Today in AgBioView: January 22, 2004
* Organic Farming - Panacea or Delusion?
* Africa: You Can't Eat Potential
* GM lessons boost understanding
* Latin America AgBiotech meeting
* "SUSTAINABLE CONSUMPTION AND PRODUCTION"
* EU`s New Biotech-Crop Laws May Raise, Not Lower, Barriers
* Eco-imperialism: Green Power; Black Death
* Welcoming Weeds Back to Civilization
Organic Farming - Panacea or Delusion?
- BioScience News and Advocate, Jan 20, 2004
Proponents of organic farming argue that, as a primary producing nation,
New Zealand should adopt organic systems entirely and abandon
alternatives. This argument is underpinned by a belief that lower yielding
organic production systems are more environmentally friendly, less
polluting, more animal welfare friendly and more sustainable than
conventional agriculture. Nutritional superiority of organic food over
conventional varieties is also claimed.
The line of reasoning goes something like this: New Zealand is perceived
as a ‘clean and green’ producer of safe and wholesome food using
environmentally sound (read non-GM) production systems. The world is
increasingly rejecting conventional and GM foods, in favour of that which
is organically produced and there is an ongoing and increasing demand for
such products. There is a pot of gold waiting out there if only we
abandoned conventional production, went GE-free and grew exclusively
organic food. This would give us a unique selling point and a competitive
advantage over other food producers in a world awash with food.
It is worth examining each of these claims in turn.
Is organic food nutritionally superior to that produced by conventional
production systems? In an extensive literature review Bourn and Prescott
“Given the significant increase in consumer interest in organic food
products, there is a need to determine to what extent there is a
scientific basis for claims made for organic production. Studies comparing
foods derived from organic and conventional growing systems were assessed
for three key areas: nutritional value, sensory quality and food safety.
With the possible exception of nitrate content there is no strong evidence
that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various
nutrients. While there are reports indicating that organic and
conventional fruit and vegetables may differ in sensory qualities, the
findings are inconsistent. There is no evidence that organic foods may be
more susceptible to microbiological contamination than conventional foods.
While it is likely that organically grown foods are lower in pesticide
resides, there has been little documentation of residue levels.”
The conclusion is quite clear. Despite this production system being around
for nigh on 60 years there is no evidence for any nutritional superiority
of organic over conventionally produced food.
Is there a commercial advantage in New Zealand going completely organic?
New Zealand exports about 100 million dollars of organic food per annum
and this figure has been increasing by 30 percent each year. It remains to
be seen if this rate of increase is sustainable or merely a passing
phenomenon. However, from this figure we need to deduct the value of
exports that would otherwise be produced by conventional means from the
same land, in order to determine if there is any nett financial gain.
Farmers are hard nosed business people and market signals will impel them
towards systems that produce higher profits. Despite being around for
sixty years this ‘technology’ has not been widely adopted.
Furthermore better educated and more critical consumers are unlikely to
continue to be attracted to buy products that have no competitive
advantage other than being thought to be ‘better’ in some undefined way.
New Zealand produces a tiny proportion of the world’s exported food and it
is unlikely that organic food will ever account for more than a small
proportion of the total consumer market. After all, it is hard to see more
than a proportion of all the people being fooled all of the time.
A relatively small increase in organic production by major producers such
as the United States is therefore likely to meet market requirements. When
markets are oversupplied prices adjust accordingly. Where organic
kiwifruit production in one market (Italy) exceeded demand, market prices
actually fell below that of conventionally produced product; a treble
whammy for producers whose costs would have been higher and yields lower,
than their conventional counterparts.
Is organic production more environmentally friendly and sustainable than
conventional production systems? There is simply no science to support the
case. Claimed benefits such as greater biodiversity, and superior mineral
and humus conservation are just that; claims unsupported by scientific
On the important question of whether organic production would support the
burgeoning human population there can be no doubt. It won’t.
Various estimates put organic production yields at between 50 and 70
percent of the output of conventional systems. Thanks to the Green
Revolution (higher crop yields through better fertilisers, superior
cultivars, and mechanisation) world agricultural production has expanded
roughly fourfold in the last 60 years.
