Today in AgBioView: August 12, 2002:
* Free online access to Nature articles
* We Need More Reasoned Public Debate Over GM Food
* Zimbabwe Ends Altered-Corn Dispute
* CUBAN NATIVE NAMED 2002 WORLD FOOD PRIZE LAUREATE
* Outside view: Carson springs up again
* High-yield Agriculture Protects Biodiversity
* BUILDING A BETTER POTATO
Free online access to Nature articles
Food and the Future
From BSE to GM, food is news. One strand unites these issues, and it can
be summarized in one word: 'sustainability'. The world's population
continues to grow, yet resources are finite. Our mission is to squeeze
more crops from the same patch of ground, while preserving that patch in a
state fit to pass on to further hungry generations. The quest for
sustainability is the theme of this Insight.
After World War II, the 'Green Revolution' averted worldwide famine. Half
a century on, the world needs yet greater ingenuity to feed itself.
Science is again at the sharp end. The public wants it to deliver food to
satisfy an increasing population without compromising the integrity of the
landscape we live in. Agriculture in the future must be environmentally
sensitive and above all, sustainable. Much current debate on these issues
concerns genetically modified crops, but this is only part of the story.
Sustainability has lessons for the whole agricultural enterprise, from
high-tech viticulture to the depths of the ocean.
This web focus brings together what seems to be a disparate selection of
material recently published in Nature. The wide range illustrates, as well
as anything can, how issues relating to food touch every sphere of human
We Need More Reasoned Public Debate Over GM Food
Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg)
Wednesday -- August 7, 2002
President Robert Mugabe and his cronies have decided that genetically
modified (GM) corn is a bad thing for Zimbabwe, even if the country is in
the middle of a two-year famine. Instead of allowing the United States and
the World Food Programme to donate thousands of tons of corn to the nearly
three million people starving to death under his watch, Mugabe has
outlawed all GM food imports. His actions have effectively sealed the fate
for more than half his countrymen, many of whom will be dead by late
December if aid doesn`t arrive.
It`s easy to chalk this up as another classic Mugabe manoeuvre. Most
people expect nothing less from the head of a repressive regime so fearful
of losing power it must rig elections and imprison foreign journalists.
Just last May, for example, Mugabe rejected a 10000-ton relief package
from the US because it couldn`t be certified as non-GM. Meanwhile, Mugabe,
inspired by his Marxist leanings, continued to confiscate white-owned
farmlands and dismantle Zimbabwe`s agricultural infrastructure. His ``land
reform`` policies left thousands of blacks (and whites) unemployed and
unfed, while a prolonged drought guaranteed few crops would survive
elsewhere in the country.
Though most analysts have written off Mugabe`s latest refusal to accept
aid as yet another ploy to consolidate power and disparage the US (they
are probably correct), it also reveals a growing suspicion of GM food
among Southern African nations. Fearing GM corn will contaminate meat
products or change the genetic make-up of future crops, leaders of
Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zambia have sided with Mugabe,
despite facing the worst food crisis their nations have seen in more than
a decade and assurances from the US that the corn is safe for consumption.
The result? Needless deaths of millions of Africans who simply wish to
eat, not to debate the morality of altering the plant genome.
Mugabe`s attitude of ``better to starve than eat GM corn`` reflects a
luxury until now reserved for picky Europeans and radical US academics. An
obvious problem is that neither Mugabe nor the others will suffer much for
their highfalutin idealism (none of them will likely go to bed hungry
tonight, for example) while the rest of Southern Africa must face the
harsh aftermath of regional policies more concerned with lofty principles
than practical reality.
The real problem, however, has more to do with the conduct of the
biotechnology debate than any of Africa`s misguided statesmen.
Critics of GM food have long enjoyed the safety of pointing fingers from
afar, removed from the pragmatic consequences of their rhetoric. They`ve
summarily dismissed claims that GM food will help feed the world one day,
and have relied on disinformation and scare tactics to instill fear and
mistrust among the general public. Instead of promoting cautious policies
that recognise concerns and benefits, they have painted a bleak picture of
society ruined by Frankenstein science gone awry.
But now these same critics must confront the monster they`ve created, a
swarm of Southern African despots ready to sacrifice the innocent in the
name of the ``safe`` -- ``safe`` seeds, ``safe`` crops and a ``safe``
But what safety, beyond reinforcing Mugabe`s corrupt influence, lies in
widespread famine bred by ignorance and pseudo-science?
None. And that is the tragedy of Zimbabwe and the rest. Echoing claims of
knee-jerk environmentalists more concerned with ideology than biology,
Mugabe has legitimised his own Stalin-esque version of state-sponsored
famine and may convince his neighbours to do the same. All while anti-GM
Americans and Europeans sip their organically grown coffee and ponder the
nature of political strife, oceans away from the product of their
We should push for more reasoned public debate over GM food if only to
prevent future tyrants from exploiting the unfounded claims of
marginalised intellectuals and fanatics. It`s hard enough to wrestle power
away from corrupt governments like that of Mugabe`s. It is even harder to
do on an empty stomach. Better to keep Southern Africa`s peoples informed
with the real science of GM food than with science fiction horror stories.
