Today's Topics in AgBioView at http://www.agbioworld.org/
* It's All In The Genes
* Organic Food Isn't Good For You, and He Can Prove It
* Italy Softens Line On GM Crops
* Bt Cotton in Mexico: Economic and Environmental Impacts
* Protesters Won't Stop Trade Efforts
* Poor Need Cheap Food, Says Blair Rural Aide Haskins
*The Truth about the Environment
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It's All In The Genes
- Jennifer Thomson, Sunday Times (South Africa), August 13, 2001
'Genetically modified crops could well out-organic the entire health food industry, and the geneticists are winning the battle for acceptance. Jennifer Thomson explains the huge potential for Africa'
Newspaper headlines in Europe scream "Are you eating Frankenstein foods?", "Genetically modified foods reap a harvest of fear" and "Beware of genetic pollution!". Why aren't we getting headlines like "GM rice saves millions of Asian children from blindness" or "GM sweet potatoes save East African crops from virus plague"?
Well-fed people in the developed world may have problems, but hungry people in the developing world have only one - how to feed themselves and their families. Well-fed people may engage in lengthy debates about the real or imagined risks of the use of genetically modified crops. Hungry people see crops produced by biotechnology as food. It is abundantly clear that if governments halt the growth of this technology, poor countries will be denied an important solution to the lack of food security.
What do we mean by genetically modified crops and foods and how do they compare with conventional crops and foods?
Humans have been meddling with nature since time immemorial. A chihuahua would hardly compete with the wolves from which dogs were bred. Maize would not be recognised by the ancient Mexicans who began breeding from its wild progenitor, teosinte, some 7 500 years ago. And wheat would probably not be passed by food-safety regulatory authorities if it were introduced today because of the numbers of people who are allergic to it.
The breeding programmes that have given us nearly all the food we eat today are inherently hit-or-miss affairs. Breeders take two different varieties of a plant which have individual attractive characteristics: one might have a high yield and the other might be resistant to an insect pest. They cross-pollinate these two varieties, obtain seeds and plant them. The plants that grow will be a complete and random mix of the genes from the parent plants. The breeders will then select those plants that have high yields and insect resistance. Unfortunately, due to the randomness of the process, some of those plants might have become sensitive to a virus and will have to be discarded, and others selected. This is an extremely inexact process and very time-consuming. However, it works in time - witness the abundance of crops that have been developed in the past thousands of years.
Genetic engineering can be used to speed up this process. It will never replace breeding - indeed genetic engineers depend heavily on plant breeders to ensure that any gene introduced operates in concert with the other genes of the plant. What genetic engineering of plants enables scientists to do is to take any gene from any living being and introduce it into a plant. The resulting transformed, or transgenic, plant is referred to as a genetically modified plant. The genes that are introduced are very carefully characterised, their entire DNA sequences having been determined. Therefore this part of the process is, unlike classical plant breeding, extremely precise.
What is not precise is where the gene is introduced into the plant. Although scientists are working on improving this aspect, at present genes are inserted into plant DNA in a random fashion. Therefore, once the genes have been introduced, a great deal of work is required to ensure that the inserted genes and the plant's own genes work harmoniously together.
Critics of GM plants often cite this randomness of insertion as being totally unacceptable. However, they omit to explain that in nature genes jump all over the place within living organisms anyway. Indeed some of the plants in your garden, especially those with variegated leaves, may well be the result of these "jumping genes".
I am the first to agree that the use of GM crops is not the only solution to feeding in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa. Certainly there is enough food produced in the world to feed everyone. The problem is how to get it to the people in need. Obviously we need to stop wars, eliminate corruption so that food aid gets to the right people, build roads and rails to transport food. But how long will this take?
It has been calculated that if we continue with current agricultural practices, Africa south of the Sahara will have a grain shortage of 88.7 million tons by the year 2025. The use of GM crops that give increased yields is one way to make up this projected shortfall. They are urgently needed today and will be indispensable tomorrow.
Most traits that have been introduced into plants so far involve tolerance to herbicides (weed-killers) and resistance to insects. Herbicide tolerance means farmers are able to spray less often and, as spraying is usually done from small planes, there is less drift of toxic chemicals onto other land and people. As a result of the decrease in the use of harmful chemical insecticides on insect-resistant plants, beneficial insects return and with them insectivorous birds. In addition, frogs, which are supremely sensitive to chemicals, are being found in these fields. The use of GM cotton certainly appears to be having a beneficial effect on biodiversity in parts of South Africa.
Let's look at a real-life example. In 1997 four cotton farmers in the Makhatini Flats region of KwaZulu-Natal agreed to participate in GM field trials. The crop yields were so impressive that the next year 75 farmers planted GM cotton. By last year, 644 farmers had bought into the scheme - a pretty impressive "take-up" of the new technology.
In fact, I recently met a scientist in the US who had visited the farmers to evaluate the effectiveness of, and possible problems associated with, the plantings and he told me a farmer had approached him and said via an interpreter: "You're not going to take these seeds away from us, are you?"
The answer is no, but a qualified no. This technology must be managed correctly in order to prevent the build-up of insects' resistant to the GM cotton. Monitoring by officials of the National Department of Agriculture is required for this under the 1997 Genetically Modified Organisms Act.
