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The Promise of GMOs: Mycotoxins

This is a part of the series The Promise of GMOs. Do GMOs live up to the promises of the biotech industry? In the case of reducing dangerous mycotoxins, there is data to back up industry claims.

Maize with Fusarium ear rot. Photo by Thomas Lumpkin of CIMMYT via Flickr.

Producing foods free of toxins such as mycotoxins

BIO’s claim here is that “Biotech is helping to feed the world by: Producing foods free of … toxins such as mycotoxin.”
Verdict: Promise met.
Mycotoxins are produced by some fungi that infect plants, and when consumed they can cause a variety of health problems in humans and other animals. The plants can get infected in the field, and the fungi can multiply if storage conditions are not quite right.
In the US and most other developed countries, we’ve used careful farming and storage methods to greatly reduce mycotoxins in food to the point that most people have never heard of them (although there are still outbreaks, especially in peanut). In the US, mycotoxins are primarily a health concern for livestock.
In Africa, unfortunately, mycotoxins are still a major health problem for humans. The following is paraphrased from a seminar abstract by the London International Development Center:
Africa experiences largely uncontrolled contamination of staple foods by two mycotoxins: aflatoxin and fumonisin. Maize is the main source of both. Peanuts, groundnuts, rice, and dried cassava are also sources of aflatoxin. Mycotoxins have huge hidden health costs. Fumonisin is associated with esophageal cancer, spina-bifida, and infant stunting. Aflatoxin alone contributes to >40% of the burden of disease in developing countries. Aflatoxin promotes liver cancers, suppresses immune systems, interferes with protein and nutrient absorption, and accelerates the progression of HIV and associated opportunistic infections like TB. There is a very strong correlation between HIV transmission and maize consumption that may be due to fumonisin, although more research is needed to prove a cause.
Managing  mycotoxins is difficult. Even when food is known to be contaminated, it will get eaten due to food insecurity. Most foods in Africa are traded in informal markets, so regulation is ineffective, and regulation will raise the price of food. Farming methods to reduce myctoxins do exist, but small farmers are unlikely to adopt them without some sort of subsidy. There are at-home food additives that bind the toxins that may be more affordable, but they need to be continuously distributed.
In short, mycotoxins are very bad news in Africa, and it’s a difficult problem to solve. Mycotoxin-producing fungus is worse in foods that have a lot of insect damage: the fungus enters the grain through the bites insects take. A Bt cornreduces insect damage which in turn reduces mycotoxins. A 2010 review of 23 studies of mycotoxins in corn (full text) found that 19 of these studies “came to the conclusion that Bt maize is less contaminated with mycotoxins than the conventional control variety in each case.”
With regard to mycotoxins, the verdict is promise met. However, I think one could argue that this was a pleasant surprise rather than an intended effect of Bt crops, although I’d be interested to see if anyone has evidence that the biotech industry knew in advance that Bt would reduce mycotoxins.

A New Tool for Identifying Key Soybean Genes

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers in Beltsville, Md. have developed a new tool to search for soybean genes that will make soybean plants more productive and better able to resist pests and diseases.
Scientists are constantly searching for genes to breed into soybeans that improve on disease resistance, yields, drought tolerance and other important characteristics. The tool was developed by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists Perry Cregan, Qijian Song and Charles Quigley at the Soybean Genomics and Improvement Laboratory in Beltsville. Using the new tool, scientists can collect genetic information in three days that previously took weeks to gather.
The tool, called the SoySNP50K iSelect SNP BeadChip, is a glass chip about 3 inches long with an etched surface that holds thousands of DNA markers. The markers can be used to characterize the genomes of large numbers of soybean plants.
To create it, the researchers analyzed and compared the DNA of six cultivated and two wild soybean plants to identify single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), a commonly used type of molecular marker. They compared SNPs from the eight soybean plants with sequences of a well-known cultivated variety and came up with thousands of gene markers to use as signposts when comparing genes of different soybean plants.
The researchers have used the chip to profile 96 wild and 96 cultivated soybean varieties by comparing SNP alleles, or variant forms, at each of their 52,000 positions on the soybean genome, as registered on the chip. They identified regions of the genome that played a key role in the plant's domestication. Their results were published in PLOS One.
The researchers also used the chip to analyze the 18,484 cultivated soybean accessions and 1,168 wild soybean accessions in the USDA Soybean Germplasm Collection at Urbana, Ill., and submitted the data to the USDA-ARS soybean genetics and genomics database (known as SoyBase) so it can be accessed by breeders and geneticists.
ARS is USDA's principal intramural scientific research agency, and this research supports the USDA priority of promoting international food security.

