In This Issue

August 28, 2013

NEWS

Global
• Scientists Identify Plant Enzyme that can Boost Production of Biomass Feedstocks 
• US and UK Scientists Work to Design Crops of the Future 

Africa
• Nigeria Releases Two Extra-Early Maturing White Maize Hybrids 
• African Scientists Trained on Novel Genotyping Tool 

Americas
• GIS to Support Germplasm Collection for CIP Genebank 
• Researchers Discover Beneficial Jumping Gene 
• Study Offers Insight into the Origin of the Genetic Code 
• Cornell Scientists Discover 'Fountain of Youth' for Leaves 
• Scientists Create Plants that Make their Own Fertilizer 

Asia and the Pacific
• Former Anti-GMO Activist Pushes for Biotech Crops; Highlights Scientific Credibility of GMOs 
• India's Agriculture Minister Bolsters GM Crops for Food Security 
• Stakeholders Push for GM Science Communication 
• Heat-tolerant Rice Developed in Malaysia 
• GM Crops Pass Benefits to Weeds 
• Environmental Risk Assessment Workshop in Bangkok 

Europe
• Study on How Pesticides Change the Environment 
• New Insight on Cereal's Vernalization 
• Scientists Create Three-dimensional Model of Bacterium 

Research
• Whole-Genome Analysis of GM Rice Expressing Edible Vaccine Against Pollen Allergy 

Beyond Crop Biotech
• Shutting Down Reproductive Ability to Control Insect Pests 

Announcements
• 6th International Climate Change Conference: London 
• Symposium on 30 Years of Plant Biotechnology 
• BIO KOREA 2013 Conference 

Document Reminders
• European Union Agricultural Biotechnology Annual Report 

 

News

Global

Scientists from the James Hutton Institute and the University of Dundee in Scotland; Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) and Ghent University in Belgium; and the University of Wisconsin in USA have identified a new enzyme caffeoyl shikimate esterase (CSE) which has a central role in lignin biosynthesis. Knocking-out the CSE gene resulted in 36% less lignin per gram of stem material. Lignin is a kind of cement that embeds  sugar molecules and thereby gives firmness to plants. Plants with a lower amount of lignin or with lignin that is easier to break down can be a real benefit for biofuel and bioplastics production.

These new insights can now be used to screen natural populations of energy crops such as poplar, eucalyptus, switchgrass or other grass species for a non-functional CSE gene. Alternatively, the expression of CSE can be genetically engineered in energy crops.

See the James Hutton Institute's news release at http://www.hutton.ac.uk/news/gene-discovery-opens-new-possibilities-biofuels. Access the study's full journal article at http://www.sciencemag.org/content/early/2013/08/14/science.1241602.

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Four teams of researchers from the United States and the United Kingdom were awarded more than $12 million to change current farming methods by designing crops that will thrive without costly and polluting artificial fertilizers.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US and UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) made the awards following an 'Ideas Lab' focusing on new approaches to deal with the challenges of nitrogen in the growing global food demand. By 2015, more than 190.4 million tons of nitrogen will be needed to supply the world's food. Farms rely on great quantities of industrially-produced, nitrogen-rich fertilizer to ensure crop yields, but the practice comes with trade-offs as they are costly and use vast amounts of fossil fuel. They also generate environmental problems, degrade soils and produce runoffs into rivers polluting fresh waters and coastal zones.

"The reliance of artificial nitrogen fertilizers for food crop production and their damaging environmental effects are in many ways underestimated. Fortunately, there are scientists paying attention to how these artificial fertilizers can be replaced by abundant atmospheric nitrogen," said John Wingfield, NSF's assistant director for Biological Sciences.

The four Ideas Lab projects are:

  • Nitroplast: A light-driven, synthetic nitrogen-fixing organelle
  • Oxygen-tolerant nitrogenase
  • Engineering synthetic symbiosis between plant and bacteria to deliver nitrogen to crops
  • Designing nitrogen fixing ability in oxygenic photosynthetic cells

For more details about these projects, read the NSF news release available at: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=128878.

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Africa

Nigeria has released two extra-early maturing maize hybrids with combined resistance/tolerance to Striga, drought, and low soil-nitrogen.

The maize hybrids, developed by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), were originally known as IITA Hybrid EEWH-21 and IITA Hybrid EEWH-26, now named Ife Maizehyb-5 and Ife Maizehyb-6. The lines were tested extensively in Nigeria in partnership with the Institute of Agricultural Research and Training (IAR&T) with suppport from the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) Project. The potential yield of Ife Maizehyb-5 is 6.0 t/ha and Ife Maizehyb-6 yields 5.5 t/ha. Local varieties yield about 1.5 t/ha.

