Newsletter / April 2015

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Dear Science Allies:

March was a big month for the Cornell Alliance for Science.

The global network of science advocates that make up the Alliance grew significantly.
Through two online campaigns, we connected with nearly 3000 new science allies from 81 countries — people who share the Alliance mission and are proud to show support for those working tirelessly to ensure access to safe, sustainably produced food.

We'd like to thank all of you who showed your support for the US public sector scientists under attack and the Brazilian researchers who lost decades of research.

Allies like you are coming together to build a powerful global community in support of science and evidence-based decision making, that speaks with one collective voice.

We look forward to continuing to work together to inspire a rational conversation supported by science.

Sarah Evanega
Director, Cornell Alliance for Science


US Government Seeks Young Scientists for $25,000 ASPIRE Prize <More>

April 10-11

Cornell Alliance for Science – The Nairobi Biotechnology Leadership Course
The Cornell Alliance for Science Short Course in Nairobi is a two-day intensive training course for leaders around the globe who are committed to advocating for increased access to agricultural biotechnology. <More>

Global Leadership

12-Week Fellowship Program in Science Communications

Starting August 2015, the Alliance is launching our Global Leadership Fellows Program, a certificate program designed to empower emerging leaders who will improve science communications and promote evidence-based decision-making around the globe. For more information on the 12-week program's curriculum and application requirements, visit our program web site.

US Approves Apples & Potatoes Designed For New Ag Biotech Audience: Consumers

Bioengineered potatoes that bruise less, and apples that don't brown as quickly, took a major step toward US grocery store shelves this month. On March 20, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared six GE potatoes and three GE apples "as safe and nutritious as their conventional counterparts." <More>

Plant Scientists Use High Powered Computing to "Hack" Photosynthesis

By combining high-performance computing and advanced genetic engineering, a team of public sector scientists has taken steps to achieving agriculture's Holy Grail: boosting the photosynthetic efficiency of plants.

Plant biologist Stephen P. Long and colleagues at the University of Illinois and the Institute for Computational Biology, Shanghai, have put a gene from cyanobacteria into plants that has boosted photosynthetic rate by 30 percent, according to a paper recently published in Cell. "We now know every step in the processes that drive photosynthesis in C3 plants such as soybeans and C4 plants such as maize." <More>

British Public Scientists To Begin Field Trials of GE "Super Spud"

Days after the US announced its approval for GE potatoes, public sector scientists in the UK said that field trials are expected to begin this summer on a GE potato, dubbed the "Super Spud." Engineered at the Sainsbury Laboratory, a government-funded research institute based in Norwich, the GE potato is not only free of fungal diseases and other pest problems, but will also have less acrylamide than conventionally grown potatoes. <More>

Chinese Scientists Develop Perennial Rice — A Climate-Friendly Staple Crop

Chinese scientists will begin field trials next year on varieties of rice that could eliminate the necessity of planting annually — an achievement that could have major environmental and food security benefits around the globe. Crop scientists have long sought to develop a perennial rice crop, writes Winifred Bird in Yale Environment 360, but the urgency has increased as climate change has put increasing stress on the world's rice farmers. <More>

Nigerian Farmers Push President Jonathan to Sign Biosafety Bill

The fight for access to agricultural biotechnology in Nigeria got a major boost last month when a coalition of farmers petitioned President Goodluck Jonathan to sign the country's Biosafety Bill. According to Nigeria's People's Daily, farmers say the passage of the bill is a critical step in paving the way for the introduction of biotech crops that are resistant to drought and pests, and that could reduce the need for fertilizers and insecticides. <More>

CIAT Scientists Develop "Heat-Beater" Beans that Could Enhance Food Security

Scientists at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia announced last month that they are making progress on a bean designed for expected temperature increases. By crossing a modern bean with one of its obscure Mexican relatives, the CIAT team has created a variety that can withstand the expected 3°C (5.4°F) rise in temperature over the next century. "This discovery could be a big boon for bean production because we are facing a dire situation. <More>

"Stop Vandalizing Science" Petition Reaches Goal

More than 1400 people showed their support for Brazilian forest biotechnologists who were victims of a violent attack last month—and the scientists expressed their gratitude in a heartfelt letter to the Alliance. <More>

Scientist Responds to Activist's Attack on Biofortified Banana: "Let's Talk Science"

Two weeks after Vandana Shiva savagely criticized research on a nutritionally-enhanced GE banana at Iowa State University, University of Florida scientist Kevin Folta arrived in Ames, and presented a powerful counter lecture — seeking to set the record straight about the science on GE foods. <More>

Our Gift to the #Science14

The Alliance for Science is sending a gift to the 14 public scientists who were targeted by Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) requests in early February. The "word cloud" (pictured here) includes 1400 names — people across the globe who signed our petition, and offered their support for the scientists under attack. Individualized, high resolution prints are being delivered to the scientists this month.

