Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - April 29, 2004:
* Africa: IITA, USAID Urge Better Understanding of Biotech
* Bill Gates' Generosity Towards African Science
* India: Panel Recommends Biotech Regulatory Body's Wings
* Cornell Program on Public Issues Education on AgBiotech
* Factsheets: Biotech Resources for Educators
* Genetic Engineering Urban Legends
* .... Fish-Gene Strawberries and Tomatoes
* "Terminator" Seed Technology
* India: Bangalore Bio 2004
* Eco Sounding: Agony Uncle and Anger Management
* Genetic Engineering: Man Playing God?
* What is Organic Farming? Is Organic Food Better For Us?
* Is Organic Farming Better For The Environment? Replace Conventional Agriculture?
Africa: IITA, USAID Urge Better Understanding of Biotech
- Crusoe Osagie This Day (Nigeria) April 27, 2004
The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Nigeria Agriculture Biotechnology Project (NABP) and the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) have pushed for the improvement of the understanding of biotechnology in Africa.
As part of their effort to ensure that the awareness and understanding of the peoples of Africa about biotechnology improves they are to organise a biotechnology workshop which will seek to expose players in the media and other biotechnology stakehloders to the most basic and fundamental issues of biotechnology.
The workshop tagged 'the gene and the media' will begin at the weekend and will feature world renowned scientists speaking on different fundamental issues on biotchnology.
It would be recalled that a lot of controversies have tailed the path of the biotechnology and Genetically modified Organisms (GMOs) inovation around the world, due to various perceptions of the safety of the technology.
The United States who is the major proponents of the technology has, since the invention of the technology, made frantic efforts to popularize the technology and encourage the world economy to employ its fleribility in the fight against world hunger. Even though European nations have refused to view the technology along the same lines with the United States the US still seeks to ensure that the technology gains a foothold around the world.
According to President George Bush of the United States the refusal of European nations to adopt GMOs is not founded on scientifically proven fears. "European governments have blocked the import of new biotech crops to their countries based on unfounded and unscientific fears," he said.
According to him, the artificial fears being projected by European nations have led many African nations to avoid investing in biotechnology, because they are worried that their products will be shut out of the extensive European market. "America and other wealthy nations have a special responsibility to combat hunger and disease in desperate lands," he said.
He explained that while agricultural advances have produced greater crop yields and grown crops with high resistance to drought, pests and disease, many of the advantages of biotechnology have not reached developing nations in Africa and nations where they are needed most.
The president called for the U.S. and other nations to share best practices in crop production and use advances in bio-science to help fight global hunger and disease. President Bush also urged support for a $6 billion initiative called Project BioShield to accelerate development of drugs and vaccines to protect the U.S. population in the event of a chemical or biological weapons attack.
Project BioShieid, he said, will lead to safer and more effective vaccines and treatments against agents like smallpox, anthrax, botulinum toxin, e-bola and plague, and also to greater understanding of the workings of other diseases. "My administration is committed to working with your industry (the biotechnology industry) so that the great powers of biotechnology can serve the true interests of our nation and mankind," he said.
Also speaking on safty of biotech crop recently, Deputy Commissioner of the United State Food and Drug Administration Lester Crawford said that Biotechnology is one of the safest forms of plant breeding because of its precision in isolating specific crop traits.
Speaking June 23 (2003) at the U.S. sponsored ministerial conference on agricultural science and technology in Sacramento, Crawford, said that foods derived from biotechnology have been on the U.S. market for several years, and no instances of adverse reaction have been reported.
He said the United States has an active early surveillance system to detect any adverse reactions should they occur, and welcomes the public's input about suspected food regulatory violations. FDA works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in overseeing the U.S. food regulatory system, he said.
Crawford said the science of biotechnology continues to progress and eventually will be more widely accepted as have such once-questioned technologies as x-ray therapy, pasteurization and water fluoridation. "These technologies have prevailed because they've been proven useful and safe," he said.
