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bt

India and Bt Brinjal/Eggplant

India has delayed the introduction of their insect resistant eggplants.

Read about it in:

China’s Approval of Bt Rice Confirmed

Read today’s story from Bloomberg. I’d discussed my own thoughts when it was a story based on anonymous sources last week.

From the article:

China produces 31 percent of the world’s rice and 20 percent of its corn, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. …[China] uses 7 percent of the world’s arable land to feed a quarter of its population.

China has only 7% of the world’s farmland yet feeds more than 1.3 billion people (and still growing). No wonder they’re investing so heavily in crop/plant science.

Another one I recently read (if it was you, sorry for not attributing it properly, the comparison just stuck in my head) was that India and Argentina are about the same size (India is about a quarter bigger) yet India must feed 30 times as many people!*

*Of course this isn’t quite a fair comparison since Argentina exports so much food to Western Europe, since those countries can afford to buy food abroad instead of focusing on increasing local production, and China and India must

Bt Rice in China

Reuters has a story up, based on anonymous sources, that China has just approved a government developed strain of bt rice*. Bt crops express a protein isolated from Bacillus thuringiensis a bacteria used by organic farmers to control insects. The introduction of bt crops (primarily corn and cotton) has lead to substantial reductions in the use of insecticides. China plants more than 100,000 square miles of land with rice each year, so the environmental and economic** impact of being able to reduce insecticide applications would be substantial.

China is also in a unique position when it comes to commercializing any form of genetically engineered rice, as the world’s largest producer of rice, but only a small next exporter*** China stands to benefit from any improvements to rice, and is largely immune to pressure from food importing countries such as the members of the European Union. China has also invested (and continues to invest) billions of dollars in developing their own, publicly-funded, domestic crop research and breeding which has kept their per acre crop yields trending upwards, and now means they’re prepared to make the leap to genetically engineered food crops (they’ve had bt cotton for some time) with home-grown technology, killing any narrative about this being western tech foisted off on the developing world. (more…)

This is Why It’s Important to Know What bt Stands For

We’ve been hearing more about India in the news lately. Along with the decision about whether or not to approve bt eggplants (brinjal), India is also debating a set of new biotechnology intellectual property laws. As I’ve said in the past India currently doesn’t recognize genetic patents, so anybody can breed transgenes into their own seeds and sell them. Of course the only legalized GE crop in India right now is cotton but as others are legalized, the same situation would apply.

I’ll admit I disagree with this quote:

Clinton said she favoured a strong intellectual property or patent regime (IPR) to safeguard the ownership of agricultural research, as that would be in ‘everyone’s interest’.

India is faced with the question of how best to balance protection for creators, to encourage biotech research, and the rights of farmers, to make sure they get the most possible benefit from that research. It is important to strike the right balance between the two, not just cater to the desires of one side of the other. It’s the same issue faced by every country when it comes to regulating everything from pharmaceutical research to the music industry.

And I have faith India will find the right balance. After all we’re talking about a country where cheap pirate copies of movies are available cheaply and easily on every street corner sometimes before movies even make it into theaters, yet Bollywood (the Indian film industry based in Mumbai) is quite profitable, turns out twice as many films as Hollywood, and is probably the only other national film industry, other than America’s, recognized around the world.*

So given all that could the people who write about the issue please PLEASE bother to look up what bt stands for? Case in point:

First, the Indian government has yet to greenlight the commercialisation of Bt brinjal — crucial for the future of these ‘Bt brand’ companies — even after a thumbs up from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). … the MNCs who produce ‘Bt’ seeds, as genetically modified or GM crops have come to be popularly known (patents would ensure that no one else would be allowed to produce or sell these seeds).

*Off the top of my head I’d recommend Krrish and Salaam/Namaste as examples of entertaining movies Bollywood has put out recently, and Gol Maal as a hilarious one from several decades ago.

Genetically Engineered Crops: Cotton

Field of Cotton in South Carolina. Photo: hdport, flickr

Field of Cotton in South Carolina. Photo: hdport, flickr

Scientific Name: Gossypium itscomplicated*

Genetically Engineered Traits: Insect Resistance (bt), Herbicide Resistance

Details of Genetic Engineering:

Cotton has been genetically engineered to resist both glyphosate (by Monsanto) and glufinsate (by Bayer CropScience) under the names Roundup Ready and LibertyLink respectively. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, there are both economic and scientific advantages to having more than one herbicide/herbicide resistance system as it tends to keep prices down, and slows the development of resistant weeds when any resistance they evolve to one herbicide will be useless if the farmer switches to the other for the next growing season.

But the big deal when it comes to genetically engineered cotton is bt cotton that substantially reduces insect damage (and insecticide applications). In the US both Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences sell their own versions of bt cotton using different bt proteins with different specificities. The Chinese government has also developed and deployed their own bt cotton varieties. Bt cotton is the most widely grown** type of genetically engineered plant in the world today, grown in countries like China, India***, and Australia, where other genetically modified crops are not yet approved, for the obvious reason that it’s harder to get people upset about wearing “unnatural” things than eating them.****

Cotton plant in Turkmenistan. Photo: flydime, flickr

Cotton plant in Turkmenistan. Photo: flydime, flickr

About Cotton: (more…)

bt: The Bacteria and the Protein

I figured if I am going to do a review of genetically engineered crops, I needed to address the other major traits besides resistance to herbicides presently on the market. This one addresses a family of proteins found in the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis that can kill insects.

Anyone who reads about the public policy debates swirreling around genetically engineered crops will be familar with the two letter abbreviation ‘bt’ as in bt corn, bt cotton, bt ginseng (the last is fictional). What always surprises me is that some people STOP reading before they come across an explanation of what bt stands for. Just typing bt into google won’t bring up a relevant result until the 30th hit (two letters just isn’t very unique). I have talked with people who are convinced bt stands for everything from biologically treated to BioToxin. It doesn’t.

Golden Eyed Lacewing Adult. It's not much use, but the larva vicious predators of certain plant pests. (Photo public domain courtesy of USDA. You guys are awesome!)

Golden Eyed Lacewing Adult. It's not much use, but the larva vicious predators of certain plant pests. (Photo public domain courtesy of USDA. You guys are awesome!)

The name actually comes from a species of bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis. Different substrains of the species carry different members of a family of genes that code for Cry proteins (and separately can also carry genes that code for Cyt proteins*), which can kill insects. Finding chemical or biological means to kill insects isn’t that hard. What makes the Cry proteins noteworthy is how selective they are in their killing. A given Cry protein is dangerous to only a small subset of insect species. And that’s important, because, for every** western corn rootworm, european corn borer, or earworm there are also benign or even beneficial insects in and around fields like lacewings, trichogramma wasps, or those rootworm eating nematodes I talked about a couple of days ago, which aren’t insects, but also harmed by insecticides. (Agro-ecology is beyond my field of expertise, had to call up my tipster from the previous post to get this list) When a crop is genetically engineered to produce one of the dozens of Cry proteins discovered in Bacillus thuringiensis, it replaces or reduces the spraying of insecticides to control insect pests, with positive effects on insect biodiversity. (more…)