They`ll undoubtedly find the corn easier to swallow.
Jason Lott is a Marshall Scholar and analyst in the division of bioethics
at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Zimbabwe Ends Altered-Corn Dispute
Mugabe, Relief Agencies Agree to Grain Swap, Freeing Up Tons in Food Aid
August 10, 2002
By Rick Weiss
Ending a dispute over genealtered corn, the Zimbabwean government and
international aid agencies have reached an accord for the quick release of
thousands of tons of food aid for the hunger-stricken nation, according to
sources in Africa and the United States.
The agreement -- in the form of a memorandum of understanding involving
the government, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.N.
World Food Program and Zimbabwe's Grain Marketing Board -- provides for
the U.N. agency to deliver U.S. corn to the Zimbabwean government, which
in turn would give the agency an equal amount of domestic corn from its
own reserves to be distributed to hungry Zimbabweans, sources said. The
deal is expected to be finalized next week.
More than 17,000 metric tons of whole corn has been sitting in the holds
of a ship docked in the South African port of Durban since late July
because of a standoff between President Robert Mugabe's government and the
aid agencies. At issue was whether Zimbabwe, which strictly limits
importation of genetically modified seeds, would accept the load of
American corn -- a mixture of conventional corn and patented, high-tech
kernels that bear extra genes for hardiness.
About half of Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people are on the brink of famine,
according to the World Food Program, because of drought and the disruption
of agricultural production caused by the government's eviction of white
farmers from some of Zimbabwe's most productive land as part of a land
reform program. International aid groups have warned that food aid must be
dispatched quickly to Zimbabwe and its similarly stricken neighbors, but
Mugabe's government has balked at accepting grain donated by the United
States because it was not certified as being free of genetically modified
Zimbabwean government officials contend that if some of the U.S.-donated
seeds were planted instead of eaten, they would give rise to plants with
gene-altered pollen. That pollen could contaminate surrounding fields,
rendering a potentially large portion of the nation's future corn harvests
unexportable to European and other nations that restrict imports of
genetically engineered foods.
The government has said it wants to mill the kernels and distribute the
corn as meal to ensure that none of the seed is planted. But that position
led to a deadlock, because USAID, which donated the corn, and the World
Food Program, which is distributing it, have been unwilling to give it
directly to the government -- the only entity willing to absorb the cost
of milling. The agencies have insisted that the food go to nongovernmental
groups for distribution because of evidence that the government has
diverted food aid for political purposes.
The new agreement gets around that problem by calling for an unusual
trade. The U.N. agency will deliver the 17,500 metric tons of corn from
the United States to the Zimbabwean government, which can do whatever it
wants with it. In return, the government will give the World Food Program
an equal amount of corn kernels currently stored in that country.
The U.N. agency will pass that corn to nongovernmental organizations for
distribution to the poorest and hungriest people in Zimbabwe -- people who
aid officials believe might otherwise never have seen the food that was
being held by the government.
It was not immediately clear how the Zimbabwean government came to possess
the 17,500 metric tons it is now agreeing to trade to the World Food
Program, or what it had intended to do with that food as the country
slipped into its worst food crisis in decades. Diplomatic sources in
southern Africa said they were not aware that Zimbabwe had any such
But sources said the deal would accomplish the bottom-line goal of getting
the corn to the countries' neediest citizens.
"The main thing is that the food gets into the country so poor people get
access," said Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director general of the International
Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
From: "Shunnosuke Abe"
Subject: RE: Mozambique, Trade war, Rockefeller, Drought tolerance, Whole
Foods, Sunflower study
Date: Sat, 10 Aug 2002 09:17:03 +0900
Do you know anyone actually try Bt-sunflower crop to be commercialized?
That is one of points of safety check in GE, which is not applied in
traditional breeding. Is the reason that traditional breeding is
absolutely safe? The sunflower study seems to assume no safety check in GE
as in current traditional breeding. I think no environmental safety check
has been made in any traditional breeding, nobody knows how many species
spread all over and outcrosses with wild species. We should check if there
is any gene brought by traditional breeding in wild plants. We also should
check if there is any foreign species brought for purpose of traditional
breeding and they out crossed with wild species as well. If these
traditional breeding related stuff is found in wild, it obviously indicate
the same conclusion as the sunflower researchers found, i.e.., "weeds are
already hardy plants; the addition of transgenes could just make them
tougher. Here, transgenes should be replaced by "transgenes and uncovered
genes from traditional breeding". At least we should note that the 2,4D
tolerant canola is created by traditional breeding and spread without
safety check. Actually it out crossed to create a multi resistance to
Similarly, we can introduce genes producing poisons into crop plants
sometimes quite easier by traditional breeding than GE, too.
