Family farmers, who are leading the global efforts to combat malnutrition by producing 80 percent of the world's food, need stronger support in the middle of increasing hunger and obesity worldwide, according to UN General Assembly President, Maria Fernanda Espinosa.

"In a world where one-third of the food produced is lost or wasted and one third of land is used for livestock production, they are vital socioeconomic actors who can support improved livelihoods, job creation, community cohesion, and development in rural areas," she said to more than 300 participants of an international dialogue on May 26, 2019 in Rome, Italy, co-organized by UN Food and Agriculture Organization and International Fund for Agricultural Development to tackle family farming challenges and opportunities.

This was followed by the launch of the United Nations Decade of Family Farming (2019-2028) and a Global Plan to increase support for family farmers on May 29, 2019. This new initiative aims to create a conducive environment that strengthens the position of family farming, and maximizes family farmers' contributions to global food security and nutrition. It also opens opportunity for governments to adopt policies that support sustainable and diversified family farming and to move towards a new paradigm for food systems and rural development where the focus is "not solely on production but on how to address socioeconomic and environmental sustainability in tandem."

Read more from the FAO news article.

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Psychologists and biologists from the University of Rochester, the University of Amsterdam, and Cardiff University conducted a study to answer the question "Would consumers eat genetically modified food if they understand the science behind it?" The result of their study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology says that the answer is "yes".

The researchers explored different factors that may affect consumers' attitudes toward GM food and found that their knowledge about GM food is the greatest determining factor. In fact, knowledge of GM was over 19 times higher than other factors such as socioeconomic status, race, educational attainment, age, and gender. They also found that specific knowledge on GM foods is independent from a person's general science knowledge. The study was conducted in the US, then replicated in the UK and the Netherlands.

In the US study, they followed up the survey with a five-week longitudinal study with 231 undergraduates who were taught basic science behind GM technology. They discovered that after learning GM technology, the respondents had more positive attitudes towards GM foods, greater willingness to eat them, and a lowered perception of GM foods as risky.

Read the news article from the University of Rochester and the research article in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

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Researchers from Rutgers University have discovered genetic regulators that synthesize starch and protein in maize. The team discovered how corn starch and protein are simultaneously synthesized in the endosperm, which could allow them to find a good balance between nutrient quality and yield. Domestication and modern breeding have gradually increased starch content in corn, but decreased protein accumulation in endosperms.

The researchers looked at zeins, the key proteins found in corn kernels which are devoid of lysine, an essential amino acid, resulting in poor nutrient quality. People have increased lysine content in corn by growing plants with lower zeins. Today, lysine levels are too low to meet the needs of the world's rapidly growing population.

The molecular geneticists and corn breeders tried to reduce zein levels to improve corn nutrient quality. They focused on blocking the zeins and the so-called transcription factors. The research team found that two transcription factors play key roles in regulating the synthesis of starch and protein.

For more details, read the news article in Rutgers Today.

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Scientists from Arizona State University have determined the structure of a very large photosynthetic supercomplex, PSI-IsiA complex, a common form of photosystem I, one of the two essential engines of photosynthesis.

The complex is unique in size, the largest photosynthetic supercomplex with a known molecular structure, and in complexity with more than 700 different molecules (mostly light-harvesting molecules) making up the complete structure. The scientists also found that  there are 591 chlorophylls in the PSI-IsiA supercomplex, by far the largest number of bound pigments in any of the photosynthetic supercomplexes with known structures.

This supercomplex is produced by a cyanobacterium under low iron environment or excessive light fluxes in the lab. The ability of the cyanobacterium to express this complex while under stress plays an important role in their survival under such conditions.

For more details, read the news article in the Arizona State University website.

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Brazil's National Technical Commission of Biosafety (CTNBio) has given the commercial approval to TMG Tropical Melhoramento & Genética and Verdeca for HB4® drought tolerant transgenic soybeans. The approval allows the planting and harvesting of HB4 soybean varieties in Brazil.

Besides the HB4 trait, the event stack with an herbicide tolerance trait was also approved. CTNBio's approval is followed by a 30-day public comment period, before the definitive approval document is produced. The commercial launch of the HB4 trait in Brazil is contingent upon approvals by the main soybean grain importing countries, which are ongoing, and by a variety of registration processes.

The HB4 trait has already been approved in Argentina and by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Regulatory submissions are currently under consideration by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as in China, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Uruguay.

For more details, read the news release from TMG (in Portuguese), or read the article in AgroPages.