AAAS Presidents: The Anti-GMO Lobby Takes A Page from the Climategate Playbook

Last month, after an anti-GMO group targeted 14 public biotech scientists with a wave of FOIA request, three former presidents of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) co-wrote a powerful opinion piece in the Guardian detailing the troubling similarities between the tactics of anti-GMO activists and those of anti-climate science activists. <More>

The Tragic Papaya: The Story of GE Crops in Hawaii

Cornell professor, Anthony Shelton calls the GE Hawaiian papaya "collateral damage in the global debate on biotechnology." Last month, Shelton, a world-renowned professor of entomology, published "The Tragic Papaya" a 12-part series that looks at the more than 20-year saga of the GE papaya in Hawaii — from virus disease outbreak, to the development of Papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) resistant papaya, to the emergence of the opposition and their ultimate takeover of the democratic process. Shelton's fascinating series is published here.

5 Questions with Matthew Schnurr: The Case for Prioritizing the "Farmer Perspective" and "Demand Driven" Biotech

Matthew Schnurr, an environmental geographer at Canada's Dalhousie University, has studied GE crops in Uganda over the past decade. In this interview with the Alliance, Schnurr explains why he believes new generations of biotech crops hold more promise than first generation crops in Uganda. Schnurr also argues that government officials and funding organizations should invest more effort into farmer research and "demand-driven" technologies. "Most experimental funding starts with the donors' questions and reflects their priorities and political affiliations," said Schnurr. "Comparatively little money is given to research that asks farmers what they need in order to be successful." Read the full interview here.

Could Precise Technology Eliminate Fears of GE Foods?

Last month, a group of leading futurists convened by the World Economic Forum, declared "precision genetic engineering" as the one of the top 10 world-changing technologies of this year. The WEF highlighted advanced gene editing techniques, such as CRISPR-Cas9 and RNA interference, as having the potential to greatly improve the ability of crop scientists to respond to diseases, reduce chemical inputs, and develop crops that adapt to climate change. But perhaps most importantly, the WEF believes that the new gene-editing technologies could allay public fears about GE, "especially if the resulting plant is not considered transgenic because no foreign genetic material is introduced." <More>

Genetically Modified People: Natural Transgenics is More Common Than Many Think

Opponents of GM crops often charge that transgenics are "unnatural." But scientists have long known that some genes move from one species to another in a natural process called "horizontal gene transfer." The Economist reported last month that Cambridge University scientists have found just how common natural transgenics is — it even happens in people. A paper published in Genome Biology suggests that human beings have at least 145 genes picked up from other species by their forebears. As the Economist notes, "It might surprise many people that they are even to a small degree part bacterium, part fungus and part algae." <More>

March Headlines

Each month, the Alliance tracks the world's top news and opinions on agricultural biotechnology. If you or someone in your organization is interested in contributing reports to the Monthly Monitor, please let us know at We always encourage you to submit important news reports from your region.

1. IARC Report: Glyphosate Could Cause Cancer

On March 20, the cancer-research arm of the World Health Organization announced that glyphosate, the world's most widely used herbicide, is probably carcinogenic to humans. The assessment, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), was immediately met with a strong response from industry groups and critics of genetic engineering. <More>

2. The Independent (UK) Publishes Series on the 20th Anniversary of the GE Debate

Last month, the British newspaper, The Independent, published a multi-part series examining the state of GE technology and the GE debate nearly 20 years after Monsanto first introduced herbicide tolerant plants in the 1990s. The series, which included dispatches from the US, UK, and Uganda, concludes with The Independent making the case for Britain's embrace of GM crops in an editorial titled, "Unyielding opposition to GM crops ignores the wider picture." <More>

3. Filipino Farmers Appeal Bt Eggplant Ban

A coalition of Filipino farmers is urging the country's Supreme Court to repeal a ban on Bt eggplant. According to BusinessMirror, farmer Edgar Talasan of Impasug-ong, Bukidnon issued the appeal on behalf of 40,000 vegetable growers, arguing that the GE crop would vastly reduce the need for costly and dangerous pesticides. <More>

4. GMO Chocolate: Biotech May Be The Solution to Looming Cacao Shortage

GMO chocolate may be on the horizon, National Geographic's Rebecca Rupp reported last month. A chocolate shortage is predicted to hit within the next five years — the result of climate change, disease, and the demands of rapidly growing populations of chocolate lovers in China and India. The Nature Conservation Research Center predicts that within the next 20 years, chocolate will be "as rare and as expensive as caviar." And some scientists believe biotech may be the best chance of protecting the chocolate harvest. <More>

5. GMO Wine? Biotech Could Increase Nutritional Quality of Wine AND Reduce Hangovers

University of Illinois researchers announced last month that they have produced genetically engineered yeast that could vastly increase the nutritional quality of wine, while also reducing its hangover-inducing properties. According to Gizmag's Colin Jeffry, the Illinois scientists have developed a "genome knife" that enables them to do precise engineering of microbes, including the strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae that are used in the production of wine, beer, and other fermented foods and beverages. Using this "knife," Jeffrey writes, scientists can increase the plusses of drinking wine while also mitigating some of the minuses. <More>