Other impacts on the environment must also be monitored. For instance, can non-targeted insects be killed by insect-resistant crops? There was an outcry in the American media when a study showed that pollen from insect-resistant maize could kill Monarch butterfly larvae. "GM pollen that can mean a cloud of death for butterflies" was one such headline. What wasn't disclosed was that this was a laboratory study in which the butterfly larvae were force-fed leaves covered with pollen. The press omitted to comment on the fact that subsequently 20 or so field trials had shown that not only was there no effect on Monarch butterfly larvae but that the larvae preferentially chose not to eat leaves that contained pollen, whether genetically modified or not. In fact, since the widespread acceptance of insect-resistant GM crops in the US, populations of Monarch butterflies have increased, probably due to the decrease in the use of insecticides.
An accusation often made against the sale of GM seeds, especially to small-scale farmers, is that they will be forced to buy such seed. Does the question cited above, "You're not going to take these seeds away from us, are you?", sound like coercion? Similarly with commercial farmers, market forces will determine the sale, or lack thereof, of GM seeds.
In addition, the accusation is made that farmers cannot plant seeds derived from GM crops. This is the so-called "Terminator Technology" whereby GM plants are sterile, forcing farmers to buy seed every season. The fact is that commercial and even many small-scale farmers do buy seed, conventional seed, every season. However, the technology was seen as potentially extremely harmful and it has therefore been withdrawn. But readers should bear in mind that for a seed company to protect its investment in its product is no different from an IT company protecting its software or a record company its CDs.
Critics of genetically modified crops often cite the fact that the technology is all in the hands of the big commercial seed companies who only pay lip service to the needs of developing countries. In South Africa the private and public sector have joined hands to try to solve one of the subcontinent's most pressing problems - lack of water. Research into drought-tolerant crops is making tremendous progress with the promise of improved crop production.
Likewise in Kenya, similar partnerships are tackling virus resistance in sweet potatoes. Halfway round the world, China has more than 20% of the world's population and only 7% of the world's arable land. With its growing population and changing eating habits, food security is an imminent concern.
My colleague, Professor Zhang-Liang Chen, vice-president of Peking University, tells me that China first turned to biotechnology in the mid-1980s. Hundreds of laboratories across the country have been involved in the research effort. Roughly half a million hectares of transgenic crops have been planted, making China one of the world's leading countries growing transgenic crops. While Europe vacillates, China is moving forward.
I have said that the benefits of GM crops currently available are geared only to seed companies and to farmers, not to consumers. But consider Africa - here the farmer is often the consumer. Small-scale farmers feed their families and their neighbours, all of whom are consumers. In addition, although the "first generation" of genetically modified crops, with traits such as insect- and herbicide-resistance, are those currently available commercially, the "second generation" is hot on its heels. These include rice enriched with the precursor to Vitamin A. Impoverished Asian children whose parents cannot afford to supplement their diets can convert this precursor into the precious vitamin that will save them from blindness.
Additionally, even more advanced applications will have enormous benefits for people in developing countries. Imagine eating a banana, supplied by a health clinic, that can vaccinate you against a disease such as cholera, diarrhoea or even HIV/AIDS. Such "bio-pharmaceuticals" are being developed in the US and in SA. Smallpox was eradicated because needles could be re-used - it was done before the onset of HIV/AIDS. Today the most expensive parts of any vaccine are needles and the need for cold storage. Vaccines in edible form will eliminate both these problems.
An alternate option is the use of GM crops in "pharming", using a hardy and highly productive crop such as tobacco to produce pharmaceuticals, including vaccines. Using a crop plant is much cheaper than using animal cells in tissue culture and, in addition, the product cannot be contaminated by animal viruses that could become a problem for humans. There is also a measure of satisfaction in using tobacco to produce products such as anti-cancer drugs! But if truth be known, the very best crop to choose for pharming is Cannabis sativa, hemp, marijuana or dagga, call it what you please. It grows almost anywhere and has almost no known pests or pathogens. But that is part of another story.
Maize is one of the staple crops of Africa, indeed some people eat it three times a day. Colleagues and I at the University of Cape Town have developed the first maize plants that are resistant to the virus that plagues maize only in Africa, maize streak virus. In addition, we are working on developing maize that is tolerant to drought stress as water is going to be one of the most severely limiting resources for sustainable food production in sub-Saharan Africa.
Although it is clear that I favour the use of genetically modified crops, I do not advocate a blanket approval of all such crops in all geographical regions. They must each be tested on a case-by-case basis and subjected to a rigorous risk-benefit assessment.
In addition, the foods derived from these crops must also be carefully tested for both short- and long-term safety. I am confident that the GM crops and foods derived therefrom that are commercially available in South Africa are safe. Remember, there is no such thing as safe food, there is only the safe use of food.
Readers should be aware that foods derived from GM plants are treated as if they were toxins - the only foods to be treated in this way. They are subjected to a battery of toxicological tests, including ones that can detect potential long-term adverse effects on humans or animals. Only then are they declared safe. By comparison, when a new food is introduced into the market, not derived by genetic modification, no such tests are required. Take, for example, one of my favourite foods, the peppadew. How long have these been on the market and who has checked that they might not have long-term adverse effects on consumers? Please don't misunderstand me, I am quite sure that peppadews are perfectly safe for human consumption, but the fact is they haven't been tested in the way that GM foods are.
