Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - April 26, 2004:
* Feeding World's Hungry More About Politics Than Food
* A Matter of Trust
* "Super Weed" Soybeans and Argentina's GM Experiment
* Fields of Choice
* Fostering A Dialogue Among Biotech Enthusiasts and Skeptics
* Public Deserves Higher-quality Debate on Gene Technology
* Three Plant Biotechnologists Elected to the National Academy of Sciences
* Kenya Ready To Embrace Biotech, Minister Says
* Biotech Rap
* Organic: Is It The Future Of Farming? (Nature Journal..)
* Transparency: Monsanto Posts Safety Information on its GM Products
* Altered Corn Ignites Furor In Mexico
Feeding World's Hungry More About Politics Than Food
- Scott Canon, The Kansas City Star, April 23, 2004
Kansas wheat farmers might think proudly of how their fields can satisfy so many starving Africans, of how much hunger each pass of the combine wipes away. After all, over the past half century 750 million people worldwide have warded off starvation with American food aid.
But anyone attending the Export Food Conference -- sponsored in Kansas City this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development -- heard that solving world hunger takes much more than just pointing grain barges toward the horn of Africa.
"After decades of progress, we are actually losing ground in the battle against hunger," said James Morris, the executive director of the U.N. World Food Program. He's involved in a campaign prodding governments from the developed world to increase spending on food aid -- hoping to move beyond crises management to long-term development. He told conference participants of 25,000 deaths a day from hunger, mostly in Africa, and of 8,000 perishing daily from HIV/AIDS largely because they can't fight the disease without enough to eat.
On Tuesday, the opening day, weariness could already be heard in the voice of Andrew Natsios, Agency for International Development administrator, in anticipation of yet another budding hunger crisis. "There's Ethiopia, again," he said. "It has little way to feed its people against the vagaries of a harsh climate."
Ethiopia came up near Thursday's close, too, in slides shown by Ethiopian disaster manager Simon Machele. They showed that in 2003, 13.2 million Ethiopians' survival relied on foreign food aid -- about half of 548,000 tons from the United States. That was almost four times as many Ethiopians unable to feed themselves as in the mid-1990s.
The conference also made clear that food aid has lost its CARE package simplicity. Sending Kansas wheat or Missouri corn to crisis spots around the globe requires delicacy and an understanding of a changing world.
The farmer who uses the latest science to grow a crop resistant to bugs or disease or weed killers risks rejection from a developing country with phobias about biotechnology.
U.S. officials who funnel that Midwestern grain to a Third World nation reeling from drought or flood could hear yelps from Europeans suspicious that Americans are dumping exports in the guise of food aid. A generous delivery of food aid might be welcomed by famished families, but resented by local farmers suddenly finding little reason to plant for the next season.
More aid workers are coming under fire from bandits and warlords while trying to deliver help, Morris said. The United Nations, for instance, has relied solely on Iraqi nationals in that country since the bombing at its headquarters in August. "Security is an overwhelming, overriding concern," Morris said. "The U.N. is looking at all of its work through a different lens."
Sometimes dangerous, delivering food aid has become increasingly problematic, too. With much of its population reeling from the economic disaster left from a two-decades-long civil war, Angola jeopardized its international aid last month by announcing it would not accept genetically modified food, consumed daily by Americans in any number of processed foods, but shunned by Europeans.
Angola's decision has been even more maddening to aid groups because the specifics of the ban remain unclear. As a result a 19,000-ton U.S. corn shipment to the country has been delayed. Zambia and Zimbabwe, citing environmental and health fears, have also rejected biotech food aid in the past. Other African countries have accepted American biotech grain only after it was milled to prevent errant seeds from taking hold in the countryside.
Another complaint from poor countries is that American and European farmers gain an unfair edge from hefty agriculture subsidies at home, which allow them to offer foodstuffs at much cheaper prices in the recipient nations. World Trade Organization talks in Cancun, Mexico, last September collapsed over that issue. Americans gripe particularly about the European Union's use of export subsidies to prop up sales overseas. The Europeans, meantime, contend American food aid is actually cover for export promotion and market development.
Meantime, Washington has lobbied recipient countries in Africa and elsewhere -- the United States typically provides 57 percent of World Food Program funding -- to reward American generosity by taking on the Europeans at WTO talks. On Thursday, EU officials in Geneva said they might be willing to phase out their export subsidies. "Developing countries should weigh in at the WTO," said James Butler, the deputy undersecretary of U.S. Foreign Agricultural Services. "We need to hear more from them."
Participants at the conference spoke of the increasing difficulty of seemingly never-ending crises, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Conferees worried that emergency meals won't break the cycle of a continent that seems to be getting more dependent on world aid rather than more self-sufficient. At the same time, with ongoing shortages, they asked, how can aid programs shift from food deliveries needed today toward solutions, such as irrigation systems that might bring a harvest next year.