"The release of the two extra-early hybrids should contribute to a significant reduction in the instability of maize yields in Nigeria as well as in other countries of West and Central Africa," according to Baffour Badu-Apraku, IITA maize breeder and member of the team that developed the hybrids.

For more information, read the news article at: http://allafrica.com/stories/201308230345.html.

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The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics' (ICRISAT) office in Nairobi, Kenya has organized a workshop on novel genotyping tool among African scientists working mainly on cereal genomics. The workshop was held at the Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa - International Livestock Research Institute (BECA - ILRI) hub. It was co-organized by the Institute for Genomic Diversity at Cornell University, with facilitators from Cornell University and ICRISAT.The workshop drew 32 participants from Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Niger and Zambia, representing both CGIAR centers and national programs.

See ICRISAT's news release at http://www.icrisat.org/newsroom/latest-news/happenings/happenings1585.htm#2.

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Americas

The International Potato Center (CIP) will use the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tool to support the collection of germplasm for the center's genebank and to allow researchers to explore potential locations for growing and finding new strains of tubers.

GIS will help provide CIP's genebank and its genetic resources department with a gap analysis of potato, sweetpotato, and other Andean roots and tubers (ARTs). A gap analysis is a term used to measure and identify gaps in the conservation of biodiversity by comparing projections against the evolution of collected materials over time in a large area. The tool will also map areas to show the visible effects of climate change on potato production. Geographic information collected by GIS is relevant to a wide range of different CIP projects that study the effects of climate change on potato production.

See CIP's news release at http://cipotato.org/press-room/blogs/the-secret-to-potato-mapping.

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Geneticists at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) have discovered a transposon that benefits its host organism. Transposons, also called jumping genes, are DNA elements that multiply and change their location within an organism's genome.

The researchers worked on Arabidopsis, and found that the COPIA-R7 transposon, which has jumped into the plant disease resistance gene RPP7, enhances its host's immunity to a pathogenic microorganism from a large group of fungus-like parasites that cause a number of plant diseases.

"We provide a new example for an 'adaptive transposon insertion' event - transposon insertions that can have beneficial effects for their respective host organisms - and uncover the mechanistic basis of its beneficial effects for plants," said Thomas Eulgem, UCR associate professor and senior author. The research paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is available at: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/08/09/1312545110.abstract.

More details are available from the UCR news release at: http://ucrtoday.ucr.edu/16990.

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A study of enzymes that load amino acids onto transfer RNAs offers new insights into the evolutionary origins of the modern genetic code. Researchers from the University of Illinois (UI) focused on aminoacyl tRNA synthetases, enzymes that "read" the genetic information embedded in transfer RNA molecules and attach the appropriate amino acids to those tRNAs. When a tRNA is charged with its amino acid, it carries it to the ribosome, a cellular "workbench" on which proteins are assembled, one amino acid at a time.

The team determined the relative ages of different protein regions called domains and made the simple assumption that domains found in only a few organisms are likely younger, and those that appear in organisms from every branch of the tree of life are likely the most used and most ancient.

Gustavo Caetano-Anollés, UI professor of crop science and bioinformatics who led the team said, "The most ancient protein domains were enriched in dipeptides with amino acids encoded by the most ancient synthetases. And these ancient dipeptides were present in rigid regions of the proteins." He added that the domains that appeared after the emergence of the genetic code were enriched in dipeptides present in highly flexible regions, associating genetics with protein flexibility.

For more details about this study, read the news release at: http://news.illinois.edu/news/13/0826genetic_code_origins_GustavoCaetano-Anolles.html.

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A Cornell University research team led by Prof. Su-Sheng Gan has identified an enzymatic fountain of youth that slows the process of leaf death. In a series of experiments using Arabidopsis thaliana, the team discovered a key regulator, S3H, that acts as brake on leaf death. They observed that when S3H levels are low, leaves wilt early, but when it is present in high levels, it results in longer leaf longevity.

The study provides insight into a highly regulated process with many molecular steps. According to Gan, plant senescence, or biological aging, is estimated to involve 10 percent of genes in the genome. Plants use a quick ‘hypersensitive' process to block off pathogens by sacrificing infected cells to protect the surrounding healthy tissues.

Gan said, "Much of the progress plant breeders have made in improving plant yields is actually due to delaying leaf senescence. You need long-lived green tissue to support the production of fruits, vegetables and seeds, so senescence limits the yield of many crops."