Despite this, large populations remain undernourished, particularly in sub
Saharan Africa and Asia, and the population is increasing. A medium
projection is for the world’s population to increase to 8.3 billion by
2025. These extra mouths will require an extra billion tonnes of grain
production to feed, over and above today’s output of about 2.1 billion
tonnes; a 47 percent increase.
This can be achieved by either increased yields, or by the environmentally
unfriendly way of chopping down even more forests and draining more
The alternative suggested is organic production at 50 to 70 percent of
today’s yields; enough to feed a similar proportion of the current world
population of six billion souls. Anyone for organic hari-kari?
Bourn,D., and Prescott,J., A Comparison of the Nutritional Value, Sensory
Qualities, and Food Safety of organically and Conventionally Produced
Foods, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 42(1): 1-34 (2002).
Trewavas,A., Urban Myths of Organic Farming, Nature, March 22,2001.
Borlaug, N.E., Feeding the World in the 21st Century: The Role of
Agricultural Science and Technology, (Speech given at Tuskagee University
– April, 2001).
Africa: You Can't Eat Potential
- AfricaBiotech.com, By James Shikwati, January 20, 2004
"You can't eat potential," observed Norman E. Borlaug winner of the 1970
Nobel Peace Prize while referring to Africa's economic predicament. "I am
very angry. Very angry at Africa's present condition," Prof. George
Ayittey lamented recently. "We are talking about a continent which is
tremendously rich in mineral resources. Name the mineral and you will find
it in Africa. Yet it is mired in grinding poverty and appalling squalor."
Ayittey argued that Africa's development potential has been plundered and
squandered by vampire states. Is the fate of Africa sealed?
For a long time, Africa has sought comfort in the belief of existence of
her enormous potential. The continent has been characterized by disease,
war and desperate poverty. Some arguments indicate that Africa present
state is due to her geographical location. That the African climate
facilitates poor planning and management; that the colonial past not only
robbed Africans of their self confidence but also distorted history by
destroying all signs of past positive achievements that would serve to
inspire the present generation. That modern government institutions
imposed by the colonial past are in conflict with traditional
institutions. And that tribalism has a huge braking effect to development
in Africa. The blame game and excuse seeking is an industry on it's on.
An estimated 70 percent of the population in Africa is locked up in the
agricultural sector. Norman Borlaug argued that African farmers are faced
with three main problems: depleted soils, scarcity of water and distorted
economics caused in large part by primitive transportation system. Low
soil fertility is one of the greatest biological obstacles to increased
food production. Poor transportation systems lead to fertilizer costing 2
- 3 times more in rural Sub Sahara than it does in Asia. Similarly
products incur high marketing costs as was illustrated by a World Bank
study a decade ago where it could cost $50 to ship 1 metric ton of corn
from Iowa -- U.S.A to Mombasa 8500 miles away, and cost $100 to move the
same amount of corn to Kampala Uganda 550 miles.
What is an African small scale farmer's business plan? To replace the
handle of his hand hoe, sharpen it, wait for the unpredictable rains and
then plant seeds from the previous harvest. The expected outcome is the
same, 45 to one 90 kg bag of corn harvest and a series of letters to the
son/daughter working somewhere in the city to send money for subsistence.
For those who manage to harvest 10 bags, they are counted among the lucky
ones; a good harvest is a sign of luck not strenuous thought that ought to
back it up. For years this same routine is repeated, the only difference
is that the land keeps shrinking in areas where the climate is favorable
as each son gets assigned a portion. This low intensity agriculture is
characterized by low productivity, low income, malnutrition, diseases,
environmental stress and greater instances of poverty.
Africans must urgently move their populations from the agricultural sector
to industry and services sector. A tiny percentage of the population in
the developed nations feed the entire nation and exports surpluses to
third world countries. This can be achieved through making use of the
modern scientific knowledge presently locked up in various research
centers across the continent. Importing technology from developed
countries would do be better than opting for food aid.
