Today in AgBioView: June 1, 2003
* Bush Confronts Alliance Angst
* Bush Urging the World to Embrace the Wonders of Biotech
* Biotech War Recast as Hunger Issue
* Egypt NOT Pulling Out of US-Led WTO Suit Against EU!
* Wrong Time, Wrong Trade Fight
* German Econ Minister Supports Lifting EU Biotech Moratorium
* No Risk in GM Food, say Doctors
* Costa Rica Takes a Balanced Approach to Biotech
* Grim Harvest: Illegal Seeds Offer Regulators Invaluable Lessons
* Bales of Red Tape
* India Dawdles over Bt-cotton
* Agbiotech Climbs Africa's Agenda
* Africa's Dilemma in Genetically Modified food War
* No Deal on Biotech Food: Industry, Opponents Fail to Agree on Regulation
* Mae Wan Ho vs Conrad Lichtenstein, Nottingham Debate
* Plant Sap Associated with Childhood Cancer
* Hugh Grant Is Elected President and CEO of Monsanto
* A Genetically Modified Prince - 'Test Tube Baby' Inventor Attacks
Charles on GM Food
* Crisis in the Cupboard - Newsweek on Monoculture
Bush Confronts Alliance Angst
- James Rosen, The Sacramento Bee, June 1, 2003 Full story at
Evian, France -- President Bush arrives in France today with a message of
tough love for European leaders, affirming the importance of the
trans-Atlantic alliance but setting his own terms for its future
Bush openly criticized France and Germany for opposing the increased use
of genetically modified crops, a scientific frontier in which American
firms have led the way. "I hope European governments will reconsider
policies that discourage farmers in developing countries from using safe
biotechnology to feed their own people," Bush said. Asserting that he had
increased U.S. aid to poor countries by 50 percent and taken steps to
ensure the money won't go "to corrupt elites," Bush expressed the hope
that "European governments will adopt the same standards."
Bush Urging the World to Embrace the Wonders of Biotech
- James Pinkerton (Newsday columnist), Erie Times News, June 1, 2003
On the one hand, President Bush is urging the world to embrace the wonders
of biotech. On the other hand, Bush is urging Americans to forgo those
wonders. Meanwhile, Democrats are forming an opposition. And so a conflict
of visions is emerging, a conflict with implications for the 2004
presidential election -- and vast implications for the 21st century.
On Wednesday, Bush launched into a discussion of the "long-term problem of
hunger in Africa," declaring the need to apply "the latest developments of
science." Indeed, technology has made food more abundant. Yields for
American corn growers, for example, have risen from 29 bushels per acre in
1900 to 134 bushels per acre in 1998, according to the University of
But the president had a particular kind of science in mind: Genetically
Modified Organisms -- a science that could further accelerate U.S. ag
exports, which totaled $51 billion last year. As Bush argued, "By widening
the use of new high-yield bio-crops ... we can dramatically increase
productivity and feed more people across the continent." And yet, he
continued, "Our partners in Europe are impeding this effort. They have
blocked all new bio-crops because of unfounded, unscientific fears."
Indeed, Europeans are opposed to what they deride as "Frankenfoods." But
so are many Americans. The non-engineered "natural foods" industry is a
$7.8-billion enterprise in the United States, growing at 22 percent a
year, according to ABC News.
Yet while Bush has gone on offense in one biotech sector, he is on the
defensive in another sector. On the same day that the president spoke, one
of his leading would-be challengers spoke, too. Sen. Joe Lieberman,
D-Conn., unveiled an ambitious approach to health care, focusing more on
Big Science than on Big Government. Noting that chronic diseases afflict
100 million Americans, Lieberman proposed a $15-billion-a-year research
program. The heart of his pitch was a new Health Advanced Research
Projects Agency, deliberately modeled after the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency. DARPA, among breakthroughs, established the Internet in
the late '60s.
Lieberman aims for similar breakthroughs in health and is willing to
reverse federal policy to achieve them. As he said, "On the first day I am
privileged to enter the Oval Office, I will rescind the ban on stem cell
research." He declared that the current government "ban" on such
embryo-based research -- really a partial ban, promulgated in August 2001
-- is inhibiting research gains on a variety of ills.
One such malady is Parkinson's disease, one of the most visible victims of
which is Pope John Paul II. And while the Catholic Church opposes the stem
cell research that might help the pope, others don't share that view. One
critic is Jonathan Turley, the George Washington University law professor
who came to notice in the late '90s for his harsh criticism of Bill
Clinton during the impeachment debate.
Now Turley has a new cause — the May 15 Chicago Tribune featured an oped
in which he revealed that his father had the same affliction as the pope.
Turley wasn't fatalistic, but instead angry: "Promising research into a
cure for Parkinson's, and other diseases," he opined, "is being stymied by
the Bush administration's restrictions on federally funded stem cell
research." He lamented that government policy holds the number of
available stem cell "lines" -- groups of research-worthy cells, derived
from human embryos — to just 11, when the number needed for future cures
is more on the order of 100, or even 1,000.
Thus the paradox: Bush is trying to persuade the rest of the world to
accept our genetically modified exports, even as he tries to persuade
Americans that they should reject genetically modified medicines. To be
sure, there's a difference between tinkering with corn and wheat for
enhanced exports and tinkering with human embryos for medical cures. But
then again: Isn't saving lives here in the United States as important as
saving lives in Africa, or enriching American agriculture exporters?
Bush has made his choice: more food, fewer cures. And yet it seems that he
has surrendered the bio-crux of the issue by praising the benefits of
genetic modification. So now Lieberman, joined by many other Democrats,
must make their case -- that saving American lives is more important than
increasing American crop yields.
Biotech War Recast as Hunger Issue U.S. Presses Europe to Accept New Crops
- Elizabeth Becker & David Barboza, International Herald Tribune & NY
Times, May 29, 2003
President George W. Bush is framing his attack on European resistance to
genetically modified crops as part of a campaign against world hunger. But
even critics of Europe's stance say that the dispute needs to be
understood for what it is: a battle over billions in agricultural trade.
Several experts questioned why such a provocative argument was being made
at a time of trans-Atlantic tensions, especially since the promise to
create higher-yield biotechnology crops for poor countries has yet to be
realized. Some of the largest American agriculture and biotechnology
companies have invested billions over the past decade to develop and
market genetically modified crops, but only wealthier nations can afford
them. American farmers have planted more than 70 million acres of
genetically modified corn and soybeans and are furious that they are
banned from Europe, the largest food importer in the world.