Tech brain drain challenges top ag companies

Companies like Bayer CropScience are struggling to find qualified folks to take on the opportunities of agriculture - key acronym to remember? STEM
This week I'm at Commodity Classic, a giant meeting where commodity producers get together to catch up on hot policy topics and see the latest technology for their farm. The meeting is filled with seminars, a giant trade show and plenty to see. And ahead of the meeting major companies hold events for the many members of the media on hand.
Bayer CropScience held its 8th annual Ag Issues Forum where we got plenty of great information about a number of topics, and the chance to sit down with key management of the company. One talk I had was with Inci Dannenberg, vice president, commercial operations. And she wanted to talk about recruiting.
Turns out this high-tech world of agriculture, where you bet the farm every year, can't seem to find enough folks to fill the available positions out there for support, sales and research and development. "There are 47,000 job openings available and just 16,000 candidates to fill them," she says. "There is a shortage."
Her concern is that for the United States to maintain its innovative edge we need people who choose to go into science, technology, engineering and math programs. Grouped together that spells STEM and it's that "STEM problem" that's top of mind.
One area of concern is the lack of students selecting science as they move toward college. "We want to understand where students lose interest, where they get turned off by science, and what can motivate them," she says.
Bayer does its share of "in the classroom" programs with younger children to engage them in science, but it's a long-term challenge. And the key is showing that the science of agriculture is important and empowering too.
Dannenberg, who didn't come from a farm, got into ag after working in market research with some ag clients. "I liked the work and I found the people passionate about what they do," she recalls. To her agriculture is a noble industry with a critical cause - to feed the world. On that I'm sure you, dear reader, would agree.
But what about this lack of STEM candidates for jobs? It's a challenge. Yet check the ag-focused classrooms in colleges and some of the problem may be going away. The land grant schools are filling up with folks who want to be part of agriculture. However, there's the need for a core of students who can go on to do the molecular biology, the hard chemistry and the critical engineering of research - it's a long-term problem.
Loss of experience?
Dannenberg also talks about the gap in available experienced candidates. Ag downturns in the past took "out" some people who left the industry to find other work. The result is a gap in 10 to 15-year experienced candidates in marketing and management as well. "We're reaching out to MBA grads who haven't found a job and working to show them the value of considering Bayer as an employer," she says.
That's not just a Bayer challenge - ag companies don't always come up on the radar of a corporate-focused MBA grad who may be having trouble finding a job. Dannenberg says in Bayer's case, candidates can choose ag, or healthcare or other disciplines the company covers. "We're just not being considered, we have to tell our story," she notes.
And why should a farmer care if Bayer can't get the right candidates for a marketing job? It goes deeper than that for sure. But as you face the challenges of crop diseases, resistant weeds and more, don't you want the smart people looking for solutions? The challenge is there and it's going to take those STEM students to step up and help meet it with research; and those MBAs to develop strategies that get products to market efficiently.
Farmers are often in a unique position serving on school boards. STEM programs are a key part of education, keeping an eye on whether students are turning toward, or away, from those programs may be a top priority for you in the future.

Robots coming to a field near you - RowBot

Engineer and environmental scientist Kent Cavender-Bares and his brothers, Charlie and John Bares, have developed a robot that fertilizes crops once they are up. The robot, aptly named RowBot, travels between rows in groups to cover the ground. GPS and obstacle-prevention software keep the robot from trampling the crop.
“They key innovation with our machines is that they can operate between rows of corn, so the height of the crop no longer is a constraint,” says Kent Cavender-Bares. “That will enable us to deliver nitrogen and other services in corn throughout the season as required.”
He says that growers who reserve some of their nitrogen for in-season application will generally save on their overall nitrogen cost. “Many growers are also excited about being able to make later-season applications of N for the chance to increase yields.”
The brothers are planning to market the RowBot for the 2014 growing season, starting in a couple of small, targeted geographies. “We’re going to market it as a service at first, so we’ll be working with channel partners like ag chemical retailers,” he says. “We expect to have our first customers in southern Minnesota and probably also central Illinois.” Price he says will be comparable to conventional nitrogen applicators. For more information, visit

Robots coming to a field near you - Fendt GuideConnect

Several years ago at the Agritechnia show in Germany, Fendt showed a robotic system called “Guide Connect.” It consists of a manned lead vehicle with an unmanned follower, effectively creating a much larger tractor that can cover more ground for the same amount of labor. It is classified as a “master-slave” system, where the master is the tractor driver and the slave is the other tractor, controlled from the terminal in the first tractor. As of now, the follower vehicle has no obstacle detection, the hinge point of the robot’s market release.
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Robots coming to a field near you - Spirit tractor

The autonomous tractor named Spirit had its formal debut in 2012 at the Big Iron Show in Fargo, N.D. Since then, the Autonomous Tractor Corp. has changed its focus from assembling tractors to working with agricultural companies to incorporating ATC guidance and navigation systems into self-propelled autonomous implements.
“Through the technique of incorporating autonomy into implements, capital outlay and maintenance time and cost can generally be reduced,” says Spirit developer Terry Anderson, president of ATC. “Pulling an implement is a very inefficient way of using power. Instead of the complexity of coupling and uncoupling implements and tractors, it is more efficient to autonomize an implement and have the implement incorporate the guidance and navigation systems.”
The ATC Implement Tractor has a fail-safe navigation system, Anderson says. Two transducers mounted on the tractor bounce signals from three or four mobile transponders placed around the field to determine position. Transponders use radio signals to keep the tractor on track.
Power is supplied by one or more 202-hp, 5.2-liter Isuzu diesel engines, which drive generators that provide power to four oil-cooled electric wheel motors and the implement motors. This diesel-electric hybrid can produce up to 1,000 hp in 200-hp increments.
The Implement Tractor with a few implements will be available later in  2014. The price is $500 per horsepower. Contact ATC at 701/429-3964 or, or visit

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