David Hegwood, USDA special counsel, told the meeting that, as the United States has done, other countries need to have a "tremendous amount of interagency coordination" when developing science- based regulatory systems for biotechnology-derived and other foods. He added that more "horizontal communication" among governments is needed to create an easily understandable food regulatory system for the public. "It is not a question if but how" more countries will regulate food technologies to ensure health and safety, he said.
C.S. Prakash, director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research in the United States, said at the meeting that a lack of enabling policies, trade fears and pressure from environmental groups have slowed progress toward the development of food technology regulations in many countries.
Much of the concern about biotechnology is "imaginary,'' he said.
Prakash added that governments need to take into account "societal concerns" such as the public's unfamiliarity with modern technologies and safeguards when developing food regulations. He said that governments should provide more information about food technologies to their publics.
Lisa Zannoni, a European Union (EU) liaison from BASFAgriculture in Belgium, said that effective food technology regulations require early consultations with food product developers, timely decisions by government agencies and approval process transparency, ail of which will promote consumer confidence. She pointed to international data resources that governments can look to when developing food safety regulations such as United Nations and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
On the question of food labeling, Crawford said that because FDA-approved foods derived from biotechnology have been proven to be as safe as other foods, the United States has no special labeling requirements for biotech foods. However, he said, should a biotech product show it is different in composition from its traditional counterpart, it would require a label pointing out the difference.
Gregory Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, added that labels of content or origin "shouldn't be a surrogate for safety." He added that there are many ways in addition to labeling to get accurate information to consumers about the food they buy. He added that government regulations for getting food products to the market should not be "stifling."
Bill Gates' Generosity Towards African Science
- Otula Owuor, ; science writer/editor, African biotechnology Stakeholders Forum
This gesture is definitely a very positive step towards pushing the region to focus more on science and technology as a major driving force behind the goods and services needed for competition in the global marketplace Africa remains a major consumer of all sorts of often substandard products including counterfeit medicines apart from inability to control the numerous diseases and malnutrition.
My strong view is that the continent badly needs grants that are directed at hand-on research activities that have immediate or direct application in poverty elevation, curbing of ill-health etc. At present too much aid or donor funds seem to end endless conferences, paper work and policy issues. Policy is important but Africa fails in implementation.
Even in the case of HIV/AIDS the badly hit region has little or no homes-grown clinical or laboratory research activities while billions of dollars have been poured into meetings,policy documents and other aspects at the expense of real science. However it is also great that African Academy of sciences is being given support and should help chart the way forward in collaboration with institutions organizations. It is definitely a well intended input that deserves praise and support in terms of real products and services in short or long run. Meanwhile the need to sharpen skills at proposal writing remains urgent.
> Bill Gates Gives US$20 million to African Science Academies African
> science academies get US$20 million boost
India: Panel For Clipping GEAC (Biotech Regulatory Body's) Wings
- Ashok B Sharma, Financial Express, April 27 http://www.financialexpress.com/fe_full_story.php?content_id=57937
The MS Swaminathan panel on applications of biotechnology in agriculture has sought to reduce the powers of the existing regulatory authority, Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). It has suggested that pending the setting up of an autonomous Agricultural Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (ABRA), the release of transgenic crops for commercial cultivation should be done by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Union agriculture ministry. The panel has limited the powers of the GEAC to "only environmental clearance".
Regarding selection of crops for developing transgenics, the panel report said "the alternatives available for meeting the food and nutritional needs should be viewed comprehensively" before resorting to transgenics. Export market should be kept in view while selecting crops for developing transgenics.
The panel also suggested the labelling of genetically modified (GM) products, setting up of Codex norms in GM foods, protection of organic farming zones and agro-biodiversity sanctuaries from the effects of cross-pollination of GM crops, gathering of data on effects of transgenics on other crops on line of recent studies in UK. It suggested special government sponored insurance scheme for GM crops, venture capital assistance for industries developing GM crops and private-public sector alliance for production and marketing of GM seeds. It also called for studying the effects of recombinant vaccines and GM feeds on milk, meat and eggs.