Farmers and biotech companies have sent their lawyers and lobbyists to
Capitol Hill, the White House and State Department to influence
policymakers and, in some cases, remind politicians of the importance of
the farm belt vote in next year's election. The administration filed the
equivalent of a lawsuit against Europe at the World Trade Organization
last week arguing that the ban violated international trade rules. At the
G-8 summit in France this week, the Bush administration is expected to
press its case for Europe to accept biotechnology crops, which are
genetically altered to do things like release their own insecticide. Bush
and his aides are making an emotional plea, saying the administration's
stance is part of the fight against world hunger.
In a speech last week he accused Europe of hindering the great cause of
ending hunger in Africa with its ban on genetically modified crops. By
refusing genetically modified crops, Bush argued, Europe was setting a bad
example that led African nations to reject genetically modified food that
could save millions of lives and dampened enthusiasm for research. Even
officials who want Europe to lift its ban said that Africa's hunger
problem would not be solved by opening up Europe's market. It's quite a
stretch to tie the problem of the ban against genetically modified food in
Europe to starving children in Africa, said Dan Glickman, former secretary
of agriculture and a champion of biotechnology. It is also a bit
provocative to say the Europeans don't care about world hunger.
Scientists working on improving crop yields in Africa agree. In general,
that is not the case at all, said Pedro Sanchez, director of tropical
agriculture of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and chairman of
the United Nations' Millennium Project Task Force on Hunger. The main
problems in Africa have to do with soil fertility problems, he said. Until
you solve the soil problems, it doesn't matter whether you use
conventional or genetically modified seeds.
Lawyers and lobbyists for agribusiness and farm groups have accented the
damaging effect of the ban on their business as well as world hunger.
Mickey Kantor, the first trade representative for President Clinton and a
lawyer whose firm represents Monsanto, the giant of biotechnology
companies, says the trade dispute has grown beyond complaints from
biotechnology companies. Of course we made our best case to the trade
representative, he said. but it's not just about the industry anymore. It
is a technology that can have a positive effect on world hunger.
Many agriculture economists say the trade war over genetically modified
crops could determine the future course of agriculture. The debate centers
on opposing views about food safety and the need to test a new product
before it is put on the grocery shelf. Jane Rissler, formerly a regulator
at the Environmental Protection Agency and now a senior staff scientist at
the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the European testing could be
helpful since testing of genetically modified seeds is largely done by the
industry itself and not federal agencies. Our position is that each
product should be looked at on a case-by-case basis, and that is not being
done today in the United States, Rissler said.
If the ban is lifted, Europeans plan to require not only tests, but also
labels spelling out which products contain genetically modified crops.
With European consumers largely opposed to biotechnology, American
companies and farmers said they are afraid they would still be unable to
sell their products in Europe. We would have to really change our
production patterns if the Europeans put in the traceability and labeling,
said Mary Kay Thatcher, director of public policy at the American Farm
Bureau Federation, the largest farm group. We rely on export markets for
one-third of our crops. It's just a nightmare, Thatcher said.
Egypt NOT Pulling Out of US-Led WTO Suit Against EU!
From C. S. Prakash: See the story below about Egypt chickening out of the
WTO suit. It is simply not true! I checked with the US Trade
Representative's Office, and apparently they are very surprised about this
whole story as they have so far not formally heard any thing from the
Egyptian Govt or the Egyptian Embassy officials. Thus, as it stands now --
Egypt is very much in line with the US on the WTO suit.
It all apparently started with Friends of Earth's press release that
several news media picked up. Looks like FOE is simply trying to throw
its beloved organic manure on the case - And, instead of hitting the fan,
it appears to be simply drenching them back!
Blow to US as Egypt pulls out of modified crops case
- Tobias Buck, Financial Times (UK) May 29, 2003
The US-led challenge to the European Union's ban on genetically-modified
crops suffered an embarrassing setback yesterday when it emerged that
Egypt had withdrawn its support for the case before the World Trade
The decision, revealed yesterday by environmental groups opposed to the US
action, was contained in a letter sent by Egypt's EU ambassador, Soliman
Awaad, to the Brussels-based European Consumers' Organisation. The letter
said: "The government of Egypt took this decision in conscious emulation
of the need to preserve adequate and effective consumer and environmental
protection, and with the desire to reduce further distortions and
impediments to international trade that may result due to the further
pursuit of this matter within the WTO."
US officials immediately challenged the claim, saying Egypt would support
the case. But Egypt has not filed any documents in Geneva, the WTO
headquarters, in support of the case. The decision, if it stands, could be
a blow to US efforts to win developing country support for the case. The
US announced earlier this month, in launching the WTO challenge, that
Egypt would be a co-complainant with itself, Canada and Argentina.
Egypt's participation was seen as crucial to the long-held US view that
the EU's restrictive position on GM crops harms developing countries.
President George W. Bush last week accused the EU of fostering hunger in
Africa by impeding US efforts to sell GM crops.
The European Commission reacted with thinly-disguised glee yesterday.
"That is pretty embarrassing for this 'coalition of the willing'," one
official said, adding that the US had "put the group [of complainants]
together in a total haste - so really it's no wonder the whole thing is
now falling apart". The Commission denied it had exerted pressure on
Egypt. While Europe is an important trading partner for Egypt, buying
about one quarter of its exports, the US remains Egypt's most lucrative
The EU is also trying to exercise gentle pressure on Argentina to
reconsider its support for the case. Argentina's corn exports to the EU,
for instance, have tripled since 1995 during the period when US corn
growers were blocked from Europe because of the GM moratorium.
Wrong Time, Wrong Trade Fight
- Stephen Olson, South China Morning Post, May 30, 003
The Bush administration recently announced that it is filing a case at the
World Trade Organisation against the European Union moratorium on
genetically modified foods. This long-festering dispute has pitted
European concerns over the safety and environmental impact of genetically
modified organisms against the US assertion that scientific studies have
demonstrated their safety.
From the US perspective, the EU moratorium is all about disguised
protectionism. From the European side, it is about reasonable measures to
protect the health and safety of its citizens. The fallout from this
transatlantic spat will be felt far beyond North America and Europe, as
biotechnology becomes a growing issue throughout Asia - in China, in
particular. China has dramatically accelerated investments in
biotechnology and accounts for more than half the developing world's
spending on plant biotechnology.
Many of the dynamics at the heart of the US-EU dispute exist in Asia as
well, and the ripple effect of the case's outcome will help shape the
development of this increasingly important industry in Asia.