Given the socio-economic realities and needs in countries such as South Africa, Kenya and China, it is almost irrelevant to ask whether they should use a technology that has already shown its benefits to their populations. These countries cannot afford to limit themselves to the developed world's narrow interpretation of risk assessment. Likewise, they cannot afford to allow the Western debate to slow their access to existing and expected future benefits of biotechnology. Because Europe has enough food and doesn't want foods derived from GM crops, should we in Africa allow them to dictate to us as to what is best for us and others in the developing world?
Thomson is a professor in the department of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town
Organic Food Isn't Good For You, and He Can Prove It
- Jenny Shields The Sunday Times, August 12 2001
'The public has been led by bad science and Prince Charles to swallow a myth,
Anthony Trewavas tells Jenny Shields'
With his ruddy complexion, untamed white hair and open-necked check shirt, he wouldn't look out of place in the middle of a ploughed field, but Professor Anthony Trewavas has spent his working life in academe.
This mildly spoken Cornishman, who holds the chair of plant biochemistry at the Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology at Edinburgh University, is rattled. From under the noses of scientists like him the organic movement - and its champion the Prince of Wales - have hijacked the moral high ground over food that he fears could ultimately harm the nation's health.
"The public perception is that food is a pristine commodity and farmers then add nasty man-made chemicals to it. That's why quite a large number of people say they prefer organic food. Then there's another coterie who like it because it's more expensive. You know: 'conventional food for the proles, but organic for the middle class'."
Bucking the trend of popular thinking, Trewavas's implication is that we have become a nation of food snobs. From his academic eyrie he despairs of the "organic ideologues" who peddle ideas that he says go largely unchallenged and is alarmed at the uncritical press everything organic attracts.
In particular, he believes Prince Charles has a lot to answer for. "A lot of us feel he is abusing his status," he says. "It is wrong for someone of his standing to use his position in that way, it would be far better for him to say nothing.
"If people want to farm and eat organically that's their right, but what I object to is people saying that organic food is better when really all you can do is show that it's a different form of farming and a slightly different form of food."
He thinks part of the problem stems from the public's confusion between the concepts of preservation and conservation. "Preservation is to keep something in aspic, conservation is managed change," he says. "Prince Charles doesn't like change. Look at his views on architecture. He is an extreme conservative, with a small c. I get the feeling that people want to return to some magical, remembered time of childhood, to run away from the present and seek refuge in some romantic past, but life isn't like that.
"Prince Charles was heavily influenced by Sir Laurens van der Post and a mystical view of life. That is all very well, but as a planet we have a growing population to feed and huge responsibilities. "Organic supporters talk of the importance of the wilderness yet they require more land to produce food, which results in ploughing up more wilderness. As a concept it can ultimately be seen as a very selfish ideal."
Trewavas is concerned that without a broadly educated public, charlatans will be able to play on public fears. He stops short of putting the prince in that category but is clearly concerned at the huge influence the heir to the throne has had on the debate. "The trouble is the public can't be educated about everything, they have to rely on people that do more detailed reading and have better knowledge," he says. "There is a great antagonism towards experts these days, partly through the whole BSE experience."
He adds that there appears to be a growing belief that we are "slowly poisoned by pesticides", yet the facts show we are living longer. There is also a reduction in overall rates of cancer and a substantial drop in cancers among young people. He is dismayed, too, that the government, having issued the diktat that we should all consume five pieces of fruit or vegetables a day, then withdrew from the debate, leaving the field open for scaremongers. But it is the high premium charged by organic producers and suppliers that is his greatest source of frustration. "A diet high in fruit and vegetables can cut cancer rates in half - many medical investigations have established this fact.
"My fear is that claims that organic food is superior will lead people - especially those on low incomes - to buy organic food thinking it is better for them. But price will actually mean they will buy and consume less and the detrimental effects will be seen in 10-20 years on the cancer rate.
"Studies by Sir Richard Doll [an Imperial Cancer Research consultant] showed that as much as a third of cancers are diet related, yet only 25% of the population actually eats five pieces of fresh fruit or vegetables a day, which means that three-quarters of us are at unnecessary risk of cancer. Because of lower yields per hectare, organic produce is bound to cost more. I see no sign of it coming down in price and I can't get politicians to see how critical this is."
Rummaging around his cluttered office, Trewavas picks up a copy of Good Nutrition and the Prevention of Cancer - a Global Perspective, which was produced four years ago by the World Cancer Research Fund. "This is all about the value of fresh fruit and vegetables produced, incidentally, with the synthetic pesticides that the organic community thinks are poisonous," he says. "The critical thing is that eating what they say is poisonous food actually makes us better, so their argument is wrong. The more you eat of these conventionally produced foods the less cancer you actually get."
He adds that while people might "talk up" the benefits of organic produce, blind taste tests showed they were invariably unable to distinguish between that and conventionally farmed food. "Seventy per cent of organic food on sale in Britain is imported. I think the best food is that which is grown and eaten locally, not something that is harvested half way across the world, ripened and then put through a huge distribution chain when it lands in this country."