With a view to hasten the process of clearance of GM crops, the panel report said "once an extant/transgene has been declared bio-safe, its derivatives need not always be evaluated for bio-safety again." The panel report recommended until the ABRA is set up the GEAC should have two wings, one to deal with transgenic in agriculture and the other in pharma sector.
The expert body also suggested setting up of bodies at state and district levels for preventing illegal proliferation of GM seeds. It favoured mandatory registration of all released seeds and suggested single window information centre on all aspects of bioethics and biosafety. Pending the setting up of ABRA, the RGCM will grant approvals for open field trials for biosafety whlie ICAR and the concerned company will conduct large scale field trials. Post-release monitoring will be the done by the Union agriculture ministry and ICAR.
Public Issues Education on Genetically Engineered Organisms
- Cornell University, http://www.geo-pie.cornell.edu/
Public issues education is an educational strategy that seeks to shed light on a subject of particular concern to the public, in order to help citizens make well-informed decisions. All too often, the term "education" is applied to programs that are, in reality, persuasion and advocacy. Not so, here. The GEO-PIE Project makes a deliberate attempt to provide useful information about genetic engineering in a balanced and objective manner, and lets the reader decide. The Project is an in-depth discussion of relevant scientific research, the areas of uncertainty, and the associated interpretations of the research. Further, because this is a public issue, we will also explore not just the scientific issues, but many of the social and ethical issues surrounding genetic engineering.
This also means, however, that readers are not likely to find easy answers on this site. Despite the claims of advocates and activists alike, the realities of genetic engineering are often much more complex than simple yes-or-no, all-or-none formulas. Our educational goal is that our readers will gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of the subject, carefully weigh the risks, benefits, and uncertainties, and become better able to participate in informed discussion.
Comments from Prakash:
This site from Corell is an excellent resource which explains many complex issues of agbiotech in a simple and objetive manner. Check out the section on 'Risks and Benefit's at http://www.geo-pie.cornell.edu/issues/issues.html including the article "Could genetically engineered plants cause food allergies?". Check out also the factsheets for educators (below). A few others (Urban legend on 'fish gene in strawberry; The 'terminator' gene controversy) reproduced below.
Biotech Resources for Educators
Download these factsheets at http://www.geo-pie.cornell.edu/educators/educators.html
The series of fact sheets was developed by the GEO-PIE Project to cover a broad range of issues related to genetically engineered organisms and genetic engineering in U.S. agriculture. They contain up-to-date information that distills much of the content of the GEO-PIE website into brief, topical, easy-to-distribute pages. These educational resources were designed for extension educators, teachers, and consumer, and they may be used as references for your own presentations, or as handouts for distribution to your local audiences, journalists, policy makers, etc.
Genetic Engineering Urban Legends
Communication about a complex science like genetic engineering may always have some inaccuracies and biases, but there are some stories on the subject that are so incorrect— and so often repeated— that they deserve their own section. Some started with a kernel of truth that has been distorted over time under layers of "spin"; others have stretched credulity from the start. Here's a few of our favorites.
Did you hear the one about...
...how you might be eating tomatoes or strawberries with fish genes? Nothing could sound more icky. But do they really exist? (see below) ...how KFC uses chickens so genetically engineered that they can't be called "chicken" anymore? The true story behind Kentucky Fried Chicken's "Animal 57." ... the farmer sued by Monsanto over pollen contamination of his own crop? Canola farmer Percy Schmeiser was indeed sued by Monsanto, but have you heard the whole story?
Fish-Gene Strawberries and Tomatoes
Full artricle at http://www.geo-pie.cornell.edu/media/fishberries.html . Excerpts below..
No anti-GMO literature would be complete without mentioning -- or even better, illustrating -- the"fishberry," the monstrous half-strawberry, half-fish. Even scientists and media sources frequently refer to tomatoes or strawberries with fish genes. But do fruits with fish genes really exist?
Short answer: no.