The dispute is probably an instance in which the Bush administration is
right on the scientific and legal merits, but wrong on the political and
strategic aspects. Provided that the interests of consumers are protected,
and health and environmental issues are taken into account, biotechnology
holds the potential to deliver cheaper and more nutritious food to
consumers throughout the world. Unreasonable or unscientific barriers
should be eliminated. But from a strategic point of view, now is not the
time for an acrimonious brawl.
Trade disputes typically involve mind-numbing, esoteric issues that are
indecipherable to all but the most knowledgeable trade lawyers. Issues
such as the calculation of anti-dumping margins on imports of hot-rolled
steel are not exactly the subject of dinner conversation in most people's
homes. As such, WTO cases usually have a fairly low profile. The issue of
biotechnology is, however, profoundly different. This is one issue being
discussed around the dinner table, and is often about the very food being
served on the table. The image of so-called "Frankenstein food" (as
genetically modified food is known to its opponents) is powerful indeed.
The health consequences of the food we serve our families is
understandably an intense, personal issue. It is not hard to understand
why people become passionate and politically engaged on the issue of
genetically engineered food products. Large-scale public demonstrations
against biotechnology have taken place in Europe in the past, and we are
likely to see more, as the current WTO case unfolds. US fast-food chains
and corporations are once again likely to serve as symbolic punching bags
for European protesters to vent their frustrations and concerns. The
battle over biotechnology could prove to be one of the most bitter in
The biotechnology skirmish must be seen against the backdrop of larger
strategic considerations. No issue is more important to the long-term
stability and growth of the global trade and investment regime than a
successful conclusion to the current round of negotiations under the WTO,
known as the Doha round. While the US might not have needed to get the EU
on board to pursue its objectives in Iraq, it will most certainly need the
EU to bring the Doha round to a successful conclusion. But, by all
accounts, the transatlantic alliance was badly bruised in the diplomatic
jostling leading up to the war in Iraq.
Trade negotiators are busily working towards a critical ministerial
meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in September. This gathering is being billed as
a potential "make-or-break" meeting for the entire round. Prospects for
success in Cancun, however, are cloudy at best, and some observers are
predicting that a stumble in Mexico would delay or even sink the
successful conclusion of the Doha round. The chief stumbling block? Once
again, the issue of food, or more specifically, agricultural policy and
subsidies. The two main protagonists? Once again, the US and the EU.
There is much at stake in the Doha round. There are a number of seemingly
intractable issues already on the table. And relations between the US and
the EU are still suffering. Is now really the best time to launch a trade
offensive on such a controversial and emotional issue? This question is
especially relevant for Asia, which stands to gain a considerable amount
from a successful Doha round.
Granted, the US has a good story to tell on biotechnology. Credible
scientific evidence points to the safety of genetically modified
organisms, and lifting the EU moratorium would not force biotech food down
anyone's throat. Unfortunately, these points are likely to be lost in the
impassioned public debate about to unfold. In this type of environment,
the US will lose on biotechnology even if it wins.
The way forward is not through blunt force. Dialogue, science,
transparency and freedom of choice for consumers will be the keys, and
legitimate concerns must be addressed. Negotiators on both sides should
work diligently during the 60-day WTO consultation period to reach a fair
and equitable resolution. This is one case that must be resolved before it
reaches the courts.
A pyrrhic victory in the WTO on biotechnology is not in anyone's best
interests. Let us keep our eye on the bigger prize. Despite its merits,
this is the wrong trade fight at the wrong time.
Stephen Olson is vice-president of the Pacific Basin Economic Council.
German Economic Minister Supports Lifting EU Biotech Moratorium
- On The Plate, May 17, 2003 http://www.germany-info.org/
The German Economic Minister, Wolfgang Clement, has supported lifting the
de facto moratorium on the approval of biotech crops and food products in
Europe. During a visit to the U.S. this week, Clement also urged the U.S.
to comply with the ruling by the World Trade Organization's dispute panel
that declared certain illegal tax exemptions for exporting U.S. companies
German-US Economic Relationship takes Center Stage
The importance of the German-US economic relationship was underscored this
week in Washington as Germany’s Economics and Labor Minister Wolfgang
Clement met with US Vice President Richard Cheney, with all cabinet
members responsible for economic affairs and addressed the first ever
German American Executive Summit, a gathering of nearly 100 CEOs, top
executives, and government representatives from both countries.
In addressing the opening session of the summit on May 20, Clement pointed
out the significant role the Germany and Europe and the United States play
in invigorating the world economy. “The path to peace, greater prosperity
and development in the world lies in growth and employment, further
liberalization, and the reduction of trade barriers and national
restrictions. It is founded on peaceful commercial competition and the
cross-border exchange of goods, services and intellectual property.”
Clement said he was optimistic that with Germany and the United States
working on key trade issues, like ending the de-facto EU moratorium on
genetically modified foods and the implementation in the US of WTO rulings
on foreign sales corporations tax system (FSCs), progress can be made
towards the conclusion of the Doha Round of WTO negotiations at the next
No Risk in GM Food, say Doctors
- Kamal Ahmed, The Observer (UK), May 25, 2003
'Medical body may change its advice, but public needs more information'
The British Medical Association is to change its advice on the health
risks of genetically-modified foods after its Head of Science and Ethics
said she had seen 'no evi dence' that it posed a threat. Dr Vivienne
Nathanson told The Observer there was no direct health risk to people and
work needed to be done on the environmental impact of GM crops and on
reassuring the public that there were 'global benefits'.
She also said that 'indirect threats' to human health through possible
changes to the environment needed to be analysed. Nathanson was one of
the authors of the original BMA report into the dangers of GM foods in
1999, which said much more research was needed before health risks could
be ruled out.
The report came after controversial research from the Rowett Institute in
Aberdeen suggesting a link between GM potatoes and damage to rats fed on
them. It called for a moratorium on widespread planting of GM crops. 'We
cannot at present know whether there are any serious risks to human health
involved in producing GM crops or consuming GM food products,' the report
It promoted the 'precautionary principle' and was seized on by anti-GM
protestors who claimed it proved GM crops and foods were a risk. The BMA
report was seen as one of the seminal 'negative' assessments of the GM
industry, despite the association's insistence that it was a far more
balanced document than initially reported.
Nathanson will host a BMA 'round table' of experts to discuss updating the
BMA 1999 report. She said that because the science had moved on
considerably, she would be surprised if the BMA decided not to update its
evidence. Any softening of the line against GM foods would be a huge
boost to the industry in its campaign to convince the public that GM crops
Next week the Government will launch a 'nationwide debate' on the issue
with a series of public meetings. The Department for Environment, Food
and Rural Affairs has said it wants the public to have an input before it
makes the key decision on whether to give the go-ahead to GM crops later
in the year. Large-scale trials of GM crop growing at farms across the
country will then be completed and the results published.
