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    AthenaWeb, the EU's science media portal, is online with new functionalities and expanded video libraries. Check it out for video summaries of the latest European research activities in the fields of energy, the environment, renewables, biotech and much more. AthenaWeb - July 04, 2007.

    Biopact was invited to attend a European Union high-level meeting on international biofuels trade, to take place on Thursday and Friday in Brussels. Leaders from China, India, Africa and Brazil will discuss the opportunities and challenges arising in the emerging global biofuels sector. EU Commissioners for external relations, trade, energy, development & humanitarian aid as well as the directors of international organisations like the IEA, the FAO and the IFPRI will be present. Civil society and environmental NGOs complete the panorama of participants. Check back for exclusive stories from Friday onwards. Biopact - July 04, 2007.

    China's state-owned grain group COFCO says Beijing has stopped approving new fuel ethanol projects regardless of the raw materials, which has put a brake on its plan to build a sweet potato-based plant in Hebei. The Standard (Hong Kong) - July 03, 2007.

    Blue Diamond Ventures and the University of Texas A&M have formed a biofuels research alliance. The University will assist Blue Diamond with the production and conversion of non-food crops for manufacturing second-generation biofuels. MarketWire - July 03, 2007.

    African Union leaders are to discuss the idea of a single pan-African government, on the second day of their summit in Accra, Ghana. Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is championing the idea, but many African leaders are wary of the proposal. BBC - July 02, 2007.

    Triple Point Technology, a supplier of cross-industry software platforms for the supply, trading, marketing and movement of commodities, announced today the release and general availability of Commodity XL for Biofuels™. The software platform is engineered to address the rapidly escalating global market for renewable energy fuels and their feedstocks. Business Wire - July 02, 2007.

    Latin America's largest construction and engineering firm, Constructora Norberto Odebrecht SA, announced plans to invest some US$2.6 billion (€1.9 billion) to get into Brazil's booming ethanol business. It aims to reach a crushing capacity of 30 million to 40 million metric tons (33 million to 44 million tons) of cane per harvest over the next eight years. More soon. International Herald Tribune - June 30, 2007.

    QuestAir Technologies announces it has received an order valued at US$2.85 million for an M-3100 system to upgrade biogas created from organic waste to pipeline quality methane. QuestAir's multi-unit M-3100 system was purchased by Phase 3 Developments & Investments, LLC of Ohio, a developer of renewable energy projects in the agricultural sector. The plant is expected to be fully operational in the spring of 2008. Market Wire - June 30, 2007.

    Siemens Energy & Automation, Inc. and the U.S. National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center (NCERC) today announced a partnership to speed the growth of alternative fuel technology. The 10-year agreement between the center and Siemens represents transfers of equipment, software and on-site simulation training. The NCERC facilitates the commercialization of new technologies for producing ethanol more effectively and plays a key role in the Bio-Fuels Industry for Workforce Training to assist in the growing need for qualified personnel to operate and manage bio-fuel refineries across the country. Business Wire - June 29, 2007.

    A paper published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Ceramic Society proposes a new method of producing hydrogen for portable fuel cells that can work steadily for 10-20 times the length of equivalently sized Lithium-ion batteries. Zhen-Yan Deng, lead author, found that modified aluminum powder can be used to react with water to produce hydrogen at room temperature and under normal atmospheric pressure. The result is a cost-efficient method for powering fuel cells that can be used in portable applications and hybrid vehicles. More soon. Blackwell Publishing - June 29, 2007.

    An NGO called Grains publishes a report that highlights some of the potentially negative effects associated with the global biofuels sector. The findings are a bit one-sided because based uniquely on negative news stories. Moreover, the report does not show much of a long-term vision on the world's energy crisis, climate change, North-South relations, and the unique role biofuels can play in addressing these issues. Grain - June 29, 2007.

    Researchers at the Universidad de Tarapacá in Arica plan to grow Jatropha curcas in the arid north of Chile. The trial in the desert, is carried out to test the drought-tolerance of the biodiesel crop, and to see whether it can utilize the desert's scarce water resources which contain high amounts of salt minerals and boron, lethal to other crops. Santiago Times - June 28, 2007.