The story about tomatoes with fish genes does have its genesis in fact. In 1991, researchers at DNA Plant Technology developed an experimental genetically engineered variety of tomato that expressed a gene identified in an Arctic flounder (1). The flounder gene encoded a protein which confers cold resistance to the fish. The goal was to develop tomato plants that could withstand frost in the field and fruits that resist cold damage in storage. This particular experiment however was a failure and did not produce frost resistant plants.
Despite the failure, the story continues to circulate as if the experiment worked, or worse, as if the fish-gene tomato might exist or has ever existed in the marketplace. That a current BBC special feature on genetic engineering uses the failed "tomato with fish genes" experiment to illustrate successful genetic engineering is particularly ironic. After explaining the steps of the process, the website concludes cheerily:
"This GM tomato plant contains a copy of the flounder antifreeze gene in every one of its cells. The plant is tested to see if the fish gene still works. Is it frost resistant? Yes it is."
Actually, as it turns out, no it is not.
The existence of "antifreeze proteins" (AFPs) has been known since the late 60s (2), and have since been identified in many organisms that have evolved resistance to freezing temperatures, including bacteria, fungi, fish, insects, and plants (3). AFPs -- technically called thermal hysteresis proteins -- prevent freezing damage to cellular structures by slowing or stopping the formation of ice crystals inside a cell. Since the 1991 failure, researchers have continued experimenting with various antifreeze genes in an attempt to improve frost resistance in plants, but with very limited success (4). Recent experiments using an AFP identified in carrots have shown some modest success (5). Could there be "tomatoes with fish genes" in the future? Maybe. But given the apparent "yuck factor" perception, it is doubtful that such a product would be marketable without a major change in public opinion.
In 1996, a short-lived anti-GMO activist group based in Rochester, NY, named themselves after the nonexistent fishberries.
The much more common variant of this tale about strawberries with fish genes--the "fishberry"-- is more problematic. There are no published studies involving strawberries, no companies which have announced research or marketing plans for such a product, no government records of field testing such a plant, and no trace in the media to explain how this story may have originated. It is possible that scientists from DNA Plant Technology (or elsewhere) may have publicly speculated about the benefits of using antifreeze genes in strawberries when the 1991 tomato research was published. The story may also be a conflation with Frostban--a genetically engineered bacteria developed to protect strawberries and other fruits from frost damage--which had been field tested in 1987 and 1988. Nonetheless, shortly after the 1991 tomato study, the emphasis shifted from tomatoes with fish genes to strawberries with fish genes, and the image quickly became widespread in the media and in activist literature (and their costumes).
How would this completely fictional story come to be repeated so widely? We suspect that scientists like to use the hypothetical example to illustrate both the universality of the genetic code and the "gee whiz" potential of genetic engineering to solve important agricultural issues. On the other hand, anti-GMO activists emphasize the story because, well, strawberries with fish genes sound much yuckier and scarier than a real genetically engineered crop, like corn that produces the same protein used by organic farmers. Nonetheless, despite the widespread circulation of the tale, strawberries with fish genes are an urban legend and have never existed outside the minds of enthusiastic researchers and alarmed activists
"Terminator" Seed Technology
Full Article at http://www.geo-pie.cornell.edu/gmo.html . Conclusion below...
"Some farmers save samples of their harvested seeds for replanting of the next year's crop. A controversial technology was developed which might be used to prevent purchasers of genetically engineered seeds from saving and replanting them."
Critics of the "Terminator Technology" often paint a ghastly picture of "terminator gene" escaping and spreading into other fields and into the wild, causing crop failures and eventually spreading its sterility throughout the world's ecosystems: "This would present a huge risk to the world because it could spread and sterilize all living plants, trees, etc." (Bragg Health Science website)
This line of argument bungles basic genetics: lethal genes do not spread through populations. Any plant carrying the terminator gene will not produce viable seeds. If the pollen from a GE plant carrying a GURT system fertilizes a plant in a nearby non-GE field, that pollination will not produce a viable seed. If the pollen fertilizes a wild, weedy relative of the crop, it will also fail to produce a hybrid seed. The method was developed to prevent plants carrying genetically engineered genes from surviving into the next generation.