Nathanson said that people needed much more information before they could
make a considered judgment. She said that at the moment the debate was
'hugely polarised' 'It is likely that the majority of people are not
quite sure what genetic modification means,' she said. 'There is no such
thing as no risk, but people have to be able to balance the risks and
Costa Rica Takes a Balanced Approach to Biotechnology
- Steven Lewis, May 5, 2003, Food Chemical News, Vol. 45; Issue 12
The Costa Rican government has thus far sidestepped pressure from biotech
opponents to restrict commercialization of bioengineered foods.
Blessed with a favorable climate, Costa Rica is the site of several
experiments involving biotech crops. One technological breakthrough that
promises to be of great commercial value for Costa Rica is bioengineered
bananas resistant to the costly black sigatoka disease.
The pressure for approving commercial planting of biotech crops will rise
over the next year as disease-resistant biotech crops produced at Costa
Rican research centers become available in commercial quantities. Given
the extremely cost competitive environment faced by Costa Rica's
traditional export crops, agricultural producers are already gathering
support for commercial biotech plantings.
The infrastructure for biotech approval is in place. The Costa Rican
Biosafety Commission has published procedures for exporting, importing,
and releasing biotech crops. In addition, it published a set of biosafety
regulations aimed at protecting the interests of the environment and the
nation's consumers. Costa Rica's Biodiversity Law of 1998 lays a general
groundwork for protecting and preserving the nation's native species but
does not go into depth on regulating biotech plantings.
The issue of biotech labeling has been on the back burner in Costa Rica in
recent years, but it will probably come to the forefront soon as
negotiations progress on a free trade agreement with the United States.
The agreement will give Costa Rican food processors affordable access to a
wider variety of transgenic North American food ingredients, and many
companies are already gearing up for increased food imports.
A report recently released by the Costa Rican Food Industry Chamber argues
that there is no need to label bioengineered foods. The report concedes
that it's important to monitor international studies related to possible
health effects, but it opposes mandatory process-based labeling on the
grounds that biotech foods have not been scientifically proven to be
harmful to humans.
Costa Rica's Phytosanitary Protection Agency released a report last month
supporting commercialization of biotech crops under development at the
nation's biotechnology research centers, including bananas, rice, and
white corn. Alex May of the agency's Biotechnology Section stressed that
concerns related to crop development have been very limited to date
because none of the crops are sold as food at the national level.
Grim Harvest: Illegal Seeds Offer Regulators Invaluable Lessons
- The Financial Express (India), (Sent by Andrew Apel)
Genetically modified crops are in the thick of yet another controversy. As
The Indian Express reported on Wednesday, a number of home-grown,
unapproved Bt cotton hybrid seeds -- obtained by a crude
cross-hybridisation of unofficial Navbharat 151 and local non-GM lines --
are being traded and sowed in the Gujarat cotton belt.
That that is the case shouldn’t surprise. Three years ago, Navbharat 151
had made a clandestine and impressive solo debut in the state, even as the
powers-that-be endlessly delayed granting official sanction to Bt
varieties from Mahyco. Then, when the latter finally hit the market after
a seven year waiting game, the desi (local) illicit seed outperformed even
Amidst all this, regulators failed to assess both, market wisdom and the
farmers’ determination to vote with their ploughs. The former dictates
that it’s near impossible to restrict any rational consumer -- especially
one who is empowered with adequate information and requisite purchasing
power --from gaining access to a successful product. And that was amply
illustrated by Gujarat’s farmers when they decided to reap for themselves,
by crook, the economic and environmental benefits long enjoyed
legitimately by their international counterparts.
Yet tragically, our regulators remained plagued with bureaucratic inertia.
They had various options on hand — They could have altered the approval
process and considered approving particular genes, instead of specific
crop varieties, which would have provided greater choice to farmers
unhappy with the legitimate option; they could have speeded up approvals
for newer Bt hybrids; they could have even regularised Navbharat 151 given
the impossible challenge of cracking down on a flourishing parallel trade.
Instead, they sat gloriously indifferent while a nightmare scenario played
out in Gujarat, one which now bodes ill for both, farmers and the future
of this technology in India.
Now, not only are thousands of kheduts greatly susceptible to over-priced
and poor quality seeds but because they are out of the regulatory loop,
one can expect rampant violations of biosafety guidelines to give rise to
environmental risks and reduced effectiveness of a valuable
The upshot of all this rather simple: No government can indefinitely
stymie the adoption of a beneficial technology. Market economics will
effectively prevent that from happening. But whether or not avoidable
negative externalities arise is certainly a function of effective
regulation. When will our secretive and excruciatingly slow-paced
regulators understand that?
Bales of Red Tape
- Indian Express, May 29, 2003
Revolutions cannot be tightly controlled and delivered in bite-sized bits,
certainly not agricultural revolutions. The transgenic chaos in Gujarat's
cotton belts highlights this amply. As reported in this newspaper on
Wednesday, the state is now virtually one big laboratory for a variety of
hybrids of genetically modified cotton seeds - none of them cleared by the
government, but most of them sought eagerly by farmers keen on reducing
pesticide consumption and increasing yields.
This illustrates how the Central government refuses to heed the dangers of
withholding the benefits of an emerging technology through excessive
red-tapism and downright dithering. Markets have shown they will acquire
the technology in any case, but outdated, unreasonable clearance
procedures will simply push producers and consumers into secrecy - thereby
increasing the very environmental risks the stringent clearance regime was
to have guarded against.
So it has been with Gujarat's Robinhoods of Biotechnology who offer
genetically modified cotton seeds to farmers at a fraction of the cost of
government-cleared GM seeds, and with promises of higher yields. First,
the story thus far. After years of experiments, in 2001 the government's
Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) cleared Mahyco Monsanto
Biotech's Bt cotton hybrid. The Bt gene spliced into the cotton seed is
aimed at making the plant resistant to the bollworm caterpillar, a pest
that consumes large chunks of the Indian farmer's harvest. Very
responsibly, the committee laid down immaculate procedures for farmers and
suppliers to follow. For instance, on the buffer to be maintained around
fields to minimise risks of cross-pollination, and on preventing the seeds
from being used for a second season to minimise the possibility of
But here's the rub. Instead of clearing the Bt gene, the committee only
okayed one hybrid. In the meanwhile, using simple, commonsensical
procedures, entrepreneurs in Gujarat created their own Bt hybrids. It is
estimated that these local hybrids have a 90 per cent marketshare in
Gujarat. This raises two concerns. One, it calls into question the
approval regime's piecemeal approach that deprives farmers of an optimum
choice. In India Bt cotton has reduced pesticide consumption by about 70
per cent. Surely a more scientific approval mechanism can be evolved that
broadens the clearance accorded after field trials. Two, driving
innovation into the black market, beyond regulation, ups environmental
Experience has shown you cannot fight the market, but you can control it
by rationalising procedures. The GEAC must be an aid to regulation, not
India Dawdles over Bt-cotton
- K.S. Jayaraman, Nature Biotechnology, June 2003. www.nature.com. Used
with the permission of the editor.