"We can't keep doing this," Natsios said just hours after the conference started Tuesday. "We cannot, every time there's a crisis, run in. The country has to feed itself." Ethiopian disaster manager Machele showed the collection of growers, shippers and government and humanitarian agency officials a slide marking a growing dependency on outside help.
"Even with decent rainfall many households still can't produce enough food," Machele said. "There must be a way to address the root causes ... to find a solution to the vicious cycle."
A Matter of Trust
- Reg Clause, Truth About Trade and Technology, http://www.truthabouttrade.org/article.asp?id=1688
When I hear the enemies of biotechnology carry on about their obsession, sometimes I feel sorry for them. I really do. Their hysterics remind me of the story of the Salem witches--and especially the intriguing possibility that if biotechnology had been available in 1692, there might not have been any Salem witches at all.
More on that in a minute. First, some good news: So far, the American public at large has not displayed any of the debilitating symptoms we see in the activists. A huge majority--84 percent--believes farmers are concerned about food safety, according to a new poll sponsored by the Animal Agriculture Alliance and the National Corn Growers Association. Another 84 percent think farmers do a good job of producing healthy food at reasonable prices. Apparently the people polled feel the farmer makes good choices in the public's behalf.
Eighty-four percent is an astonishing number. Imagine a baseball batter with an on-base percentage of .840. Or a president who scores an 84 percent approval rating--not just once or twice, but consistently across an entire term. It's almost impossible. In a country that's recently been called "the 50-50 nation" because it is so divided on a wide range of political and social questions, any kind of majority is precious, to say nothing of one that's so overpowering.
And the news only gets better: The public holds farmers in high regard, alongside teachers and doctors. Americans have a much dimmer view of politicians and Hollywood celebrities. When the subject is animal welfare on farms, for instance, people are much more likely to put their faith in farmers, animal veterinarians, and officials from the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration than they are in animal-rights activists.
Yet the poll also contains a few warning signs. Only 47 percent say scientists should be free to use genetics to breed farm animals that will resist bacteria that cause human illness. This is not to suggest that most people are against the practice--30 percent said they were neutral or not sure--but it is also far from where we want to see it. Is it too much to ask for another one of those 84-percent majorities, especially when most Americans eat some form of biotech food just about everyday?
We clearly have much work to do. Polls conducted for the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology have shown that Americans have a poor understanding of genetically enhanced food. They don't know many facts and their opinions are malleable.
That's why the enemies of biotechnology continue to pose a threat. The evidence from Europe suggests that the "anti-biotech disease" is contagious and can embed itself in a population of otherwise sensible people, making them more prone to fits of mass hysteria whenever somebody uses the words "food" and "genes" in the same sentence. Where's the common sense in a "precautionary principle" that requires absolute, zero tolerance proof of the unprovable.
But the facts are too compelling to ignore because the record is so positive. The years of successful adaptation of the technology in crops, for instance, have shown no negative effects on the environment or human health. The record is cleanly positive. I prefer to view the evidence and not blindly follow the dire theories of those afraid of technological progress. The U.S. farmer understands how this technology works for him. That's why it is widely adopted in one form or another. This highly trusted group of food producers has used a common sense approach to decisions that are now benefiting the U.S. food production system and consumers, alike.
This brings me back to the Salem witch trials. They are an iconic moment in U.S. history, one that fascinates each new generation of Americans. What caused that bizarre outbreak of apparent lunacy more than three centuries ago? One theory holds that the young ladies were infected by ergot, a food-borne fungus that attacks rye, wheat, and other grains--as well as the humans who inadvertently eat it. Ergot poisoning can cause violent pain in limb extremities, leading to gangrene or even death. It also triggers hallucinations, because ergot shares an active ingredient with LSD.
Medieval historians have documented several local epidemics of ergot poisoning, also known as St. Anthony's Fire, when whole towns seem to have gone mad. And there is some evidence to suggest that conditions were perfect for an outbreak in Salem in 1692: the weather had been warm and wet and people were eating food vulnerable to ergot.
Could it be the Salem witches had nothing more than a really bad case of food poisoning? We'll never know for sure. But we do know that ergot poisoning is rare today because of chemical sprays that act as fungicides. In the future, it will be almost non-existent because we'll fend it off with biotechnology.
So maybe there won't be any witches in the years ahead. The only remaining question is whether there will by any frenzied anti-biotech activists. Maybe biotechnology can cure them as well.
"Super Weed" Soybeans and Argentina's Experiment with Commercial
Cultivation of RR Soybean
- Shanthu Shantharam, AgBioView, http://www.agbioworld.org
It is really preposterous for anyone to suggest that a highly advanced line of modern day soybean engineered to resist decidedly one of the most environmentally benign herbicide glyphosate would become a super weed and spell disaster to the farmers. If indeed this had happened, I do not think the government of Argentina would be sitting on their hands and not kick up a stink about it. The world would have known it by now, and certainly the weed science community would not have kept silent. It beguiles me that certain anti-biotech groups keep on spreading complete lies and canard and do so much disservice to farmers who need and deserve all the technological help to improve their farming.
