Monday, March 05, 2018

5 Questions with Jennifer Thomson, Microbiologist, President of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World, and The World Academy of Science Fellow

Science, for the longest time, has been a male-dominated business, but studies report that women are starting to catch up. The number of women who are working in science-related fields has grown steadily in the last two decades. One of these strong women is Dr. Jennifer Thomson from South Africa’s University of Cape Town. Jennifer is one of the many successful women whose work has been celebrated around the globe. She is one of the 16 women and 10 African scientists who were elected as fellows to The World Academy of Science (TWAS) in January 2018.

Dr. Jennifer Thomson
Jennifer has been a strong advocate of promoting modern biotechnology in Africa for its potential in helping the continent overcome hunger and poverty. The first woman to head a department in the Science Faculty at the University of Cape Town, she has written a number of peer-reviewed papers and authored books about genetically modified (GM) crops. Jennifer is also a well-known speaker about GM crops and has addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos twice and the United Nations as guest of then Secretary General Kofi Annan. Her three books, Genes for Africa, Seeds for the Future, and Food for Africa are bestsellers and written with the layperson in mind.

During her election as President of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) in 2016, Jennifer referred to her new role as an extension of her lifelong passion for promoting women in science. But how did Jennifer become one of South Africa’s staunchest supporter of modern biotechnology? In this new series, we asked Jennifer five questions to get a glimpse of her advocacy.

Growing up, who was your inspiration/idol?

My inspiration was my Aunt Margaret, who was the youngest woman headmistress of a high school in South Africa. As a family, we never made any major academic decisions without first consulting her. She also knew the names and family details of all her pupils, past and present.

Jennifer at three, with her brother Rob, five.

Why did you want to be a microbiologist? 

Jennifer (middle, front row) as Hyde Park High School’s head girl in 1964, together with prefects.

I didn’t – it happened by a series of coincidences. In fact, as a zoology undergraduate I pitied microbiology majors as they seemed to spend all their time looking down microscopes, which I didn’t want to do. But when I went to Cambridge after my BSc, the zoology department was very old fashioned, so I asked the head of the genetics department if I could switch (on the basis of 1 week’s lectures in genetics). He agreed, but they worked on organisms that grew too slowly so I decided I’d better do my PhD on organisms that grew quickly. Hence I switched to bacterial genetics – and I still don’t know how to use a microscope!

How did you rise up to the greatest challenge that your job has presented to you?

My greatest challenge was being the first woman head of a department in the Science Faculty at the University of Cape Town. I was interviewed by a panel of white males (it was in 1988), many of whom didn’t want me. I showed them that I could run a department better than most of them, because, instead of the headship being rotated every 3 years, my department voted me in for 12 years.

Jennifer was the first woman to head the Laboratory for Molecular and Cell Biology
in the University of Cape Town.

As one of the major influencers in Africa, how are you unique from the others?

I am certainly not unique! I think one of the reasons I have been successful is that, early in my career, I decided not to have children. I don’t want any other woman in Africa to have to make that choice – hence my present position as President of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD).

What is your vision for Africa's agricultural productivity?

The use of every modern tool that can improve both productivity and nutrient value. If that involves genetically modified crops, indigenous knowledge, artificial intelligence, better use of grey water – no matter – go for what works best. But make sure that technology serves the people, not the other way round.
Jennifer’s books on GM crops in Africa. Her research was focused on the development of maize resistant to the African endemic maize streak virus (MSV) and maize tolerant to drought.

About Jennifer Thomson (from the University of Cape Town’s website):
Jennifer Thomson has a BSc in Zoology from the University of Cape Town (UCT), an MA in Genetics from Cambridge University and a PhD in Microbiology from Rhodes University in South Africa. She was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School. She was a lecturer, senior lecturer and Associate Professor in the Department of Genetics at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa before starting and being the Director of the Laboratory for Molecular and Cell Biology for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. She then became Professor and Head of the Department of Microbiology at UCT, a post she held for 12 years until the Department merged with the Department of Biochemistry. She is now an Emeritus Professor of Microbiology in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UCT. Her main current research interests are in the development of maize resistant to the African endemic maize streak virus and tolerant to drought. Other positions held include the Deputy Dean of Science at UCT, a former chair and member of the South African Genetic Engineering Committee, co-founder of SA Women in Science and Engineering, Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa and former Vice-President of the SA Academy of Science. She is a former Chair of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and Vice-Chair of the board of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA). She is President of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD), a member of the Independent Science and Partnership Council (ISPC) of the CGIAR and a member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) to the Minister of Science and Technology in South Africa.