    India and Thailand sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that envisages cooperation through joint research and development and exchange of information in areas of renewable sources of energy like, biogas, solar-thermal, small hydro, wind and biomass energy. Daily India - June 28, 2007.

    Portucel - Empresa Produtora de Pasta e Papel SA said it plans to install biomass plants with an expected production capacity of 200,000 megawatt hours per year at its paper factories in Setubal and Cacia. The European Commission gave the green light for state aid totaling €46.5 million, contributing to Portucel's plans to extend and modernise its plants. Forbes - June 28, 2007.

    Petro-Canada and GreenField Ethanol have inked a long-term deal that makes Petro-Canada the exclusive purchaser of all ethanol produced at GreenField Ethanol's new facility in Varennes, Quebec. The ethanol will be blended with gasoline destined for Petro-Canada retail sites in the Greater Montreal Area. Petro-Canada - June 27, 2007.

    According to a study by the Korean Energy Economics Institute, biodiesel produced in Korea will become cheaper than light crude oil from 2011 onwards (678 won/liter versus 717.2 won/liter). The study "Prospects on the Economic Feasibility of Biodiesel and Improving the Support System", advises to keep biodiesel tax-free until 2010, after which it can compete with oil. Dong-A Ilbo - June 27, 2007.

    Kreido Biofuels announced today that it has entered into a marketing and distribution agreement with Eco-Energy, an energy and chemical marketing and trading company. Eco-Energy will purchase Kreido Biofuels’ biodiesel output from Wilmington, North Carolina, and Argo, Illinois, for a minimum of 3 years at current commercial market prices, as well as provide Kreido transportation and logistics services. Business Wire - June 27, 2007.

    Beijing Tiandi Riyue Biomass Technology Corp. Ltd. has started construction on its new fuel ethanol project in the county of Naiman in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region's Chifeng City, the company's president told Interfax today. Interfax China - June 26, 2007.

    W2 Energy Inc. announces it will begin development of biobutanol from biomass. The biofuel will be manufactured from syngas derived from non-food biomass and waste products using the company's plasma reactor system. Market Wire - June 26, 2007.

    Finland based Metso Corporation, a global engineering firm has received an order worth €60 million to supply two biomass-fired power boilers to Portugal's EDP Producao - Bioeléctrica, S.A. The first boiler (83 MWth) will be installed at Celbi’s Figueira da Foz pulp mill and the second boiler (35 MWth) at Caima’s pulp mill near the city of Constância. Both power plants will mainly use biomass, like eucalyptus bark and forest residues, as fuel to produce together approximately 40 MWe electricity to the national grid. Both boilers utilize bubbling fluidized bed technology. Metso Corporation - June 26, 2007.

    Canada's New Government is investing more than $416,000 in three southern Alberta projects to help the emerging biofuels industry. The communities of Lethbridge, Drumheller and Coalhurst will benefit from the projects. Through the Biofuels Opportunities for Producers Initiative (BOPI), the three firms will receive funding to prepare feasibility studies and business plans to study the suitability of biofuels production according to location and needs in the industry. MarketWire - June 26, 2007.

    U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman is expected to announce today that Michigan State and other universities have been selected to share $375 million in federal funding to develop new bioenergy centers for research on cellulosic ethanol and biomass plants. More info soon. Detroit Free Press - June 26, 2007.

    A Kerala based NGO has won an Ashden Award for installing biogas plants in the state to convert organic waste into a clean and renewable source of energy at the household level. Former US vice president Al Gore gave away the award - cash prize of 30,000 pounds - to Biotech chief A. Saji at a ceremony in London on Friday. New Kerala - June 25, 2007.

    AltraBiofuels, a California-based producer of renewable biofuels, announced that it has secured an additional US$165.5 million of debt financing for the construction and completion of two plants located in Coshocton, Ohio and Cloverdale, Indiana. The Coshocton plant's capacity is anticipated to reach 60million gallons/year while the Cloverdale plant is expected to reach 100 million gallons/year. Business Wire - June 23, 2007.