So, their research is just showing all of the breeding techniques have to
be reviewed and subjected to safety, at least as intensive as that
employed in GE.
All the best,
IN "HISTORIC" SELECTION, CUBAN NATIVE NAMED 2002 WORLD FOOD PRIZE LAUREATE
World Food Prize Foundation
(Toronto) Dr. Pedro Sanchez, a native Cuban and graduate of Cornell
University in the United States, has been selected to receive the $250,000
World Food Prize in 2002.
Dr. SanchezÝ selection was announced on August 11 by Ambassador Kenneth M.
Quinn, President of The World Food Prize Foundation, at the opening
plenary session of the XXVI International Horticultural Congress in
Toronto, Canada. Ambassador Quinn noted, "This is an historic occasion as
it appears that The World Food Prize is the highest scientific honor ever
presented to a native of Cuba." "As this award is being presented in the
100th year of Cuban Independence, Cubans everywhere have occasion to
express great pride in Dr. SanchezÝ remarkable accomplishments," added the
Dr. Sanchez, a citizen of the United States, is currently a visiting
professor of tropical resources at the University of California at
Berkeley's College of Natural Resources.
Ambassador Quinn remarked that Dr. Sanchez has been selected for his
groundbreaking contributions to reducing hunger and malnutrition
throughout the developing world by transforming depleted tropical soils
into productive agricultural lands. As the leader of the North Carolina
State University Rice Research Program in the 1970s, Dr. Sanchez helped
guide Peru to dramatically improve its national food security, achieving
self-sufficiency in rice production within three years, and achieving
among the highest rice yields in the world. Next, Dr. Sanchez developed a
comprehensive approach to soil management which enabled 30 million
hectares (75 million acres) of marginal Brazilian land, known as the
Cerrado, to be brought into production ˝ the single largest increase in
arable agricultural land in the last half-century.
Most recently, Dr. Sanchez served as Director General of the International
Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), a Future Harvest center of
the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)
located in Nairobi. There, Dr. Sanchez has led the scientific research
effort to provide smallholder farmers in Africa and Southeast Asia with
the means to replenish crucial nutrients in exhausted soils, through the
development and promotion of agroforestry. The practice of planting trees
adjacent to crops has provided nearly 150,000 farmers in Africa with a way
to fertilize their soils inexpensively and naturally, without relying on
costly chemical fertilizers.
Ambassador Quinn added that, "Dr. Sanchez is also being honored for having
played a critical role in establishing real alternatives to slash-and-burn
farming, which has destroyed millions of acres of rainforest, as well as
his work in driving the international effort to establish agroforestry as
a means of mitigating global warming, by removing millions of tons of CO2
from the air.
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug, the founder of the World
Food Prize, remarked that "Dr. SanchezÝ achievement gives hope that the
Green Revolution can finally be extended to Africa." Reflecting his
enormous contributions, Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United
Nations has honored Dr. Sanchez by appointing him to Chair the UN
Taskforce On World Hunger as part of the UN Global Millennium Development
Outside view: Carson springs up again
United Press International
August 11, 2002
By GORDON S. JONES
The week I went to work at the Environmental Protection Agency in June of
1972, Administrator William Ruckelshaus issued an order banning the
domestic production of DDT. My job, for two-and-a-half years, was to
administer that ban.
It made no sense to me then and it makes no sense to me now.
I have occasion to recall this because of an invitation I received to an
Interior Department briefing to be held in the Rachel Carson Room. I had
not known that there was a Rachel Carson Room in the departmental
headquarters and, while I'm not overly surprised, I do think it
inappropriate to name a room for a woman responsible for more than 60
million deaths. While that may seem to be an extreme statement, consider
It is not too much to suggest that Carson was the impetus behind the U.S.
ban on DDT and the ensuing limited availability in the Third World. Her
1962 book "Silent Spring" excited a backlash against the single most
effective pesticide ever developed.
DDT had been used against lice during the World War II but it wasn't until
1948 that it was shown to kill malarial mosquitoes. Virtually overnight,
malaria stopped being the killer it was. In Sri Lanka 2.8 million people
died from it in 1948. In 1964, that number was 17. That is not a decimal
error. Deaths from malaria dropped from 2,800,000 to 17 in less than two
decades. Worldwide, DDT is credited with saving over 100 million lives.
Against that record, Saint Rachel of the Environmental Movement had her
work cut out for her, but she proved herself up to it. "Silent Spring" is
an evocative work, full of images of sun-filled glades, and limpid pools.
The springs are silent, you see, because the birds are dead.
DDT may kill the insects, Carson tells us, but then the birds eat them.
The DDT builds up in their systems, the birds lay eggs with thin shells
and the little birds don't survive. Eventually, in Carson's paradigm, the
species become extinct.
The science, contrary to the conventional wisdom, doesn't really support
Yes, there was evidence of eggshell thinning but it was never tied
conclusively to DDT. In fact, Ruckelshaus rejected the recommendations of
his own scientists when he formulated the DDT ban.
