Today in AgBioView: August 12, 2003:
* Scientific Society's Sensible Moderate Position on AgBiotech
* ...Agricultural Biotechnology: Some Unspoken Truths
* GM Plants Can Survive Drought, Find Scientists
* GM Crops and the Limits of Consensus Politics
* Downloading the Kofi Annan's UN Report on Biotech
* Taking GM Food as Gift to Brits
* Farmers Say No to Greens
* Blue Revolution: New Way to Feed the World
* Gene Flow Assessment in Transgenic Plants
* Living With the Enemy: NGOs and Business
* Hightech Biotech to Play Role in Revolution
Perspective: 'Scientific Society's Sensible Moderate Position on
- Drew Kershen and Jeffrey Dean, American Society of Plant Biology News,
July/Aug 2003, Vol. 30, No. 4; www.aspb.org
In a recent letter to the ASPB News (vol. 30, no. 1), Steve Holzberg
raised a number of issues related to agricultural biotechnology. Several
of his arguments appear to be based on incomplete information and thus
serve to promulgate misunderstandings of fundamental legal and regulatory
concerns in this area. As a law professor specializing in agricultural
biotechnology and an academic researcher who has carefully followed
societal responses to this technology, we believe Mr. Holzbergís letter
deserves a response.
American consumers are vigilantly protected by the regulatory oversight
given to agricultural biotechnology products. Each of the concerns that
Mr. Holzberg raised has been carefully and thoroughly addressed, and each
of his concerns has been found wanting by administrative agencies and
court decisions. Moreover, European studies have found the concerns he
expressed to be lacking in merit. For example, a report by the European
Commission (summarizing 81 EU-financed studies over a period of 15 years
and involving several hundred European scientists) found no evidence of
additional harm to humans or the environment from approved transgenic
crops (European Commission, EC-sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically
Modified Organisms--A Review of Results [Oct. 2001, EUR 19884]).
More recently, in December 2002, the French Academies of Sciences and
Medicine issued reports concluding that transgenic crops had caused no
health problems for humans or animals and had caused no damage to the
environment (French Academy of Sciences, Genetically Modified Plants:
Report about the Science and the Technology [No. 13, Dec. 2002]). These
two French academies attributed the European objections to agricultural
biotechnology to "the propagation of erroneous information."
The FDA and USDA have consistently stated that voluntary labeling of
agricultural biotechnology products is both what the law allows and what
sensible policy adopts. As there are no health concerns with any approved,
presently marketed agricultural biotech products, those consumers who want
only nontransgenic ingredients can do so by looking for products
voluntarily labeled for that market. More specifically, these consumers
may purchase products labeled in accordance with the National Organic
Program as organic products.
With regard to the Canadian case against canola grower Percy Schmeiser,
the Canadian lower federal courts ruled that Mr. Schmeiser saved canola
seed from his fields, which he had sprayed with Roundup herbicide. Mr.
Schmeiser kept this Roundup-resistant canola seed in separate storage and
purposefully planted his fields with the segregated seed. Thus, Mr.
Schmeiser was not an innocent possessor of Roundup-resistant canola seed.
In light of these findings, the Canadian courts said it was irrelevant as
to how the seeds originally came to be in his fields--a factual dispute
that remains unresolved and contested between Monsanto and Mr. Schmeiser.
The courts ruled that Mr. Schmeiserís actions violated the patent in the
same way the courts would rule that anyone who multiplied a software
program had violated the intellectual property rights of the software
developer, irrespective of any dispute about how the person copying the
software program had acquired it.
Intellectual property rights are established from the domestic laws of
each nation. In Zambia, where no intellectual property rights exist for
plants, no Zambian farmer need have legal concerns stemming from the
unlicensed use of transgenic seed. Companies that develop such seed would
have no legal claim in Zambian courts because there is no Zambian law upon
which to file a legal claim. It should be noted that Zambia did not reject
the grains offered as food aid--the same grains eaten every day for a
nutritious, adequate diet by millions of people in Argentina, Canada,
South Africa, and the United States, and by Zambians in previous food aid
shipments--for reasons related to intellectual property rights.
Many of the other accusations Mr. Holzberg tossed into his letter have
similar, reasonable rebuttals, which may be obtained from any number of
informed sources and need not be recounted here. Fortunately, and by
contrast, in accordance with a majority of its membership, ASPB has
adopted sensible, moderate positions regarding agricultural biotechnology.