The agricultural sector needs to be commercialized. Agricultural products
ought to have a market incentive whether they are by small scale or large
scale farmers. Small scale farmers can link up to form production
companies that will explore strategic agricultural products for marketing
and consumption. For instance, the peasant farmers in the maize production
area can link up to incorporate a company that can make use of modern
technology to either step up maize production and or any other crop that
will be viable. The poor farmers can make use of their land sizes to
determine the amount of share holding in such companies. This system can
work virtually for any crop, sugar cane, cotton, tea, coffee, maize,
millet, potatoes, and bananas among others. It is through such an approach
that sound business planning will emerge within Africa leading to less
reliance on climate fed agriculture.
However, these efforts will be useless unless the African infrastructure
is improved. Governments in Africa ought to cut down their 'to do' list
through privatization in order to focus on key areas that can improve
productivity. For instance, by shedding extra weight in sectors such as
Telkom, Water supply, Electricity Supply, Postal services, Education, city
cleaning and housing, the African governments can accumulate enough to
construct better roads. Alternatively, private investors can be allowed to
link up with peasant agricultural companies to evaluate cost of road
construction and survey possible traffic and come up with road user-pay
system to a developer for a specific period of time to facilitate capital
Commercialization of agriculture will attract credit from banks to
facilitate further economic growth. Through such a competitive approach to
agricultural production, individual farm companies may choose to invest in
biotechnology, research and marketing strategies within Africa and outside
Africa. Agriculture will then, according to Dr. Edwin Mtei former Tanzania
Finance minister, cease to be "a back-breaker" of Africa's economy to a
back bone and builder of the economy.
African governments should urgently offer tax breaks and tax holidays to
entrepreneurs out to improve the economy. Giving commercial
agriculturalists 10 years or more tax holiday to set up business will
transform the economy from that of dependency to productivity.
Productivity creates wealth; productivity is spurred by growing markets,
technological improvement and investing in human beings. Africans instead
of investing in excuses must join Norman Borlaug and declare, "You can't
eat potential" and take action now.
James Shikwati is the Director of the Inter Region Economic Network and
Coordinator of the Africa Resource Bank.
From: "Murphy D (SApS)"
Subject: GM lessons boost understanding
Date: Thu, 22 Jan 2004 14:52:48 -0000
(Ffrom Professor Denis J Murphy, Biotechnology Unit, University of
Below is a recent news item from the Times Education Supplement in the UK
that describes some of our work on GM issues with schools. For a full
account of the work described in the article, please go to our latest
GM lessons boost understanding
The Times Educational Supplement
By Jennifer Hawkins, January 16 2004
Onions that do not make you cry, rice that combats night blindness and
bananas that contain the cholera vaccine.
These are just a few of the examples of biotechnology that students from
Glamorgan University have been attempting to explain to 11 to 13- year-
olds over the past year.
They have been teaching pupils about the complex subject of genetically
modified food in a scheme devised by Professor Denis Murphy at the
University's biotechnology unit.
"Teachers found they really couldn't teach something as complex as GM
food. They said they lacked the confidence", said Professor Murphy.
"That's where we come in."
Last year along with research assistant Angela Todd he held classes at
three schools in south Wales. The pair also held day-long sessions for 100
pupils at a time in a lecture theatre at the University.
"The kids were really interested. They really liked the classes and a
public debate into the pros and cons had them asking questions," said
Surveys held before, immediately after and three months later, show that
biology students have developed skills and improved comprehension of the
The activities have also helped pupils to form opinions, stimulate
interest in biology and have given teachers greater confidence in
Date: Wed, 21 Jan 2004 12:11:26 -0600
Subject: Latin America AgBiotech meeting
For your information and further dissemination, about REDBIO’2004, the VI
Latin American Meeting on Plant Biotechnology (Dominican Republic, June
Director General, Research Support
National Counsel of Science & Technology-CONCYTEC
Calle del Comercio 197, San Borja, Lima 41, Perú.
