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 life.
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
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
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
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
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 propaganda.
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
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
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 material.
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
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 reserves.
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 herbicides.
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
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 Ambassador.
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
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
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 the facts.
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 her arguments.
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 building.
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
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 Revolution.
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 save both.ţ
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 of time."
Other initial signers of the declaration included:
* Oscar Arias, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Former President of Costa
* 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
* 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 hunger-related
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 gastrointestinal ailments.
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 global famine.
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
"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
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
"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 resources."
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
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
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 lag.
"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 Peruvian hinterlands.
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
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
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 undeserved.
"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
"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.' "