While ASPB members are entitled to their individual opinions, the Society
has wisely chosen to orient itself toward sound science and moderate
Drew L. Kersen, Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law, Univ of Oklahoma
Jeffrey F. D. Dean, Assoc Prof of Forest Biotechnology; Director, The
Plant Center, Unive of Georgia
Agricultural Biotechnology: Some Unspoken Truths
- Steve Holzberg, ASPB News, Jan/Feb 2003, Vol. 30, No. 1
As a plant biologist with experience in both academia and the agbiotech
industry, I have considerable interest in the issue of genetically
engineered (GE) plants. However, I am troubled by recent discussions in
the ASPB News that have downplayed consumer and farmer rights and ignored
corporate abuses of GE technology.
Perhaps the most important issue is the right of consumers to know what
they are eating and how it was produced. It is the consumerís prerogative
to act upon the information found on food labels, or not. It is not the
responsibility of government, private industry, or academia to decide what
consumers want or are capable of understanding. Instead, these
institutions should work together to provide the clearest and most
informative labels possible, on every issue that may be of concern to the
consumer. With these principles in mind, I was appalled that Dr. Vicki
Chandler would use me, as one of 6,000 ASPB members, to lend weight to her
letter of opposition to HR 4814, a bill that calls for labeling of GE
foods (ASPB News, 2002). How can one person claim to speak for all of us
on such a divisive issue?
Labeling would begin to address one of the main objections to GE foods and
products: a deep mistrust of the companies producing them and a regulatory
process that appears susceptible to political and corporate pressure.
Unfortunately, this distrust has been earned. In general, the commercial
brokers of GE seeds are large multinational corporations known for their
production of herbicides and pesticides and their poor track records
regarding environmental and consumer protection. Even today, pesticides
and herbicides (DDT, paraquat, clopyralid, atrazine, diazinon, methyl
bromide, and EDB, to name a few) are being banned, restricted, or phased
out after decades of use because their purported safety for workers,
consumers, and the environment was false.
Genetically Modified Plants Can Survive Drought, Find Scientists
- Cordis News Service, August 12, 2003-08-12 http://dbs.cordis.lu/
Scientists at the University of Bonn in Germany have identified the gene
which enables plants to survive droughts. The news is likely to be
welcomed by the country's farmers, who estimate that this year's heat wave
could mean the loss of up to 80 per cent of their crops.
The researchers began by examining the resurrection plant, native to South
Africa. In dry conditions, the plant shrivels up and turns brown, but when
rain comes, whether it has been weeks or months, the leaves become green
again within the space of a few hours. The plant can lose up to 95 per
cent of its water reserves without being harmed. It does this by slowing
down its metabolism to almost zero during the dry period.
'By looking at which genetic features are mainly active during periods of
drought we are attempting to understand which molecular processes make the
plant so hardy,' said Professor Dorothea Bartels, from Bonn's Botanical
Institute. The researchers found that a series of genes is used only
during drought periods. They then discovered that one of these genes also
exists in mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), a plant indigenous to
The gene in question contains the structural plan for the detoxification
enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). The Bonn scientists supplied the
ALDH gene of the mouse-ear cress with the equivalent of a turbocharger,
ensuring that it kicks in much more frequently. The result was that the
genetically modified plants not only produced much more ALDH, but they
also survived longer periods of drought - 16 days, compared with 12 days
for wild mouse-ear cress.
The discovery cold lead to the development of drought-resistant varieties
of maize, wheat or soya. With one third of the world's population expected
to be living in arid conditions by 2025, such a development may be very
For further information, please contact: The University of Bonn, Tel: +49
GM Crops and the Limits of Consensus Politics
- David Dickson, Scidev.net, August 11, 2003
An ambitious new attempt to establish a global dialogue on the future of
world agriculture must be prepared to grapple with the realities of
It is often said that if the industrialised world had put the same effort
into solving the world's food problem as it has into the development of
weapons of mass destruction, the problem would have disappeared many years
ago. Some argue that the shortcomings have been on the technical front,
and that insufficient research has been carried out on, for example,
increasing the productivity of crops grown in tropical - rather than
temperate - climates. Others, pointing to the way that intensive farming
has led to extensive over-production of basic crops (such as wheat) in
Europe and the United States, blame the failure on a lack of adequate
redistribution systems, and of the political will to implement them.
The reality, of course, is that the food problem has not been solved, and
that 800 million people around the world remain chronically
undernourished. There are multiple reasons. High among these is the
continuing lack of appropriate technologies to meet food needs,
particularly in regions with rapidly growing populations, and the
limitations on redistribution imposed by market forces through which
producers seek to maintain their profit margins. Other factors range from
worsening soil degradation - often the result of population pressures - to
shifting weather patterns.