His own diet has always consisted of a lot of fruit, which he has for breakfast, followed by soup and salad for lunch and a cooked meal in the evening. He eats meat four or five times a week and would never consider buying organic. "If you feel that the cow or sheep might have had a better life, fine, but meat is meat," he says.
So with farming in crisis, the organic brigade going unchallenged and the public confused, what is the way forward? Trewavas shares the view of three independent studies produced in the past decade which point to "integrated crop management", or ICM, being the possible saviour of British farming. These methods, pioneered and promoted by the organisation Leaf (Linking Environment and Farming) combine traditional farming and modern technology.
Among its principles are a commitment to wildlife and landscape management, crop rotation that achieves a diverse agriculture and enhanced soil fertility and the promotion of crops with a natural resistance to predators. Integrated crop management also supports the use of fertilisers and nutrients and balances biological, chemical and cultivation techniques to control weeds, pests and diseases. Waitrose sells a range of food produced by ICM farmers that is priced at "conventionally farmed" prices.
Trewavas feels successive governments, beleaguered first by BSE and now foot and mouth, have no real idea how to tackle farming issues. "How is it that there are very generous subsidies for people to convert to organic farming yet virtually nothing for anyone wanting to adopt integrated farming methods?" he asks.
He is angry that the government - the "dried tomato and bruschetta lot" - far from taking a lead, seems to kowtow, not just to the organic movement but also to the anti-genetic modification activists who want to keep the country in the "biochemical Stone Age". As a scientist, Trewavas wants properly managed and carefully assessed farm trials of genetically modified crops to proceed and says the public antipathy towards such experiments can be explained by a lack of knowledge.
Meanwhile, he is left to battle the organic movement's powerful hold on public consciousness, something, he says ruefully, he is unsure of how to tackle.
Italy Softens Line On GM Crops
Farming News (August 10, 2001) http://www.farmgate.co.uk/cgi-bin/news/viewnews.cgi?category=11&id=997432136
The new Berlusconi led government in Italy has confirmed that it has reversed the previous government's blanket opposition to GM crops. Italy's former farm minister represented the Green party, and was one of the farm council stalwarts in opposing GM technology.
The new right wing coalition government says it is not opposed in principle to GMs, and will follow polices which promote a balanced approach. This will be based around a trade off of better yields and lower pesticide use against consumer benefits in terms of food quality.
The new minister, Giovanni Alemanno, has however underlined that with 65 per cent of Italians opposed to GMs any growth in GM use will be slow - suggesting that while the ideology may have changed not much else is likely to happen. Meanwhile Italy has confirmed its 21st case of BSE, picked up as a result of compulsory testing of older animals.
Transgenic Cotton in Mexico: Economic and Environmental Impacts
Greg Traxler 1, Salvador Godoy-Avila 2, José Falck-Zepeda 3, and José deJesús Espinoza-Arellano 2 (1 Dept. of Agricultural Economics, Auburn University and CIMMYT; 2 INIFAP-Estación Experimental La Laguna, Coahuila, Mexico; 3 ISNAR) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract: As one of the three large and scientifically advanced countries of Latin America, Mexico possesses several key advantages over the smaller countries in attempting to access the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. It is large in terms of total agricultural area and has seed markets of sufficient potential to attract private sector investment. Mexico has a strong university-based basic research capacity and a large national agricultural research system. Drawing on these capacities, Mexico has been able to establish a credible biosafety framework and has accumulated significant experience with biosafety regulation. Drawing on this scientific capacity, Mexico has been a leader in the testing and approval of transgenic crops (GMOs). The country’s first biosafety field trials, for FLAVR SAVR® tomatoes, were conducted in 1988 and by 2000, 147 field trials had been conducted. Only eight countries in the world had conducted more GMO field trials than Mexico. The private sector has dominated field
Mexico has a three stage biosafety approval process. The first stage is permission to conduct field trials, the second is permission for “limited” commercial use, and the third is approval for full commercial use. Limited commercial use has no set area limit. Bt cotton, which has been sown to an average of about 25,000 ha annually between 1998 and 2000, is currently grown under a limited commercial use permit and only FLAVR SAVR® tomato has yet been approved for full commercial use. Limited commercial plantings, ranging from 2 to 12.5 ha of other transgenic tomatoes, melon, potato and squash, 900 ha of herbicide resistant soybeans and up to 37,000 ha of cotton have been planted in Mexico. A moratorium has been placed on field testing of transgenic maize out of concern for the effect that pollen outflows might have on native populations of tripsacum and teocinte, wild relatives of maize, even though neither wild species grows near major maize growing areas in the northern half of the country.
We examined the farm level impact of Bt cotton in the Torreón area of Coahuila, Mexico. An average of 200,000 hectares of cotton, 90% of it irrigated, were grown in Mexico in the 1990s. Area fell to just 79,581 ha in 2000 due to scarcity of water. About a third of the total cotton area in 2000 was sown to Bt cotton. Adoption varied from less than ten percent in Sinaloa and Baja California to 96% in Coahuila. Patterns of infestation levels and economic losses vary widely across the main growing regions and have been important determinants of adoption of Bt cotton. Bt cotton is 100% effective in controlling two of the seven major insect pests that plague cotton in Mexico and is partially effective in controlling two others. Bt cotton is more valuable in regions where the controlled insects, the pink bollworm and budworm, cause the largest economic damages. Where boll weevil or other pest populations are high, farmers achieve coincidental control through the use of broad-spectrum chemicals, or pesticide
Bt cotton was introduced in Mexico in 1996 through a strategic alliance between Monsanto and the dominant U.S. seed cotton firm, Delta and Pine Land Co. (D&PL). The same D&PL Bt varieties that are grown in the US have subsequently been marketed in five other countries, Argentina, Australia, China, South Africa and Mexico. Monsanto and D&PL maintain an agronomic research presence in Mexico, but do not do any plant breeding there. Seed sales and distribution are handled through regional agricultural input distributors. Monsanto provides sales support through a national office in Mexico City, and through two technical representatives located in the main cotton growing areas.
Producers in the Coahuila region are a mixture of ejidarios and small landholders. The ejidatario holdings averaging 2-10 has, were formed during one of Mexico’s several land reforms. The small landholders are larger, averaging 30-100 ha. Producers from both groups are organized into farmer associations, with centralized accounting, management and technical staff for the purpose of qualifying for credit. A contracted agronomist makes most production decisions for association members with relatively little involvement from individual landholders. Because of the link that the associations provide with credit provision, they serve as a very effective conduit for information about new technologies and have undoubtedly served to speed the adoption of Bt cotton varieties.
Pesticide use have fallen dramatically in the 1990s. The total amount of active ingredient applied to cotton in 1999 was just two percent of the amount applied in 1988, per ha pesticide use has fallen by more than 80%, and the average number of pesticide applications has fallen from more than six in the mid-1990s to two in 2000. Bt cotton has been an important tool in reducing pesticide use, but has not been the only factor -- reduced cotton acreage, government sponsored pest control programs, and the eradication of the boll weevil have also contributed.
An estimated $US 2.7 million in economic benefits were generated annually by the introduction of Bt cotton in Coahuila. Of this, about 85% accrued to farmers and 15% to seed suppliers. Adopting farmers spent $100 less on pest control and had $295/ha higher net revenue than non-adopting farmers. The average size holding of adopting farmers was 14 ha compared to 9 ha for non-adopters.
In summary, Bt cotton has been a valuable technology for certain areas in Mexico, permitting large reductions in pesticide use and providing large benefits to farmers. Cotton profitability and competitiveness have increased, and the risk of crop failure from insect infestation has been reduced. The region’s victory over the Pink Bollworm, once the dominant insect pest, would not have been possible without Bt cotton. At the same time, because Bt cotton only protects against a certain spectrum of the pest population, it is not a cure-all for all regions and adoption still stands at 33%. Three government interventions were key in stimulating the use of Bt cotton in Coahuila – 1) credit for financing the purchase of Bt cotton seed, 2) technical assistance for small landholders, and 3) an effective integrated cotton pest management program.
Protesters Won't Stop Trade Efforts
By Mike Glover, Associated Press Writer http://dailynews.yahoo.com/h/ap/20010813/bs/trade_tour_1.html
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Protesters seeking to disrupt world trade negotiations won't win the political struggle in developing countries eager for outside help to fight hunger and improve living conditions, the nation's top trade official said Monday. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said his top goal is to reconvene talks aimed at a global easing of trade restrictions, and he won't be deterred by often-violent protests.
"The best choice for America's farmers is in global trade negotiations,'' Zoellick said at a news conference. Protests have dogged each of the recent trade summits, with activists claiming that free markets exploit poor and developing countries.
Zoellick said trade advocates are winning the political debate by arguing that trade can help developing countries raise their living standards. "The countries that open their markets grow more,'' he said. "I don't find a lot of sympathy in developing countries for these protesters.''
Zoellick also said the United States will continue to lobby for genetically modified crops to be allowed into the European market, a key sticking point between otherwise strong trade allies. Resistance in Europe is understandable because those countries have suffered through Mad Cow disease and other agriculture disasters that make consumers - and governments - leery of changes in farming, Zoellick said.
"People in Europe are scared,'' he said. "They need to solve these problems on their own and not saddle us.'' While Zoellick is part of the international debate over trade issues, he came to friendly territory on Monday. He joined Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, at the Iowa State Fair to open Grassley's annual "Ambassador's Tour'' around the state.
Each year, Grassley takes embassy officials from Washington on a tour of Iowa to tout trade opportunities in the state. This year's version of the trade tour - launched with lunch at the State Fair - includes representatives from 52 countries.
Poor Need Cheap Food, Says Blair Rural Aide:
Haskins Dismisses Green Lobby's Campaign For Traditional And Organic Farming As Facetious
- Anne Perkins, The Guardian 13 August 2001
Lord Haskins, the Blairite peer who built Northern Foods into a multimillion business, is poised to become one of the most influential figures in the development of rural policy.
The businessman who grew up on a small farm in Ireland has the ear of the prime minister as the rural recovery coordinator for Cumbria, and a base in the Cabinet Office as chairman of the better regulation task force. And he is working on plans for sweeping reform of the common agricultural policy. The rise and rise of Lord Haskins in rural affairs has enraged his critics in the green lobby. Earlier this week, the Guardian columnist George Monbiot described his appointment as the equivalent of putting Lord Tebbit in charge of race relations.
Lord Haskins, who revels in controversy, thinks it is an amusing analogy but completely wrong.
'I understand the issue about a conflict of interest. But if the government wants a problem looking at, it can either go to someone like an independent lawyer and spend years getting a bureaucratic response, or go to someone who knows something about it. Unfortunately the people who know something about it are in the industry.
'The test, therefore, is to make sure I don't abuse my position and push a vested interest point of view. It is a dilemma which I am always aware of.' Lord Haskins's appeal to Tony Blair probably lies in his super-realism. He is understood to be dismissive of the entire green movement. 'Who do they represent? It is proper for the public to question the democratic legitimacy of pressure groups as well as business,' he asserts as he champions cheap food.
'It's facetious to say we can all afford to spend more on our food. Cheap food is vital to millions of poor people in Britain who spend a big proportion of their income on it.'
Nor does he think a return to traditional or organic farming methods is a viable option. 'It is a niche market. The whole world can't go organic, but if 10% of it did, it would be good,' he said - before defending the advances which have doubled output in 50 years.
'Farming is like any other industry. Science and technology has had a huge impact. But it's a travesty to say I want to blanket Britain with genetically modified crops.' He argues that the work done by the better regulation task force on farming and the environment shows he has no desire to trample rural Britain in pursuit of profit.
'My main priority is to make sure that the regulation that's there works as well as possible. It is important to make sure it's enforced sensibly. 'If the farmer wanted to remove a moribund hedgerow and put in something positively in favour of wildlife, then that should be seen as an acceptable trade-off.'
In his wider plans for reform, he wants to repatriate environmental policy, so that different standards can be applied in the overcrowded south-east of England from those needed in the sparsely populated French Midi.
With the common agricultural policy's production subsidies doomed by the pressure for free trade, he believes the future may lie in dividing Europe into land capable of producing for the world market and less productive land - which should be managed for its environmental and amenity value.
In the short term, Lord Haskins wants subsidies moved from supporting production to sustainable farming. But it will not solve the rural crisis, nor save thousands of farms. The best that could be hoped for was a way of slowing the decline, he said. Then, in a remark bound to antagonise the region he is meant to be nursing back to health after foot and mouth disease, he added: 'Cumbria will find it easier to recover than, for example, the remoter areas of Wales.'
He also thinks farmers have to accept the need to earn money from other sources, by means of other family members getting a job, for example. But above all he wants to see small farmers combined into cooperatives, not only to lower production costs but to add value by doing the first stages of food processing, too. 'Even at local level, farmers don't share anything. They don't come together to market to the supermarkets even, though they complain about the power the supermarkets have.'
Northern Foods now buys all its onions from two local cooperatives. But he sounds dismissive of the role either the food processors and supermarkets or their customers can play in rural regeneration. Better labelling, for example, with a record of the source of the food and the distance it has travelled?
'If people will pay a premium price to know where stuff comes from, the market will supply it. And that's what the farmers' markets are doing.'
From: "Red Porphyry"
Subject: Re: AGBIOVIEW: Human Sacrifice
Andrew Apel, in AgBioView msg archive dated 8/13/2001, submitted the following:
>Subject: Human Sacrifice
>Institute an Endangered Humans Act
>Washington Times August 10, 2001
Andrew, Andrew, Andrew. I *know* you can do better than this "Human Sacrifice" article. The FOX news channel openly admits that the show Hannity & Colmes is infotainment. Anything said on an infotainment show is not supposed to be taken seriously. The real reason that those firemen died in the Okanagan National Forest is that their "fireproof" portable shelters turned out to be greater firetraps than the Hindenburg in an electrical storm.
If the pro-biotech side is down to relying on Hannity & Colmes for reliable sources, then pro-biotech is clearly losing its war with anti-biotech. It reminds me of Imperial Japan's 1944-1945 air defense strategy, in which Japanese fighter pilots used "collision tactics" to bring down B-29 bombers. While fairly effective for awhile, the strategy was ultimately self-defeating.
The Truth about the Environment
Bjorn Lomborg , The Economist, August 4, 2001
ECOLOGY and economics should push in the same direction. After all, the "eco" part of each word derives from the Greek word for "home", and the protagonists of both claim to have humanity's welfare as their goal. Yet environmentalists and economists are often at loggerheads. For economists, the world seems to be getting better. For many environmentalists, it seems to be getting worse.
These environmentalists, led by such veterans as Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, and Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, have developed a sort of "litany" of four big environmental fears:
* Natural resources are running out.
* The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat.
* Species are becoming extinct in vast numbers: forests are disappearing and fish stocks are collapsing.
* The planet's air and water are becoming ever more polluted.
Human activity is thus defiling the earth, and humanity may end up killing itself in the process.
The trouble is, the evidence does not back up this litany. First, energy and other natural resources have become more abundant, not less so since the Club of Rome published "The Limits to Growth" in 1972. Second, more food is now produced per head of the world's population than at any time in history. Fewer people are starving. Third, although species are indeed becoming extinct, only about 0.7% of them are expected to disappear in the next 50 years, not 25-50%, as has so often been predicted. And finally, most forms of environmental pollution either appear to have been exaggerated, or are transient--associated with the early phases of industrialisation and therefore best cured not by restricting economic growth, but by accelerating it. One form of pollution--the release of greenhouse gases that causes global warming--does appear to be a long-term phenomenon, but its total impact is unlikely to pose a devastating problem for the future of humanity. A bigger problem may well turn out to be an inappropriate r
Can things only get better? Take these four points one by one. First, the exhaustion of natural resources. The early environmental movement worried that the mineral resources on which modern industry depends would run out. Clearly, there must be some limit to the amount of fossil fuels and metal ores that can be extracted from the earth: the planet, after all, has a finite mass. But that limit is far greater than many environmentalists would have people believe.
Reserves of natural resources have to be located, a process that costs money. That, not natural scarcity, is the main limit on their availability. However, known reserves of all fossil fuels, and of most commercially important metals, are now larger than they were when "The Limits to Growth" was published. In the case of oil, for example, reserves that could be extracted at reasonably competitive prices would keep the world economy running for about 150 years at present consumption rates. Add to that the fact that the price of solar energy has fallen by half in every decade for the past 30 years, and appears likely to continue to do so into the future, and energy shortages do not look like a serious threat either to the economy or to the environment.
The development for non-fuel resources has been similar. Cement, aluminium, iron, copper, gold, nitrogen and zinc account for more than 75% of global expenditure on raw materials. Despite an increase in consumption of these materials of between two- and ten-fold over the past 50 years, the number of years of available reserves has actually grown. Moreover, the increasing abundance is reflected in an ever-decreasing price: The Economist's index of prices of industrial raw materials has dropped some 80% in inflation-adjusted terms since 1845.
Next, the population explosion is also turning out to be a bugaboo. In 1968, Dr Ehrlich predicted in his best selling book, "The Population Bomb", that "the battle to feed humanity is over. In the course of the 1970s the world will experience starvation of tragic proportions--hundreds of millions of people will starve to death."
That did not happen. Instead, according to the United Nations, agricultural production in the developing world has increased by 52% per person since 1961. The daily food intake in poor countries has increased from 1,932 calories, barely enough for survival, in 1961 to 2,650 calories in 1998, and is expected to rise to 3,020 by 2030. Likewise, the proportion of people in developing countries who are starving has dropped from 45% in 1949 to 18% today, and is expected to decline even further to 12% in 2010 and just 6% in 2030. Food, in other words, is becoming not scarcer but ever more abundant. This is reflected in its price. Since 1800 food prices have decreased by more than 90%, and in 2000, according to the World Bank, prices were lower than ever before.
Dr Ehrlich's prediction echoed that made 170 years earlier by Thomas Malthus. Malthus claimed that, if unchecked, human population would expand exponentially, while food production could increase only linearly, by bringing new land into cultivation. He was wrong. Population growth has turned out to have an internal check: as people grow richer and healthier, they have smaller families. Indeed, the growth rate of the human population reached its peak, of more than 2% a year, in the early 1960s. The rate of increase has been declining ever since. It is now 1.26%, and is expected to fall to 0.46% in 2050. The United Nations estimates that most of the world's population growth will be over by 2100, with the population stabilising at just below 11 billion (see chart 1).
Malthus also failed to take account of developments in agricultural technology. These have squeezed more and more food out of each hectare of land. It is this application of human ingenuity that has boosted food production, not merely in line with, but ahead of, population growth. It has also, incidentally, reduced the need to take new land into cultivation, thus reducing the pressure on biodiversity.
Third, that threat of biodiversity loss is real, but exaggerated. Most early estimates used simple island models that linked a loss in habitat with a loss of biodiversity. A rule-of-thumb indicated that loss of 90% of forest meant a 50% loss of species. As rainforests seemed to be cut at alarming rates, estimates of annual species loss of 20,000-100,000 abounded. Many people expected the number of species to fall by half globally within a generation or two.
However, the data simply does not bear out these predictions. In the eastern United States, forests were reduced over two centuries to fragments totalling just 1-2% of their original area, yet this resulted in the extinction of only one forest bird. In Puerto Rico, the primary forest area has been reduced over the past 400 years by 99%, yet "only" seven of 60 species of bird has become extinct. All but 12% of the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest was cleared in the 19th century, leaving only scattered fragments. According to the rule-of-thumb, half of all its species should have become extinct. Yet, when the World Conservation Union and the Brazilian Society of Zoology analysed all 291 known Atlantic forest animals, none could be declared extinct. Species, therefore, seem more resilient than expected. And tropical forests are not lost at annual rates of 2-4%, as many environmentalists have claimed: the latest UN figures indicate a loss of less than 0.5%.
Fourth, pollution is also exaggerated. Many analyses show that air pollution diminishes when a society becomes rich enough to be able to afford to be concerned about the environment. For London, the city for which the best data are available, air pollution peaked around 1890 (see chart 2). Today, the air is cleaner than it has been since 1585. There is good reason to believe that this general picture holds true for all developed countries. And, although air pollution is increasing in many developing countries, they are merely replicating the development of the industrialised countries. When they grow sufficiently rich they, too, will start to reduce their air pollution.