The Indian agbiotech industry suffered multiple blows at the hands of the
government in late April, calling into question whether genetically
modified (GM) crops have a future in the country. Not only has the entry
of additional GM crops into the Indian marketplace been delayed, but the
marketing of Mahyco Monsanto Biotech's (MMB; Mumbai) approved GM cotton
beyond 2004 is also up in the air.
On April 26, a parliamentary committee called for an independent review,
the results of which are expected by the end of August, of last year's
decision by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC; New Dehli)
to give MMB a three-year license to market three insect-resistant GM
cotton hybrids (containing the gene for Bacillus thuringiensis toxin; Bt)
in six central and southern states of India (Nat. Biotechnol. 20, 415,
2002). A day earlier, GEAC refused to grant permission to MMB to sell its
Bt cotton to farmers in northern India, citing sensitivity to curl leaf
virus spread by white flies that are rampant in that region. Also on April
25, GEAC called for more field trials and biosafety tests from ProAgro
(Gurgaon) for its GM mustard, rejecting the firm's commercial application
for a second time since 2001.
All of these setbacks have been influenced by conflicting reports over the
performance of Bt cotton in the country in 2002, the first year of sowing.
MMB claims that Bt cotton farmers obtained 30% higher yield using 65–70%
less pesticide. These claims have been called into question not only by
Greenpeace (Bangalore) and Gene Campaign (Delhi), a nongovernmental
organization headed by a geneticist, but also by the parliamentary
committee's report saying that "farmers who have grown Bt-cotton have been
put to loss in most of the places." MMB spokesperson Ranjana Smetacek
disputes the disparity. Out of the 50,000 farmers that sowed Bt cotton
hybrids in 2002, Smetacek says, "We collected data from 1,090 sites
whereas Suman Sahai (of Gene Campaign) talked to just 100 farmers."
E.A. Siddiq, a board member of the International Rice Research Institute
(Manila, Philippines) argues that like any new technology, Bt cotton will
have hiccups at the start. He says there are plenty of Indian farmers who
have had great success with Bt cotton and will continue to purchase and
plant it on their farms as long as the government does not take that
choice away from them.
But many feel that the major roadblock to wide commercialization of GM
crops in India is inter-ministerial rivalry, specifically between GEAC and
the Department of Biotechnology (DBT; New Dehli), which funds agbiotech
research in the country. According to a DBT report published in April
2003—Agricultural biotechnology research in India: status and policies—48
transgenic projects involving 15 crops in the public sector and 20
projects involving nine crops in the private sector are currently in
various stages of development in India. DBT has earmarked Rs.750 ($15.9)
million for crop biotechnology for the period 2002–2007. According to DBT
secretary Manju Sharma, "prospects of even higher financial outlays are
bright if tangible products come through" from ongoing transgenic
Many researchers working on transgenic crops are predictably upset at the
appearance of GEAC stifling the prospects that are both envisioned and
funded by the DBT. Ironically, the new controversy has come at a time when
the country's top agricultural scientists have overwhelmingly endorsed
genetic modification as a means to enhance the productivity of 10 out of
12 crops grown extensively in India (Current Science 84, 310–320, 2003).
Prasantha Kumar Ghosh, former advisor to the DBT and ex-member of GEAC,
told Nature Biotechnology the "stupid" decision only demonstrates the
power of bureaucrats who outnumber scientists in the committee. "GEAC has
no scientific logic for their decision making," says Shantu Shantaram, a
scientist with Syngenta that is engaged in promoting transgenic rice in
Asis Datta, director of the National Center for Plant Genetic Research
(New Delhi), says that other than causing confusion, the GEAC's actions
will not affect DBT-funded projects. But that is not necessarily the case
for industry. "After having once embraced GM technology, it seems India is
putting transgenic research in the reverse gear," says Arvind Kapur,
managing director of Nunhems Seeds (Gurgaon), a sister company of ProAgro.
"Whenever we want to release a variety, GEAC says data is not sufficient.
My company has already aborted our work on GM vegetable crops and now
ProAgro is thinking of going slow on mustard. I wonder why the government
is spending money researching transgenic crops if GEAC is going to stop
their cultivation?" says Kapur.
Industry leaders say that a national biotechnology policy and an
autonomous single window regulatory commission with complete transparency
and a scheme that allows the industry to use the facilities,
infrastructure and human resources of publicly funded institutions on
attractive terms are crucial. A new forum called the Association of
Biotechnology Led Enterprises (ABLE; Bangalore) launched in April 2003
expects "to build close links between academia, industry and government."
ABLE has appealed to the government to establish a $1 billion venture fund
for all fields of biotechnology and also create new national institutions
of biotechnology where industrial research and academic work can go hand
Agbiotech Climbs Africa's Agenda
- Jeffrey L. Fox, Nature Biotechnology, June 2003 Vol. No. 6, p589.
www.nature.com. Used with the permission of the editor.
Renewed efforts to bring agricultural biotechnology up to speed in
sub-Saharan Africa are visible on several fronts these days, and focus on
establishing biosafety rules and providing access to technologies.
However, whether these efforts will overcome the complex national and
international political forces that have proved so frustrating remains to
Speaking in Addis Ababa this April, K.Y. Amoako, the executive secretary
of the United Nations (UN) Economic Commission for Africa,
enthusiastically endorsed biotechnology, saying it was vital to improving
agriculture in Africa. In urging that biotechnology be tailored to meet
local needs, he also emphasized the importance of establishing "national
regulatory institutions for risk assessment and management." US State
Department (Washington, DC, USA) and US Agency for International
Development (USAID; Washington, DC, USA) officials also are speaking up on
behalf of biotechnology, saying it will help African farmers while also
bringing broader economic benefits.