My own reading of the evidence and the hearings I conducted while at EPA
led me to conclude that heavy metals -- arsenic, mercury, and cadmium --
were more likely the agents behind the eggshell thinning.
EPA officials were not all the impressed by the data either. The ban
covered future production, stocks "in the pipeline" and that DDT in the
possession of private individuals. At the same time, the acting director
of the Office of Pesticide Programs told me that he had a 75-pound bag of
DDT and that he fully intended to use it on his own garden -- ban or no.
One of the deputy directors used to eat a spoonful each year to show his
college classes that it was, essentially and to human beings, harmless.
It has been 30 years since DDT was banned as a result of Rachel Carson's
literary skills. Malaria and other diseases controlled by the "miracle
pesticide" are on the rise again. In Sri Lanka, five years after DDT was
banned under pressure from U.S. regulators and diplomats, malaria deaths
were back up to 2.5 million per year.
The dead are not very visible to American politicians because, in most
places at least, they don't vote. A move is afoot in the United States
Senate -- promoted by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. -- to have the United
Nations oversee a worldwide ban on the use of DDT.
This would have little if any effect in the United States because it is no
longer used here. In the Third World, it is a very different story.
Millions in the developing nations, mostly poor children, will die as a
result. Lieberman, who wants to be president, is trying to solidify his
credentials with American environmentalists -- who all worship Rachel
He is less concerned with the poor children in India who cannot vote in
U.S. elections. This does not mean his is unfeeling or an evil man; just
that he is putting his own political agenda ahead of what is best for many
others around the world.
Too often, there are those in the environmental movement who, like Rachel
Carson, may have altruistic intentions yet ignore the consequences of what
they espouse. As a result, a bird is saved but millions of people die. We
can all meditate on that little fact while we are waiting for the briefing
to start in the room named for Carson in the Department of Interior
Gordon S. Jones is a writer and political scientist working in Utah. In a
30-year career in Washington, his portfolio of activity included work on
science and environmental issues both as a congressional staffer and in
public policy organizations.
High-yield Agriculture Protects Biodiversity
On April 30, 2002 , a broad coalition of food, environmental, farming and
forestry experts -- including two Nobel Peace Prize laureates -- invited
their colleagues worldwide to co-sign a declaration in favor of high-yield
Their message was simple:
ýGrowing more crops and trees per acre leaves more land for Nature,ţ said
Dr Norman Borlaug, 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and father of the Green
ýWe cannot choose between feeding malnourished children and saving
endangered wild species. Without higher yields, peasant farmers will
destroy the wildlands and species to keep their children from starving.
Sustainably higher yields of crops and trees are the only visible way to
According to Dr. Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, "There's a
misconception that it would be better to go back to more primitive methods
of agriculture because chemicals are bad or genetics is bad. This is not
true. We need to use the science and technology we have developed in order
to feed the world's population, a growing population. And the more yield
we get per acre of land the less nature has to be destroyed to do that Í
It's simple arithmetic. The more people there are, the more forest has to
be cleared to feed them, and the only way to offset that is to have more
yield per acre.
"The solutions that are being offered by the environmentalist movement are
quite often in total opposition to the objectives that we are trying to
achieve: protection of the environment and feeding people," said co-signer
Eug╦ne Lapointe, President of the World Conservation Trust. "Most
environmentalist movements, most organizations, are not solution oriented
-- they are drama, they are scandal oriented. The Center for Global Food
Issues, in its initiative called High-yield Farming and Forestry, is
probably the best example of how we can achieve true innovative and
practical solutions. The major objective that all of us should have is
feeding people while protecting the waters and the lands that we have."
Organic farming could lead to deforestation
"Two years ago in Britain, the Cooperative Wholesale Association, which
farms both organically and conventionally, said they get 44% less wheat
per acre from their organic fields. If that's the right number, Europe --
to feed itself, not to export, just to feed itself today -- would need
additional crop land equal to all of the forest area in Germany, France,
Denmark, and the UK," said Dennis Avery, director of the Center for Global
Food Issues. Added Dr. Borlaug, "We aren't going to feed 6 billion people
with organic fertilizer. If we tried to do it, we would level most of our
forest and many of those lands would be productive only for a short period
Other initial signers of the declaration included:
* Oscar Arias, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Former President of Costa Rica
* Per Pinstrup-Andersen, 2001 World Food Prize winner and Director of the
International Food Policy Research Institute
* James Lovelock, Independent Scientist, author of "The Gaia Hypothesis"
* Rudy Boschwitz, former US Senator and advisory chair at the Center for
Global Food Issues
* George McGovern, former US Senator and UN "Ambassador to the Hungry"
For more info see http://www.highyieldconservation.org
BUILDING A BETTER POTATO
American Scientist Rebecca Nelson Has Been Leading the Charge to Use
Genetically Modified Crops to Fight Famine in Peru. But Not Everyone
Thinks It's God's Work.