Read more about this research at: http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2013/08/fountain-youth-leaves-discovered.

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Washington University biologists led by Himadri Pakrasi are working on a project that will engineer tiny nitrogen-fixing devices within photosynthetic cells. Working through a grant by the joint National Science Foundation and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council UK project "Ideas Lab", the team plans to develop the synthetic biology tools needed to excise the nitrogen fixation system in one species of cyanobacterium (a phylum of green bacteria formerly considered to be algae) and paste it into a second cyanobacterium that does not fix nitrogen.

Pakrasi said, "Ultimately what we want to do is take this entire nitrogen-fixation apparatus - which evolved once and only once - and put it in plants. Because of the energy requirements of nitrogen fixation, we want to put it in chloroplasts, because that's where the energy-storing ATP molecules are produced." The overall goal, in effect, is to convert all crops, not just legumes, into nitrogen fixers.

For more details about this project, read the news release available at: http://news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/25585.aspx.

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Asia and the Pacific

Former anti-GMO activist and renowned British author and environmental campaigner Mark Lynas asserted the importance of biotech crops in addressing the challenges of food security during a media conference held at Dusit Hotel, Makati City, Philippines last August 23, 2013. Defending the importance of biotech R&D with Lynas was former president of the Philippine National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) Dr. Emil Javier who stressed it would be of great value to the country in terms of global biotech competitiveness.

According to Lynas, there is a need to grow more food from the same area of land in order to address the increasing food demand of a growing population and protect habitats. He also highlighted the importance of scientific credibility when it comes to GMOs, explaining that peer reviewed materials or journals should be valued more than mere claims. Lynas shared that his viewpoint on GM crops changed when he studied biotechnology as part of his research on climate change. He expressed this change of mindset during his lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference in January 2013.

"I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonizing an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment," he said.

Lynas hails from the United Kingdom and has authored several bestselling books that tackle global issues including climate change and biotechnology. His book, Six Degrees: Our future on a hotter planet was also featured in the National Geographic Channel.

For details of the media conference, contact Jenny Panopio of SEARCA-BIC at jap@agri.searca.org.

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India's Union Minister of Agriculture Mr. Sharad Pawar expressing his concerns over the Food Security Bill, said that drastic steps, including approval of more genetically modified (GM) crops, need to be taken simultaneously to boost agricultural production. In an interview with the Indian Express, Mr. Pawar said his biggest concern was that incentives to the farmer may be cut to meet the subsidy burden arising from this Bill. In turn, this could set off a negative spiral, forcing India to import large amounts from abroad. "So for that purpose, we have no choice but to produce more," he added. He called for easing the environment for conducting field trials for GM crops. He said that India has moved from a net importer of cotton to the second largest exporter of cotton owing to the cultivation of Bt cotton.

"There are a number of crops where our scientists have developed a good variety of transgenic crops but they are not even allowed to conduct trials... We should take the views of those who are supposed to produce and not a few NGOs,"  Mr. Pawar stated.

 For the full interview visit http://www.indianexpress.com/news/boost-gm-crops-to-meet-food-security-demand-sharad-pawar/1160098/0.

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A Workshop on Practice of GM Science Communication hosted by the Chinese Society of Biotechnology and Platform of Science Communication for Agricultural Biotechnology (PSCAB) and sponsored by ISAAA China Biotech Information Center (ChinaBIC) was held in Beijing on August  25, 2013. Stakeholders such as academicians, scientists, journalists, educators, and science communicators participated the event to discuss how to make GM science communication more effective under the era of new media.

Science writer Dr. Fang Zhouzi introduced strategies on how to write popular science articles. He suggested that the perspective when discussing the safety of GM food must be clear-cut . Prof. Zhang Hongxiang, Coordinator of ChinaBIC, gave an overview of the roles of S&T societies in public education. He said that  dissemination of knowledge should focus on the science spirit, cultivation of science thinking, and awareness of the value of science research. Dr. Huang Dafang, Director of ChinaBIC called on scientists, journalists, educators and science communicators to form a joint force to promote GM public education. 

For more information about biotechnology in China, contact Prof. Zhang Hongxiang at zhanghx@mail.las.ac.cn.

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The Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) has launched a rice variety named MRIA 1 which is heat resistant, does not require much water, and can be planted off-season. Developed through the collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute, MRIA 1 matures in 90 days and is also more disease resistant.

Malaysia's Agriculture and Agro-based Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who led the launching of the new crop, said that the rice variety would help increase the nation's rice production while adapting to climate change. Annually, Malaysia imports at least 30 percent of rice from its neighbors such as Thailand and Vietnam.