Ironically, GURT could actually be used to prevent the escape of genetically engineered traits, a process referred to as horizontal gene transfer. If a GE plant is protected by a GURT, then all seeds resulting from pollen escape will not be viable-- preventing the spread of the GE trait into other fields or wild populations. If, for example, pollen from a field of GE canola is carried by an insect onto an organic farmer's non-GE canola field, any seeds in the non-GE field resulting from this cross pollination will not grow when the farmer saves his seed for replanting the next year. That is, "GMO contaminations" automatically weed themselves out before they can be planted again. Likewise, if pollen from a GE canola plant fertilizes a canola-related weed, the weed will not be able to produce GE hybrid seeds that persist in the wild.
India: Bangalore Bio 2004, July 11-13, 2004
Welcome to Bangalore Bio 2004, Asia's biggest and boldest statement in biotechnology.
Today's biotechnology industry is a colossal melting pot of many ascendant technologies, including molecular biology, pharmacogenomics, biotechnology tools, genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics, nanotechnology, telemedicine, electronics, fiber optics and computerization. This gelling of the industry offers new approaches to the discovery, design and production of drugs, vaccines, medical devices and diagnostics. This means exciting opportunities for the biotech industry worldwide.
Bangalore Bio 2003 grew to become Asia's premier biotech event with the objective to provide a platform for the different players of the biotech industry to discuss, network, explore new areas of biotech and secure right business solutions for the future and above all, give direction.
Our event has not only grown larger, it's become global in scope. At Bangalore Bio 2003, we had 121 Tradeshow participants, 20 countries and 6 Indian states taking part. For Bio 2004, we expect 150 exhibitors from 30 countries to take part.
- John Vidal, The Guardian (UK), April 28, 2004
Agony uncle: Botanist, ecologist and biotech supporter Klaus Ammann is head of the Bern botanical gardens, and is preparing a proposal for a European biotech manifesto to help the European public to understand the benefits of the technology. He has been describing how to handle
opponents: "Avoid eco-Stalinists like Greenpeace . . . you can talk to the WWF and the World Conservation Union and many organic farmers, and - to a much lesser degree - Friends of Earth."
Not in our back yard: But Ammann may have trouble persuading anyone, so rapidly is opposition to the genetically modified crops mounting. Friends of the Earth Europe has found more than 1,000 French town mayors who support GM-free zones, as well as 500 Italian cities, half of all Greek prefectures and nine out of 10 regions of Austria that are all requesting bans in their areas. In Britain, 12 county councils, nine unitary authorities, two metropolitan districts, one London borough, 13 district councils, two national park authorities, and 35 Welsh councils have voted against the crops. That means that about 14million people in Britain are living in areas with a GM-free policy.
Anger management: The neo-conservative extremists are out. Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, last week accused the green movement of being "anti-science, anti-technology, and anti-human"; Paul Driessen, of the Centre for the Defence of Free Enterprise, accused Europe of causing millions of deaths in Africa through its bans on GM foods; and dear Roger Bate, of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, chipped in to accuse the UN of killing the poor. Steady on.
Genetic Engineering: Man Playing God?
- Scunthorpe Telegraph (UK), April 29 2004 http://www.thisisscunthorpe.co.uk/
The Telegraph asked Keith Moore whether genetic engineering was 'Playing at God'. He said: "Was Edward Jenner playing at God when he transferred serum from cowpox blisters to man? "Without his work there would be no vaccines.
"Was Alexander Fleming playing at God when he investigated the effect of chemicals from a fungus on the growth of bacteria? "Without this work there would be no antibiotics.
"Are doctors playing at God when they prolong life and ease pain by the vast array of technologies available to them? "Do genetic engineers have a responsibility to progress their technology when there are so many potential benefits to mankind?
"Man is an inquisitive species and there will always be those scientists who wish to push the frontiers beyond generally acceptable codes of moral and ethical practice. Developments in in-vitro fertilisation, embryology and cloning have resulted in considerable public concern and, quite rightly, legally binding codes and restrictions are imposed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.
