by the products themselves, not how they were made”... is in fact how it is and how it has inevitably always been. Very few consumers know how current food varieties and hybrids were created, and not even the most expert evolutionary geneticists understand the mutations, deletions, rearrangements and assimilation of genetic information from other species that made the wild forms of our crop species. So, the inevitable fact is that we judge each food on a product-by-product basis according to its own merits, not on the basis of how it was put together genetically. Therefore, it is logical to question why we single out genes that we do understand and build new regulations around them, whereas we have near-complete ignorance about most of the genetic information in our food and therefore sensibly have safety legislation on the finished products... 

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Zinc fertilization increases productivity and grain nutritional quality of cowpea (Vigna unguiculata [L.] Walp.) under integrated soil fertility management - Manzeke &al (2017) - Field Crops Res

Zinc fertilization increases productivity and grain nutritional quality of cowpea (Vigna unguiculata [L.] Walp.) under integrated soil fertility management - Manzeke &al (2017) - Field Crops Res | Ag Biotech News |

Cowpea is an important but under-studied grain legume [that] can potentially contribute to improved dietary zinc (Zn) intake in sub-Saharan Africa. 

In this study, surveys were conducted on smallholder farms in Zimbabwe during 2014/15 to determine the influence of diverse soil fertility management options on cowpea grain productivity and nutrition quality... Field experiments were conducted to investigate the influence of Zn fertilizer on the productivity and quality of cowpea under integrated soil fertility management (ISFM)... 

Cowpea grain yields on surveyed farms ranged from 0.3 to 0.9 t/ha, with grain Zn concentration ranging from 24 to 30 mg/kg. The highest grain Zn concentration was on fields where organic nutrient resources were applied in combination with mineral N and P fertilizers. 

Within the field experiments, mean grain yields of cowpea increased by... 12 and 18%... when Zn fertilizer was applied... on red clay and sandy soils, respectively. When Zn fertilizer was co-applied with organic nutrient resources, grain Zn concentrations of cowpea reached 42 mg/kg (red clay) and 45 mg/kg (sandy) against grain Zn concentrations of 36 mg/kg and 31 mg/kg measured in cowpea grown with no Zn fertilizer... 

Agronomic biofortification of legumes is feasible and has the potential to contribute significantly towards increasing dietary Zn intake by humans. A greater increase in grain Zn of cowpea grown on sandy than red clay soils under Zn fertilization illustrates the influence of soil type on Zn uptake, which should be explored further in agronomic biofortification programs.

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