Phone: (511) 225-1150 ext 143. Fax: (511) 224-0920.
email@example.com y firstname.lastname@example.org
SEARCA is pleased to invite you and your staff to a seminar on:
"SUSTAINABLE CONSUMPTION AND PRODUCTION"
by Dr. Olivia Castillo
Chair and President
Asia Pacific Roundtable for Cleaner Production
22 January 2004, 4-5 p.m.
Sam-Arng Room, SEAMEO SEARCA
UPLB Campus, Los Baños, Laguna
This seminar is presented as part of the SEARCA Agriculture & Development
Seminar Series (ADSS), which is held every Thursday, 4:00-5:00 p.m.at
The Seminar is open to the public. It is meant to encourage the
presentation and discussion of current and upcoming trends in the
agriculture sector, key issues in and the implications of these
developments in agriculture, as well as results of agricultural research.
Through this seminar series, SEARCA takes a proactive role in identifying
problems and concerns in specific sectors of agriculture and provides a
venue for researchers to present their findings and questions, thereby
contributing to a vibrant scientific exchange within and even beyond the
Los Baños Science Community.
If you or your colleagues wish to present your research findings/work
through the SEARCA ADSS, please contact our Research and Development
Department (RDD) at (49) 536-2290, 536-3459, 536-2365 to 67, extension 398
We look forward to having you at the Seminar Series.
EU`s New Biotech-Crop Laws May Raise, Not Lower, Barriers
- Truth About Trade, By Bill Tomson, Jan 20, 2004
WASHINGTON -- As the European Union prepares to launch new laws in April
to label and track all genetically modified food, U.S. farmers and
government officials are warning that this doesn't mean that new biotech
crops can now come to market easily.
In fact, the new laws may turn out to be stronger trade barriers than the
biotech-approval ban they are intended to replace, say the farmers and
Only nine biotech agriculture commodity varieties had been cleared for
consumption by the EU when it shut down the approval process in 1998.
That, according to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, has cost
U.S. exporters "a few hundred million dollars ... a year" in corn sales
alone. The U.S., by comparison, has approved more than 50, according to
the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
The EU has promised the U.S. for years it would lift its ban on new
biotech crops so long as labeling and record-keeping regulations could be
But trade and biotech counselors for the U.S. Department of Agriculture
David Hegwood said the regulations may be impossible to comply with.
"What's not clear about this regulation is whether it's going to require
exporters to identify the specific [biotech traits] in a corn shipment,"
Mr. Hegwood said. "We've got no way of knowing. We don't know how we're
going to deal with that."
Agriculture Department Chief Economist Keith Collins said he expects the
impact on U.S. agriculture to be "significant," but declined to make a
"No one knows how the EU's regulations will be implemented and enforced,
thus estimates of economic impacts [on U.S. exports] are not possible at
this point," he said.
Craig Ratajczyk, director of trade analysis for the American Soybean
Association, said effects are already being felt because European food
companies are replacing traditional U.S. ingredients such as soy oil or
corn oil with alternatives such as palm oil from Malaysia to avoid
Mr. Hegwood said, "Labeling is a problem for us primarily because the food
companies have said they don't want to label their brand-name products
because they think consumers won't buy them if they do. We have no reason
to doubt that would be the case."
That may be because Agriculture Department research shows that even U.S.
consumers, generally considered to be far less concerned about the safety
of genetically modified food, were less willing to buy groceries if they
were labeled as containing biotech ingredients.
Tony Van der hagen, minister counselor for the European Commission in the
U.S. said he expects sales of the biotech corn-containing food products,
allowed into the EU because of their premoratorium approval, will likely
suffer when they are forced to bear GMO identification.
The labels, he said, will be necessary to maintain European consumer
confidence in the food they eat, especially in the years to come as
companies produce pharmaceuticals through genetic manipulation of plants.
In the event that pharmaceutical-growing plants ever got mixed with food
or feed varieties, the ability to trace back the origin of those crops
will be even more critical, Mr. Van der hagen said.
U.S. farm groups say they would like to see the U.S. file suit in the
World Trade Organization against the new EU biotech regulations, but Mr.
Hegwood said the Agriculture Department and U.S. Trade Representative
still don't know if they should.