Los Angeles Times
August 11, 2002
By Jonathan Kandell
Nestled some 13,000 feet up the Andes mountains of Peru, the village of
Aymara is literally breathtaking. The chest heaves, the head throbs, the
fingers tingle. The air is so thin and clear that distances deceive. Crags
are etched in such detail that mountains appear closer, and the grassy
slopes and cultivated terraces are an intense green.
Carlos Hidalgo, the 30-year-old community leader, is explaining to a
visitor how Aymara villagers plant their potatoes observing traditions
rooted in the Inca past. Every spring, they survey the stars of the
Pleiades low over the northeastern horizon. If the constellation is
bright, the villagers plant their crop early. If it's dim, they wait a few
weeks. The furrows are shaped according to weather predictions based on
stargazing, the behavior of birds and insects, and even earth tremors.
Since this was a wet year--as expected--the furrows were flattened. "That
way the rainwater drains away and the potatoes won't rot," says Hidalgo.
But neither astronomy nor naturalism prepared Hidalgo and his fellow
farmers for the disaster of 1997. That year, El Nino, the warm Pacific
current that flows cyclically off the Peruvian coast, made its most
devastating appearance in recent memory. In Aymara, it caused unusually
high temperatures and heavy rainfall. Boulders that hadn't budged in a
geological era slid down mountains. Fields became steamy bogs, and cows
sank to their hocks in mud. The villagers noticed that as their potatoes
reached harvest time, the leaves were covered by a filmy, white mildew,
and the tubers themselves turned black and soggy. "I lost maybe 80% of my
crop," recalls Hidalgo. "We barely ate that year." Several elderly Aymara
villagers died of diseases linked to malnutrition. The massive crop
failure was caused by late blight, the same killer fungus responsible for
the Irish potato famine of the 1840s that resulted in a million
According to the Centro Internacional de la Papa (International Potato
Center), a research institute headquartered in Lima, Peru, late blight
losses in developing nations amount to about $3 billion a year. Nearly 15%
of the Peruvian potato crop is destroyed annually by the fungus--and
several times that in isolated areas. While cases of outright starvation
are rare in Peru, blight-induced malnutrition causes death rates to soar
among infants and aged people already weakened by respiratory and
Rebecca Nelson, one of the potato center's leading pathologists, finds the
blight alarming, and she has been an ardent crusader of using genetically
modified or "biotech" crops to combat the epidemic. "Blight is back and
it's bigger than ever," says Nelson, an American who recently completed a
research stint in Peru. "It has become the No. 1 potato disease
worldwide." One of the primary methods to combat late blight and other
pathogens is by engineering new varieties of plants that need less
fertilizer and pesticides. Potatoes have a potential yield per acre that
is nearly twice that of cereals, making tubers a major weapon against
But plant geneticists are being denounced by environmentalists for
creating biotech crops that purportedly could harm wildlife, morph into
herbicide-resistant super-weeds and even pose dangers to human health. As
the easiest of the major crops to modify genetically, potatoes have been
at the heart of the controversy. "What right does some moralistic person
from the United States or Europe have to deny biotech solutions to poor
farmers in the Third World?" Nelson says.
A fine drizzle turns the air a misty gray and makes the dun-colored andean
foothills on Lima's outskirts look like slag heaps. The Peruvian capital,
not a particularly attractive city any time of the year, is saddest during
the rainy season. But it is a bittersweet period anyway for Rebecca
Nelson, a 41-year-old recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant for her work
on plant pathogens. Within days, Nelson will be returning to the United
States to head a larger research project after five eventful years at the
potato center. Her house is in disarray, with her two boys, William and
Benjamin, running wild through the rooms and garden, while her husband,
Jonathan Miller, a freelance journalist, finishes packing boxes upstairs
that will be picked up by the movers this same July afternoon. There are
painful despedidas--goodbye parties--given in her honor by colleagues at
the potato center, where she has been one of the most respected scientists
in the center's three-decade history of improving potato yields.
Nelson has supervised the release of some 40-odd disease-resistant potato
varieties to poor farmers, but she's not happy to leave behind ongoing lab
and field experiments for dozens of other promising varieties. Adding to
Nelson's ambiguous frame of mind is the fact that her stay in Peru has
coincided with a dramatic decline in the reputation of food scientists.
"We were regarded as saviors of the world," says Nelson, a tall, thin
woman with a halo of disheveled, curly hair around an almost adolescent
face. "That's not the case anymore. Now hunger is viewed as a complex
poverty problem upon which agrarian research has relatively little impact.
And then there's the biotech controversy."
