Background Information on GMO Discussion Panelists

March 7th, 2011

Some background on panelists for the GMOs: What is the Debate About  on Thursday,
March 10th at 7pm the Italian Canadian Club on Ferguson St, Guelph.

Dr. Alison Blay Palmer

University professor at WLU Laurier, Faculty of Arts  Faculty/Staff Listing Alison Blay-Palmer

Assistant Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University where she does research in alternative food systems and sustainable economic development. She teaches courses in Global Food Security, Globalization and Research Methods.

Jodi Koberinski

Exec director Organic Council of Ontario      Jodi is a founding director of the Boundary Farm to Table Society (1999-2003) and a founding director of the BC Food Systems Network (1999-2005). She was the Program Coordinator for AgraRoots, a member of the Small Scale Food Processors Association BC until 2005, and served as Director for Certified Organic Associations of BC, including one year as Vice President from 2000 to 2003. Jodi participated in the Food Secure Canada conference.

Michael Emes

“Research in the laboratory is focused on understanding how plant metabolism is regulated, particularly in relation to carbohydrate metabolism. Much of our current effort is focused on understanding the regulation of starch synthesis in storage issues such as the developing seeds of cereals and also in tubers. Starch is the major determinant of yield in such crops, and has wide application in both the food and non-food industries, yet there remain a huge number of unknowns in what limits the production of this glucan polymer. Many of our studies have emanated from the investigation of amyloplasts, the organelles in which starch is made. The type of questions we are addressing include: what form of carbohydrate enters the amyloplast to support starch synthesis? How does this transport contribute to the regulation of starch production and whether amylose or amylopectin (the glucan polymers which form starch) are synthesized? What biochemical mechanisms serve to regulate the enzymes of starch synthesis within amyloplasts? We are actively investigating the role of post-translational modification (protein phosphorylation) in relation to the latter question, and have recently discovered the existence of multi-enzyme complexes comprising different enzymes involved in making starch. The techniques we use to address these questions include proteomic technologies such as mass spectrometry, and bioinformatics as well as protein isolation and organelle purification coupled with genetic modification. Our research covers cereals such as maize and wheat as well as model organisms like Arabidopsis thaliana.

We also study the role of the oxidative pentose phosphate pathway which contributes intermediates to a number of primary and secondary metabolic pathways in plants including nitrogen assimilation, oxidative stress, fatty acid synthesis and phenolic metabolism. Recently, using transgenic plants we have found that altering the flux of carbon through this pathway has significant effects on the ability of leaves to withstand oxidative stress as well as changing the pattern of carbon partitioning into end products.”

Sylvain Charlebois
Financial Post, March 1/11

The rise in agricultural commodity prices last year has investors jumping into what is often not a particularly safe haven since prices tend to rise and fall with the weather. Corn prices rose 29%, soybeans 22%, sugar 51% and wheat jumped 71%, partially because a drought in Russia forced the third-largest exporter of the staple crop to stop exports in order protect its food security and avoid becoming a net importer. Global demographics, however, may smooth out some of the more precipitous price drops. After all, the world has more people to feed and developing nations have a burgeoning middle-class — 50 million new people per year in China alone — hungry for meals that do more than just fill the belly. “That’s a lot of protein,” says Sylvain Charlebois, associate dean of research and graduate studies at the University of Guelph.

But investor — and farmer — gains may become consumer losses. Food prices rose by an average of only 3% last year, well off the 15% increases some food categories experienced in 2009. The lower price increases had all the major Canadian supermarket chains crying about food deflation. But that trend seems unlikely to continue if commodity prices remain high, even though food distributors know consumers will only pay so much. Some will switch to cheaper products, others will change their shopping habits by spending less at convenience stores.

But the food industry will also have to change and become more efficient, says Charlebois. The increased acceptance of genetically modified food — commonly referred to as GMOs — is one trend, but governments will also have to better manage price fluctuations so that developing countries can figure out how to supply more of their own food. Countries such as Canada, with its farmer compensation programs and the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly, are part of the problem. “We don’t see the repercussions of those programs beyond our borders,” Charlebois says. “These policies do affect poorer countries over the long term.”