The overall picture is complex, involving technical, environmental,
economic and political factors, and both objective and subjective
judgements. All the more reason, therefore, to welcome plans for a broad
international assessment that have been drawn up under the guidance of
Robert Watson, the World Bank's chief scientist. The proposals, agreed to
in principle last week by a wide range of stakeholders who have been
invited to participate (and now awaiting funding from various UN
agencies), will involve researching and preparing reports on a series of
questions that determine "the role of agricultural science and technology
in reducing hunger and improving rural livelihoods" (see Stakeholders back
global review of future agriculture).
But caution is also justified in welcoming this initiative. This does not
stem from any lack of determination or good will among those involved; the
statement announcing agreement on the assessment's basic terms of
reference was welcome by individuals representing groups as divergent as
Greenpeace International, the Third World Academy of Science, and the
agribusiness multinational Syngenta. The challenge is in ensuring that any
agreement arrived at by these groups is able to engage with the political
process in a meaningful way, and does not merely express the lowest common
denominator of their various positions.
Logic vs ideology
Take, for example, the first question outlined in a concept paper on the
proposed assessment that was circulated earlier this year: "What are the
underlying causes of nutritional insecurity and resource degradation and
how do we overcome barriers to alleviating hunger". It is easy to imagine
the range of stakeholders described above giving their name to a list of
factors, from a lack of relevant research to insufficient delivery
mechanisms for putting the results of this research into effect.
The root problem, as Watson himself acknowledges, is that much of the
debate is, and is likely to remain, rooted in ideological commitment. The
issue is most clearly visible when it comes to the question of
genetically-modified crops, where there is frequently little contact
between those that promote such crops in the name of productive
efficiency, and those who oppose them as both antisocial and
'anti-nature'. But, given the extent to which the production of food has
always been a central feature of social activity,
"...any attempt to characterise the issue of food production as a purely
scientific or technical one is itself doomed to failure..."and thus
always carried a heavy cultural significance, it is perhaps not surprising
that subjective factors (such as the fear of control by 'outsiders',
whether scientists or multinational corporations) affects the debate
across the board.
An immediate response to this difficulty, and one that is widely promoted,
is to seek to make a distinction between the ideological and the
scientific. To his credit, Watson has been central to one of the most
successful efforts at taking this approach, namely the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Faced with an issue as contentious and
divisive as global warming, the panel, set up under the auspices of the
United Nations, successfully divided the issue between its scientific and
social components. It then went on to establish a scientific consensus on
the first of these, embodied in its acknowledgement of the increasing
strength of evidence that Ė in the words of its third report Ė "most of
the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human
Can the same approach be applied to agricultural science and technology?
There are certainly grounds for optimism that it can; for example, a
global scientific review of the evidence of the actual or potential health
threats of GM crops would certainly be welcome, particularly if it were to
accurately estimate the likelihood of these threats occurring. Even here,
however, consensus is likely to provide elusive. And this will be even
more so - as many recent reports have demonstrated Ė when it comes to
sketching out the likely environmental impacts of such crops, given that
there is even widespread disagreement on the definition of the term
The IPCC may not, therefore, prove an entirely appropriate model to
follow. After all, in the case of climate change, the scientific issue the
panel addressed Ė namely, whether human activities were contributing
significantly to global warming Ė lay at the heart of the debate on the
need for action (subsequently manifest, for example, in the Kyoto Protocol
on emission reductions). But in the agricultural field, no such single,
overriding scientific question exists. Indeed, any attempt to characterise
the issue of food production as a purely scientific or technical one is
itself doomed to failure.
Expectations for the outcome of the new assessment, therefore, should not
be placed too high. Certainly not if these are based on waiting for a
consensus to emerge from any of the dialogues to be set up around relevant
issues and questions. But this is not to deny the potential value of the
process. Facilitating dialogue between opposing camps is always useful,
and the 'alternative scenarios' likely to be produced in the course of the
assessment will also be of value to decision makers.
At the end of the day, however, the key decisions will need to be made by
politicians, with the inevitable mix of ideological commitment and
pragmatic compromise. The best one can hope for is that such decisions
will be adequately informed. If the assessment can help achieve that
relatively modest goal, it will have justified its existence Ė even if it
does not pretend to have solved the problem of world hunger in the
International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology
THE REALITY: A world in which almost 800 million people go hungry and more
than a billion are very poor.