Vietnam: Ministry of Agriculture Gives Green Light to GE Corn

Vietnamese farmers nationwide are now able to plant three varieties of GE corn, according to a new decision from the country's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Pham Dong Quang, director of the Department of Crop Production, said the three varieties could resist pest and herbicide as well as produce higher yields. "GM corn will be used for animal feed only and thus, it does not require special labeling," he told Thanh Nien News. <More>

India: Bt Corn Could Be Country's First GE Food Crop

Monsanto's Indian subsidiary expects to submit final trial results for its corn to lawmakers within a year for the government to then decide on a commercial launch, according to Reuters. India does not currently allow the growing of GM food crops but the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has encouraged open field trials after a five-year de facto ban. "We are close to the final stage in corn," Shilpa Divekar Nirula, chief executive of Monsanto India, told Reuters. <More>

US: Oregon Legislature Divided on GM "Contamination" Bills

Backers of two bills that would allow the state to regulate where GM crops could be grown in Oregon got a chilly response from a House committee, the Statesman Journal reported.

The bills aim to resolve the growing conflict between the state's GMO and non-GMO farmers, who fear contamination from cross-pollination. Already, international markets have rejected Oregon wheat because of possible GMO contamination. But committee Chairman Brian Clem, D-Salem, said he thinks the real problem is with "the illogic of Europe." And Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said he is confused by cross-contamination fears. "If (cross-contamination) occurred prior to genetically engineered plants, then how did the state survive 156 years of being one of the best agricultural states in the country?" he asked. "What's broke that needs fixing?" <More>

China: Scientists Must Engage the Public on GM

After years of uncertainty, China's government has issued a clear edict — China needs GM, and it will work to become a world leader in the development of the technology. Writing in Nature last month, Qiang Wang, a professor at the Xinjiang Institute, argued that his country's new stance on GM crops needs the support of researchers to persuade a skeptical public. "It could help to counter the widespread and irrational fear in China that GM food is unsafe to eat," Wang writes. "If China is to make good on its intentions to boost its GM efforts, then more scientists speaking up is a good place to start." <More>

Uganda: GE Bananas Spark Heated Debate

Last month, Agence France Press featured the story of Uganda's Charles Semakula, a father of four, and small farmer outside of Kampala, whose banana crop is threatened by the devastating banana bacterial wilt. With his livelihood under threat, Semakula is among the many farmers who want Uganda's parliament to pass the Biosafety bill permitting the use of GM crops, in the hope it will deliver disease-resistant bananas. While the story spotlights the position of supporters of the bill, including Wilberforce Tushemereirwe, director of research at the National Agricultural Research Laboratories, it also highlights the formidable challenges biotech advocates face in Uganda. Read the full AFP story here.

UK: Goodall Condemns GM Foods as "Anti-Science"

Jane Goodall, the renowned primate expert, argued that supporters of GM food have ignored the evidence of harm and warns Britain not to drop safeguards that have kept GM crops out. The Daily Mail reported that Goodall has endorsed a new book, 'Altered Genes, Twisted Truth," written by the American public interest lawyer, Steve Druker. Druker's book argues that corporations responsible for developing GM farming and food have twisted the evidence to minimize the dangers. <More>

Kenya: Scientists Push to Lift Ban on GM Foods

Member of Parliament Robert Pukose said his country was misled by French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini and others who claimed that GM products were unfit for human consumption. Kenya's Daily Nation reported that Pukose told a Nairobi audience that studies and empirical evidence have shown that GM products are safe. "Other countries are way ahead in the adoption of the GMO (genetically modified organisms) technology but we continue to lag behind because of misinformation," Pukose said. "The ban needs to be lifted."<More>

Pamela Ronald at TED2015: How Genetic Engineering Can Fight Disease, Reduce Insecticide Use, and Enhance Food Security

Last month at TED2015, Pamela Ronald made her case for the humanitarian and environmental benefits of genetic engineering. "A lot of people don't mind genetic modification when it involves moving rice genes around," Ronald told the audience, "but when it comes to taking genes from viruses and bacteria and putting them into plants, people say 'Yuck! Why would scientists do that?'" Ronald's answer: "Because sometimes it is the safest, cheapest and most effective technology to advance sustainable agriculture and enhance food security." Watch the talk here.

How Do You Really Make A GM Tomato? A Short, Illustrated Explanation

We've all seen anti-GM images of genetic engineering — a menacing needle puncturing a red tomato. But that couldn't be further from the truth of the real process of genetic modification, writes Michael Thomas at In this short illustrated essay, Thomas provides a short primer on some of the most common biotech methods, such as Agrobacterium tumefaciens and the gene gun, which scientists use to modify plants. See it here.

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