Several years ago at a world bank meeting on GM crops, a challenge was thrown at a group of GM critics to see if they would take a currently available soybean variety and turn it into a weed, much less a super weed with the help of a million dollar grant (pun intended). I did not see any takers then, and no one has come forward so far. Weediness is a multi-genic trait and according to the Weed Science Society of America has some fourteen basic attributes. It would be a stupendous task for a scientist to convert a wimpy cultivated crop to a weed. It is beyond anybody's comprehension as to why activists cannot see through these basic understanding of weeds and accept the realities as they are. By keep on arguing scientific non-sense they are not advancing their cause at all. If they ever really understood the weed control problems in agriculture, they would be supporting anything to make the lives of the farmer easier.
Those who are concerned about weeds should really pay lot more attention to both accidental and intentional introduction of alien species into different environment. And, there we have solid instances of alien plants and animals having gone awry. If the anti-GM activist's intention is to protect environment against super weeds and aggressive colonizers, they should demand lot stringent regulatory control over careless introduction of alien species.
Fields of Choice
- Murray McLaughlin, BioScience News and Advocate (NZ), April 26, 2004 http://www.bioscinews.com/files/news-detail.asp?newsID=7411
As I work in the field of Agriculture and see the tremendous benefits that science has created over the last 50 years in food production, I look to the future with wonder. I truly believe that the world is a better place today with less disease, better health, and greatly reduced malnutrition because of science. We need to continue to use the best science, including biotechnology to ensure the world is a safe place, a healthy place and a place with a future for all.
It amazes me that, even when the safety and the benefits have been so clearly demonstrated, some still hesitate to support biotechnology. Before they reach a farmer’s field or a family's kitchen table, biotechnology-based crops, crop management products and livestock treatments and therapies undergo years of rigorous testing to ensure they are safe for people, animals and the environment.
A recent two-year study by the Canadian Biotechnology Advisory Committee
(CBAC) confirmed that biotech foods currently on the market are safe. The report concludes, "GM (genetically modified) foods currently in the marketplace have arguably undergone greater regulatory scrutiny than their conventional counterparts. We conclude that no scientific evidence exists to suggest that GM plants and foods currently in the marketplace pose any greater health or environmental risks than other foods."
Being involved in the broad aspects of technology development allows us at Foragen to interact with regulatory systems nationally and globally. Based on my experience, I can attest that there are a range of government directives on regulatory processes. I believe that Canada has a system that is very useful because most decisions are based on sound science - not personal opinion or political preferences.
Countries that use this approach tend to have higher quality of living, more jobs and a solid business climate. If the regulatory systems have sound policies and procedures in place to take products through registration, what is the criticism? Is it lack of knowledge; fear of change; feeling of no choice; or something else that causes criticism. Maybe it is media and their desire to sensationalize? Maybe it is lack of trust in our elected officials?
My view: it is a lack of balanced information, a lack of informed politicians. It also distresses me that organizations claiming to support social justice and environmental protection prefer to support starvation, ill health and the extensive use of chemical products on the land.
The drawn-out registration effort for golden rice is an example of the high price paid for reticence among regulators. In developing countries, blindness resulting from malnutrition strikes 500,000 people a year. Golden rice was developed specifically to prevent this. Sadly, it is now projected that there will be 5-year delay in growing the crop due to lobbying for extreme regulations. This delay will cost 2.5 million people their sight.
Patrick Moore, Chair of GreenSpirit Strategies and a co-founder of Greenpeace, recently stated, "The campaign of fear now waged against genetic modification is based largely on fantasy and a complete lack of respect for science and logic. In the balance, it is clear that the real benefits of genetic modification far outweigh the hypothetical and sometimes contrived risks claimed by its detractors."
As we move through this century we will see science continue to improve quality, production, and safety. However, we will also see this science provide increased benefit to the developing countries of the world. The scientific community has taken upon itself a mandate to counter nutritional deficiencies, develop environmental improvements, address the world's food needs through increased production, create technologies for more efficient drug and vaccine delivery systems, and deliver therapeutic, preventative and rehabilitative products to humans.
I believe that the science and business community also needs to take on the role of informer. We need to inform the average person on what we are doing and why. Why is it important to reduce starvation; why is it important to improve health and nutrition; why is it important to reduce dependency on fossil fuels; and why do we think science can do these things. If we provide good solid information that is easily understandable, the general public will be better informed and better prepared to make their choices.
Dr. Murray McLaughlin, Foragen Technologies Management Inc., Guelph, Ontario; www.foragen.com
Fostering A Dialogue Among Biotech Enthusiasts, Opponents and Skeptics
- Frank Kutka , Graduate Student, Department of Plant Breeding, Cornell University
I recently presented a seminar at Cornell University on the idea of beginning a substantive dialogue concerning genetic engineering among the various groups of enthusiasts, opponents and skeptics. Below is my commentary on the purpose and lay out of this seminar. I would be happy to send my powerpoint file of this seminar to any one interested. I look forward to your comments and to those of AgBioView readers.