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Asia and the Pacific

Australia's Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) has issued license DIR 166 to Queensland University of Technology for the limited and controlled release (field trial) of chickpea genetically modified (GM) for drought and other environmental stress tolerance.

The field trial is proposed to take place from June 2019 until December 2024 in Walkamin, Tablelands Regional Council in Queensland on up to 3 hectares per year. It will assess the drought and heat tolerance and agronomic characteristics of GM chickpea under field conditions. The GM plant material grown in the field trial will not be used in human food or animal feed.

The Risk Assessment and Risk Management Plan (RARMP) and the license were finalized from input received during consultation with the public, State and Territory governments, Australian Government agencies, the Minister for the Environment, the Gene Technology Technical Advisory Committee, and local councils.

The finalized RARMP and its summary, a set of Questions and Answers on this decision, and a copy of the license are available online from the DIR 166 page in the OGTR website.

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The Max Planck Society has formulated its position on genome editing in a discussion paper which will be made available at the beginning of June. The society has decided to contribute the expertise of its scientists to foster scientific and societal debate on the subject.

The discussion paper calls for European legislation to be adapted to the current state of research and for plants with edited genetic material to no longer be classified as genetically modified if they imitate the natural process of mutagenesis. 

"The position paper reflects the great potential of genome editing and the ethical and legal challenges it poses. The Max Planck Society wants to show how science can use this potential responsibly in order to gain important insights for the benefit of society, especially with regard to new applications in the fields of medicine and nutrition," says Martin Stratmann, President of the Max Planck Society who also commissioned the Society's Ethics Council to review the state of knowledge on genome editing.

For more details, read the news in Max Planck Society website.

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In recent findings, scientists discovered how plants protect themselves from a possible danger that may be brought by external factors such as stressful environmental conditions.

In an ideal situation, photosynthesis starts when light is absorbed by the plant to produce energy molecules. Then these energy molecules make it possible for the plant to process carbon dioxide found in the air to fix it into sugars to serve as the plant's energy reserve. During stressful situations for the plant, the second stage of photosynthesis is affected. In the absence of light, for example, the second stage photosynthesis slows down or even completely shuts off. Once the plant detects light again, there is a build-up of oxygen byproducts. If not neutralized, these highly reactive oxygen molecules can cause cellular damage to the plant.

It is the second stage of the photosynthesis process that the scientists focused their study on using the Chlamydomonas algae. They investigated the functions of two plant proteins that protect plant cells by turning the reactive oxygen molecules to water: flavodiiron proteins (FLV) and plasmid terminal oxidases (PTOX). FLV was found to serve as a switch to speed up the sugar-manufacturing stage once the light is detected by the plant. PTOX, on the other hand, was likened to the release valve of a pressure cooker that signals the plant to release the built-up oxygen byproducts caused by the slow down or shut off of the photosynthesis' second stage.

Upon determination of the roles of these two proteins, scientists have a better understanding of how plants neutralize self-inflicted cellular damage as a result of extreme environmental conditions. Such findings can pave a better direction for other scientists to engineer crops and algae that can maximize the photosynthetic process to address climate change and higher yield demands.

Read the complete results and discussion in PNAS.

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Researchers from Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences and CSIRO Agriculture and Food conducted a comprehensive study to investigate the effect of large-scale cultivation of GM crops on agricultural biodiversity.

They compared the number of species, population abundance, community evenness and dominance of insects and weeds in Bt and non-Bt cotton fields in 27 locations in northern China. To verify the results of the study, they also conducted a three-year field experiment. Results showed that weed diversity in both fields was similar, but the number of species and diversity indices of insects were lower in Bt cotton fields, aligning with fewer leaf damage to broadleaf plant species including cotton as well as crops in nearby plots. The leaf damage in Bt and non-Bt cotton negatively links with the diversity of neighboring crops in cotton fields.

Based on the findings, the researchers concluded that the neighboring crop diversity mediates the effects of Bt crops on agricultural diversity in complex interactions among transgenic crops, in-field weed and insect communities, and neighboring crops.

More results are available in Transgenic Research.

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New Breeding Technologies

Global CRISPR technology market is valued at USD449.6 million in 2017 and is projected to grow by over 25% in 2018 to 2025, according to the market trends report of All Market Insights. The growing adoption of CRISPR technology is attributed to the increasing funding support granted by governments and private institutions to this promising technology. According to the Congressional Research Service (U.S.), the National Institutes of Health increased their research funding on CRISPR-related research from US$5.1 million in 2011 to $603 million in 2016. NIH confirmed this increase in CRISPR support when they reported that their funding for CRISPR research reached approximately US$981 million from 2006 to 2016.