"Using stem cells from the placenta and umbilical cord of a newborn baby to treat a sibling with a genetic disorder is a type of genetic engineering. As a technique, it raises a number of ethical issues and as such has its advocates and its opponents.
"A number of fears are raised by genetic engineering and informed public debate is vitally important on the issues, and emotive terms, like 'Frankenstein Foods', do little to promote sensible arguments. "As an inhabitant of rural Asia, suffering from ulceration of the cornea and potential blindness, due to vitamin A deficiency, you are unlikely to object to eating genetically engineered rice, which has a vitamin A content sufficiently enhanced to prevent you from losing your sight.
"Blood clotting factors are now produced for haemophiliacs by genetic engineering, eliminating the risk of HIV contamination.
"Resistance to insect attack can now be genetically engineered into our crop plants, thus reducing the dependence on toxic chemical sprays. "Herbicide resistance can similarly be engineered into food crops so that they are not affected by general weed-killers. These resistance genes may carry, as yet, unidentified risks to consumers and such genes may be distributed by pollen to wild species.
"The possibility of multinationals developing patents on genetically modified species which are cheaper, more nutritious and easier to grow is a potential danger."
What is Organic Farming?
- Laura Nelson, Nature v.428 (22 Apr 2004) http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/organicfarming/
At the core of the organic philosophy lies a ban on the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. That means adopting other techniques to nourish crops and protect the soil, such as growing 'cover' crops between seasons to prevent erosion and to restore organic matter.
The organic movement also encompasses such tenets as animal welfare, energy efficiency, social justice and the simple agrarian ideal of small farms growing produce for local communities. It is on this last point that the success of organic farming is starting to divert the movement from its pure vision.
Although organic produce remains a niche market, global sales have risen by about 20% per year for five years running1. This growth has seen some 'organic' producers turn into industrial-scale ventures that ship their products over thousands of kilometres. Organic proponents may aim to reduce the fossil fuel expended in transporting crops by encouraging farmers to sell to local markets, but the popularity of organic food in wealthy countries has spawned a huge export market. North America and Europe account for 97% of global organic food and drink sales, but nearly half of the world's organic farmland is found in Asia, Australia and Latin America (see Map). It's hardly what the movement's pioneers had in mind.
Organic standards also differ in their details from country to country. Most rules governing organic farming, including those laid down in the European Union, Japan and the United States, are based on standards set by the non-profit International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements in Bonn, Germany. "Anyone who is really credible will adhere," says Bruce Pierce, deputy research director of the Elm Farm Research Centre in Berkshire, UK, which studies methods of organic cultivation. But standards are not always comprehensive: Japan, for instance, has no rules for organic meat.
And there are important differences between regions of the world. For instance, an American farmer who chooses to use Chilean nitrate, a mined source of sodium nitrate, permitted under US rules, could not sell the resulting produce in Europe. Although Chilean nitrate is a natural substance, European organic standards consider it to be the equivalent of a synthetic fertilizer because it is highly soluble and leaches readily from the soil. Nor could the US farmer market milk from a cow that had been raised on an organic diet for less than a year — European rules are stricter than US standards, which require only six months.
Similarly, a consumer buying organic produce in the United States cannot be sure that it is free of contamination from genetically modified (GM) crops unless this is explicitly stated on the label. In Europe, GM content in all GM-free food, including organic produce, is limited to 0.9%, and some certifying bodies, such as Britain's Soil Association, allow no detectable GM.
Because organic products fetch premium prices, there are concerns about the possibility of cheating. Organic rules are enforced by farm inspections, but the logistics can be difficult, particularly in remoter parts of exporting countries. "The inspection process is not completely foolproof," admits Francis Blake, standards director of the Soil Association and a former inspector. "It relies on trust."