For more about Jennifer’s research work, visit the University of Cape Town website.

5 Questions With… is a continuing series in the ISAAA Blog. A new personality will be featured every quarter, so watch out for our next feature!

Written/Compiled by Clement Dionglay, Project Associate at ISAAA Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Science and She: Dr. Rhodora Romero Aldemita

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) and its network of Biotechnology Information Centers launched a new campaign on social media which aims to empower women in science. The campaign called Science and She, features scientists and science communicators who tell their stories and aspirations for science and the society with the hope that the stories will help bridge the gap between science and the public.

For each week, one female scientist or science communicator serves as the curator of the Science and She social media pages. The first curator for the campaign is Dr. Rhodora Romero-Aldemita, Director of ISAAA Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology. Dr. Aldemita is a crop scientist with knowledge and experience accumulated over the years on agriculture-related topics such as plant pathology, plant physiology, molecular biology, and rice biochemistry. Currently, she is involved in sharing her knowledge with the public so they can have fact-based decisions regarding GM crops.

Dr. Aldemita did not expect to be a scientist, let alone one who would be recognized by the National Academy of Science and Technology, Philippines and other prestigious award-giving bodies such as the Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service Foundation and The World Academy of Science. Her inherent love for her family and desire to improve their living conditions motivated her to study and work hard.

“In order to succeed in our field, we have to realize our potentials and limitations. We need to explore and develop these potentials and use them wisely and to the fullest. I developed my abilities through studying, training, conducting research, and publishing. Although the outputs of my rice genetic engineering work were not immediately available to help consumers and farmers at that time, I knew that they would make difference in the future, and they did!! Most importantly, we have to overcome our limitations by being resourceful and by exploring alternatives,” Dr. Aldemita says.

One of her biggest achievements was being awarded as one of the Ten Outstanding Women in the Nations Service for Excellence in the field of Science in 1998. It was the culmination that reaffirmed all the awards she has received including the Ten Outstanding Young Scientist in the Philippines, the Science Prize in Biology by the National Academy of Science and Technology, Philippines, and The World Academy of Sciences, Italy, and many other recognitions. The latest award was the recognition of her home city, San Pablo City, as an Outstanding San Pableño in the field of Agriculture. Each time she was introduced as a multi-awarded scientist, her credibility as biotech expert and spokesperson was validated.

“As a scientist, I was able to develop a rice transformation technology that is still being used by researchers today. As a science communicator, I am honored to help others gain knowledge and understanding about a technology that is highly beneficial to many. I have worked for years in the lab, and I am confident that biotechnology is used by scientists like me to help improve lives. Scientists work hard for their own families, as well as to help other families have bountiful harvest and food on their plates. By communicating about the benefits of biotechnology, I am hopeful that time will come when more people will appreciate the technology and acknowledge its importance. This will lead to more countries planting biotech crops, and more mouths being fed. When that time comes, all my hard work, together with the efforts of other scientists, will be worth it,” she says.

Follow Science and She on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram to join the campaign.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Join the Conversation on Biotech

We would like to hear from you! ISAAA is on Facebook, Twitter, and Blogger. Please like and follow our social media pages and join the discussions on biotech. Let your voice be heard!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Trending News on Crop Biotech in 2017

Did you know that scientists have designed rice plants that can flower on demand? How about the study on rice enriched with antioxidant resveratrol? These are just some of the interesting news on crop biotech in 2017.

We summarized the top 10 most trending Crop Biotech Update news shared on Facebook to give you a glimpse of crop biotech happenings last year. Read on and make sure you don't miss which news made it to the number one spot.


"Do we really wish to have a science-based society or should we let ourselves be governed by prejudices and misconceptions?" ask Roberto Defez, a molecular microbiologist at the Italian National Research Council, and Dennis Eriksson, a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. They asked this question in their article in Euractiv, which was published after the EU court ruled that prejudices on GM foods are unfounded.

A science exchange program was held in February 2017 between Cairo University, Egypt and Helsinki University in Finland. Prof. Naglaa Abdallah of Cairo University and director of Egyptian Biotechnology Information Center (EBIC) participated in the event.

Researchers from Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and National Center for Citrus Variety Improvement and Southwest University in China report the improvement of citrus canker resistance through CRISPR-Cas9. The researchers performed targeted editing of host disease-susceptibility gene CsLOB1 promoter in citrus, which led to mutation lines with enhanced resistance to citrus canker compared to wild types.