    Brazil and the Dominican Republic have inked a biofuel cooperation agreement aimed at alleviating poverty and creating economic opportunity. The agreement initially focuses on the production of biodiesel in the Dominican Republic. Dominican Today - June 21, 2007.

    Malaysian company Ecofuture Bhd makes renewable products from palm oil residues such as empty fruit bunches and fibers (more here). It expects the revenue contribution of these products to grow by 10% this year, due to growing overseas demand, says executive chairman Jang Lim Kuang. 95% of the group's export earnings come from these products which include natural oil palm fibre strands and biodegradable mulching and soil erosion geotextile mats. Bernama - June 20, 2007.

    Argent Energy, a British producer of waste-oil based biodiesel, announced its intention to seek a listing on London's AIM via a placing of new and existing ordinary shares with institutional investors. Argent plans to use the proceeds to construct the first phase of its proposed 150,000 tonnes (170 million litres) plant at Ellesmere Port, near Chester, and to develop further plans for a 75,000 tonnes (85 million litres) plant in New Zealand. Argent Energy - June 20, 2007.

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Celebrity spotting: Marc Van Montagu and GM energy crops

Step aside Presidents, Ministers and Ambassadors. Here comes the Scientist. At the International Conference on Biofuels, we spotted a man who stands above short-term politics and ideologies. However, his work has been controversial and will be even more so in the near future. We are talking about professor Marc Van Montagu, one of the fathers of modern biotechnology.

Van Montagu is the Belgian molecular biologist who, in the 1970s, discovered the gene transfer mechanism between Agrobacterium and plants, which resulted in the development of methods to alter the bacterium into an efficient delivery system for gene engineering. The discovery opened the era of transgenic plants.

The prof developed plant molecular genetics, in particular molecular mechanisms for cell proliferation and differentiation and response to abiotic stresses (high light, ozone, cold, salt and drought) and constructed transgenic crops (tobacco, rape seed, corn) resistant to insect pest and tolerant to novel herbicides. His work with poplar trees resulted in engineering crops with improved pulping qualities. Today, he is working on GM energy crops.

Van Montagu was one of the members of the DOE Joint Genome Institute's team that recently decoded the world's first tree genome, namely that of the poplar. The effort was explicitly placed in the context of the development of future energy crops (earlier post, more here). The vision for so-called 'third generation' biofuels is to design these crops in such a way that their properties conform to one particular or a series of bioconversion processes, which results in higher conversion efficiencies and in the potential to integrate them into true biorefineries. Van Montagu's experience with engineering trees with improved pulping qualities is a serious step towards this development.

GM crops and the developing world
But Van Montagu is an interesting figure for another reason. The professor sees vast potential in the capacity of GM crops to help meet the rapidly growing food and fuel needs of the world's poor. He is actively developing genetically modified crops for them and with them. In order to further this vision, Van Montagu founded and presides over the Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries (IPBO). The center is located at Ghent University, Belgium, an institution with a strong tradition in development work and assistance.

It is this combination of curricula, world leading expertise and interests which make Van Montagu such an important personality in the emerging bioeconomy. In the corridors of the biofuels conference in Brussels, we heard the father of biotech commenting on some of the speeches delivered by the politicians: "They were all very careful to avoid the issue of genetically modified energy and food crops." The silence on the topic was indeed so deafening, that it seemed as if everyone either agreed that GM crops will play a big role in the future of energy agriculture or that they are an eternal taboo. At the Biopact, we have not touched on the issue much, but maybe it is time to start looking into it more thoroughly:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The resistance to GM crops is large, especially in the EU and amongst environmentalists. However, at the Biopact, we are not entirely sure of what position to take in this vastly complex debate. Global issues like climate change, rapid population growth in the South, and the depletion of oil resources may well tilt the argument in favor of GM crops.

Consider the following: biofuels and bioenergy offer the only realistic option to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally by replacing fossil fuels. But these green fuels require land to grow and may impact the food security of some groups of people. GM crops could yield both improved energy and food crops, that could help solve the intertwined issues of food insecurity, climate change and energy scarcity. Rapidly growing populations in the Global South, with rising demands for energy and food, add some urgency to the issue.