As a result, some researchers have begun to look for ways to test organic products for authenticity. Alison Bateman of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, is developing a test based on the higher proportion of the isotope nitrogen-15 in organically farmed soil. This is because nitrogen-fixing plants accumulate more of this heavy isotope than is present in synthetic fertilizers. Other researchers are investigating whether concentrations of trace elements such as calcium, boron, magnesium and selenium differ between organic and conventional produce.
But tests such as these address only the final products, and so cannot verify whether the farm from which the food came adhered to the principles of organic agriculture. "They cannot tell you if a product has been organically managed or not," says Blake.
Is Organic Food Better For Us?
- Jim Giles, Nature v.428 (22 Apr 2004) http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/organicfarming/
This is the claim that attracts many of the consumers who buy organic, so it's no surprise that the movement's advocates answer with an unequivocal 'yes'. In 2001, for instance, the Soil Association concluded unambiguously that organic food contains less of the bad stuff, such as pesticides, and more of the good stuff, such as vitamins and minerals2.
But independent scientists are less convinced. They say that many comparisons between organic and conventional produce are let down by poor methodology. For example, some studies fail to take into account the fact that organic farmers prefer crop varieties that are resistant to disease, whereas conventional farmers focus on high-yielding strains. Such studies confuse the effect of production system with variety.
Apparent benefits may also turn out to be superficial. Several studies have shown that organic crops contain higher levels of nutrients such as vitamin C and iron3, for example, but most people in developed countries already have enough of these compounds in their diet. "When evaluating relative nutritional value, these are not important targets," says Kirsten Brandt, an agricultural scientist at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
On the other hand, plant secondary metabolites, substances that may be present at higher levels in organic food, could be an appropriate target, says Brandt. Phenolic metabolites, which fruit and vegetables produce to ward off insects, are believed to have anticancer properties, for example. Last year, food scientist Danny Asami and his colleagues at the University of California, Davis, looked at organic and conventionally grown marionberries and maize (corn) from the same farm, and found 30–50% more phenolics in the organic samples4. Studies of organic pears and peaches have also showed raised levels of phenolics5.
Brandt, who tracks such studies, says that the evidence points to organic crops containing 10–50% more secondary metabolites than conventional equivalents. This may be because fertilizers applied to conventional plants supply a surfeit of nutrients, encouraging the plant to channel more energy into growth, rather than defending against pests.
But do plant secondary metabolites really do us any good? Anthony Trewavas, a plant scientist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and a high-profile critic of the organic movement6, questions whether we should be trying to boost levels of secondary metabolites before we know the answer to this question. About 10,000 of these metabolites are thought to exist. Many that have been studied seem to behave paradoxically, acting as carcinogens at high doses and showing anticancer properties at low doses7.
At the very least, it seems reasonable to expect organic food to be free from pesticides, which are banned or severely restricted under organic regimes. Food-safety authorities monitor pesticide residues in conventional crops, but levels do occasionally exceed maximum legal limits. And according to a 1998 study by Britain's Consumers' Association, some pesticides remain on fruit and vegetables even after they have been washed8.
But should we be worried about this? Most researchers believe that allowed residues are safe, although uncertainties exist. The difficulty in applying results from animal experiments, which are the mainstay of toxicological assessments, to humans is one problem. Opinions can also be revised. The chlorine-containing pesticide lindane was banned in Europe in 2001, for example, because of concern that it might promote breast cancer9. Ultimately, most toxicologists urge caution in assessing and regulating pesticide residues, but they don't see the need to eliminate them entirely.
Is Organic Farming Better For The Environment?
- Colin MacilWain, Nature v.428 (22 Apr 2004) http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/organicfarming/
This is a more complex question than it at first appears. In some arenas, such as biodiversity, organic farming has clear benefits. But in others, such as runoff and atmospheric emissions, the differences between the two systems are difficult to establish.
Although few large, long-term studies directly comparing the systems exist, several literature surveys have brought together smaller studies to build overall comparisons10, 11. There is general agreement on some benefits. For example, organic farms do better than conventional farms at nurturing abundant and diverse populations of plants, insects and other animals. And organic farms release no synthetic pesticides or herbicides, some of which have the potential to harm wildlife.