 Mozambique has planted the first field trial of genetically modified (GM) maize in the Chokwe District of Gaza Province as part of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) program. The trial will test the tolerance of GM maize to drought and insect pests. 


Scientists from France and the U.K. reviewed 52 articles and found that most of the applications of CRISPR in crops were to improve the yield performance of the crops, as well as to improve the nutrient content (biofortification) and the tolerance to abiotic and biotic stresses. 

A group of researchers from ETH Zürich genetically modified rice that not only has increased levels of the micronutrients iron and zinc in the grains, but also produces beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. The new multi-nutrient rice lines are still being tested in the greenhouse and analyzed for their micronutrient content.

A study conducted by researchers from the National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute in India demonstrated that genome editing through CRISPR-Cas9 can be applied for banana genome modification.They tested this concept by performing mutation in genes involved in an enzyme activity. The decrease in chlorophyll contents exhibited by mutant plants implies that the function of the genes were disrupted.

Dow AgroSciences LLC researchers evaluated the impact of stacking genetically modified  events on maize grain on biochemical composition and compared it with the impact caused by generating non-GM hybrids. The composition of GM breeding stacks was found to be more similar to the composition of their iso-hybrids than to the composition of non-GM hybrids to their iso-hybrids. Hence, non-GM breeding is more capable of influenced crop composition than transgenesis or stacking of GM events.

Incheon National University scientists developed resveratrol-enriched rice with herbicide resistance (RR) and analyzed the metabolic changes that occurred. Analyses revealed that there were no significant differences in the biochemical structures of RR compared with the non-RR plants. The results also showed that herbicide treatment did not affect the chemical composition of RR.

University of Tokyo researchers developed genetically engineered rice that does not flower until it comes in contact with a specific fungicide. The results of the study can lead to the development of crops that can grow in different climate types and facilitate breeding for different agronomical characteristics.

Never miss the latest news on agri-biotechnology in 2018. Get FREE Crop Biotech Update subscription now! Go to

Written by Kristine Grace N. Tome, Program Associate at ISAAA.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

How Filipino News Writers Define Biotechnology

Science news writers usually define technical terms to make the readers understand the content of their articles. The choice of words, as well as definition of concepts, often has influence on how audiences respond to biotech stories.

The study Seventeen Years of Media Reportage of Modern Biotechnology in the Philippines, published in the April 2017 issue of the Philippine Journal of Crop Science, found that Filipino news writers define modern biotechnology differently, but most of them do not define it at all.

The study analyzed articles on modern crop biotechnology released from 2000 to 2016 in major Philippine newspapers including Manila BulletinPhilippine StarPhilippine Daily Inquirer and Business Mirror (2010-2016 only).

The first set of data covering 2000-2009 (10 years) showed that out of the 1,355 articles published during that time period, only 17% or 231 articles contain explanations of the term biotechnology. Of this percentage, most of the definitions were simplified (155 articles), and a few (76 articles) used scientific definitions.

For the second period of analysis covering 2010-2016, only 30 (1%) of the 864 articles contained definitions of biotechnology. The decline in the percentage of articles containing definitions of biotechnology may imply that the writers assume that the readers already understand the concept. Of the 30 articles, 47% used popularized definitions, with simplified terms to explain the technology. Another 47% mentioned technical terms such as recombinant DNA technology and gene splicing. The remaining 6% had definitions with negative implications such as “dangerous”, “creating disorders such as autoimmune disease, allergies, asthma, gastrointestinal disorders, infertility, and organ damage.”

Based on the results of the study, the low number of articles with definitions of biotechnology may indicate that the writers assume that biotechnology is already a general term that do not need much explanation to be grasped by the public. However, it is still recommended that such scientific terms be defined using simple terms to ensure public understanding of biotechnology.

Written by Kristine Grace N. Tome, Program Associate at ISAAA.  

Tome, Kristine Grace N., Mariechel J. Navarro, Sophia M. Mercado, and Maria Monina Cecilia A. Villena. 2017. Seventeen Years of Media Reportage of Modern Biotechnology in the Philippines. Philippine Journal of Crop Science 42(1): 26-35.

ISAAA. 2017. From Fear to Facts: 17 Years of Agri-biotech Reporting in the Philippines (2000-2016).

Monday, December 11, 2017

Clive James and ISAAA: Top Sources of Info on Biotech in the Philippines

News writers often solicit supporting information about their stories from various sources through interviews or readily-available references. The “voices” behind the stories usually have an impact on how stories are told.