Moreover, climate change is already irreversible and will impact the developing world most, even if biofuels are used on a large scale to mitigate the worst effects of global warming. Some affected regions on the planet could benefit greatly from crops that are climate-resilient. And indeed, major international efforts are now underway to engineer such crops, by, amongst others, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) - the body that fathered the 'Green Revolution' (earlier post).

In a GM scenario, developing countries with a large potential for biofuels, would become early adopters of GM energy crops, which would guarantee that we get the most out of the land that is allocated to biofuel crops. High-yielding GM crops would reduce the land needed, allow extra incomes to farmers (now biofuel producers and exporters), and reduce pressures on the environment (e.g. less forest-land would have to be cleared for land expansion). The same would apply to food crops, already widely grown in the Global South.

On the other hand, the long-term risks posed by such a GM future remain largely unknown. These risks include unknown impacts on biodiversity, questions about biosafety, dependence of farmers on GM crops (seeds of which they have to buy each year again) and on the multinationals that market them, and the loss of traditional farming knowledge. Moreover, ongoing scientific research produces results that continuously shift the debate. An example: recently, researchers found that GM-field trials consistently underestimate the risks of cross-pollination, an issue that seemed to be largely resolved. But then again, a very authoritative study published recently in Science shows that genetically modified crops may contribute to increased productivity in agriculture that can genuinely be called 'sustainable'; the research analysed, for the first time, environmental impact data from field experiments all over the world, involving corn and cotton plants with a Bt gene inserted for its insecticidal properties (earlier post).

The EU's role
A recent debate organised by Friends of Europe, an EU policy think-tank, explored the role of the EU in the GMO debate, and asked whether our resistance to the crops is preventing developing countries from investing in potentially lifesaving technologies. The positions expressed during the debate sum up some of the different ways one can look at GMs in the developing world, and as they are positioned in the world's trade regime.

Danish Environment Minister Connie Hedegaard said that the EU should not dismiss all GMOs automatically, because the technology could help to solve developing countries' hunger problem. "In a global world, the EU's actions impact on other countries," she said, explaining that developing countries' inability to export to the EU discourages them from investing in and producing GMOs. She believes that the scepticism in Europe about genetic engineering in agriculture stems from the fact that few GMOs "have brought unquestionable benefits to the European table". But she underlined the fact that the EU must assess each GMO on its own merits, because crops that can resist diseases and insects can be grown in the third world. "Like it or not, GMOs are here to stay," she said, adding that the EU has a special role to play in the debate because it can contribute to ensuring that GMOs are used in a safe and beneficial way for consumers by, for example, investing public research in this field.

Per Pindstrup-Andersen, Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), stressed: "Not a single person has died or become sick because of GM foods." Nevertheless, he agreed that more studies should be carried out on for example, allergies. "The EU could have generated a lot of information on GMOs during the moratorium, but it simply sat on its hands," he complained. Although he conceded that Europeans have the right to know about the benefits and risks, he criticised the EU's dogmatism in refusing all GMOs.

"The debate in Europe is very one-sided," he said, adding: "If millions of farmers in India and China are willing to break laws to get genetically engineered food, there must be a reason." He underlined the importance of understanding the risk-benefit trade-off for developing countries, saying that for many the question is not "Is genetic engineering the best solution?" but rather "Is there any other solution?"

For the moment, he said, Europe is standing in the way of developing countries solving their own problems because of its straight-out rejection of GMOs. "Developing countries are scared of losing their export market to Europe if they start cultivating GM crops," he said. But, he agreed that Europe has an important role to play in encouraging the development of biosafety regulations, which are often very weak in developing countries.

Simon Barber, Director of External Relations, EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries, said that the public had "very limited knowledge" about GMOs and about agriculture in general. He accused green groups of spreading unfounded rumours, saying: "After ten years of GM plants, what negative effects have ever been seen?" He added: "Many other plant-breeding technologies are just as scary and do not only produce benefits…To categorically say that the technology should not be used is not ethical."