When she addresses the issue, Nelson's voice quickens and amplifies, her
left foot jiggling on the armrest of a rattan easy chair in her living
room. She cites the case of a bacteria gene implanted by potato center
scientists into one potato variety to kill the deadly tuber moth. The new
variety has almost eliminated the need for expensive and dangerous
"Nobody talked about the huge mortality rate that pesticide spraying was
causing among those poor farmers," says Nelson. "They were dying like
flies, and that to me was thoroughly unacceptable." Nelson acknowledges
that genetic modification is no panacea and that research can provide only
part of the solution to the jigsaw of global food shortages. Moving lab
results into the field is no easy task. Impoverished farmers with tiny
plots of land are averse to taking on the risks of an unproven potato
variety. There is also the fickleness of the marketplace. Consumers and
wholesale distributors resist the tastes, textures, even the shapes and
skin colors of new potato varieties. And there is no overseas market
because most countries ban the import of unprocessed potatoes on the
grounds that they are too likely to carry pathogens that could infect
local crops. So the poor campesinos who accept new potato varieties and
technologies tend to remain subsistence farmers, at least grateful if they
can cut their costs.
The complex layers of farmer resistance to new potato varieties may be
hard to peel away, but they can be easily glimpsed in Aymara, a village of
less than 100 families about 200 miles southeast of Lima. On a bright,
crisp morning, a trio of middle-aged men, wearing thick wool sweaters and
caps and chewing wads of coca leaves to ward off the cold, are stomping on
small piles of thawing potatoes. Jorge Romero, at 53 the oldest of the
three, explains that the potatoes had been left on the field to freeze
overnight. Now that the sun has softened them, the tubers are being
crudely but efficiently crushed and peeled by bare, calloused feet. The
mush will then be placed in a nearby well and left to ferment for 15 to 20
days. Finally, the potatoes will be sun-dried into a mealy preserve, known
as chuno (CHOON-yoh).
Five centuries ago, the Inca warriors who were Romero's ancestors survived
on little else but chuno during their months-long battle marches. Romero
and his fellow Aymara villagers prefer to eat it on special celebratory
occasions, mixed in hearty stews with egg, meat and cheese.
"But we set aside most of it for emergencies because chuno can last up to
10 years," says Romero, his unshaven, sunburned cheeks bulging with coca
chaws. By emergencies, Romero means those years when crops are ravaged by
pests. In the early 1990s, the potato center introduced pest controls in
Aymara to cope with the main local predator, the Andean weevil. Multiple
defenses were created against the insect. New potato varieties, less
appetizing for the weevils, were planted. Fields were circumscribed by
shallow ditches doused with small quantities of pesticide and bordered
with plants whose leaves contained natural toxins against the weevils.
Finally, the harvest was placed on plastic sheets, a simple barrier that
prevented surviving weevil larvae emerging from diseased potatoes from
burrowing into the ground to mature and attack a future crop.
The main benefit to Aymara of the new varieties--some of them genetically
modified--has been the sharply reduced investments in costly pesticides,
allowing cash to be spent elsewhere. While the village is mired in
poverty--it still has no electricity, phones or running water--most men
now wear factory-made shirts, pants and work boots. (Women, though,
continue to dress in traditional billowing skirts, woolen stockings and
leather slippers made at home.) Even these limited gains were threatened
by the near famine of the late blight outbreak in 1997. "You go around the
Andes and see so many destroyed fields and you want to do something about
it," says Nelson. "So as far as I'm concerned, blight is the most obvious
plant pathogen for me to get involved with."
Nelson was born into scientific research. Her parents were researchers at
the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. As a kid, Nelson
dissected road kills in her bedroom while her schoolmates were playing
field hockey and baseball. After graduating from Swarthmore, she completed
her PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle--though the degree was
in zoology, not plant pathology, her chosen career. "I'm proud of the fact
that I'm totally untrained for what I'm doing," she jokes.
Qualified or not, Nelson landed a job in 1988 with the International Rice
Research Institute in the Philippines to study rice blast, a major crop
disease. From there she moved to Peru in 1996 to head the late blight
program at the potato center. An internationally funded institute, the
potato center was already in the midst of prolonged soul-searching--that
continues to this day--about how to best approach its mission of improving
potato yields and the livelihoods of farmers. Like every food research
program, the potato center was being forced to battle for public and
foundation funds with other worthy, scientific causes, especially
environmentalism. "Until recently, our entire focus was on increasing
productivity and giving the world more to eat," says Fernando Ezeta, the
potato center's regional representative for Latin America. "But over the
last decade, there has been a growing global concern over the environment.
So we are competing with ecological researchers for the same financial
To woo potential donors, the potato center is being pressured to behave
more like a private enterprise and demonstrate the "profitability" of its
research projects. Potato center projects have been whittled down from
more than 30 a decade ago to 13 today. Each project is ranked in terms of
its probability of scientific success, dollars saved or gained per acre,
and the poverty level of the farmers it benefits, among other factors. By
these criteria, the late blight program, under Nelson's direction, has
been deemed the top research project, meriting the largest single portion
of the potato center's $24-million budget in 2000. Economic returns are
projected at more than $250 million between 1998 and 2015.
These returns will not be guaranteed by scientific research alone.