Along similar lines, representatives from several African countries, US
biotechnology companies and the Rockefeller Foundation (New York, NY,
USA), with support from USAID, recently established the African
Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF; Washington, DC, USA) whose
mission is to help "smallholder farmers" in sub-Saharan Africa gain access
to new technologies. AATF will help to formulate licensing agreements,
including "royalty-free" transfers of proprietary technologies that "meet
the needs of resource-poor African farmers."
Meanwhile, several sub-Saharan countries are reviving homegrown efforts to
test and begin growing genetically modified (GM) crops. Zambia is gearing
up to test GM crops, even though its government made a stir last year when
officials rejected US food aid, citing concerns that GM corn that was to
be part of that aid package could interfere with food exports to the
country's European trading partners (Nat. Biotechnol. 21, 6, 2003).
Similarly, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Nairobi, Kenya)
announced in April the launch of a five-year, $12.5 million agbiotech
program to develop, for example, a virus-resistant sweet potato and
"The policy mission is to make Kenya a key participant in the
international biotechnology enterprise," says James Ochanda of the African
Biotechnology Stakeholders Federation (Nairobi, Kenya), referring to
regulatory developments. The Kenyan policy for handling GM crops
"identifies risk assessment and management as the cornerstone of the
biosafety regulatory system," he says, noting that these guidelines need
strengthening and the key institution needed to implement this framework
However, John Kilama, president of the Global Bioscience Development
Institute (Wilmington, DE), sees the current incomplete status of
national-level regulatory frameworks, particularly concerning biosafety,
as a major stumbling block to successfully introducing biotechnology to
African agricultural practices, while noting that few sub-Saharan nations
have implemented draft rules, except for South Africa.
As part of Partnership for African Development, representatives from South
Africa and Nigeria will be developing a model law for other countries to
consider as a framework while still paying heed to issues touching on
national sovereignty, according to Jocelyn Webster, who heads AfricaBio
(Johannesburg, South Africa). That model law project will help toward
eventually harmonizing national regulations throughout the region.
Meanwhile, some sub-Saharan governments have ratified the United Nation's
international Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which governs the transfers
of any GM organisms (Nat. Biotechnol. 18, 253, 2000), while many more have
signed it, including Tanzania and Cameroon this year, Webster says. And
Malawi recently passed its own biosafety legislation, expects to have
rules in place later this year and could begin conducting field trials
with GM cotton and corn by the end of 2003. Zimbabwe also has regulations
in place, although many other countries are still dealing with draft
legislation, says Webster. South Africa is way ahead, with a regulatory
system fully in place, several GM crops established and hundreds of other
biotech projects under way.
The "complex problem... of trade and politics" in the continuing
tug-of-war between the European Union and the United States over
biotechnology in agriculture is perhaps the biggest obstacle facing many
of the countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Kilama says. The
unwillingness of EU countries to import GM crops from their African
trading partners needs to be faced. "I'd like to be hopeful, but I'm a
realist," he says, suggesting that current enthusiasm about agricultural
biotechnology for Africa could soon face frustrations. "As long as Europe
is the primary trading partner for Africa, you just can't get around it."
"EU policies do have an effect on Africa," Webster says. And in some
cases, those GM-related policies are having a peculiar impact on
agricultural biotechnology within Africa, she adds. Namibia recently
decided not to import GM corn from South Africa to use as animal feed,
fearing that it would be commingled with non-GM feed used in growing
cattle destined for export to the EU. However, the EU itself is importing
Argentine-grown GM soy for use in animal feed, she points out. "None of
this makes sense."
Africa's Dilemma in Genetically Modified food War
- Izama Angelo, Fredrick Masiga & Lynn Musiita, The Monitor, May 29, 2003
Kampala -Uganda and other African countries are increasingly finding
themselves in the crossfire between the US and the EU over Genetically
Modified food (GM). Recently, US Trade Secretary, ambassador Robert
Zoellick announced that 13 countries including South Africa and Egypt have
now taken the EU to the World Trade Organisation asking it to break its
five year moratorium on the licensing of new GM products in Europe. Uganda
was however not named as one of the 13 countries.
The Monitor recently learnt the Uganda was formally requested to join the
trade war between the US and the EU over the GM agricultural products. As
result of this request, President Yoweri Museveni established a four-man
committee comprising the Attorney General, Francis Ayume, Minister of
Agriculture, Kisamba Mugerwa, Mr Patrick Rubweharo, and Dr Charles Mugoya
of the National Council of Science and Technology.
Whatever conclusions the council reaches, the stakes are high. Mr
Zoellick recently told a press conference that the EU's reluctance to
allow new GM products was scaring developing countries like Uganda from
adopting disease fighting, high-yielding crop varieties for fear that they
cannot export these crops to Europe.
"Uganda refused to grow a disease-resistant type of banana because of
fears that it would jeopardise exports to Europe," he said. "The human
costs of rejecting this agricultural technology without good reason are
enormous," Mr Zoellick said.
On Tuesday, the BBC quoted the US President Mr George Bush accusing the EU
of obstructing efforts to fight famine in Africa because of "unfounded"
fears over GM foods. "Our partners in Europe have blocked all new
bio-crops because of unfounded, unscientific fears," Mr Bush was quoted as
He accused European nations of "impeding" US efforts to reduce hunger in
Africa by opposing the use of GM crops. "This has caused many African
nations to avoid investing in bio-technologies for fear that their
products will be shut out of European markets," Mr Bush said.
US seed companies are keen to sell their products to foreign market, but
have so far had limited success. Many Europeans fear long-term harm to
human health and the environment. As the war of words between US and
Europe continues, the US has been knocking at the door of developing
countries seeking support for their case. Where does this leave Uganda?
Mr Richard Kimera, of the Uganda Consumer Protection Association said:
"This trade war between the US and Europe over genetically modified foods
is not a war for Uganda or Africa." Mr Kimera described the "food
politics", as a battle between economic elephants oblivious of the
interests of less developed nations. Uganda is not the only African
country concerned about bio-safety issues when it comes to agricultural GM
Zambia recently rejected US food aid amidst a humanitarian crisis because
of GM food fears. Zambia banned the aid; saying it would rather go hungry
than risk losing its export markets in Europe because its crops had been
contaminated with GM seed.
Uganda's dilemma is to avoid getting caught between the powers when the
options she has are already heavily weighed against her and other
developing countries, according to Godbar Tumushabe of Advocates Coalition
for Development (ACODE). He said government should not antagonise Europe,
which is its biggest donor and tradional partner.