Rene Van Acker

Weed Ecology, Biosafety and Transgene Confinement

Research Interests:

Weed Management: Weed management is a constant challenge in crop production systems world-wide.  The way in which we manage weeds is fundamentally a function of the nature of the production system and the opportunities with a production system for timely weed recruitment. My weed management research focuses on weed recruitment biology and the impact of its nature on the efficacy of management approaches. I work in the context of the continuum of agricultural production systems from intensive to natural systems agriculture and I work collaboratively with researchers across North America.

Biosafety: The next wave of novel traits being engineered into food and feed crops in Canada include traits for plant made pharmaceuticals (PMPs) and industrial bio-products. These traits will bring great value but some will pose risks to food safety if the traits are not adequately confined. A priori assessment and mitigation of these risks is greatly facilitated by the use of dynamic deterministic models of trait movement. The broad objective of my research in this area is to facilitate the future exploitation of novel traits in cropped plants by producing effective, detailed deterministic models of crop to crop novel trait movement (trait confinement models).

Manish Raizada
Inexpensive technologies to reduce/replace nitrogen fertilizers for corn (maize); Sustainable Agriculture Kits (SAKs) for developing nations
Research Interests:

Synthetic fertilizers are expensive, environmentally damaging and limit crop production worldwide. The focus of the Raizada Laboratory is to develop inexpensive biotechnologies that reduce nitrogen fertilizer inputs/costs for corn (maize) production in Canada as well as in the poorest nations of the world. The lab is taking four different approaches to help tackle the nitrogen problem in agriculture as well as to empower the world’s poorest farmers with Sustainable Agriculture Kits (SAKs):
1. Increase the supply of nitrogen inexpensively.

First, we are experimenting with inexpensive microbes that inhabit wild and domesticated corn (endophytes) that can better solubilize soil nutrients, stimulate root production for better nutrient uptake and/or fix nitrogen. This project is in collaboration with The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico and the Lazarovits Lab at Agriculture and AgriFood Canada (London, ON). The goal of this project is to develop biofertilizers. As a side-project, we have discovered that a novel plant fungal endophyte produces the anti-cancer drug, Taxol, which we are studying. Second, we are collaborating with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and Crop Research Institute in Ghana (West Africa) to study Bambara Groundnut, a very nutritious, drought-tolerant legume that associates with bacteria (Rhizobia) that in turn can fix atmospheric nitrogen gas. Bambara is indigenous to Sub-Saharan Africa, and though some traditional knowledge remains, it has become underutilized following European colonization. Bambara can be used an inter-crop or rotation crop with corn, reducing the fertilizer requirements for corn, while supplying a highly nutritious food for local peoples facing water shortages. Along these lines, the Lab has also launched a website to educate growers about underutilized nitrogen-fixing legumes and other crops, located at Lab Researchers: David Johnston Monje (PhD student), Sameh Mahmoud (PhD student), Joseph Nketiah Berchie (Visiting PhD student from Ghana), Jonathan Polanski (undergraduate).
2. Utilize existing nitrogen resources more efficiently.