Bureaucratic battles must be fought and won within the potato center
before new potato strains can be distributed to farmers. Trusted
intermediaries must be found to convince farmers to experiment with new
varieties. And the farmers must be seduced into becoming active partners
with potato center scientists in their efforts to propagate more
productive, pest-resistant tubers. These various tasks can force Nelson
into wearing a lab coat, a field poncho and sometimes, metaphorically at
least, a helmet. While she views herself primarily as a scientist, her
success is equally dependent on her managerial skills.
Past experience has demonstrated to Nelson that there is no silver bullet,
no single gene that can be counted upon to permanently resist late blight.
"What usually happens is that if we try to combat a disease by
concentrating on a single, major gene, we might get a potato variety that
offers resistance for a few years and then fails," she says.
Instead, her lab tries to isolate several genes, each with small effects
on late blight but acting together to offer a more complex, lasting
resistance to the disease. The lab workers might fish these genes directly
out of the potato center's huge potato seed collection and plunk them into
potato varieties marked for field experiments. "That's bioengineering
using genes from the same species," says Nelson. "But I'm also in favor of
genetic modification using genes from other plant or animal species
because they offer us additional options."
The next stage is getting the potato center's plant breeders on board.
Breeders tend to represent the old-school approach to scientific research,
displaying more caution than a molecular biologist like Nelson. They focus
their efforts on gathering wild potato species, crossing them with
domestic varieties, and constantly building up the tuber seed stocks. They
tend to withhold new potato strains out of fear they might fail in the
field. With the breeders in charge, it was taking the potato center about
20 years to move a new potato variety from lab to land. So, among
old-timers, there has been a good deal of resentment ever since Nelson
appeared on the scene with a commitment to drastically cut down this time
"I just want to get as many potato varieties off the shelf as quickly as
possible and let the farmers decide if they want them or not," says
Nelson. But making the initial contacts with rural communities can be
daunting. The Peruvian government has no agricultural extension service.
The potato center, with roughly 100 scientists in Peru, doesn't have the
manpower to find and woo campesino leaders. In the end, CARE was used as
an intermediary, taking advantage of that global group's contacts in the
CARE had been running community development programs for several years
around Cajamarca in the northern Andes, where late blight was rampant. And
in 1997, CARE introduced Nelson and her potato center colleagues to local
farmers. Groups of up to 25 campesinos were invited to join potato center
field schools that met once a week over the three-to-four-month period of
a potato cycle from planting to harvest. "The idea was to get them to
understand the life cycle of late blight in order to break it," says
Nelson. "Farmers know the connection between weather and late blight. But
they aren't aware of the microbe world."
At the field schools, campesinos were given disposable plastic
bags--mini-hothouses--to be used to quickly grow fungus-infected potato
plant samples. Once the fluffy white film of late blight developed on the
budding leaves, it was scraped off and viewed under rudimentary $15
microscopes that participants shared. "They could see that it's not chaos
down there, but actually beautifully symmetrical spores that look like
tiny lemons," says Nelson. "For the first time, they were seeing the
causal agent, and they were excited."
Simultaneously with these laboratory classes, the farmers were asked to
plant small patches with a dozen varieties of experimental potatoes
developed by the potato center in the hope that at least some of them
would prove resistant to late blight. "I was praying it would be a wet,
warm year, which would create ideal conditions for late blight," recalls
Nelson. "We would have had a very dull outcome if it had been a dry year."
She got more than she wished. El Nino brought record rain and heat. The
Cajamarca landscape was churned into mud. On mountain slopes, crops were
washed away, and many of the surviving potatoes were attacked by late
blight. But the disaster allowed the farmers to witness the power of the
new, resistant varieties.
Two in particular--the yellow-skinned Amarilis and the red-skinned Chata
Roja--were so successful against blight that the farmers decided to plant
them on their own plots the next year, without awaiting further crop
tests. A year later, the new potato strains were cultivated throughout
Cajamarca by farmers who had been skeptical about the potato center
program. "Chata Roja was the real favorite because it had a very high
yield besides being resistant to blight," says Nelson. Incredibly, the
potato center's overly cautious breeders had developed Chata Roja 17 years
before, but kept it on the shelf all that time because they felt it needed
more lab tests to prove its resistance. "Sometimes, you just have to take
risks," says Nelson. "If you get farmers involved from the beginning, you
won't have to worry they'll walk away if a strain fails. Nothing is going
to be permanently successful against blight, anyway." She cites as an
example a genetically modified potato variety called Canchan, which gained
popularity throughout Peru because of its good taste, high yield and
resistance to blight, but eventually became so vulnerable to the disease
that it has been dubbed "Ranchan"--the colloquial name for late blight.
Ultimately, the success or failure of a new potato variety depends on its
acceptance by consumers--or, in practice, the wholesale marketers who
distribute the many potato strains to retail markets and food stands. The
largest wholesale market in Peru is La Parada, located on the outskirts of
Lima. Sprawling over 100 square blocks, La Parada sells 1,200 tons of
potatoes every day from 3 a.m. to noon.