Eco-imperialism: Green Power; Black Death
- Tech Central Station, By Roger Bate, 01/21/2004
Despite the best efforts of historian, Niall Ferguson, to demonstrate the
better side of the British Empire (see Empire, Basic Books, 2002) the
overwhelming view of the American people to colonialism and imperialism is
largely negative. So any charge made against a group, individual or
government that involves these words is bound to be resisted strongly by
At recent events in Washington and New York a broad charge of
eco-imperialism has been laid at the feet of the environmental movement.
Government officials, aid agency bureaucrats, as well as sandal-wearing
greens, are blamed for mass disease and death in the poorest countries of
the world because they export their most vile regulatory policies. So far,
the green movement has largely ignored the criticism, but it is slowly
having to respond, since "eco-imperialism" is becoming a more widely
heard, if not yet fully appreciated, term.
The most obvious example of eco-imperialism has been the push to restrict
the use of the insecticide, DDT, for controlling mosquito-borne diseases.
Concerns about damage to egg shells of birds of prey (probably caused by
massive agricultural DDT use), have pushed the greens to demand DDT
restrictions, which have cost tens of millions of lives over the past few
decades. But in addition to this pinnacle of eco-imperialism, other
examples have emerged. At the George C. Marshall Institute event in
Washington DC last month, Indian economist, Prasanna Srinivasan discussed
the pesticide Paraquat. He documented how the greens have tried to ban its
use and unfortunately, they have succeeded in several places.
Unlike DDT, Paraquat is extremely toxic, and as many wretched people have
found out, it is an efficient, if appallingly painful, method of
committing suicide. But because the pesticide is dangerous when used
wholly inappropriately, should it be banned for those who would use it
responsibly? The greens say yes, Mr. Srinivasan says no.
"Pesticides like paraquat protect 40% of global food output. That is not
what I say; it is what the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and
every agricultural expert recognizes," Srinivasan asserts. Without
Paraquat, people are likely to die from starvation in certain parts of the
world. Moreover, Paraquat is benign to the environment, it biodegrades
and, unlike DDT, does not persist; it also reduces the amount of land
required by farming by making food production more efficient and so gives
higher yields per acre. Its inherent properties and the way it is sold in
over one hundred countries, means that the chances of accidentally
drinking it are very, very low. Accidental poisonings do occur (as they do
with bleach and ammonium in western homes), but they are very rare.
Regardless of such arguments, green groups, like the International
Pesticide Elimination Network, demand its worldwide ban. Of course, the
main actors for groups like IPEN do not struggle to eat every day, and
banning Paraquat would not affect their purchases of expensive, organic
produce from their specialist suppliers. But most of the world's poor do
not have such luxury of choice.
According to Greenpeace co-founder, Patrick Moore, "The environmental
movement has lost its objectivity, morality and humanity." Speaking at an
event this week in New York City, organized by the Congress on Racial
Equality, Dr. Moore, concluded that: "The pain and suffering it inflicts
on families in developing countries can no longer be tolerated."
CORE aims to make eco-imperialism a household word. CORE's Niger Innes
says he wants to stop the '"callous eco-manslaughter." Somewhat
tongue-in-cheek, but making an important point, Mr. Innes says that the
average European cow gets a $250 a year subsidy, while over a billion
people survive on less than $200 a year. By reducing markets for their
goods, western farm subsidies cause as much hardship in poor countries as
do restrictions on pesticides.
Dr. CS Prakash, professor of plant genetics at Tuskegee University,
explained how genetic modifications of plants could reduce the number of
children blinded by vitamin A deficiency. Currently, 500,000 children go
blind and golden rice could help this problem disappear, but many greens
oppose the technology. "By orchestrating unfounded scare stories that
biotech crops are unsafe or untested, they put huge road blocks on the
development of plant genetic engineering that could bring economic
prosperity to the rural poor," concludes Dr. Prakash.
Paul Driessen, an organizer of the CORE event and the author of
Eco-Imperialism: Green Power Black Death, hopes, like, Mr. Innes, that
eco-imperialism becomes a household word. Mr. Driessen says "It's time to
hold these groups accountable and compel organization, foundations, courts
and policy makers to understand the consequences of the policies they are
imposing on our Earth's poorest citizens."