OUR DREAM: A world free of hunger and poverty
Announcing a consultative process on a proposed international assessment
of Agricultural Science and Technology: January through June 2003 in
regions throughout the world.
Downloading the Kofi Annan's UN Report 'Impact of New Biotechnologies'
Scroll down to the middle of the page to click on
"A/58/76 9 May 2003 Macroeconomic policy questions:Science and technology
for development - Impact of new biotechnologies, with particular attention
to sustainable development, including food security, health and economic
productivity - Report of the Secretary-General"
Samples of Food to Take to UK
- John W. Cross
Dear All, I am going to be in the UK in the fall, and it has occurred to
me that it would be very proper and polite of me to take a few gifts to
take to my friends there. What I have in mind are a few samples of GM
I had a brief conversation with the Visit Britain (the UK Tourism folks)
and they tell me that canned vegetables are legal to bring into Britain,
so I was thinking I would like to take a few cans of GM veggies. If there
are other types of GM foods that I could legally take in, I would be
interested in those also, but the canned variety are definitely legal. I
would prefer if the veggies are 100% GM, but something with a high
percentage GM would also be OK, even if we can't say what percentage
Does anyone know of a source of some canned GM veggies that I could take
with me? - Thanks, John Cross
Farmers Say No to Greens
- Sunday Mail (Scottish Daily Record), August 10, 2003
British farmers are turning their backs on organic produce because they
cannot compete with cheap foreign imports. The trend is developing
despite booming demand for organic food from shoppers.
An investigation by the BBC's Farming Today show found that the number of
farmers applying to go organic has fallen from 250 a month four years ago
to just 40 a month now. Farmers said they could not match import prices
and were not getting enough help from the big supermarkets and the
The Blue Revolution: A New Way to Feed the World
- Editorial, The Economist Aug 7, 2003, www.economist.com
If modern agriculture were invented today, it probably wouldn't be
allowed. It pollutes the environment with pesticides, fertilisers and
nutrients from feed and animal waste. Farming damages wild habitats and
wildlife. And domesticated animals are stocked at high densities and
pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics, with the result that they
are often unhealthily fatty compared with their wild relatives. Now,
people say the same sort of things about aquaculture. But it would be a
calamity if rows about the environmental effects of fish farming prevented
the development of a new industry, with the potential to supply most of
the world's fish.
All farming alters, and sometimes damages, the environment. Modern
aquaculture has arrived at a time when environmental knowledge and concern
has rarely been higher, and when it must compete with tourism and
home-owners as well as environmentalists for access to the coast.
Agriculture had the luxury of being able to pollute and alter the
landscape first and worry about the consequences later. Not so
aquaculture. Nevertheless, there is no sense in expecting modern
aquaculture to emerge immediately as a perfect food supply that pleases
everyone from animal lovers and greens to economists and industrialists.
The challenge will be to regulate it prudently and efficiently, not just
in the rich world but in poor countries and eventually farther out to sea,
Full story at
Gene Flow Assessment in Transgenic Plants
- J. Messeguer, Plant Cell, Tissue and Organ Culture. 73: 201-212.
In most of the important crops in the world, gene flow between cultivars
and between wild and weedy relatives has always taken place. Factors
influencing this gene flow, such as the mating system, mode of
pollination, mode of seed dispersal and the particular characteristics of
the habitat where the crops grow, are difficult to evaluate and in
consequence, the quantification of gene flow is not easy.
Transgene flow from engineered crops to other cultivars or to their wild
and weedy relatives is one of the major concerns in relation to the
ecological risks associated with the commercial release of transgenic
plants. With transgenic crops it is important to quantify this gene flow
and to try to establish strategies to control or minimize it, taking into
account the possible ecological effect of the newly introduced genes,
whether advantageous or disadvantageous.
he use of transgenic plants has proven to be an effective tool to quantify
the gene flow to other cultivars of the same species or to wild and weedy
relatives in all crops analyzed. Here we review the major studies in this
area, and conclude that the potential risk of gene flow has to be assessed
case by case and caution is necessary when making general conclusions.
Living With the Enemy: Non-governmental Organisations and Business
- The Economist, Aug 7, 2003 http://www.economist.com/
'Companies are increasingly under attack from NGOs. Should they
Being the boss of a big company besieged by indignant activists is not
much fun--though it is increasingly a fact of life. Mention, say,
Greenpeace, to a typical boss and he will often turn apoplectic. Still, a
growing number of executives are concluding that it is better to get along
with the lobbyists than to attack them. Just look at the rapid spread of
activist-friendly corporate social responsibility policies or listen to
Lord (John) Browne describe how green nowadays is his firm, BP--even if it
still makes its money selling oil.