We have 3 projects in this area. First, real-time measurements of soil or plant nitrogen levels are critical to understanding whether fertilizer needs to be added or whether it is being added in excess quantities, which can be environmentally damaging and costly. On farms in Ontario, and in research labs in many developing nations, measuring soil nitrogen levels (e.g. nitrate) accurately requires expensive equipment or cannot be performed on-site. For example, in Ghana, the cost of measuring nitrate in a single soil sample is $20 USD, far beyond the reach of most researchers. We are engineering biosensor bacteria that change colour in response to changing nitrogen and amino acid (glutamine) concentrations. Our long-term goal is to develop a <$1 USD (soil extract) nitrate and (plant extract) glutamine test: free glutamine is a good indicator of the nitrogen status of corn. Second, when excess fertilizer is applied in large doses onto crops (an unnatural phenomenon), a percentage of it can be lost in the form of groundwater leaching and volatilization (as potent greenhouse gases). We are studying the effect of nitrogen on corn root growth and architecture using a unique aeroponics system in which roots are grown in the air, in dark barrels, misted with a nutrient solution, to permit non-destructive morphometric analysis. The long-term goal of this project is to optimize corn root architecture for more efficient nutrient uptake, particularly in the Spring when leaching is a danger. Using molecular microarrays, we are also studying the effects of nitrogen on the root hair, an under-studied cell type (in cereals) that comprises 70% of the root surface area and is the primary location for fertilizer absorption. Lab Researchers: Michael Tessaro (MSc student), Amelie Gaudin (PhD student), Christophe Liseron-Monfils (PhD student), Bridget Holmes (undergraduate), Sarah McClymont (undergraduate).
3. Decrease the nitrogen demand.

This is a tough problem and we are taking the 10-20 year view here: our long-term goal is to re-use the root system in tropical maize (which comprises >30% of the total plant mass) for the next growing season, a form of perennialism. This should improve both the water and nitrogen-use efficiencies. Varieties of wild corn are in fact perennial. We are beginning a long-term (>15-20 generation) selection field experiment with tropical germplasm in which we will decapitate corn shoots and select for shoot regeneration from axillary (tiller), rhizome or adventitious stem cells. For the past 6 years, however, the key focus of the lab has been to study the mechanism of shoot regeneration using Arabidopsis,the “fruitfly” of plant genetics research. We have discovered that Arabidopsis seedlings will regenerate new (adventitious) shoots within a few days following subcotyledonary decapitation, without the addition of hormones or callus; the new shoot is the result of a conversion of fate of a pre-emergent lateral root meristem, and hence we have discovered a natural system of stem cell fate conversion. We have studied different factors influencing plant stem cell regeneration including developmental mutants, light signal transduction pathways, photoprotective signal pathways, pathways related to aging and senescence, ethylene, auxin and cytokinin. Lab Researchers: Steve Chatfield (Post-Doctoral Fellow), Blair Nameth (MSc student).
4. Improve global online communication networks between agricultural experts working on nitrogen across disciplines, developed and developing nations, and the public and private sectors.

The fertilizer problem is global in nature and particularly affects farmers in poor nations. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to find research collaborators in developing nations, because they do not have websites, communicate in a different language and/or do not publish in the same journals. Private sector researchers in wealthy nations are also often difficult to locate online, even though they offer a wealth of practical expertise. Academics also poorly communicate across broad disciplines, even though we all appreciate the value of inter-disciplinary research in solving real world problems. In order to break down all of these barriers, the Raizada Lab has launched the CropLink Global Initiative (, a meeting place for the world’s agricultural experts including those involved in nitrogen, corn and nitrogen-fixing crops. CropLink now contains the profiles of 16,500 agricultural experts from >100 countries and 86 sub-disciplines. This project is in collaboration with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (World Agricultural Information Center, WAICENT, Rome, Italy) and we have collaborated with scientists at Google Laboratories (Mountain View, California) to understand online search patterns in agriculture from developed and developing nations. Former Lab Researchers: Rohit Makhijani (Co-Founder of Croplink, software programmer), Carly Wight (undergraduate), Arani Kajenthira (undergraduate), Devon Radford (undergraduate), Etienne Papineau (undergraduate).
5. Sustainable Agriculture Kits (SAKs) for developing nations.