A few weeks ago I gave a seminar to my department concerning the idea of having a substantive dialogue among the various parties surrounding the issue of genetic engineering. I began by pointing out that the world is a big world full of surprising facts that often challenge our thinking and points of view. As scientists we need to be open, aware, and ready to challenge ourselves. Then I pointed out that there are some very big problems facing our world and that many people, including environmentalists and industrial corporations, are aware of these and feel that they should be addressed. A subset of these problems can be addressed by agriculture and it appears that both ecologically-based agriculture and genetic engineering are potential tools within this sphere. Of the various biotechnologies available, only genetic engineering appears to have little support across the board, though obviously support is quite strong within the pro-GE community. I did not mention but then but have realized since that some forms of ecologically based agriculture also appear to have little support in some quarters.
Then I covered the issues and perspectives of the three major groups surrounding genetic engineering. In New York we are divided pretty evenly among proponents, skeptics, and opponents. Since my audience has had numerous seminars by leading GE proponents and developers, I presented a short and concise description of that view and gave a few examples of success stories often put forth by GE proponents. I expect that there are many additions that could have been made. Then I presented a somewhat longer set of issues that are often raised by opponents and skeptics. These groups are rarely heard from directly in our seminar forum so I wished to provide balance and to raise some potentially interesting issues that my audience might not have been aware of. I took no credit for these that were not my own and made no defense of them either. It was a long list, but incomplete of course.
After covering the many issues I suggested that as reasonable human beings, perhaps we could discuss how it is that we are going to solve the big problems facing us and what tools would be the best to use. I do not believe that we should work so hard putting forth our favorite tools as miraculous when there might be more effective tools, more economical tools, and safer tools available: just because I have a hammer in my hand does not make everything a nail. I suggested that we need to be open to changing our minds and to leave our prejudices and foregone conclusions behind. It would be a difficult dialogue covering some very complex problems, but it needs to happen. My point of view is that the focus should be on the big problems first. Usually the discussions concerning genetic engineering are among friends only, focus on relatively small problems and overly simplify our situation. All of us must try harder.
I finished the presentation with a list of some alternatives that we could chase after with the tools that we already agree on, since there is no point in waiting around for the GE debate to be settled. We need to get to work now even as a true dialogue develops, though we must never lose sight of the big picture. Some alternatives I mentioned have to do with actual work that appears to have promise and for which molecular biologists should have a lot to offer. After all, if scientists are truly worried about soil loss then why focus on low tillage alone when perennial agriculture is so much better at holding and building soil? Can we make it yield more? If one is truly worried about pesticide use then why not look closer at the various types of alternative agriculture and see how they could be more widely adapted and improved? Why not add a rotation to IPM in cotton for instance? Why not see how molecular biology and ecological science could work in tandem to improve things? And of course, we should look at non-agricultural solutions such as population control, education, poverty abatement, improvement in land tenure systems, etc. since these also address the difficulties at hand and perhaps more directly.
I can forward a simplified version of the seminar powerpoint file to AgBioWorld readers. I look forward to anyone's constructive comments. Thank you for your time.
Peace, Frank Kutka
Public Deserves Higher-quality Debate on Gene Technology
- Craig Cormick, Canberra Times, April 22, 2004
Which of these two statements is true?
* Genetically modified foods are dangerous and the Australian public will not eat them!
* Genetically modified foods are perfectly safe and more and more people are willing to eat them!
Craig Cormick writes the answer is - both are true, depending on whose argument you are listening to.
There are few scientific debates that are so polarised as that relating to gene technology. On the one hand, we have advocates of the technology over-promising its benefits: this technology will feed the world and solve most diseases.
And on the other hand we have opponents of the technology demonising it: GM crops will lead to superweeds that cannot be controlled and GM foods are dangerous. We have a predominantly science-based lobby group on one side, arguing scientific facts, and anti-GM lobbyists on the other side arguing emotions.
For the public they are two different languages that rarely meet, whether it’s about stem cells or GM foods and crops or xenotransplantation.
So what is your average member of the public meant to think when confronted with these contrasting claims and counter claims? Most simply revert to an attitude driven by their strongest emotive drivers, such as trust in governments, or mistrust of multinationals, or trust in science, or mistrust of modern food technologies.
That’s unfortunate because we are not having the quality of public debate we should be having about gene technology. There are many aspects of the science that researchers should be better communicating to the public, and there are many aspects of public concerns that should be better communicated to researchers.
Yet while we have a strongly polarised debate, too often focussed on winning political points and running sensationalist stories in the mass media, it is the public who are losing out. It is also doing the public a disservice to simplify public attitudes into easily digestible percentages of for and against, such as 50% of people will not eat GM foods and 45% will - as these do not reveal the actual drivers of attitude change and causes of concern.
Biotechnology Australia has been undertaking major surveys of the Australian public’s attitudes to gene technology since 1999, and we now know quite a lot. This includes the fact that perceptions about GMOs being more risky have risen in the past two years - but concerns have not.