The study Seventeen Years of Media Reportage of Modern Biotechnology in the Philippines, published in the April 2017 issue of the Philippine Journal of Crop Science, reported that Dr. Clive James, the Founder and Emeritus Chair of ISAAA, is the top source of information on biotechnology by news writers. The study analyzed articles reporting on modern agri-biotechnology that were released in major Philippine newspapers including Manila Bulletin, Philippine Star, Philippine Daily Inquirer and Business Mirror (for 2010-2016 only).

The researchers listed the sources of information cited in each of the 2,219 articles on biotechnology released from 2000 to 2016. Each of the sources were categorized as government source, environmental group, international organization, R&D institution, private industry company, and others.

In the first 10 years of biotech reporting from 2000-2009, most of the sources of information were from government agencies/representatives (37%), followed by environmental groups (22%), and international organizations (16%). The second part of the study (2010-2016) revealed that government sources remained on top (37%), followed by international organizations (23%), and environmental groups (17%).

Though most of the sources were from the government, there were numerous personalities and agencies mentioned. For instance, in the last 7 years (2010-2016), there were about 547 different information sources cited and none of which were individually mentioned more than 33 times. 

The most frequently mentioned source during that time period of seven years was the world-renowned biotech expert, Dr. Clive James (33 times) and the organization he founded, ISAAA (31 times). The articles citing Dr. James and ISAAA usually quoted details from their annual report on global adoption of biotech crops. In 2016 alone, the ISAAA report titled 20th Anniversary (1996 to 2015) of the Global Commercialization of Biotech Crops and Biotech Crop Highlights in 2015 (ISAAA Brief 51) was mentioned in 2,843 articles worldwide including top news agencies such as USA Today, New YorkTimes, and  Financial Times, reaching 4.45 billion media impressions. Being the top source of information in the Philippine newspapers imply that several writers perceive that Dr. James and ISAAA are credible sources of information, particularly on biotech crop adoption and its benefits.

Daniel Ocampo, who used to work as Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, was mentioned 28 times in the articles. He was one of the activists that uprooted the Bt eggplant on field trial at the University of the Philippine Los Baños (UPLB) in 2011.

The top government officials quoted in the articles were Proceso Alcala (mentioned 26 times), who was the Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary from 2010-2016; and Dr. Antonio Alfonso (mentioned 24 times), a plant scientist and Director of the DA Biotechnology Program Office from 2013 to 2015.

The other sources of information mentioned over 10 times from 2010 to 2016 were:

  • Candida Adalla, previous head of DA Biotechnology Program Office
  • Emil Q. Javier, National Academy of Science and Technology president, former UP president and UPLB chancellor
  • Roger Navarro, Philippine Maize Federation president
  • Randy A. Hautea, ISAAA Global Coordinator and Director of ISAAA SEAsiaCenter
  • World Health Organization
  • Chito Medina, Environmentalist and Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG) National Coordinator
  • Clarito Baron, former director of Bureau of Plant Industry
  • Segfredo Serrano, Agriculture Undersecretary for Policy
  • Desiree Hautea, Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II Regional Coordinator and Product Development Manager
  • Gil C. Saguiguit, Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) Director
  • Greenpeace

Out of the top 16 sources of information, there were only three persons/groups that were categorized as belonging to environmental/civil society groups. Mostly were scientists and government officials.

Through the years, the prominent role of “authoritative voices” such as researchers and government representatives was demonstrated along with lesser use of technology critics as information sources. Apart from the government agencies and research institutions, international organizations such as ISAAA are now seen as credible sources of information on biotechnology because they promote themes that are more encompassing in nature such as “rural development, sustainable agriculture, food security.” They also usually portray a more balanced stance than the campaigns of private companies and environmental groups.

Written by Kristine Grace N. Tome, Program Associate at ISAAA.  

Tome, Kristine Grace N., Mariechel J. Navarro, Sophia M. Mercado, and Maria Monina Cecilia A. Villena. 2017. Seventeen Years of Media Reportage of Modern Biotechnology in the Philippines. Philippine Journal of Crop Science 42(1): 26-35.

ISAAA. 2017. From Fear to Facts: 17 Years of Agri-biotech Reporting in the Philippines (2000-2016).

Monday, June 05, 2017

ISAAA Brief 52 Launched in Beijing, Manila, Yogyakarta, and Tokyo

ISAAA has released the 21st Brief in its global status of commercialized biotech/GM crops series in Beijing, China on May 4, 2017. Brief 52 companion documents include the Executive Summary (available in six language translations), press release (available in nine language translations), infographics, video, and Powerpoint slides available at the ISAAA website.