There already exists excellent, peer-reviewed scientific knowledge, good seed stocks, inexpensive tools, small business ideas, and environmentally-friendly indigenous knowledge to help poor farmers with their fertilizer and other needs — but these are not being taken advantage of fully. What is lacking is a means to package, deliver and SHARE these “technologies” to the 2 billion people earning $1-$2 per day. Founded in 2008 by Prof. Raizada, SAKs are $10 commercial toolkits to make the world’s best scientific and indigenous technologies and practices available to the world’s ~2 billion rural poor people involved in agriculture — at the correct economy of scale. Each Sustainable Agriculture Kit (SAK) consists of 3 components:

(i) SAK Seeds — 100-200 colour-coded seed packages for improved staple crops from international and domestic institutions; seeds to enhance biodiversity in order to overcome global competition and hence trade subsidies; seeds to reintroduce more nutritious, drought-tolerant indigenous crops; seeds to improve vitamin and mineral nutrition from local green vegetables; seeds to replace synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides with plants that can partially replace these requirements; seeds for better animal feed; seeds for medicinal plants to combat local diseases (including HIV and malaria); and seeds for cash income generation;

(ii) SAK Tools — $1 technologies including low-cost post-harvest seed storage bags and other green bags that prevent fruits and vegetables from rotting, and additional tools to facilitate food processing and small businesses from plants. The real profit in agriculture comes after the seed is harvested, for example turning wheat into bread.
(iii) SAK Picture Book — Knowledge transfer books to explain use of the above seeds and tools, and to communicate the world’s best peer-reviewed scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge to illiterate peoples to empower them and encourage them to experiment, including breeding their own hybrid seeds, techniques to conserve water and improved animal feed based on local plants.

SAKs represent a comprehensive, holistic approach to sustainable agriculture, with one main goal — to generate profit locally in the world’s most desperate nations. But each SAK kit is not being built from the top-down, but rather from the bottom-up, at the grassroots level based on months of surveys, and each SAK is designed and built locally using local experts, and then sold locally using local salespeople — all to create jobs. Each step of the SAK chain is profit- and job-oriented in order to be sustainable. Women, especially, will be involved in each step of the process, especially to determine what the local needs are.
There is no universal SAK, as there is no universal type of agricultural system, cultural preference, soil type or climate. There is no magic bullet in agriculture.

The SAK concept is based on examining history: in the United States, for example, agriculture became successful in the early-mid 1900s because of publicly-funded, agricultural extension officers who communicated good agronomic practices to farmers, combined with the private sector, who made improved seeds and technologies available. The SAK Picture Books for illiterate peoples are an attempt to mimic the function of extension officers, and SAK Seeds/SAK Tools are an attempt to make technologies available to poor people at the correct economy of scale, with private-sector know-how and innovation.

SAKs cannot take the place, of course, of a good public extension system, expert breeders or even synthetic fertilizers, which are very effective, and should be made more accessible through subsidies. SAKs however target the bottom 30-40 nations in the UNDP Human Development Index — nations that do not have an extension system, local breeders, access to fertilizers or a private sector, due to a history of war, corruption or disaster. Examples of such nations include Liberia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Haiti, and DR Congo. International donor institutions do not work effectively in these nations due to a lack of security, poor infrastructure and because they often require government-government or institution-government agreements, and yet it is the local government which is the source of the problem and must be bypassed. Alternatively, where there is now a good government in place, the private sector may not yet be willing to invest in these high-risk nations. To help these nations emerge out of poverty and chaos, however, their farmers must be helped, as farming is the main source of income for 70-95% of the population in most of the UNDP HDI-bottom 30 countries.

Our initial target is modest, however, for local SAK organizations working with Prof. Raizada to sell and distribute 10,000 SAKs in our initial target nations by 2013. The goal is for 1 SAK to help 10 people (1 family of 5 and 1 additional family of 5). We want a family to purchase a SAK kit only once, and thereafter to generate their own seeds. We hope to learn lessons from these experiences to share with the international community, in order to then facilitate parallel SAK projects around the world.

The benefits provided by a SAK should not be overstated —- the goal is modest, to raise incomes by $100-$500/family per year, but this will allow, for example, families to afford to send girls to school, one of the best drivers of sustained social progress.

The SAK global movement is still in the early stages: we are building the organization locally in each target nation, starting local surveys, gathering technologies and starting work on the first SAK Picture Book. Stay tuned for the website, coming soon! Please contact Manish Raizada directly to learn more ( or 1-519-824-4120 x53396).

For further information about the Raizada Lab, please visit:

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