This is largely because the concept of risk has changed enormously in society in the last three years, fuelled by global insecurities such as September 11, and the Bali and Madrid bombings. Not just GMOs, but everything in life is seen as more risky than it was three years ago. Also looking at the relativity of concerns, pollution, the greenhouse effect and nuclear waste all rate as higher concerns than do GM foods.
And we know that attitudes towards GM foods are driven more by attitudes towards food and food safety than attitudes towards the technology. So a health food buyer, who is very concerned about what is in their food, will tend to be more concerned about and avoid GM foods. However, someone who doesn’t care too much about what they eat will have much less concern about GM foods and won’t care so much if they eat them.
No surprise then to find that GM doughnuts, which are labelled as containing GM soy, aren’t suffering major loss of sales in supermarkets. However, if a GM soy milk came out I suspect the reaction would be very different. Also very significant is that there is high trust in food regulators and despite all the mischievous scare stories, the biggest factor in consumer rejection of GM foods is now that consumers see no benefits in them. Contrast this with farmer attitudes that are becoming more supportive of GM crops – as many of their benefits are agronomic. But, it needs to be added, farmers still want to know that somebody is willing to buy their crop.
We also know that regardless of increased risk perception, a majority of people (56%) feel that Australia should accept some degree of risk if it would enhance our economic competitiveness. And 73 percent of people disagree with the statement that the risks of gene technology outweigh the benefits to the point that all research and development should be stopped.
So what does it all mean? Put simply, public attitudes towards gene technology are not simple, and are driven by many things as well as being situation dependent - so while a person might be against GM canola they could well support GM cotton. And one person who uses genetically modified insulin might not want to eat GM products, but another doesn’t mind having a little bit of GM soy in their doughnuts or chicken nuggets.
So next time you read a media article about what the public think about gene technology, look closely and see if it tells you more about the ideology of the person being quoted than it actually tells about public attitudes.
Craig Cormick is the Manager of Public Awareness for the government agency Biotechnology Australia. www.biotechnology.gov.au
Three Plant Biotechnologists Elected to the U. S. National Academy of Sciences
AgBioWorld heartily congratulates three scientists (Bennetzen, Delmer and
Quail) for being elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (USA), a highest scientific honor in the U.S.
1. Jeffrey L Bennetzen, Norman Giles Professor of Genetics, University of Georgia, Athens
2. Deborah P Delmer, associate director, Food Security Theme, The Rockefeller Foundation, New York City
3. Peter H Quail, research director, Plant Gene Expression Center, and professor of plant biology, University of California, Berkeley
Kenya Ready To Embrace Biotech, Minister Says
- Crop Biotech Update, 23 April 2004. isaaa.org
The Kenya Government may soon allow genetically modified products to enter into the country once the biosafety and biotechnology Bill becomes law by the end of this year. In an exclusive interview with Kenya Television Network, a local channel with national reach, the country's agriculture minister, Mr. Kipruto arap Kirwa, said Kenya was ready to embrace the technology to fortify its food production.
"We can not isolate ourselves by not embracing biotechnology because we will be doing so at the risk of being left behind by the rest of the world. Biotechnology in the long run will be able to assist us in improving food production and also in the multiplication of other crops like cotton," the Minister said.
Speaking on the same channel, the Director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCentre, Dr. Sam Wakhusama, supported the Minister, saying that claims that transgenic foods are unsafe are unfounded.
"Many countries all over the world are using these foods because they are safe. In fact these foods go through several severe tests before they are allowed into the human food chain unlike the conventional ones," explained Dr Wakhusama. He added that the crops also go through vigorous environmental impact assessments tests and are only released to the environment if they pass the tests.
The Minister's positive remarks on the possibility of Kenya adopting transgenic products came hot on the heels of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's recent announcement that his country was ready to import transgenic foods. Kirwa assured environmentalists that strict measures will be put in place to enable safe introduction and use of transgenic products in the country. Presently, the government issues licenses for laboratory and controlled tests of transgenic crops such as cotton.
- Constance Holden, Science, v. 304, p 386; April 16, 2004
Some people may think the Green Revolution was a good idea that went bad. But its progenitor, Norman Borlaug, still has fervent boosters. Last month he celebrated his 90th birthday, and plant geneticist C. S. Prakash of Tuskegee University in Alabama, who promotes agbiotech through his AgBioWorld Foundation, and some friends composed a rap song--performed by Prakash's 11-year-old son Rohan--to mark the occasion. A sampling from the "Norman Borlaug Rap":
Straight out of Iowa Norman came,
then traveled the world, saw suffering and pain.
Millions of people were starving, yo
in Pakistan, India, Mexico.
But just a few years after Norman came,
they all had bumper crops of grain. ...
But then some people started to panic,
telling the farmers to go organic.
Technophobes started making a mess
of Norman Borlaug's great success. ...
