Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Phytase Corn: Breakthrough by Chinese Scientists to Improve Feed and Reduce Pollution

Chinese scientists at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) have successfully developed a genetically modified (GM) corn that could help enhance the nutritional value of livestock feed and reduce environmental footprints caused by the livestock industry.

This corn called the “Phytase Corn” is a result of the insertion of a gene from a fungus, Aspergillus. It is a known fact that 80% of the phosphorus in corn is in the form of phytate which can easily chelate with minerals and protein to form phytin. Phytate or phytic acid is the main form of phosphorus in plant-based animal feed. But due to lack of phytase (an enzyme capable of digesting phytic acid) in animals, phosphorus in the feed is poorly available to the animals. This deprives the animals of phosphorus which is essential for growth. Furthermore, fecal phosphorus leads to major environmental pollution. Fertilizers produced from animal manure also contribute to environmental pollution due to excessive amount of phytic acid.

China alone produces 2.5 million tons of fecal phosphorus annually. Phytase corn will decrease the excretion of phosphorus in the feces by 40%. This will reduce phosphorus pollution greatly. Phosphorus pollution has caused a widespread of algal bloom in Chinese lakes. Currently it is mandatory to use phytase as an additive for animal feed in countries like Europe, Southeast Asia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan for environmental purposes. With the introduction of phytase corn, livestock players will not have to buy corn and phytase separately. It is reported that Chinese farmers could save up to US$60 million per year in buying industrial phytase. The worldwide phytase potential market size is US$500 million. It is anticipated that farmers can save time, machinery, and labour cost as phytase corn will eliminate the need for mixing phytase and corn together.

Phytase corn was developed by CAAS after seven years of study and the Ministry of Agriculture has evaluated it for safety and has awarded the Biosafety Certificate to Origin Agritech Limited, a Chinese company located in Beijing. CAAS will license the technology to Origin Agritech Limited for the corn to be commercialised.

CAAS is expecting the product to hit the market in five years time. Will this product be spared of activists' criticism and opposition since it will hugely contribute in reducing negative impact on the environment? Time will tell.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I spoke at the EU parliament...

I just returned from Brussels after a seminar at EU parliament on “The impact of EU GMO-regulations on biotechnology research for the public good”. I had very little time to indulge in Belgian chocolates but listening to the experienced and prominent speakers made up for it. What more, when given an opportunity to make an intervention... When did I ever imagine that I would speak at the EU parliament?

This seminar was organized by the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI) and the Science and Technology Options Assessment Panel (STOA) of the EU Parliament to address the constraints the public research sector face due to the stringent regulatory situation in many countries, particularly in the EU. The seminar discussed how current regulations and policies impact the potential for the public biotechnology sector. It was chaired by Prof. Antonio Correia de Campos, who is the STOA Vice-Chairman and a Member of European Parliament (MEP), jointly with Prof. Marc Baron van Montagu, the chairman of PRRI. Prof. Dr. El-Beltagy, Chair Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) gave a very comprehensive account of climate change and how green biotechnology can help in producing plants and crops that can survive the adverse effects of the climate change.

Ms. Maive Rute, Director for the Biotechnology, Agriculture and Fisheries and Food Directorate, European Commission (EC) gave a very positive account on how biotechnology, especially GM technology can benefit Europe. Dr. Emilio Rodriguez from EC’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) presented the experiences with GM crops in Europe, its economic and productivity impact. Dr. Piero Morandini from University of Milan gave a very emotional and passionate presentation on the many case studies where potential research is halted at the laboratory level due to restrictions on field trials in Europe. He presented the difficult experiences being faced by European public researchers due to the GMO regulation in Europe.

I commented on the need for EU to be mindful with the regulations and policies on GMOs as the rest of the world, especially emerging economies perceive EU as a role model when drafting their own regulations, Acts, and policies. Debates and decisions made in EU parliament is echoed in many part of the world, thus, EU should lead in the right direction based on scientific consensus. It was heartening when Dr. Beltagy acknowledged my views and further strengthened the points made. NGOs made intervention on why they oppose GMOs, but the speakers and chairpersons were quick to rebut their negative comments with facts and data. An activist from a well-known NGO said that they oppose GMOs as these are monopolised by MNCs. The strange thing is that the same NGOs press governments for heavy penalties and stringent law that only MNCs with deep pocket could effort, leaving the public sector researchers out of the game. How then, the public sector could compete with MNCs and break the monopoly? What are their genuine reasons for opposing GMOs... only they know!

The seminar was attended by industry representatives, MEPs, NGOs, scientists, and regulators. The STOA committee members who are also MEPs and European Commission representatives made presented very balanced views on GMOs based on scientific facts and evidence. PRRI certainly created a milestone in EU with this seminar. Hope we see wind of change.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Thursday, March 4, 2010

New wave of adoption of GM crops

GM crops once again proved to be the fastest adopted crop technology with an 80-fold increase in hectarage from 1999 to 2009. 134 million hectares of GM crops were planted around the world compared to 125 million hectares in 2008. The number of countries growing GM crops remained the same at 25, with Costa Rica joining in and Germany discontinuing the planting of GM corn. Whereas, the number of farmers growing GM crops continued to grow with 14 million farmers around the globe in 2009. Out of this, 13 million are from developing countries. This proves the notion that GM crops only benefits the rich nations wrong.

A landmark decision was made by the Chinese government in approving biosafety certificates for insect-resistant Bt rice and phytase corn. It is worth mentioning here that both these crops are entirely products of public sectors. The decision will have great impact not only in China, but the rest of the world as rice is the most important food crop in globally. Phytase corn allows efficient meat production as livestock animals will be able to digest the phosphorus in this corn easily. This would also mean reduction in the pollution level as there will be lower phosphate waste from the livestock industry.

The highlights of the new ISAAA report:

- More than three quarters of the 90 million hectares of soybean grown globally were GM.

- Almost half of the cotton grown globally was GM.

- More than a quarter of the 158 million hectares of corn grown globally was GM varieties.

- 21 percent of the 31 million hectares of canola were GM.

The countries that grow GM crops in descending order are: US, Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada, China, Paraguay, South Africa, Uruguay, Bolivia, Philippines, Australia, Burkina Faso, Spain, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Czech Republic, Portugal, Romania, Poland, Costa Rica, Egypt, and Slovakia.

For detailed information visit:

The international Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) publishes this report yearly and this is one of the most cited publication in the field of plant biotechnology.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan