Today in AgBioView: May 31, 2002
* LA Times story on new organic research
* Organic Farms Viable Despite Lower Yields, Study Finds
* Organic crops won't feed world
* Take a cold shower, a deep breath and start again
* BBC junkscience drama against GM -- look out
* BBC defends upcoming drama about potential dangers of GM crops
* Science matters
* Some Corny Ideas About Gene Flow and Biodiversity
* FAO Background document on GMOs and gene flow
* 'Europe has gone soft on science. We're going to leapfrog you.'
* Finnie rejects GM freeze
* The Payoffs to Agricultural Biotechnology: An Assessment of the Evidence
* Pontifical Academy of Sciences Report on Biotech Crops
* China's Food and Agriculture: Issues for the 21st Century
Date: Fri, 31 May 2002 10:30:58 -0400
From: "Alex Avery"
Subject: LA Times story on new organic research
I am quoted in the following story from the LA Times on a new study
published today in Science comparing organic, biodynamic and
"conventional" farming systems in Switzerland. Too bad the reporter,
Emily Green, whom interviewed me for an hour on Wednesday, decided to
ignore my strongest points. While she mentioned my argument that the
study didn't compare the no-till farm systems, and so is a comparison
between the latest organic and the "old-school" conventional methods, she
didn't explain it or include any of my following points. She ignored the
fact that no-till achieves the same improvements -- if not more so -- in
soil structure, organic matter, water infiltration capacity, etc. and does
it with about one-third the energy usage of the organic/"old-style"
conventional systems which must plow and till to control weeds.
She ignored my criticisms of Leibhardt's bogus "research" purportedly
showing 95% yield equivalency in organic. Leibhardt cherry-picked his
yield comparisons, deliberately including continuous corn rotations
compared to organic corn-wheat-soybean rotations. When you compare
similar rotations in the studies Leibhardt supposedly looked at, organic
consistently come up 20-40% short of "conventional" yields.
While characterizing my comments as the "industry" response -- even though
Hudson and the Center for Global Food Issues where I work is a non-profit
research institute supported by unrestricted grants and is NOT a
spokesperson for any industry -- Ms. Green fails to point out that the
lead researcher in this study, Paul Mader, works at the Research Institute
for Organic Agriculture, which is funded in large part by the organic
industry. For example, RIOA co-maintains databases with the UK's Soil
Association, the multi-billion dollar organic industry trade association.
So who is the industry spokesperson here? Nor does Ms. Green mention that
Leibhardt's employer, the Rodale Institute, is also funded by the organic
industry. Again, we're essentially equal in working for non-profits
supported by grants, but somehow I'm an industry spokesperson and they're
Also how are organic crops "viable" and to whom, if they have lower
yields? They are only viable to a small niche group of farmers (given that
all the other existing consumer-side research shows the organic market is
not elastic) who can find wealthy consumers willing to pay 2 to 3 times
more for food that has NO demonstrable benefits over the less costly
Regardless of Green's bias, this study confirms what we've been saying all
along: organic farming systems get significantly lower yields and result
in more disease and more weeds. No-till is a significant improvement and
biotech makes no-till possible in many more crops at much lower cost.
Moreover, there's no way that organic systems will be able to keep up with
advances in crops through biotech in the coming years and decades and
THAT'S THE REAL STORY!!!
Cheers, Alex Avery
Center for Global Food Issues
A 21-year Swiss study of organic and conventional farming systems is
providing new evidence that large-scale organic farming is economically
viable and environmentally sustainable over the long haul, although crop
yields still fall short of conventional methods.
The study, published in today's issue of Science, reported that organic
farming methods used 50% less energy, 97% less pesticide and as much as
51% less fertilizer than conventional methods.
After two decades of cultivation, the soil in the study's test plots was
still rich in nutrients, resistant to erosion and readily water absorbent.
Overall, organic crop yields averaged about 20% less than conventionally
farmed crops, although the differences covered a wide range. Potato
yields, for example, were 58% to 66% of those produced by conventional
means. The production of wheat reached 90% of a conventional harvest.
Since 1981, only a handful of major scientific studies have compared the
two farming systems. The Swiss study is the longest running farming
project conducted to date.
John Reganold, a soil scientist at Washington State University at Pullman
and a leading investigator of organic farming methods, applauded the Swiss
group's tenacity and praised the breadth of their study.
"To run a study for 21 years, to measure yields, look at soil, look at
weeds, look at insects, it takes a lot of scientists," he said.
However, Alex Avery, director of global food issues for the Hudson
Institute, an industry-funded think tank based in Indianapolis, said the
Swiss report only validates what was previously known about a niche form
of agriculture, and that the experiment ignores the latest conventional
"Organic farmers are wonderful people, but I think they way oversell their
product and their process," Avery said.
The study, co-sponsored by the Swiss government, began in 1978 as a bid to
bring scientific methodology to what had been a largely philosophical
argument over which type of agriculture was the more sustainable.
Conventional farming, the type practiced most widely around the world
since World War II, relies on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, mainly
derived from fossil fuels.
By contrast, organic farming, which has been popularized by
environmentalists, relies on fertilizers derived from composted animal
manure and the practice of crop rotation with nitrogen-fixing cover crops
such as clover.
When the study began, "it was a time of skepticism," said agronomist
Andreas Fliessbach, one of six authors on the study. "It was a time when
nobody really believed broad scale organic farming would be feasible."
To measure the benefits and drawbacks of each system, the researchers set
up 96 small plots on a site near Basel, Switzerland where they grew wheat
and potatoes on a seven-year crop rotation cycle.
After three cycles, Fliessbach said that the advantages conferred by the
organic system could be divided into "below ground benefits" and "above
Below-ground benefits included a rich diversity of microorganisms, which
in turn led to better soil structure, more efficient plant growth and
superior water absorbency. Higher counts of beneficial insects such as
earthworms contributed to soil fertility and reduced fertilizer
requirements by half.
Above ground, organic farming proved resistant to the classical scourges
of farming crops : drought and erosion. It also eliminated the problems of
pesticide and nitrogen fertilizer pollution.
The study is the second comparison between organic and conventional
systems to be published in a leading science journal in the last two
In April 2001, Washington State's Reganold published a six-year study in
the magazine Nature, concluding that organic apple farming was not only
better for the soil and the environment than its conventional counterpart
but had comparable yields, higher profits and greater energy efficiency.
Reading the Swiss study, Reganold was struck by what he called the
"differentials." "Organic wheat yields were about 90% of conventional.
That's incredible," he said. "To get that kind of a yield with half the
fertilizer is pretty impressive."
Defending conventional production, Avery said: "What's interesting about
the Swiss paper is what's not in it." A new conventional system avoids
erosion by eliminating plowing to dislodge weeds.
"Instead of tilling, you use herbicides," he said. Avery also contended
that crop rotations and reduced yields of 15% to 40% would devastate
But Bill Liebhardt, director of research and training at the Rodale
Institute Research Center in Kutztown, Pa., has analyzed most of the U.S.
comparative studies of the two systems and found organic yields are even
higher than those found in the Swiss study--as high as 95% of conventional
The Swiss study did not include an economic comparison of the two systems.
On the face of it, said Fliessbach, conventionally farmed food is cheaper.
However, a true figure would be hard to calculate. "Costs like soil
erosion, or pollution of ground water or climate change, these costs are
not covered when you run comparisons between organic and conventional
products," Fliessbach said. "Society is paying these costs."
Organic crops won't feed world
The Times (London)
May 31, 2002
Organic farming produces yields 20 per cent smaller than conventional
crops, though it is more beneficial to the soil and biodiversity, a
research project has found.
A 21-year comparison of conventional and organic agriculture by the
Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Frick, Switzerland, adds
weight to both sides of the argument about organic farming. Its results,
published in Science, suggest that organic methods are unlikely to provide
yields to feed a world population that will reach 10billion within 50
years, but that they could offer considerable advantages in regions such
as Europe, where the food supply is secure.
Take a cold shower, a deep breath and start again
NZ Life Sciences Network
June 1, 2002
By Francis Wevers
Two days ago we reported a letter we had sent to Green Co-Leader, Jeanette
Fitzsimons, about a speech in which she alleged GM corn had made some sows
in Iowa infertile.
The story was a surprise because it hadnít surfaced in any of the likely
places. But, not wanting to pour cold water on the story until we had some
facts we asked our Network participants for help. The stories below are
what they came up with. Thanks to Tom Redick, Kim Nill, Max Rothschild,
Alex Avery, Gary Comstock.
The Green Party scare story, presented to the Parliament as a series of
facts, is far from being a accurate representation of what actually
happened. The Greens co-leader appears to have based her speech on the
story submitted by Jim Riddle (See story at
version of events is based on an original story by Tom Block from the Iowa
Farm Bureau Spokesman (a publication put out by the US equivalent of New
Zealandís Federated Farmers). Tom Block's story at
Both stories concern the plight of a group of pig breeders in Iowa whose
sows develop pseudopregnancies.
The problem with Riddleís posting (published on a activist website) is
that it cherry picks the facts in the Block story and presents quite a
different picture about the causes ñ which the Iowa Farm Bureau says are
far from definite.
Riddle, and then Fitzsimons, clearly blames the sowís problem on the fact
the corn is GM. Fitzsimons fails to make any mention of the fact the
failure of the sows to conceive was possibly caused by a mycotoxin called
Fusarium. Riddle had referred dealt with this information about Fusarium
in some detail in his story so thereís no discernible reason why
Fitzsimons should omit it from her speech.
Riddle leaps to the ìGM corn is the culpritî conclusion because one farmer
(not the many Fitzsimons claims in her speech) switched back from his GM
corn to a non-GM variety and claims pseudo-pregnancy is no longer a
problem with his herd.
Any pretence that the Riddle story is unbiased disappears in the last two
paragraphs when the real agenda (i.e. opposition to GM crops) is exposed.
Itís clear that the Green Party Co-leader only quoted part of the story
(probably drawn from the Riddle a posting to an activist website) in her
speech to Parliament during the 3rd Reading of the HSNO and Medicines Act
Amendment Bill. The question other Members of Parliament may wish to
consider is whether or not that part of the speech was a deliberate
attempt to mislead them.
The speech remains on the Green Partyís website and is no doubt a central
point for their debate during the weekend Conference. Members of the Party
may wish to ask the question how the speech can vary so much from the
reported facts ñ but I doubt it!
Take a cold shower, a deep breath and start again, Green Party.
Date: Fri, 31 May 2002 10:08:56 -0400
From: "Alex Avery"
Subject: BBC junkscience drama against GM--look out
New ridiculous science-fiction drama demonizing GM crops is about to be
aired on the BBC. Look out for a new wave of anti-GM hysteria in the UK.
Scientists, warm up your keyboards, this one should be criticized harshly
BBC defends upcoming drama about potential dangers of GM crops
Matt Wells, media correspondent
Friday May 31, 2002
The producers of a BBC drama about the potential dangers of genetically
modified crops last night defended the programme in the face of criticism
from its scientific adviser.
Mark Tester, a GM crops expert at Cambridge University, said yesterday
that the scenario that was outlined in Fields of Gold was unlikely to
happen in real life.
But the BBC said the drama, co-written by the Guardian editor Alan
Rusbridger and the novelist Ronan Bennett, was a legitimate portrayal of a
theory that Mr Tester had originally advised was possible.
Fields of Gold, to be shown on BBC1 on June 8 and 9, stars Anna Friel as a
newspaper photographer who uncovers a conspiracy between a pharmaceutical
giant and the government to cover up dangers associated with a GM crop
The drama suggests that antibiotic resistant genes could leap from crops
to animals and humans, leading to an outbreak of a "superbug". It also
suggests that the leap could be accelerated by the dust associated with
harvesting of the crop.
Mr Tester, a senior lecturer in plant science, said yesterday: "These
events have never been documented despite commercial-scale growing of
these crops for eight years."
But in his original advice to the programme's producers, Mr Tester said:
"Horizontal gene transfer may or may not occur ... I remain open-minded."
He conceded last night that his opinion about the programme may have
hardened between reading the script and seeing the portrayal on screen. "I
suppose that's fair comment," he said. But he insisted that the scenario
outlined in the programme was unlikely to happen.
A BBC source said: "His advice was that it was possible, but unlikely.
That was a good enough basis on which to proceed: it's a 'what if?' drama.
If someone had written a drama about Aids 20 years ago, saying it would
have spread to the extent that it has, people would have said it was
A BBC spokesman said: "Like many thrillers, this is a fictional drama,
which does not purport to be a documen tary. It examines the dramatic
consequences of an extreme situation, which is the subject of considerable
debate amongst the scientific community."
The spokesman pointed out that a forthcoming BBC2 documentary series
entitled Bitter Harvest would cover the debate in depth.
30th May 2002
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair made a major statement at the Royal Society
on 23 May 2002 outlining the importance of science to the UKís continued
future prosperity. The text of this speech is reproduced with the
permission of Downing Street at http://www.nature.com/nature/blair.html.
Some Corny Ideas About Gene Flow and Biodiversity
Agrichemical and Environmental News
By Dr. Allan S. Felsot, Environmental Toxicologist, WSU
Mother Nature has been taking a beating. Her products are receiving a bum
rap. Carbon dioxide, the gas that plants need to make sugars and that
nearly all organisms respire, has been decried as a pollutant amidst fears
that it is the principal cause of global warming. The latest hit against
Mother Natureís ways came in the USA Today headline ìGene-altered DNA may
be ëpollutingí cornî (Manning 2001). Behind the headline was a tale from
the science weekly, Nature, about genetically engineered snippets of DNA
that were found in native varieties of corn grown in Mexico. The DNA was
claimed to have flowed into the native corn varieties (or landraces) via
pollen from U.S. corn hybrids that contained a gene from the insect
pathogen, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The gene was inserted into the
genome of the U.S. corn hybrids using the techniques of biotechnology so
that the plants would produce a protein that is selectively toxic to
specific insect pests, namely the European corn borer and the corn
earworm. Such plants can be called biotechnology derived (i.e., BD plants
or crops) to distinguish them from plants bred conventionally by laborious
crossing and selection of desirable traits over many years.
The DNA in question was called a pollutant because it shouldnít have been
in the Mexican corn. Bt-corn, as the genetically modified commodity is
called, is not allowed into Mexico. Perhaps some farmers who wanted to
grow more food and make some money made a mistake out of ignorance.
Apparently not, according to the newspaper-quoted author of the report
that appeared in Nature (Quist and Chapela 2001). The principal
investigator from the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) warned,
ìThe probability is high that diversity is going to be crowded out by
these genetic bullies.î Furthermore, the UCB investigator stated
categorically that plants with the Bt toxin have ìbeen shown to have
potentially very bad effects on insects and the microbes in the soil.î
Stimulated by the Nature paper, environmental advocacy groups (EAGs)
issued yet another proclamation for a total ban on all BD crops. No one
wants to see biodiversity destroyed and soil fertility ruined by ìcrop
pollution.î A spokesperson for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)
summed up another belief among the EAGs when he said, ìWe should not be
going forward on an experiment when we have no idea of the parametersî
If carbon dioxide and DNA are considered pollutants, could it be that
Mother Nature is meaner than we think? Are we threatening biodiversity and
soil health by our complete lack of knowledge of what the heck we are
doing? Or are the reports and hand wringing over the UCB investigatorsí
letter to Nature magazine just one more mischaracterization of what is
really going on? What do we really know about the parameters related to
biodiversity of corn in its native homeland and the possible impact of BD
Full article at
FAO Background document on GMOs and gene flow
The background document for the FAO e-mail conference on GMOs and gene
flow is now available (http://www.fao.org/biotech/C7doc.htm). The
conference runs from 31 May to 28 June 2002 and is entitled "Gene flow
from GM to non-GM populations in the crop, forestry, animal and fishery
sectors". It is the seventh conference of the FAO Electronic Forum on
Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture. To join the Forum (and also
register for the conference), send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
leaving the subject blank and entering only the following two-line text
message: subscribe BIOTECH-L subscribe biotech-room3
Forum members wishing to register for the conference should leave out the
first line of the above message. To access the background document by
e-mail, join the Forum and retrieve it from the archives (instructions are
provided in section viii of the Forum welcome text).
'Europe has gone soft on science. We're going to leapfrog you.'
The Straights Times
24 May 2002
LONDON - Developing countries could leapfrog over developed countries in
science and technology because they are not hobbled by protests against
the more controversial scientific advances such as genetic engineering.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair sounded a warning on this when he called
for a change in attitude.
Mr Blair, who has accused environmental and animal rights activists of
standing in the way of progress, said this week that he understood the
concerns some people had over issues such as genetically modified crops,
but called for a more mature debate based on the facts.
Addressing the Royal Society in London, he said he had become concerned
that Britain may fall behind in scientific development when a group of
academics in Bangalore, India, told him in January: 'Europe has gone soft
on science. We are going to leapfrog you, and you will miss out.'
'I believe that if we don't get a better understanding of science and its
role, they may be proved right. Science is vital to our country's
continued future prosperity,' he told the audience of academics and
According to newspaper reports, the Prime Minister is angry about the
actions of protesters who have held up work on research into genetically
In the past few years, activists have destroyed government-sponsored test
fields of such crops, and animal rights activists have threatened
scientists conducting research on animals, in one case setting off a car
Mr Blair acknowledged that scientific advancement posed 'hard questions of
moral judgment and of practical concern'. But he insisted the 'strength
and creativity of our science base is a key national asset'.
On Thursday, Mr Blair opened the new global headquarters of the
pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline in west London and said attracting
such companies to Britain secured jobs and economic prosperity.
He criticised environmental activists who destroyed fields of crops and
accused them of stifling debate.
He also defended the use of animals in scientific research, saying it had
helped develop a meningitis vaccine and combined drug therapy for HIV
He said a new research centre at Cambridge University, which wants to
experiment on monkeys to test potential cures for diseases, might be
jeopardised because of protests.
'We cannot have vital work stifled simply because it is controversial,' he
However, the Soil Association, which campaigns for organic food, farming
and sustainable forestry, said that people who are opposed to genetically
modified food are not anti-science.
Finnie rejects GM freeze
May 30, 2002
By David Scott
ROSS Finnie, the environment and rural development minister, insisted
yesterday that genetically modified crop trials were safe and would go
ahead on a step-by-step basis.
He rejected a call by the SNP for an immediate moratorium on GM crops, in
view of a report from the European Environmental Agency (EEA) describing
the trial of genetically modified oilseed rape as high-risk.
Mr Finnie said everyone wanted Scotland to be at the forefront of science,
but he stressed that the Scottish Executive would never promote science on
a careless basis.
He said European directives required decisions to be made on scientific
evidence and he would continue to go to independent bodies like the
advisory committee on releases to the environment for advice on whether
there was likely to be any serious harm to human health.
He added: That is an entirely reasonable process, and given the way in
which the legislative framework is written, I believe that is also a
responsible basis on which to proceed. It allows us to progress with
science but never ever puts at risk human health or our environment.
The SNP argued during a stormy debate that Scotland should take the same
action as Belgium and stop the trials in view of the EEA report.
The report states oilseed rape can be described as a high-risk crop for
pollen-mediated gene flow from crop to crop and from crop to wild
Low frequencies of cross-pollination have been recorded at distances of up
to 4km from the source, the report says.
Bruce Crawford, the SNP environment spokesman, said that, because Mr
Finnie had repeatedly pledged that he would halt GM trials if credible
evidence of a danger was presented to him, he should now impose an
immediate moratorium on GM trials.
For the Tories, John Scott called for a fresh and complete review of all
scientific evidence. He said this was necessary not just on environmental
grounds, but also on public health grounds.
The Payoffs to Agricultural Biotechnology: An Assessment of the Evidence
By Michele C. Marra, Philip G. Pardey, and Julian M. Alston
Transgenic crops are relatively new technologies being adopted rapidly in
the United States and in a few other countries. The economic impacts of
these technologies have, thus far, been estimated in a piecemeal fashion.
The purpose of this study was to collect and characterize the economic
evidence available to date, organize it, and determine if any general
implications can be drawn from it. The general classes of economic impacts
at the farm level are discussed. The types of studies that generate
estimates of these benefits are also characterized and categorized in
terms of the implications for measuring economic impacts when the set of
things held constant in the type of study does not correspond to those
that economic theory suggests. The evidence is presented, along with some
general implications drawn from the analysis. These implications are: (1)
growing transgenic cotton is likely to result in reduced pesticide use in
most years and is likely to be profitable in most years in most U.S.
states in the Cotton Belt, (2) Bt corn will provide a small but
significant yield increase in most years across the U.S. Corn Belt, and in
some years and some places the increase will be substantial, and (3)
although there is some evidence of a small yield loss in the Roundup Ready
’ soybean varieties, in most years and locations savings in pesticide
costs and, possibly, tillage costs will more than offset the lost revenue
from the yield discrepancy. There is not yet enough evidence to generalize
even these few conclusions to other countries. More farm- level studies in
more years and across more locations are required before any additional
implications can be drawn. Studies that measure the non-pecuniary benefits
and costs of these technologies should be undertaken, as well.
Full paper at
Pontifical Academy of Sciences Report on Biotech Crops
A report, "Science and the Future of Mankind" is now available from the
Pontifical Academy of Sciences. A section of the report (beginning on
page 516) covers agricultural biotechnology and the use of biotech plants
to combat hunger. The report concludes: "The developments we have
discussed here constitute an important part of human innovation, and they
clearly offer substantial benefits for the improvement of the human
condition worldwide. They are essential elements in the development of
sustainable agricultural systems capable of feeding not only the eighth of
the world's population that is now hungry, but also meeting the future
needs of the growing world population. To make the best use of these new
technologies and the agricultural management opportunities they create is
a moral challenge for scientists and governments throughout the world."
The complete report is available at:
China's Food and Agriculture: Issues for the 21st Century
ERS Agricultural Information Bulletin No. AIB775. 64 pp, April 2002
By Fred Gale, Francis Tuan, Bryan Lohmar, Hsin-Hui Hsu, Brad Gilmour
Assessment of issues that will affect China's future trends in
consumption, production, import, and export of food and agricultural
commodities. A series of 13 articles cover China's food consumption,
marketing, international trade, agricultural policy, transportation
infrastructure, regional diversity, livestock sector, biotechnology, water
and irrigation policy, land tenure system, rural development, employment,
and market information.