So Norman came back to defend
high-yield agriculture with his friend,
Jimmy Carter, ex-president,
to help all the African residents. ...
'Nature' Journal Focus on Organic Food and Farming
Is organic the future of farming? In its pure form, maybe not. But elements of the organic philosophy are starting to be deployed in mainstream agriculture. In this web focus, Nature's reporters analyse this trend, assess the extent of organic farming worldwide, and frame the questions on which its wider adoption will depend. ====
Organic: Is It The Future Of Farming?
- Colin Macilwain , Nature 428, 792 (22 Apr 2004)
In its pure form, maybe not. But elements of the organic philosophy are starting to be deployed in mainstream agriculture. Nature's reporters analyse this trend, assess the extent of organic farming worldwide, and frame the questions on which its wider adoption will depend.
If your politics are green, you like your medicine 'holistic' and you're deeply worried by economic globalization, the chances are your fridge is full of organic produce. Today, support for organic farming is frequently part of a bigger social and political mindset -- one that holds that 'natural' is best, and that naked capitalism is a threat to the health of the planet and its people.
But the origins of organic agriculture, in 1940s Britain, are more down-to-earth. Its pioneers were concerned, above all else, about the soil beneath their feet. Their philosophy was centred on practices designed to improve the richness and stability of the soil by restoring its organic matter and avoiding synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Wider concerns about biodiversity, social justice and animal welfare have grown from this core concept about how to manage our farmland's key resource.
These ideals have always set the organic movement squarely against intensive farming and chemical-based agribusiness. And, at least in public and in the media, those arguments rage more fiercely today than ever before. Yet behind the harsh rhetoric, a little-noticed convergence of views is taking place. For decades, the study of organic farming sat on the fringes of the green revolution in agriculture, as intensive techniques marched across the world, sending yields skyrocketing. But mainstream agronomists are becoming concerned about the long-term sustainability of this approach, and are focusing increasingly on soil integrity. Could it be that both sides of agriculture's great divide now want the same thing?
"It's been a huge move," says Mark Alley, an agronomist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. "Twenty-five years ago, yield was everything. But in the past ten years, there's been a major recognition of the need to maintain organic materials in soil." And with the turn of the millennium, farmers have started to embrace approaches that keep soil structure intact and cut the high level of inputs — energy, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides — that characterize intensive agriculture.
Going green ... again
These new methods diverge significantly from the purist organic vision. In particular, they rely heavily on 'low tillage' methods, which help to improve the soil but depend partly on the use of herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides. Those remain anathema to the organic movement. But the change that is taking place — sometimes referred to as the second green, or doubly green, revolution — stems from a growing acceptance of the organic critique of the first one. Mainstream agronomists now acknowledge, for example, that intensive farming reduces biodiversity, encourages irreversible soil erosion and generates run-off that is awash with harmful chemicals -- including nitrates from fertilizers that can devastate aquatic ecosystems.
For the organic movement, caring for the soil involves interspersing each harvest with a cover crop such as clover or rye that can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. Cover crops keep down weeds, retain moisture and prevent erosion. Ploughing them into the soil at the end of the season restores the soil's organic content, and boosts its nitrogen content without the need to use synthetic fertilizer.
The low-till approach borrows heavily from these principles. Low-till farmers ensure that their soil is not left open to erosion by growing nitrogen fixers between rows of their cash crops and between seasons. But low-till farmers don't completely unhitch their wagon from conventional inputs. They still use nitrate fertilizers and pesticides as needed. Before each planting, they kill the previous crop with a broad-spectrum herbicide such as Roundup, made by Monsanto of St Louis, Missouri. This lets them punch the new seed directly into the ground through the decaying plants without tilling.
Low-till agriculture is taking root in both rich and poor countries. Pat Wall, head of conservation agriculture at CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, estimates that about 70 million hectares of arable land -- something like 2% of the global total -- is now using the method, with about a third of that in the United States.
Brazil has been in the vanguard of the change in the south, says Cheryl Palm, an ecologist specializing in tropical agriculture at Columbia University in New York. "It's swept through the country, and cut down soil erosion dramatically," she says.
Although many of the farms that are converting to low-till agriculture are large-scale operations, the approach is also rapidly gaining acceptance on smallholdings in places such as Ghana and India. On the Indian subcontinent, the area where low-till is being implemented has grown from nothing in 1997, through 100,000 hectares in 2001, to one million hectares this year.
Besides conserving soil structure, low tillage also reduces energy inputs. Farms in India that grow rice in the summer and wheat in the winter have cut their number of annual tilling operations from eight to one, Wall reports, reducing fuel use by 70%. "When I was there, the only people complaining about the change were the petrol station owners," he says.
Low-till farming also substantially reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. Cover crops provide some nitrogen initially, and then, as organic matter builds up in the soil, nitrates and other nutrients are less readily leached out of it, further decreasing the requirement for added fertilizer.