Consider, too, the lengthening lists on the "Victories" pages of the
websites of campaigning groups such as the Rainforest Action Network.
Among its trophies is Citigroup. RAN campaigned to get the financial giant
to adopt policies to reduce habitat loss and climate change, urging
customers to cut up their Citicards and plastering the internet with nasty
jibes against named executives. In April, RAN announced a truce, claiming
that Citi had agreed to what it wanted. Not bad for a group with a dozen
staff and a $2m budget.
In the contest between NGOs and companies, size is no advantage. Nor is
being in the right. NGOs are increasingly pursuing their campaigns within
America's notoriously plaintiff-friendly legal system, with its potential
for huge payouts. (Worse, a case involving Nike now before the Supreme
Court might discourage firms from entering into public debate with
activists, by classifying their comments as ďcommercial speechĒ, which
lacks America's usual protection for free speech.)
So what is the best policy for a firm attacked by such NGOs
(non-governmental organisations)--which, in contrast to the many NGOs that
simply get on with doing good works, aim to force firms to change by
deluging them with bad publicity? Should the NGO be attacked, ignored or
befriended? The answer may vary, depending on the kind of business a firm
is in--and the nature of the NGO.
Many bosses face growing pressure to talk with their NGO critics--even if
this leads to little more than cosmetic action. Many folk assume that
firms such as Nike, Nestlť and Shell have paid heftily for being targeted
by a high-profile campaign.
Barking not biting. The memory of a campaign may linger, but evidence of
damage is scarce. Few customers of Citigroup seem to have cut up their
cards. Craig Smith of London Business School studied the impact of an NGO
campaign against a big European food firm and found that sales initially
dropped but recovered within a few months.
As for the share price, even in the case of companies pilloried for
investing in South Africa during the era of apartheid, two somewhat
incompatible studies found little reason to respond to the activists. One
found that pressure had no discernible impact on the share price; the
other, that announcing withdrawal from South Africa actually cut the share
This lack of impact may not be entirely surprising. Although the
utterances of NGOs are often reported in the media as if they were Holy
Writ, as they have become more sophisticated--even business-like--some
NGOs have selected their campaigns less for the significance of the cause
than for their ability to attract publicity and to raise donations from
consumers in the market for things to feel angry about.
Still, it can sometimes make sense to co-operate with NGOs. Some firms
will incur lower costs than others, or even gain, if they capitulate
quickly rather than fight, argues Debora Spar of the Harvard Business
School in a recent paper.
Thus, it may be relatively cheap for a firm such as Nike, harried by
activists for employing children to make its sports shoes, to accommodate
the demands of NGOs by switching to other suppliers. But the cost for
ExxonMobil to reduce its production of fuels that may contribute to
climate change, as Greenpeace demands, would be huge: arguably, shutting
itself down. Even though environmentalists invaded its offices dressed in
tiger suits (and though rivals such as BP do talk to NGOs), Exxon has
refused to negotiate on this.
But, notes Ms Spar, it may still pay for such firms to talk to activists
when they can gain competitive advantage as a result. For example, Exxon
worked with a large number of mainly local NGOs in Chad and Cameroon to
plan the development of oil extraction in Chad and the course of a
pipeline across both countries. DuPont has been wooing local activists for
years to persuade them to let it mine titanium-bearing ore from a site
near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia. Companies often
cultivate local NGOs in order to secure permits.
Where brand matters, it may be better to talk than fight. That was Nike's
response: its brand is the key to the value of its shoes. Burger King and
Wendy's, two fast-food chains, were hounded by People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals (PETA) over how animals are farmed and slaughtered.
Both caved in quickly. Now PETA wants court action to stop KFC making
ďfalseĒ statements about chicken welfare.