It has to be hoped that the efforts of Mr. Driessen and Mr. Innes bear
fruit. The moral bankruptcy of the modern environmental movement must be
exposed and their work is a good start.
Welcoming Weeds Back to Civilization
- Center for Global Food Issues, by Dennis T. Avery, Jan 20, 2004
A committee of the California legislature recently voted to ban
hand-weeding on the State’s commercial farms. California wants its weeds
controlled without anybody having to bend, squat, crouch, or kneel and
thus risking degenerative back problems.
At the same time, other activists want to force farmers to control the
weeds without using any chemical sprays. Political activists in both
California and Canada are attempting to ban the use of chemical
weed-killers as a lurking, if unproven, threat to worker and consumer
Welcome back the weeds!
As California is disarming the weed control troops, it’s Wildflower Seed
Company is advertising a “hand-weeding hoe” that helps “sever weed roots
without disturbing the soil or bringing up dormant seeds into the
germination zone.” The company says, “We find ourselves reaching for this
tool almost every time we’re in the garden.”
Handyman Allen Dong’s internet website suggests buying a flat, pointed
steel mason’s trowel and serrating the edges with a file so they cut
better. Mr. Dong says, “compared with a hand hoe, less effort is required
for working a trowel blade below the soil because the blade is thinner.”
The catch: the handle is only six inches long, so you have to use it on
your hands and knees.
We can’t ban all weed-control weapons and still eat. I’ve visited “no weed
control” test plots in agricultural experiment stations where I couldn’t
find the crop plants. The weeds had stolen the moisture and soil
nutrients, and ultimately outgrown the crop plants so they could steal all
the sunshine. Weeds can easily cut crop yields in half—and we’re already
farming half the world’s land that is not covered by deserts or glaciers.
In fact, we can’t ban weed controls and still have playgrounds, parks, and
safe neighborhoods. The city of Edmonton in Canada is considering a total
ban on chemical weed killers, but the city park that’s been chemical-free
since 1994 is unusable because of weeds. Some are big, some are poisonous;
all are plants in the wrong places.
Having started my own career in weed control at about age 5 in my family’s
huge vegetable garden, I can assure you that there is no non-chemical way
to control weeds without courting back problems.
If you’ve ever used even a long-handled hoe, you know it can’t be used
while standing up. Upright, your arms have little power, so you can’t
slice through the soil or cut through tough weed stems. Upright, your
hands have little control of the blade, so you may slice off your
vegetables or flowers instead of the pigweed.
One anti-pesticide website notes that using some herbicides exposes our
kids to “growth hormones.” But they are growth hormones for plants, not
people. The anti-pesticide websites scream that the weed-killers are
“poison.” Virtually everything is a poison at high doses, including water,
salt, and sunlight: but, the tiny residues allowed by government
regulators are no health threat to kids, pets or anything else except
targeted weeds and pests.
Leonard Gianessi of the National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy
says that if we used only cultivation and hand-weeding, the cost of
controlling weeds would rise by $8 billion per year, and the additional
crop losses would cost $13 billion.
And then there’s soil erosion. When we used “bare earth farming” in 1938,
our soil erosion losses totaled nearly 4 billion tons per year, says
Gianessi. Today, soil erosion losses are only one billion tons—thanks in
large part to herbicides that make it possible to disc or no-till instead
of plowing and hoeing
One group urgently opposed to the California ban on hand-weeding is—you
guessed it—organic farmers. A large part of the organic mystique is that
they don’t use chemical weed killers. “We have a more difficult time
controlling weeds than conventional farmers,” said Vanessa Bogenhollm, of
the Organic Farmers Association.
“If we’re not able to hand weed, the economic losses would be disastrous,”
said Malcolm Rickey, who grows organic carrots.
Obviously, California is wrong on the weeding issue. If most of the women
in Africa can spend half of their waking hours pulling weeds by hand, why
can’t Americans? Or, maybe safe, effective weed killers should be viewed
as saving the backs of farmers, gardeners, and homeowners.
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