Year after year, ISAAA prepares the global status report and supports its free distribution to developing countries to provide information and knowledge to the scientific community and facilitate a more informed and transparent discussion regarding the potential role of biotech crops in contributing to global food, feed, fiber, and fuel security, and a more sustainable agriculture.

The 2016 Global Status Report documents the global database on the adoption and distribution of biotech crops in the world in 2016, when ~18 million farmers from 26 countries planted 185.1 million hectares of biotech crops. Below are summaries of the country launches held for the 2016 Global Status Report.


Brief 52 was launched in two events held on May 4 and 5, 2017 in Beijing, China, organized in cooperation with China Biotechnology Information Center, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and the Chinese Biotechnology Society.

The media conference held on May 4, 2017 at China Wold Hotel was attended by some 40 journalists from Chinese and international news agencies. ISAAA Chair, Dr. Paul Teng, presented the highlights of the report, while ISAAA Senior Program Officer, Dr. Rhodora Aldemita, talked about the development and adoption of biotech crops in Asia.

On May 5, a seminar was held at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which was attended by 120 scientists, members of the academe, and students. Drs. Teng and Aldemita presented the highlights of 2016 report. Mr. Zhang Xianfa from the Ag GMO Division of the Ministry of Agriculture discussed the status of Chinese biotech crops regulation and development. The participants signified their interest in the adoption of more biotech crops in the country to benefit not just the farmers and their families, but also the consumers.

Read the Crop Biotech Update article here. 


On May 19, 2017, media practitioners, farmers, and government agency officers attended the Brief 52 launch in Manila during a media conference at the Acacia Hotel, Alabang, Muntinlupa City, Philippines.

Dr. Teng presented the report, including the global impact and future prospects of biotech crops. SEARCA Director Dr. Gil C. Saguiguit, Jr. said that the 2016 figures surpass previous records and attest to the effectiveness and benefits of biotechnology. 

Officer-in-Charge and Director of the Bureau of Plant Industry and Director of the Philippine Agriculture and Fisheries Biotechnology Program of the Department of Agriculture, Dr. Vivencio R. Mamaril, reported on the biosafety regulatory developments in the country, particularly the harmonization of the Joint Department Circular by the five government departments, namely the Departments of Agriculture; Science and Technology; Environment and Natural Resources; Health; and the Interior and Local Government. The JDC is the latest biosafety regulatory guidelines for biotech crops in the Philippines, and is expected to regulate the testing and commercialization of other biotech crops in the pipeline, including Bt eggplant, PRSV-R papaya, Bt cotton, and Golden Rice.

Read the Crop Biotech Update article here.


Brief 52 was launched at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia on May 23, 2016 during a one-day national seminar on biotechnology. The event, organized by ISAAA and the Indonesian Biotechnology Information Centre (IndoBIC) was attended by some 90 members of the academe, local government representatives, media practitioners, and students. Ir. Arofa Noor Indriani MSI, Director of Food Security Agency of Yogyakarta Province, graced the event and gave the welcome message.

Dr. Aldemita presented the 2016 Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops. Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujanan, Executive Director of the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC), gave an overview of biotech/GM crop adoption in Asia, while Dr. Muhammad Herman discussed the research and development of biotech product and its regulation in Indonesia. Scientists from Gadjah Mada University, Bogor Agricultural University, and Yogyakarta province presented updates on agri-biotech research.

Drs. Aldemita and Arujanan, together with IndoBIC Director, Prof. Dr. Bambang Purwantara, and Dr. Herman were guests on live television interviews on Jogja TV on May 22, and Kompass TV on May 23.

Read the Crop Biotech Update article here.


Dr. Aldemita presented the highlights of Brief 52 at the seminar launch of ISAAA at Asahi Seminar Hall, Tokyo, Japan on May 30, 2017. The seminar launch was organized by CBIJ and NBIC with 120 participants, including the media, government representatives, academe, and the industry. 

During the seminar launch, Dr. Fusao Tomita, director of Nippon Biotechnology Information Center (NBIC) opined that Hokkaido farmers are interested in planting biotech sugar beet and consumers should be educated on substantial equivalence of sugar derived from biotech and non-biotech sugar beet.

Read the Crop Biotech Update article here.

More information about ISAAA Brief 52 Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2016 are available at the ISAAA website.

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