The report also highlighted that the key regions in the CRISPR technology market are North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, and Latin America. The main reasons for North America's dominance in the market are increasing government and private funding; the adoption of CRISPR in biomedical, agricultural and industrial applications; and the presence of major pharmaceutical and gene therapy countries in the region.

Read more details from All Market Insights.

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Genome editing using CRISPR-Cas9 has been one of the promising techniques used in genetic engineering. Scientists from Meiji University developed a new genome editing strategy via single crossover-mediated homologous recombination in rice blast fungus, which involves the CRISPR-Cas9 system.

With the use of the new technique, highly efficient and freely programmable base substitutions within the desired genomic locus, and target gene disrupted mutants were successfully obtained. Furthermore, the new method allowed one-step GFP gene knock-in at the C-terminus of the targeted gene.

The researchers concluded that the single cross-over mediated genome editing strategy can increase the scope of the genome editing technology.

Read the research article in Scientific Reports.

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The Netherlands and Estonia are leading 14 member states of the European Union (EU) in a call to the next European Commission to update EU's laws regarding new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs).

The group of countries requested a common EU approach on gene editing and called for a revision of EU GMO rules to be added to the working program in the next European Commission. In their opinion, an update is necessary after last year's ruling by the European Court of Justice saying that organisms obtained by mutagenesis should be considered GMOs and therefore subject to the safety and marketing obligations laid down in the EU's GMO directive. 

The Dutch delegation said that, although the European Court of Justice ruling provided more legal clarity on the legal status of mutagenesis and other NPBTs, it also invoked many other practical issues which can only be resolved by the European legislator. The delegation also reminded EU ministers that organisms obtained by mutagenesis have been used in farming for many years and have a long safety track record.

Apart from the Netherlands and Estonia, EU countries supporting a unified approach to NPBTs include Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the UK.

For more details, read the news in Euractiv.

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Beyond Crop Biotech

Burger King is now offering a new plant-based burger in Sweden. The new burger is a version of the Impossible Whopper, which is made with the popular plant-based pink meat introduced by California-based startup, Impossible Foods. In early April, the Impossible Whopper was released in St. Louis, USA, and will eventually be available in all Burger King stores worldwide.

The special ingredient in the new plant-based burger which makes it pinkish-like bleeding meat and tastes like meat is called heme. Impossible Food's heme is not a genetically modified organism, but produced with GM yeast.

Impossible Foods aim to expand into Asia since Asia accounts for almost half of the world's meat consumption.

Read more from The Spoon.

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Farmers in the US are testing a new farming approach to increase the productivity of their corn fields.

They are adding genetically modified (GM) bacteria alongside their usual starter fertilizers. The GM bacteria, which has been developed by California-based Pivot Bio, will aid the corn plants to transform nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form that the corn plants can use as fertilizer. 

The symbiotic relationship between bacteria and plants, also known as nitrogen fixation, has always existed. However, agricultural processes disrupted the balance by increasing the synthetic nitrogen in the soil. Synthetic nitrogen is also a common source of water pollution. 

The ultimate goal of the GM bacteria is to replace synthetic nitrogen fertilizer with microbes that can provide adequate nitrogen supply for crops. With this, the researchers found a nitrogen-fixing bacteria that had evolved to live on corn roots and modified its genes so its nitrogen-fixing action remains active even if there's already a large amount of nitrogen in the soil. The nitrogen-enhancing microbe is being offered in 25 states and is the first of its kind available in the market, according to the company.

For more information, read the news article in MPR News.

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Document Reminders

A healthy agricultural production system cannot exist without healthy soils. Aside from being the habitat of diverse organisms that contribute to carbon sequestration, the soil plays a vital role in food production as well as in climate change mitigation.

Majority of the carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere are contributed by various biological processes that take place in the soil. Carbon sequestration happens when carbon from the atmosphere is absorbed and stored in the soil. This process is vital because the more carbon is stored in the soil, the less carbon dioxide would be present in the atmosphere that contributes to climate change. Thus, restoring degraded soils and adopting soil conservation practices are important to decrease greenhouse gases emitted by agriculture.

With biotech products such as herbicide tolerant crops, conservation practices have been used not just to the farmers' advantage, but also to preserve soil health.

Continue reading the Impact of GM Crops on Soil Health in the ISAAA website.

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