One risk is that if developing countries like Uganda support the US
stance, they could find they are rewarded by US domestic farmers producing
cheaper produce in competition to them. In their publication, "Rigid
Rules and Double Standards. Trade, globalisation and the fight against
poverty" Oxfam International argues that trade rules are rigged in favour
of the rich countries. "In their rhetoric, governments of rich countries
constantly stress their commitment to poverty reduction, but use trade
policy to conduct acts of robbery against the world's poor.
Those barriers cost developing countries $100 billion a year-twice as much
as they receive in aid" Oxfam says. If developing countries increased
their world share of trade by 5 percent according to Oxfam, it would
generate $350 billion, seven times what they receive in aid.
Separately, even if Europe was to accept GM imports, Uganda has a long way
to go and millions of dollars to spend to achieve credible environments
for biosafety, one expert said. According to Dr Cheryl French of the US
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in the US Department of
Agriculture, Uganda is where APHIS was ten years ago.
The Environmental Challenge
- Peter H. Raven, Presented at the Natural History Museum, London, 22 May
2003 -- sponsored by Sense about Science. This article is now posted at:
No Deal on Biotech Food: Industry, Opponents Fail to Agree on
Recommendation for Regulation
- Justin Gillis, Washington Post, May 30, 2003
An elaborate, secretive effort in Washington over the past two years to
negotiate a truce between the agricultural biotechnology industry and its
critics has ended in failure, with the parties unable to agree on a plan
to strengthen biotech regulations in this country.
The talks foundered in recent weeks amid a dispute over whether to seek
legislation from Congress that would have given the Food and Drug
Administration strong power to judge the safety of foods containing
biotech ingredients, according to people with knowledge of the
In general, most scientists consider the current generation of biotech
products safe to eat. The industry, noting that hundreds of millions of
people have eaten genetically altered ingredients, argues that there has
never been a convincing case of harm. Most environmental groups
acknowledge that to be true, but counter that there have been few
long-term studies of the effects. They also argue that the products pose
at least theoretical environmental risks that haven't been studied
thoroughly. Consumer groups are tactically allied with the
environmentalists, supporting the technology in principle but wanting a
tougher regulatory system that answers safety and environmental questions
more thoroughly before a new crop is commercialized.
Complicating matters further, companies are developing not just biotech
plants, but also genetically altered animals, such as a salmon that grows
twice as fast as its natural counterparts. Many biotech companies are
tweaking food crops like corn to get them to produce pharmaceuticals or
industrial chemicals that aren't meant for human consumption.
The Pew discussions deliberately excluded environmental groups that think
biotechnology is inherently immoral or dangerous, as well as libertarian
groups that think the only problem is too much federal regulation.
Participants had to accept the premises that biotechnology is here to stay
and that it has to be regulated properly. That still left a wide range of
opinion.Several participants said that while the Pew discussions
deadlocked, sentiment could change rapidly if a biotech-related disaster
were to occur, such as scientific evidence that the new foods are harming
"My view is that the American public is generally comfortable with biotech
crops and animals, but they don't know a lot about them," said Gregory
Jaffe, director of biotechnology issues at the Center for Science in the
Public Interest and a participant in the Pew discussions. "If a crisis
were to occur, there could be a very swift and strong backlash against the
Mae Wan Ho vs Conrad Lichtenstein, Nottingham, Monday 2nd June
Conrad Lichtenstein is debating with Mae Wan Ho on Monday at Nottingham
Trent University, UK
Professor Conrad Lichtenstein is Professor of Molecular Biology, School of
Biological Sciences, Queen Mary, University of London. He has over 25
years of research experience in the field of Molecular Biology. His
research group was the first to engineer resistance to virus infections in
genetically modified plants, and has been involved in producing GM cotton
plants in Pakistan, with resistance to a serious viral disease.
Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, long-time critic of neo-Darwinism and genetic engineering,
and pioneer of a ‘physics of organisms’, is one of the most influential
and widely sought-after speakers in the new paradigm of organic science.
As Director and co-founder of the Institute of Science in Society and
scientific advisor to the Third World Network, she has had plenty of
opportunity to put her science in action. Mae-Wan has written more than
300 publications and a dozen books spanning several disciplines.
Plant Sap Associated with Childhood Cancer
A possible link has been established between the sap of the African
milkbush and endemic Burkitt's lymphoma (eBL), the most common form of
childhood cancer in sub-Saharan Africa. Sap from the milkbush plant,
Euphorbia tirucalli, which is found in most parts of Africa and notably
those areas with a high incidence of eBL, is used regularly in herbal
medicines, as glue, and as a play item for children.
Now research by Rochford et al. in the current issue of BJC shows that
even very low concentrations of the sap can ‘switch on’ otherwise inactive
forms of the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), believed to be a leading agent of
eBL. Specifically, three genes are activated, which control the virus’s
ability to replicate and infect new cells — processes vital for its
'Activation of the Epstein-Barr virus lytic cycle by the latex of the
plant Euphorbia tirucalli A. MACNEIL, O. P. SUMBA, M. L. LUTZKE, A.
MOORMANN & R. ROCHFORD; British Journal of Cancer 88, 1566;. (2003)'
Comments From Prakash: Talk about safe naturals! Nevertheless, our Vandana
continues to promote eating of such untested weeds in lieu of Golden rice
for vitamin A; and the natural health food industry peddles so much
unregulated and untested stuff touting miracle cures; Ironically poor
Zambians are forced to eat many poisonous roots because their government
has deemed that well-regulated and safety-tested Bt corn is a 'poison'!
Hugh Grant Is Elected President and Chief Executive Officer of Monsanto
ST. LOUIS (May 29, 2003) - Monsanto Company (NYSE: MON) announced today
that its board of directors has elected Hugh Grant, 45, as president and
chief executive officer (CEO) of the company, effective immediately. In
addition, he was elected to the company‚s board of directors. Grant, a
22-year veteran of Monsanto, served as the company‚s chief operating
officer for the past three years.
Hugh Grant was born March 23, 1958, in Larkhall, Scotland. He earned a
bachelor‚s of science degree in agricultural zoology with honors at
Glasgow University. Grant also earned a post-graduate degree in
agriculture at Edinburgh University, and a master‚s of business
administration at the International Management Centre in Buckingham,
He joined the former Monsanto Company in 1981 as a product development
representative in Scotland, and spent the first 10 years of his career
with Monsanto‚s agricultural business in a variety of European sales,
product development and management responsibilities. In 1991, Grant
relocated to St. Louis as global strategy director of the agriculture
division and was responsible for global management of the Roundup
herbicide franchise. In 1995, he was named Monsanto‚s managing director
for the Asia-Pacific region, where he had responsibility for the company‚s
agriculture, nutrition and pharmaceutical businesses in Southeast Asia.