A different calculus faces Dow Chemical, which sells to other companies,
not to consumers. Dow is being pursued by Greenpeace because it acquired
Union Carbide two years ago: the campaigners want Dow to spend lots of
money in Bhopal, the scene of a terrible disaster at a plant that Union
Carbide had part-owned. They have invaded Dow's annual meetings for the
past three years, picketed its plants and staged hunger strikes in
America. So far, Dow's board has stood its ground and argued that it did
not acquire Carbide's environmental liabilities when it bought the
An NGO attack can wreak havoc with employee morale and on
recruitment--especially of the liberal graduates that contribute to many
NGOs. This is not lost on NGOs. Citigroup's senior executives hated being
pilloried and heckled, says Matt Arnold, a Greenpeace veteran with a
Harvard MBA who worked out details of the truce. BP finds that university
graduates frequently ask about its stance on climate change and human
rights. Software companies cream off many of the best graduate chemical
engineers, and BP worries that this is because they are seen as being
Time to stop shouting. Perhaps the biggest risk in talking to NGOs is that
a firm may just become a bigger target. Most environmentalists agree that
Citigroup handles green issues more intelligently than its big rivals. It
was targeted for the same reason that NGOs pick on firms such as Nike,
Home Depot, Shell and now Ford: these are leaders in good practice, and
care more about their reputation than others in the same industry.
This troubles some activists. "The more accountable you are, the more
vulnerable to being attacked," says Richard Sandbrook, a moderate British
green who conducted a review of the mining industry's environmental record
that was boycotted by most green groups who lobby against mining.
"Attacking those who take the lead strengthens the hand of doubters in
companies," argues Tom Burke, an ex-head of Friends of the Earth who
advises Rio Tinto, a mining firm, on environmental policy.
Moreover, when companies make concessions, NGOs often come back for more.
BP, which has worked hard to build a regular dialogue with a dozen or so
large NGOs, is now arguing about the construction of a pipeline between
Azerbaijan and Turkey that environmentalists and human-rights groups think
will breed conflict, corruption and other horrors. Andrť Madec, who
managed Exxon's relations with local NGOs in Chad, designed an initiative
on transparency with the government to discourage the corrupt use of oil
revenues. He was aghast when big global NGOs publicly rubbished his scheme
rather than trying to help improve it, thus ensuring that other African
governments would not contemplate one.
Some moderate activists argue that strident campaigning may become less
effective from now on. John Elkington, head of SustainAbility, a British
consultancy, says that big NGOs refuse to recognise the need for
accountability, just as companies once did. He thinks that their ďmarketĒ
is threatened by, for example, companies that have cleverly learned to
speak the language of social responsibility.
Certainly, companies yearn to turn the tables. Helpfully, in June the
American Enterprise Institute set up a website--called NGOWatch--with the
Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies to "bring clarity and
accountability to the burgeoning world of NGOs." Campaigners are
appalled: Naomi Klein, Canadian author of "No Logo" and who describes
herself as a "sweatshop activist", called it "bizarre".
But increasingly, firms may conclude that if they are going to have to
live with NGOs, they need to know which ones will play fair. Wise firms
should talk to those--and leave the others to their tiger costumes.
Hightech Biotech to Play Role in Revolution
- Barack Gogo, Biosafety News (Kenya), No. 41, June 2003. Excerpts below.
Full text at http://www.biosafetynews.com/story28.htm
Interview with Dr. Edward Clay, the Director of the Institute of
International Agriculture at Michigan State University 'DOES the small
holder farmer in Africa have a future? Not quite.'
Dr. Edward Clay, the Director of the Institute of International
Agriculture at Michigan State University predicts that the African farming
system will follow the same pattern of agricultural transformation that
other regions of the world such as North America, Europe, Asia, and now
China, have followed -- a transformation towards more large scale,
commercial type of farming as opposed to small holder subsistence type of
farming now prevalent in Africa.
In an interview with Biosafety News Managing Editor, Mr. Barack Gogo, in
his office at MSU campus, he argues that the current sub-division of farms
in Africa will end and a period of land reconsolidation will ensue
ushering in the era of large scale commercial farming. It is only through
such transformation, he argues, that the continent will optimise the
benefit that advanced agricultural technologies like biotech can provide.
Q: You are quite familiar with African agriculture. How would you describe
A: The African Continent is so ecologically diverse and also has great
diversity in levels of development and technology use. For example, we are
working in countries such as South Africa and parts of North Africa, where
agriculture is highly mechanised, but also in the rest of sub-Saharan
Africa in places such as Rwanda, where agriculture is primarily in the
hands of the resource-poor. At the core of African agriculture is the
issue of poverty and hunger. In the broad sense, there are issues that
deal with production, which is a very important issue, and that is where
biotechnology work comes in. This is also how the international
biotechnology short course and some of our other international programmes
On the other hand there is the whole development of markets, both domestic
and international, that of course ties in with infrastructure development.
My personal belief about it is that the most important thing of all is
development of human resources capacity. That is the bottom line.
Q: Given your tour of duty in Africa, obviously you are familiar with
peculiar problems faced by agriculture in the continent. Are you convinced
that biotech has a role to play in solving Africaís complex agriculture?