The potatoes pour into La Parada overnight from the wind-swept Andes, the
baking coastal plains and the rain-lashed Amazon highlands. Traffic jams
on the periphery of the wholesale market are stultifying. Trucks disgorge
their loads several blocks away from the main entrance, where an army of
porters carries the produce to more than 300 wholesale stands. "There's a
lot of wastage because so much produce rots or gets eaten by vermin," says
Fernando Cilloniz, president of a management consultancy and a leading
expert on food distribution. "La Parada's vendors have little incentive to
correct these problems because they know they have no real competition." A
decade ago, Cilloniz was predicting that modern supermarkets would largely
replace La Parada. But years of economic stagnation have discouraged
investment in supermarkets, which account for 20% of the food distributed
in the country.
Rebecca Nelson visits La Parada one Friday at dawn, partly out of
curiosity over which potato center-bred potato varieties, if any, are on
sale, but mainly because her younger son, Benjamin, wants her to pick up
as many different potatoes as possible for his show-and-tell class later
that day. La Parada is notorious for crime, and Nelson arrives without
jewelry or a watch and is accompanied by a bodyguard. The real threat,
though, is getting bowled over by porters rushing in every direction.
Swarms of these small, muscular men trot through the crowded alleys with
almost unbearably heavy 80-kilo (176-pound) bags of potatoes. Their backs
are bent to a parallel plane above the ground, their faces fixed in a
sweaty grimace, and their downcast eyes unable to search out more than a
few feet ahead.
"Pasando! Pasando!" ("Coming through!") they groan. This is work for the
desperate: recent rural migrants, ex-cons, youths with facial deformities
that render them unemployable elsewhere. They last only a few years before
hernias, slipped discs and broken backs force them into other means of
survival. Nelson's contact at La Parada is the biggest wholesaler, Ines
Talavera, a woman known as La Reina de la Papa, or the Potato Queen, and
portrayed in the local press as a mafiosa. According to Cilloniz, the
management consultant, Dona Ines' power is exaggerated and her notoriety
"She controls maybe 3% of the $120-million annual turnover at La Parada,"
he says. "And she is a person of excellent character. But you know how
people love to think that the world is run by evil conspirators." In fact,
Dona Ines--as everybody calls her--projects a mix of competence and
fragility. A small woman close to 70 years of age and with a paralyzed
right arm, she sits on a chair placed on a raised wooden platform to
better view the squads of porters with their arriving booty. Her cell
phone rings constantly with the latest wholesale market prices and with
purchase orders from restaurants. Most of her clients, though, are small
vendors who personally come for the potatoes, which they will peddle at
street stands throughout the city.
Dona Ines sells some 20 different potato varieties. Nelson recognizes some
potato center-bred strains, including Canchan, the formerly miraculous,
bioengineered potato that has recently lost its resistance to late blight.
But other varieties are a total mystery to Nelson. "What's that?" she asks
Dona Ines, pointing to a 6-inch-long, curving oval tuber. "Lengua de buey"
("Ox tongue"), replies the Potato Queen, using its perfectly apt nickname.
Nelson observes that for the most part, the potatoes on sale are
traditional varieties, the same ones that have dominated the market for
decades. "That can't be helped," says Dona Ines. "I offer what my clients
want. I don't see any great demand for more varieties."
Certainly Dona Ines has little use for most of the dozen potato varieties
being harvested that same week at Aymara, the village high up in the
Andes. On a gently sloping two-acre plot, a score of men and women are
helping Carlos Hidalgo, the community leader, dig up his potatoes. Some
varieties have nutty flavors, others are almost as sweet as yams, and a
few are as rich as egg yolks.
"We eat potatoes three times a day," says Hidalgo. "They have so many
different tastes." Hidalgo wants his two boys, 6 and 4 years old, to
become farmers and stay in Aymara. But he thinks that will only happen if
new, more disease-resistant varieties can be introduced that will break
the cycle of feast and famine. Though Hidalgo continues to believe in the
power of stargazing and natural phenomena to foretell harvests, he hopes
to enroll in a potato center field school on pest control.
"I want to learn about those microbes," he says, squinting an eye into
hands curled into the shape of a microscope. Hidalgo's seemingly
contradictory embrace of the traditional and the modern doesn't surprise
Nelson. "These farmers are open to new ideas as long as they can be shown
to work," she says. "I never came across farmers who acted out of
irrational superstition. Still, there are things that we scientists just
don't get." Last year, when an earthquake devastated the region around the
southern Andean city of Arequipa, farmers elsewhere in the mountains
predicted--correctly--that there would be heavy rains even though the wet
season hadn't yet started.
"I don't know any reason why there should be a connection," says Nelson.
"My maid tells me the wind blows funny when there's about to be an
earthquake--and she's right. I've heard of villages where dogs howl and
cats meow when someone is about to die. And I've seen enough strange
things happen that I just say to myself: 'Here, this is true.' "