TV Scientist Attacks Charles for His Stand Against GM Foods
- The Western Mail (UK) May 29, 003
'Research vital, says Winston'
LORD Robert Winston has launched an attack on the Prince of Wales for his
public stance against genetically modified foods. The fertility expert,
who is also renowned for his research into the human mind, says scientists
are prevented from doing tests on GM foods because of Prince Charles's
negative reactions towards them.
But he told audiences at the Hay Festival yesterday that such research was
essential. It's a crying shame - it (the research) should be going on,"
Lord Winston said. "We have an ideal situation in our universities to do
research responsibly and without the slightest danger."
The professor said that a third of the world's population was malnourished
and one of the reasons was because plants were destroyed in droughts. "We
have genes that could be put in the DNA of plants to make them
drought-resistant but we can't do the research because of the gut
Lord Winston - who recently presented the hit BBC series Human Instinct,
based on his latest book - covered decades of his pioneering work during
his hour-long talk - from the production of the first test-tube baby in
1978 to his recent research on transgenic technoogy.
LORD Robert Winston was born in 1940. He graduated from London University
in 1964. In 1970 he joined Hammersmith Hospital as a registrar and became
involved in research and development in gynaecological microsurgery.
His research into embryology and genetics is internationally recognised.
As a researcher into human reproduction, Lord Winston helped develop
techniques for sterilisation reversal. He was part of the team that
developed the first test-tube baby in 1978. He has researched into
various aspects of reproduction and founded the first NHS IVF programme.
His group's research enabled families with a history of a particular
genetic disease to have children free of fatal illnesses.
Lord Winston is well known today for a number of TV series, including The
Human Body, Secret Life of Twins, Superhuman and Human Instinct. He is
also an author of many books, including Infertility - A Sympathetic
Approach, Getting Pregnant and Making Babies.
A Genetically Modified Prince
- SHOLTO BYRNES, The Independent - London May 29, 2003
Professor Lord Winston, the impressively moustachioed fertility expert and
television boffin, has stepped up his attacks on Prince Charles. In the
past Robert Winston has criticised the Prince for his opposition to
genetically modified foods. Now Winston has added another charge, that his
views may reflect the fact that he stands to gain financially if people
switch away from GM food.
"I think it's deeply shocking that Prince Charles carries out this
campaign when he has an interest, because he's an organic farmer," Winston
announced at a talk at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival. Showing two
slides of Prince Charles, he continued: "Here he is drinking a cup of
Assam tea, one of the most genetically modified plants in the world.
Here's another picture of him receiving a carnation at the Chelsea Flower
Show. All the plants there are heavily genetically modified. In fact you
might argue that Prince Charles is rather genetically modified himself."
Crisis in the Cupboard
- Mac Margolis, Newsweek, June 9, 2003
'The plentiful food supply we take for granted has come at the expense of
agricultural diversity. Now the bugs and blights are taking their revenge'
Oranges are a big deal in Brazil. They account for 400,000 jobs and $1.2
billion in yearly exports; seven of every 10 glasses of orange juice drunk
worldwide are squeezed from Brazilian fruit.
THE FORTUNES OF Jose Luis Cutrale, said to be Brazil’s richest man, were
made in orange juice. But now the source of this bounty is in peril. Two
years ago a mysterious disease began attacking the roots and veins of
orange trees. In a matter of weeks the trees starve to death and the
splendid leaf canopy withers into a gnarl of barren branches as brittle as
witch’s hair. Scientists call it "sudden death." To Marcos Schrank, a So
Paulo grower who recently destroyed 12,000 stricken trees, there’s another
name for it. "This"--he nods at a stretch of bare dirt, as red and raw as
a wound--"this is like AIDS."
Actually, it’s more like tristeza da laranja ("the orange’s sorrow"), a
virus that ravaged the Brazilian countryside in the 1940s. In a few years,
the disease killed all varieties of Brazil’s orange trees except one: the
limo cravo . Brazilians hailed the limo cravo as something of a miracle,
and farmers made it the foundation crop of the orange industry’s renewal.
Of course, they knew--as farmers everywhere know--that planting only one
kind of anything is folly. History is rife with single-crop catastrophes,
from the locust storms of Biblical Egypt to the Irish potato famine. But
they risked it anyway. By the late 1990s, Brazil had overtaken the United
States in orange production. Today, 85 percent of Brazil’s 200 million
orange trees are grown from limo cravo rootstalk. In an ironic twist,
scientists believe that the new virus may be a relative of the orange’s
sorrow, returned to claim the one tree spared in the previous epidemic.
Says Nelson Gimenes, a plant pathologist at research lab Fundecitrus, "The
risk of catastrophe is enormous."
Ever since hunters and gatherers swapped spears for seeds, farmers have
waged war with germs and pests. Usually, producers have prevailed over the
pathogens. But today the stakes are infinitely higher. Old-style farms,
with a mosaic of different vegetables, fruits and cereals grown on a
single plot, weren’t terribly efficient, but the diversity of crop types
helped insure against catastrophic losses due to disease. In the rush to
feed the world’s billions, diversity has been sacrificed on the altar of
efficiency. Agriculture is now an industrial-scale enterprise, with huge
estates dedicated to the cultivation of a single crop--so-called
Today, fewer and fewer farmers produce massive quantities of super crops
that smother the land in a seamless carpet. Intensive irrigation and
synthetic fertilizers pump up yields. But these vast spreads are sitting
ducks for pests and pathogens, which farmers fight with ever-growing doses
of insecticides and weed killers. The most powerful new tools to defend
the gains of the green revolution--namely, genetically modified crops--are
taboo in many nations. That leaves farmers with a handicap. If some kind
of solution isn’t found, many scientists say, food crises will grow more
frequent and disruptive. Eventually we may find that the food supply we
take for granted may falter. "How long will it take before we have an
ecological disaster?" says David Tilman, an ecologist at the University of
Minnesota and a longtime scholar of monoculture farming. "We --can’t
afford to have a SARS in agriculture."
The green revolution, based largely on monoculture farming, saved much of
the world from the threat of starvation due to overpopulation--at the
expense of diversity. According to Jared Diamond in the journal Nature,
the first farmers chose from 200,000 species of wild plants and 148 wild
animals, but today only 100 plant varieties and just 14 different animals
are routinely cultivated--the ones