A: I think biotechnology does have a very important role to play. I think
thatís true of technology in general. Some of the conventional
technologies, like plant breeding and agroforestry, are important in
addressing Africaís agricultural constraints. These are all important, so
you canít look at one and say: "This technology is the silver bullet that
will turn around agriculture in Africa". Itís the bigger combination of
these technologies thatís going to be essential, and I see biotechnology
as part of that.
I see biotech as offering a great deal of promise for several reasons. One
is that biotechnology has the potential for allowing us to improve
productivity without having to increase inputs, or at least at a more
modest level of inputs. For example, developing crop varieties that are
resistant to insects. This will help eliminate or reduce the use of
pesticides. So environmentally, they are in some ways more friendly to
begin with and also less costly, in the sense of the need for external
inputs. I think there is tremendous potential for Africa in adopting
insect-resistant crop varieties due to the cost of pesticides, which are
often beyond the reach of resource-poor farmers.
Again if you look at the potential for biotechnology in helping develop
crop varieties that are drought-tolerant, then Africa, with its fragile
ecosystems, will benefit a lot. I worked for some years in Ethiopia and
other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where drought is a recurring threat
particularly because agriculture is rain-fed. Through biotechnology we can
produce crop varieties that are drought-tolerant.
Q: The strength of biotechnology lies in the seed. But given Africaís
complex agricultural problems such as degraded soils, very small farms and
poor infrastructure, will the technology really make a difference?
A: Biotechnology alone is not going to solve the problem. It really is all
of these other pieces. Having improved seed has always been important to
agricultural development. Look at the Green Revolution. That was not
biotechnology, but it provided improved seed that was a very important
part in the agricultural transformation in Asia and Latin America. That
was coupled with high input use and human capacity development and so
forth. So it is the bigger picture.
Q: And that begs the big question: Is it possible to achieve in Africa the
kind of Green Revolution we saw in Asia and Latin America?
A: Africa is not in some ways unique. You have a very large percentage of
the population involved in low-resource agriculture. But Africa today is
not different from Asia at the beginning of the Green Revolution. Small
farms have always been the dominant form of agriculture in Africa and
parts of Latin America and Asia. But the question you have to ask is where
African agriculture will be 20-25 years from now?
Is it really going to be a continent of smallholders of less that five
acres as we have seen in some countries like Rwanda, where land
subdivision is still going on?
In 20 to 25 years from now, African agriculture is going to follow that
same transformation that we have seen virtually everywhere else in the
world. Itís a transformation towards larger farms with higher levels of
technology use that is responsive to markets, both domestic and
international. African agriculture will be in the hands of farmers who are
going to treat their farms and think of themselves as entrepreneurs, as
business people. They are going to be running farms as businesses, very
much the same way it is here in the U.S. That is the future of farming in
Africa. Take, for instance, flower farming in Kenya; it is in the hands of
large-scale farmers and it employs more people. Itís also more
Q: Are you optimistic therefore that Africa can achieve a Green Revolution
like what we saw in Asia within the time frame you have mentioned?
A: I think that is a transformation that will happen. Look at China today;
itís unbelievable how agriculture has been transformed within a very short
time. I think that ultimately, thatís what will happen in Africa. Itís a
transformation that we have seen virtually everywhere and there is no
reason for us to believe that Africa will be any different.
Q: Is it a surprise therefore that we see many Western seed companies
showing a renewed interest in agriculture in Africa at this very early
stage of the transformation, and yet there is no real meaningful viable
commercial interest at stake?
A: What I think we are seeing is the perception that there is a viable
market there in the long term. Most of these companies are looking to sell
seed or inputs or whatever products there are, or export. They are looking
at a growing urban population in Africa and that is a potentially huge
market for food exports. One of the bright spots in U.S. agriculture is
food exports. Our exports to China and elsewhere are growing rapidly, and
Africa will be next.
It is not just the seed companies that are interested in the African
market. Even the big supermarket chains are likely to develop an appetite
for this emerging market for food in Africa. And so we shall see a
transformation of food supply chains through-out the world, including
Africa. And we have a programme here at the institute looking specifically
at that transformation. For example, we have a USAID-funded programme to
help smallholder farmers in the developing countries access global
markets. The larger exporters from Africa have basically played and
continue to play an important role. They are informed, they understand
what is expected in terms of food quality, standards, safety, packaging
and labelling, so that they are able to play a role in those markets.