Furthermore, he said that imposing a ban on GMOs was not feasible anyway as "the international trading system simply cannot segregate crops on a 100% basis".

Fouad Hamdan, director of Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE), believes that it is an exaggeration to say that GMOs can save developing countries, because there are only four types of GM crops: soy, maize, oilseed rape and cotton. The majority of these crops are destined for feeding animals, not people, in rich countries.

Furthermore, he said, GM crops only benefit large farmers, not small ones who cannot afford expensive patented seeds. And, as for the environment, he said that the use of pesticides has actually increased in Europe following the introduction of GMOs. He refuted the argument that NGOs were stirring up fear on false pretences, saying: "I still believe that the benefits of GM food are almost nil... NGOs are working with independent scientific facts, not with biotech-industry funded research." Therefore, he concluded: "The EU can with a lot of confidence tell developing countries to be cautious too. The organic market is the future.”

A South African participant said that most Africans don’t have the luxury of choice of what to eat and what not to eat. "If genetic engineering can bring some relief to this food insecurity, then let it be. And if it is too risky, then come up with another solution."

The Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries
Whatever position one takes in this debate, GM bioenergy crops would not enter the food chain, which is a small step forward towards taking away some of the risks associated with engineered crops. But the issue of economic dependence and the threats to biodiversity remain key topics that must be addressed more thoroughly.

Back to professor Van Montagu. We should give the eminent scientist's Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries the benefit of the doubt, at least on a purely conceptual level. The Biopact is not science-averse, on the contrary, and in principle favors all means to help reduce poverty in the Global South. With Van Montagu's expertise and his committment to assisting developing countries through high science, we have an excellent partner for a debate. In the coming months, we will be exploring the potential role of GM energy crops more thoroughly, by exploring the professor's points of view.

For now, let us conclude with an overview of the IPBO's goals. The institute has three specific objectives that will be initiated over the next five years:
  • Strengthening the training of plant biotechnology scientists and plant breeders in developing countries
  • Enabling the implementation of science-based biosafety policies in developing countries
  • Acting as a focal point and internode to promote and leverage the biotechnology platform of Flanders
The program described is the product of the expertise and reputation that IPBO has built in the international plant biotechnology arena through its activities, publications and participation in international debate. This expertise is the basis for proactive measures to ensure that the agricultural biotechnology programs of developing countries bring tangible results.

Given the dynamics of the global plant biotechnology sector, it is likely that ongoing events, particularly in the field of biosafety and regulatory affairs, will evolve rapidly. With that in mind, the IPBO's goals are a projection of the activities planned for the next 5 years. But specific details of events may differ significantly to those described because the debate and the policies change continuously. In addition, because the IPBO intends to significantly enhance its integration into the local Flemish 'biotech hub', the inputs and influences of the organizations with which it intends to collaborate on specific projects will alter the eventual outcome of these projections.

The vision of IPBO is to resolve the constraints and leverage the opportunities presented by the challenge to translate new discoveries in plant sciences into successes in agriculture for the benefit of the poor of the world.

According to the institute, there is an urgency to enable this vision and broaden the sphere of influence that IPBO already exerts at multiple levels since there is growing concern in the international community that without a major commitment to enhancing agricultural productivity, we are unlikely to halve the number of people living on less than a dollar a day by 2015.

Van Montagu was professor and director of the Laboratory of Genetics at the faculty of Sciences at Ghent University (Belgium) and scientific director of the Genetics Department of the Flanders Interuniversity Institute of Biotechnology (VIB). He is president of the European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB) and of the Public Research Responsibility Initiative (PRRI).

Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries, website.

EurActive: Are EU GMO rules starving the poor? - May 21, 2007.

Friends of the Earth, Europe: Biotechnology Programme and European GMO campaign - ongoing.

Biopact: CGIAR developing climate-resilient crops to beat global warming - December 05, 2006

Biopact: Anthropological study explores the effects of genetically modified crops on developing countries - January 27, 2007

Biopact: Scientists: GM crops can play role in sustainable agriculture - June 10, 2007


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