But for organic purists, any approach to maintaining soil integrity that incorporates regular sprayings with Roundup and continued applications of nitrates is heresy. Peter Melchett, policy director of Britain's Soil Association, the world's oldest organic farming organization, scorns low-till approaches. "They tend to be something you can do for two or three years until you get grass weeds that aren't well-controlled by Roundup," he says. "Then you have to resort to ploughing."
Wall disagrees. He argues that the need for herbicide applications tails off after the first few years of low-tillage, as weed seeds disappear from the top layer of soil. "I think it is possible to get to no tillage and almost no herbicides," he says.
Such disputes might be resolved more readily if there was an abundance of data comparing pure organic methods with the low-till approach to soil conservation. "But there aren't a lot of long-term studies," says Mark David, a biogeochemist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "It isn't a simple comparison to make."
Some of the other ideas being borrowed from the organic movement — in particular a reduction in pesticide inputs — are resulting in a closer meeting of minds. For instance, farmers have been forced to discard methyl bromide, the main soil fumigant that has been used to kill soil pests, as it will be phased out by 2005 under the Montreal Protocol to close the ozone hole. This has led farmers to experiment not only with other fumigants but with organic methods of killing insect larvae as well, including flooding fields between plantings and allowing the Sun to bake the soil through clear plastic sheeting.
Farmers are also bowing to consumer pressure. "People don't want pesticides in their food," says Diana Wall, director of the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. US orchards, for instance, have largely adopted organic methods for controlling the codling moth (Cydia pomonella), the larvae of which bore into ripening fruit and can destroy 80% of an apple crop without control.
In this case, concerns about pesticide residues on apples and pears led to legal restrictions on the use of organophosphates, the most effective class of pesticides, under the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act. Organic control of the codling moth disrupts mating by releasing sterile males and spraying female sex pheromones to confuse the rest.
The doubly green revolution doesn't necessarily embrace the broader aspects of organic ideology, such as social justice and animal welfare. But if the organic movement wants to change the world, it is making a reasonable start. ===
Organic FAQs : In the developed world, sales of organic produce are growing rapidly. But how far can this trend extend? That depends on how strictly you define organic farming… and the answers to three other pivotal questions. Nature 428, 796 (22 Apr 2004)
Transparency: Monsanto's Product Information & Safety Summaries
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Altered Corn Ignites Furor In Mexico
- Hugh Dellios, 2004, Chicago Tribune April 25, 2004 http://www.chicagotribune.com/
CAPULALPAN, Mexico -- Olga Toro couldn't resist planting a few kernels of the corn she purchased at the government warehouse, even though it was intended only to help feed her family and her chickens. She was doing what Mexican farmers have done religiously for 6,000 years. She was experimenting with seeds in a tradition that helped create corn from a weed called teosinte and ultimately produced dozens of yellow, white, red, blue and black species that make Mexico the world's most important repository of corn genes.
What Toro didn't know was that her kernels may have been the product of far more powerful experiments to improve corn. And what sprouted in her yard was not only an oddly robust plant but an international controversy that could help decide how the world deals with genetically altered food. "We were curious to see what the seeds would give, and they gave a lot--double what our own corn seed produces," Toro said.
Mexico's recent confirmation that American-manufactured, laboratory-modified genes have somehow appeared in cornfields in Mexico's remote hills has fueled an impassioned debate over "transgenic" products and their potential impact on human health, the environment and the survival of Mexico's traditional corn varieties.
The government announcement in February gave credence to much-maligned claims by a team of California scientists that they found lab-created genes in Toro's and others' corn in Oaxaca three years ago. But it did not solve the mystery of how the genes got there despite a 5-year-old ban on planting transgenic crops in Mexico.
The findings have led environmentalists and others to call for a moratorium on Mexico's annual imports of more than 5million tons of cheap feed corn from the U.S. Those imports have been important for farmers in Illinois and Iowa while helping Mexico introduce more chicken, eggs and other protein into the national diet. Effects unknown, some say
While the Mexican government insists the laboratory-produced genes pose no threat to humans or Mexico's corn, environmental groups, indigenous leaders and other critics say scientists cannot predict what harmful effects may crop up later. They also fear the modified corn could contaminate and displace native species. In the next few weeks, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an international watchdog agency created in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement, will complete the first comprehensive study of the potential impact of modified genes on Mexican corn. Its findings will be presented in June with recommendations on how to proceed.
At stake is not only the North American corn trade, Mexican food policy and the future of a crop that is central to Mexico's identity, but also an important precedent on how the promises of science and biotechnology are weighed against unknown risks and traditional values.
"There are very few places where the issues regarding transgenics are as stark as in Mexico, and it's various decisions like this made all over the world that are going to determine what happens with them in the future," said Peter Raven, a prominent American botanist and adviser to the commission's study panel.
"In a lot of ways, this issue has come to symbolize the clashes of European and indigenous cultures, and big-time agriculture against what you think your grandparents did," he said. Other experts say the Mexican case raises the additional concern of how easy it might be to lose track of "gene flow" between agricultural products or into the wild.