Itís the smaller farmer though that our programme is targeting, basically
working with small and medium-sized farms and their producer groups in
countries like Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Guatemala to help to
speed-build their capacity to respond to that whole set of grades and
standards applied by multinational food supply chains.
Q: Let me take you back to biotech; recently five Western multinationals
set up the African Agricultural Technology Foundation to donate their seed
technology royalty free to African scientists working with resource-poor
farmers. What do you have to say about this initiative, and who wins?
A: I think itís a win-win situation. Everybody stands to benefit from the
AATF programme. I know that the Rockefeller Foundation is deeply involved
in that initiative. There are other similar initiatives going on. For
example, here at Michigan State, we are working with the Mendal
Biotechnology company and Syngenta to release drought-tolerant varieties
to resource-poor farmers in Africa and elsewhere. The multinationals are
looking to get PR mileage out of this initative, which is legitimate and
the farmer will get access to seed varieties that they would not have had
access to without this initiative.
Q: Isnít one of the major problems the issue of liability with respect to
such an initiative?
A: Thatís certainly part of it, and thatís why AATF is being looked at as
a principle vehicle for addressing these issues. What needs to be insured
is good stewardship, which is the issue here. Those who have developed and
released the gene will not be held accountable, in particular in areas
where there may not be that kind of stewardship and appropriate regulation
and field testing.
Q: Of course, there is public scepticism about these GMOs, which have been
very controversial in certain parts of Africa. Some people, particularly
the Greens, see this as an initiative basically to push biotech down the
throats of African farmers without much evaluation. Is it something that
is likely to bog down this initiative?
A: I think it is. Some of it is public scepticism, some of it is within
the African countries themselves and some of it comes from external
sources, and we are all familiar with the issue of the European markets
and reluctance of many of the European countries to accept GM products. Of
course, those African countries that export to Europe are very concerned
that the GM products could potentially shut down or affect the export
This is something that needs to be addressed by providing a regulatory
framework thatís going to be effective and can assure the public and
political leadership that the use of GMOs can be appropriately regulated.
There is therefore a need for the political establishment in Africa to
make science-based decisions when it comes to biotechnology. The second is
to have capacity-building programmes that really address the issue of
setting appropriate regulatory frameworks. It will allow the biosafety
issues to be addressed.
Q: The EU moratorium on GMOs is a threat to African agriculture just as
much as the U.S. subsidies affect competitiveness of African exports in
the U.S. market. Isnít it true that African agriculture is under siege
from two of its largest trading partners?
A: I think when it comes to GMOs and the Africa-Europe trading row, this
hasnít taken effect yet. There are no GM products from Africa destined for
the EU market, but that can and will happen, and it will have to be
Ultimately, the willingness of European markets to import from African
countries will be driven on a commodity by commodity basis. The first
point is that itís not going to be all of a sudden. Africa is not going to
be shut off because one particular country is exporting or is growing that
genetically modified crop. Thatís not what is going to happen. It will be
very specific if it happens at all.
The other question is ultimately where the European market will be. We see
in the long term that decision making in markets in Europe will also be
very science-based vis-ŗ-vis biotech products. The other issue you are
raising of U.S. markets and subsidies, thatís a very different thing. The
exportation of African agricultural products to the U.S. is very small and
certainly food exports from Africa to the U.S. market is not an issue. I
think this has more to do with distance than subsidies. Some of the things
that we are doing under our programmes are looking to source fruits and
vegetables from Africa. Thatís the more likely, and they tend to be
seasonal products that are not grown in the U.S.
Q: Is biotech in the U.S. predominantly in the hands of the private
A: It is in both public and private. For example, universities in the U.S.
hold a lot of biotech patents, and some of them jointly with industry. But
you need to talk to the people who handle Intellectual Property Rights to
get the correct audit. Q: Given the current controversy surrounding
biotechnology and the stand-off between the U.S. and the European Union,
do you see global harmony emerging in terms of acceptance of this
technology? A: I try to be an optimistic person and I think ultimately
biotechnology needs to prove itself, and it needs to show that it can and
will be safe, both from a nutritional and environmental standpoint. I
think those are the two major public concerns.
Q: And in the U.S. is public acceptance of biotechnology a done deal?
A: Itís an issue still in the U.S. If you go to the supermarkets, the
shelves are filled with GMO and non-GMO products. That is the case now. We
are still going through all kinds of debates on issues like labelling and
environmental concerns. For example, here at Michigan State University,
only two years ago, a radical environmental group firebombed our biotech
research facilities causing nearly a million dollars worth of damage.