View MARDI's news release in Bahasa at http://www.mardi.gov.my/documents/10138/daf551e7-ef3d-41cb-800a-cde088e32be6.

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A study led by ecologist Lu Baorong from Fudan University in Shanghai shows that a weedy form of the common rice crop Oryza sativa gets a significant fitness boost from glyphosate resistance even in the absence of glyphosate. In a study published this month in New Phytologist, Lu and his colleagues genetically modified  cultivated rice species to overexpress its own EPSP synthase, and cross-bred the modified rice with a weedy variety. EPSP synthase is an enzyme blocked by glyphosate to inhibit plant growth.

The cross-bred offspring was allowed to breed with one another, and a second generation set of hybrids that were genetically identical to one another was created. The results showed that those plants with more copies expressed higher levels of the enzyme and produced more of the amino acid tryptophan than their unmodified counterparts. The transgenic hybrids had higher rates of photosynthesis, grew more shoots and flowers, and produced 48 to 125 percent more seeds per plant than non transgenic hybrids in the absence of glyphosate.

For more details about this research, read the Nature news article available at: http://www.nature.com/news/genetically-modified-crops-pass-benefits-to-weeds-1.13517.

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On August 5-6, 2013, National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in collaboration with Thailand's Department of Agriculture organized a workshop on environmental risk assessment (ERA) of genetically modified (GM) crops in Bangkok. The workshop was led by a group of experts on risk assessment and regulatory aspects of GM crop registration from Estel Consult Ltd., Center for Ecology and Hydrology, UK and representative of Technical Biosafety Committee of Thailand.

The workshop was held to provide an opportunity to facilitate discussions about the methods and concepts of environmental risk assessments (ERAs) to support GM crop registration applications in Thailand. The workshop was attended by 30 representatives of the university, industry, and regulatory sector.

For details of the workshop and biotechnology status in Thailand, contact safetybio@yahoo.com.

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Europe

Ecotoxicologists Heinz Köhler and Rita Triebskorn of the University of Tübingen have published a study on the link between pesticides and the changing ecological systems. Their study cited mathematical and experimental approaches which can help recognize the links between the effects of pesticides in individuals and ecological changes in biological communities and ecosystems in regions where intensive farming is practiced.

The study also claims interdependent effects between pesticides and global warming. The researchers forecast changes to "natural" selection, the spread of infections, and the sexual development and fertility of wild animals. Further, they said it is a challenge for science to show how climate change influences the effects of pesticides, and which ecological systems are sensitive to this interdependence.

The results of the study are published in the journal Science, available at: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6147/759.full.

For further details, read the news release available at:
http://www.uni-tuebingen.de/en/landingpage/newsfullview-landingpage/article/wie-pestizide-auf-die-belebte-umwelt-wirken.html.

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A new research finding by European scientists revealed that flowering plants came into being when duplications took place in the genome of their ancestors. The researchers found large numbers of DNA duplications in the very parts of the genome that are unique to flowering plants. Furthermore, the study provides insight on cereal's vernalization, a process wherein plant acquires the ability to flower in the spring after its long exposure to  winter.

The vernalization gene – the so-called FLC gene, seen in other plants requiring a cold period in order to be able to flower – has not previously been found in winter cereals. However, now that the researchers knew exactly where they had to look, they were able to find genes related to FLC genes. This gave new direction to the study of vernalization in cereals.

See Wageningen UR's news release at http://www.wageningenur.nl/en/news-wageningen-ur/Show/Duplication-in-DNA-prompted-plant-to-flower.htm.

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A team of scientists from Heidelberg University and the European Molecular Laboratory has succeeded in building a three-dimensional model of the Gemmata obscuriglobus bacterium including the structure of its membrane system. The team discovered that certain bacteria can build complex membrane structures that make them look like eukaryotes. The genetic material of G. obscuriglobus was surrounded by a double membrane, a characteristic called into question in the differentiation between prokaryotes and eukaryotes.

The studies done by the scientists from Heidelberg University showed that the membranes within the G. obscuriglobus are only part of the interior membrane present in all bacteria and that surrounds the cytoplasm. According to the team, the results of their study disprove the assumption of the existence of a bacterial cell nucleus. The cell ctructure and membrance of G. obscuriglobus are simply more complex than in "classic" bacteria, and it cannot be classified as a eukaryote.

More details about this study are available at:
http://www.uni-heidelberg.de/presse/news2013/pm20130815_bakterium_en.html.