All this contradicts the litany. Yet opinion polls suggest that many people, in the rich world, at least, nurture the belief that environmental standards are declining. Four factors cause this disjunction between perception and reality.
Always look on the dark side of life
One is the lopsidedness built into scientific research. Scientific funding goes mainly to areas with many problems. That may be wise policy, but it will also create an impression that many more potential problems exist than is the case.
Secondly, environmental groups need to be noticed by the mass media. They also need to keep the money rolling in. Understandably, perhaps, they sometimes exaggerate. In 1997, for example, the Worldwide Fund for Nature issued a press release entitled, "Two-thirds of the world's forests lost forever". The truth turns out to be nearer 20%.
Though these groups are run overwhelmingly by selfless folk, they nevertheless share many of the characteristics of other lobby groups. That would matter less if people applied the same degree of scepticism to environmental lobbying as they do to lobby groups in other fields. A trade organisation arguing for, say, weaker pollution controls is instantly seen as self-interested. Yet a green organisation opposing such a weakening is seen as altruistic, even if a dispassionate view of the controls in question might suggest they are doing more harm than good.
A third source of confusion is the attitude of the media. People are clearly more curious about bad news than good. Newspapers and broadcasters are there to provide what the public wants. That, however, can lead to significant distortions of perception. An example was America's encounter with El Nino in 1997 and 1998. This climatic phenomenon was accused of wrecking tourism, causing allergies, melting the ski-slopes and causing 22 deaths by dumping snow in Ohio.
A more balanced view comes from a recent article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. This tries to count up both the problems and the benefits of the 1997-98 Nino. The damage it did was estimated at $4 billion. However, the benefits amounted to some $19 billion. These came from higher winter temperatures (which saved an estimated 850 lives, reduced heating costs and diminished spring floods caused by meltwaters), and from the well-documented connection between past Ninos and fewer Atlantic hurricanes. In 1998, America experienced no big Atlantic hurricanes and thus avoided huge losses. These benefits were not reported as widely as the losses.
The fourth factor is poor individual perception. People worry that the endless rise in the amount of stuff everyone throws away will cause the world to run out of places to dispose of waste. Yet, even if America's trash output continues to rise as it has done in the past, and even if the American population doubles by 2100, all the rubbish America produces through the entire 21st century will still take up only the area of a square, each of whose sides measures 28km (18 miles). That is just one-12,000th of the area of the entire United States.
Ignorance matters only when it leads to faulty judgments. But fear of largely imaginary environmental problems can divert political energy from dealing with real ones. The table, showing the cost in the United States of various measures to save a year of a person's life, illustrates the danger. Some environmental policies, such as reducing lead in petrol and sulphur-dioxide emissions from fuel oil, are very cost-effective. But many of these are already in place. Most environmental measures are less cost-effective than interventions aimed at improving safety (such as installing air-bags in cars) and those involving medical screening and vaccination. Some are absurdly expensive.
Yet a false perception of risk may be about to lead to errors more expensive even than controlling the emission of benzene at tyre plants. Carbon-dioxide emissions are causing the planet to warm. The best estimates are that the temperature will rise by some 2degrees-3degreesC in this century, causing considerable problems, almost exclusively in the developing world, at a total cost of $5,000 billion. Getting rid of global warming would thus seem to be a good idea. The question is whether the cure will actually be more costly than the ailment.
Despite the intuition that something drastic needs to be done about such a costly problem, economic analyses clearly show that it will be far more expensive to cut carbon-dioxide emissions radically than to pay the costs of adaptation to the increased temperatures. The effect of the Kyoto Protocol on the climate would be minuscule, even if it were implemented in full. A model by Tom Wigley, one of the main authors of the reports of the UN Climate Change Panel, shows how an expected temperature increase of 2.1degreesC in 2100 would be diminished by the treaty to an increase of 1.9degreesC instead. Or, to put it another way, the temperature increase that the planet would have experienced in 2094 would be postponed to 2100.
So the Kyoto agreement does not prevent global warming, but merely buys the world six years. Yet, the cost of Kyoto, for the United States alone, will be higher than the cost of solving the world's single most pressing health problem: providing universal access to clean drinking water and sanitation. Such measures would avoid 2m deaths every year, and prevent half a billion people from becoming seriously ill.
And that is the best case. If the treaty were implemented inefficiently, the cost of Kyoto could approach $1 trillion, or more than five times the cost of worldwide water and sanitation coverage. For comparison, the total global-aid budget today is about $50 billion a year.
To replace the litany with facts is crucial if people want to make the best possible decisions for the future. Of course, rational environmental management and environmental investment are good ideas--but the costs and benefits of such investments should be compared to those of similar investments in all the other important areas of human endeavour. It may be costly to be overly optimistic--but more costly still to be too pessimistic.
Bjorn Lomborg is a statistician at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, who once held what he calls "left-wing Greenpeace views". In 1997, he set out to challenge Julian Simon, an economist who doubted environmentalist claims--and found that the data generally supported Simon. His book, "The Skeptical Environmentalist", will be published in English by Cambridge University Press in a month's time.