Norman Ellstrand, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of California, Riverside and another Commission for Environmental Cooperation adviser, said that is particularly important because corn has been the primary food product used in the development of pharmaceuticals and other industrial compounds that should be tightly regulated.
"I am worried that this shows over what distance gene flow can occur, and how quickly," Ellstrand said. Worldwide, the use of modified crops is growing, with about 167 million acres planted in 18 countries in 2003. The new genes have been developed by companies such as Monsanto to provide resistance to insects or to increase crop yields.
Industry officials point to studies showing little threat and they say that if Mexico embraced transgenics it potentially could produce more corn, rely less on imports and use fewer chemicals in the fields. "Real knowledge about transgenic crops is very limited in Mexico, especially in rural areas," said Eric Sachs, Monsanto's director of scientific affairs. "Because we're not able to grow it there now, it's hard to show how valuable these products could be."
Yet concerns have been sprouting. The European Union has passed a moratorium on modified crops, and about 90 nations have signed a biosafety protocol calling for coordinated controls. U.S. hasn't signed The U.S., which produces by far the largest share of modified corn, soybeans and cotton, has not signed the protocol.
The Mexican controversy began four years ago when a team of biologists from the University of California, Berkeley claimed they had found an insect-resistant gene made by Monsanto in Oaxaca's Sierra Juarez range. The team's dozen samples included corn that Toro said she bought from a Ministry of Social Development program to deliver cheap food to impoverished rural areas. Until the controversy, 40 percent of that program's corn came from the U.S.
Industry officials and other researchers scoffed at that initial study's methodology. But soon after, the Mexican government began its own testing. In February, officials announced they found evidence of U.S.-laboratory-produced corn genes in 7.6 percent of the 4,000 samples they took from 188 communities in Oaxaca and neighboring Puebla state.
The officials said they have not determined who produced the genes or where they had come from, but they said the evidence showed no dangers and that the presence of the modified genes was diminishing. Victor Villalobos, executive secretary of Mexico's Interministry Commission on Biosafety and Genetically Modified Organisms, said the government has proceeded with caution, noting the 1999 moratorium and that Mexico was among the first nations to sign the biosafety protocol.
But he said the government is confident that the threat is exaggerated and must balance the biological concerns with the economic need to feed its more than 100 million people. He said 70 percent of the country's feed and food corn comes from the U.S. Most is yellow corn that feeds livestock, but some white corn is imported to help fulfill the demand for the 1 billion tortillas eaten by Mexicans every day. At least 30 percent of the corn is modified.
Villalobos said refusing imports and returning to the pre-NAFTA days when Mexico grew all of its own corn would double prices for consumers. "We are not a country that should remain behind in technological innovation," Villalobos said. "It's better to monitor the risks than close the border, which would be like shutting down industry."
Critics, however, say neither the government nor scientists have studied the issue enough, and they believe Mexico has been careless. Mexico signed an agreement with the U.S. in October requiring the labeling of modified corn imports. But environmentalists complained that it set a bad precedent by exempting shipments with less than 5 percent modified corn and by not holding shippers responsible for "unknowingly" delivering modified products.
Alejandro Calvillo, director of Greenpeace Mexico, argues that transgenics could be to the 21st Century what industrial chemicals were to the 20th Century, when DDT and ozone-depleting compounds were put on the market before their impact on the environment was known.
The fears and doubts of local farmers were evident at a public hearing in March by the environmental commission in Oaxaca. Many of the farmers rejected transgenics as another harmful invasion by outsiders. "Sometimes we have to stop trying to be so intelligent," said Miguel Angel Moran, 32, whose family farms corn in Guerrero. "Nature is wiser. It has magic, and it will swallow this monster that the scientists have created."
Migration threatens corn
An even bigger threat to Mexico's corn diversity, some said, is the steady migration to urban areas of peasants who cared for the native species. That too was linked to the U.S. imports, which are cheaper to buy partly because U.S. farmers are subsidized by taxpayers while Mexico's are not.
Traditional corn species "can cope with the weather and pests and disease, but it is very hard for them to overcome the 20 to 30 percent subsidies paid to U.S. farmers to bolster U.S. corn exports," said Major Goodman, a North Carolina State University professor who is writing a chapter of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation study.
Hovering above the bitter debate between what Ellstrand has labeled industry's "smug optimism" and opponents' "self-righteous panic" is the mystery over how the modified genes arrived in such remote parts of Mexico. One theory is that Mexican migrants brought seeds home from the U.S. in their pockets and luggage. Officials say that is common among farmers.
But the environmental commission's draft report said "the most likely culprit" is the government's rural food-distribution programs. Toro, a mother of six, said she first planted the white government corn in 1998, next to two local varieties in her 5-acre plot. She said she was surprised when it sometimes produced three ears on its short, fat stalks. The more slender local stalks produced two.
"It was a really beautiful plant," Toro said. "If they can say, 'Don't worry about your grandchildren'--if they can give us that assurance, then let's go with it."