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Research

Agrobacterium-mediated transformation is one of the most utilized techniques in introducing novel traits in crops. Through this technique, a tumor-inducing DNA molecule from Agrobacterium tumefaciens is inserted to the host genome. However, it is still not explained how the host genome is modified by this event at single-base resolution.

Researchers from National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences led by Taiji Kawakatsu conducted a whole-genome sequencing of GM rice line OSCR11 to evaluate the genetic difference of GM crops and their host. OSCR11 expresses a seed-based edible vaccine with two major pollen allergens (Cry j 1 and Cry j 2) against Japanese cedar pollinosis. Results showed that the genetic difference between OSCR11 and its host (a123) were significantly less than those between a123 and its background cultivar Koshihikari. The nucleotide base substitution present in OSCR11, relative to a123, was similar with somaclonal variation. Mutations in OSCR11 might have happened during the cell culture steps. Further analysis showed similar RNA molecules of a123 and OSCR11, maintaining genomic integrity between them.

Read the research article at http://intl-dnaresearch.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/08/15/dnares.dst036.full.

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Beyond Crop Biotech

Natalisin, a neuropeptide was recently found by Kansas State University entomologists led by Yoonseong Park to regulate the sexual activity and reproductive ability of insects. According to Park, natalisin is part of insect's and arthropods' genetic network that uses small peptides as neurotransmitters to chemically relay messages throughout the body. In the three insects studied: fruit fly, red flour beetles and silk moths, natalisin was expressed in three to four pairs of neurons in the brain.

Silencing of natalisin in the brains of these insects led to their inability to reproduce as well as reduced their interest in mating. This neuron knockdown will help scientists develop targeted control methods for insect pests that would be environmentally safe. Since natalisin is only found in insects, a future insecticide would not affect plants, animals or humans.

See the original news at  http://www.k-state.edu/media/newsreleases/aug13/natalisin82613.html.

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Announcements

The Climate Change Conference will be held in London on September 25-29, 2013. The conference hopes to address a range of critically important themes relating to the vexing question of climate change: scientific evidence; assessing impacts in divergent ecosystems; human impacts and impcats on humans; technical, political and social responses. For details, contact Dr. James Hansen at dr.jameshansen@aol.co.uk.

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VIB is organizing a scientific symposium on 12 November 2013 in Belgium to mark the 30th anniversary of the first successful introduction of foreign genes into plants. Top speakers from the public and private sector will reflect on the achievements of agrobiotechnology and share their vision on the role of modern plant sciences for a sustainable agriculture. The day after, a forum will be held to discuss how new technologies can be introduced in developing countries where small farmers need it the most.

VIB is a life sciences research institute in Flanders, Belgium that develops and disseminates a wide range of science-based information about all aspects of biotechnology.

For registration and more details visit http://www.vib.be/en/about-vib/30YearsGMO/Pages/Symposium.aspx.

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BIO KOREA 2013 will be held from September 9  to 11, 2013 at the Exhibition Center II, KINTEX in Il San City, South Korea. Activities will include a conference, exhibition, and business forum (Partnering & Business/Technology Presentation). The conference program includes 13 tracks and 9 sessions with approximately 3,500 speakers, chairs and panels from South Korea and overseas from Bio industry, research institutes, and academia. Up for discussion are topics including vaccines, clinical trials, regenerative medicine, bio energy, GMO, functional food, technology transfer and licensing to firmly secure the global competitiveness.

A GMO conference will be organized by the National Center for GM Crops (NCGC) of the Next-Generation BioGreen 21 Program in RDA, South Korea under the sub-title "Current Status of GM Crop Development in Korea". This session will provide global and local cases to evaluate biotech crops as a mean to resolve instability of food supply from climate change in terms of benefits and/or limits.

For more information on this event, visit the conference's official website at http://www.biokorea.org/.

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Document Reminders

A Global Agricultural Information Network report on Agricultural Biotechnology in the European Union (EU) was recently released by USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. The document describes how various stakeholders  remain conflicted about the use of agricultural biotechnology such that acceptance varies greatly among adopters, the conflicted, and opposed Member States (MS). Government policy in the EU and MS on plant and animal biotechnology is complex and lengthy that slows down and limits research, development, production, and imports. There are however five MS which have increased planting of geneticially modified corn and the EU has been a major consumer of million tons of genetically modified soybean and corn products imported every year. It has been increasingly difficult and expensive for EU companies to source non-biotech products and ingredients for food products that are labeled as non-GMO.

See the full report at http://gain.fas.usda.gov/Recent%20GAIN%20Publications/Agricultural%20Biotechnology%20Annual_Paris_EU-27_7-12-2013.pdf.

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