Organic farms also score points for using less energy -- both per unit area and per unit of yield -- and producing less extraneous waste, such as packaging materials for chemicals and feed. A typical study at Washington State University in Pullman totted up the energy consumed by labour, machinery, electricity, fertilizer, pesticides and weed control to grow apples in organic and conventional orchards, and found the organic orchard to be 7% more energy efficient12.
On the flipside, organic methods have a greater environmental impact in some small ways, studies show. Methane emissions from organic farms are likely to be higher per unit of food production, for example. At least in the United States, where dairy cows receive growth hormone, organically raised cattle yield considerably less milk than their hormone-assisted peers -- requiring more cows, which collectively pass more methane.
But findings are less definitive about the much more significant environmental impact of farm runoff — through which nitrates and phosphorus leach into streams, rivers and lakes, causing algal blooms that suffocate fish. Several studies have suggested that organic methods will reduce nitrate leaching, but according to a 2003 assessment of the literature sponsored by the British government, the various factors that affect runoff mean that this is not guaranteed13. Too few measurements of phosphorus runoff have been made to determine which system releases less, the report concluded.
In theory, organic farms are friendlier to the atmosphere. They should, for instance, generate less carbon dioxide, which is released in abundance in conventional farming by burning fossil fuels to manufacture, transport and spread nitrate fertilizers. And the ploughing into the soil of crop residues and cover crops should pull carbon back out of the atmosphere more efficiently. Organic methods might also be expected to produce less nitrous oxide -- one of the causes of acid rain -- than is released by heavily fertilized soils.
Although the British assessment found that organic farming does lead to lower CO2 emissions, it also said that a lack of firm data made it impossible to compare emissions of nitrous oxide -- which is also produced by legumes and manure on organic farms. Nor were there enough data to evaluate the effectiveness of the two systems as sinks to capture atmospheric carbon.
For organic advocates, the key environmental issue is not the year-by-year balance of farming inputs and outputs, but rather the long-term sustainability of the system. By recycling both nitrogen and organic material back into the soil, they believe, organic agriculture can ensure this.
Many studies support the idea that organic methods are good for soil quality14. "I used to be sceptical about organic methods, but the evidence on organic material changes things," says Mark David, a biogeochemist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But in the absence of long-term comparative studies, the argument about sustainability is difficult to prove.
Can Organic Farming Replace Conventional Agriculture?
- Virginia Gewin, Nature v.428 (22 Apr 2004) http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/organicfarming/
Not if the world wants a meat-rich diet, as even die-hard organic proponents are willing to concede. But if the world's demand for cheap, abundant meat can be curbed, then quite possibly it could.
Ultimately, it's a question of efficiency and yield. The elimination of pesticides and herbicides does not seem to reduce yields as much as you might expect. Because pests tend to prefer particular plants, the crop rotations favoured by organic farmers help to prevent insect populations from accumulating to damaging levels. Continuous cover cropping in winter also keeps weeds down, so the soil accumulates fewer weed seeds. Natural pesticides and mechanical weeding finish the job.
Still, there are some regional pest problems for which no organic solution has yet been found. Notorious in the northwestern United States is the garden symphylan (Scutigerella immaculata), a centipede that can attack asparagus, maize, mint and strawberries and is controlled by soil fumigants in conventional systems. Years of research have yielded no effective organic control -- all organic farmers can do is replough the field in an attempt to kill the centipedes.
A bigger influence on yield is the means by which organic fields are supplied with enough nitrogen to maintain productivity. Conventional fields get a generous dose of nitrogen each season from synthetic fertilizer, whereas organic fields get theirs from manure and cover crops, sometimes called 'green manure'.
Season to season, the two approaches can produce comparable yields. A 21-year study by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Frick, Switzerland, concluded that organic fields produce yields 20% lower than conventional fields, on average15. Meanwhile, another long-term study by the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, obtained roughly equal yields of maize and soya beans with the two systems. The Rodale team also found that organic systems can achieve 20–40% higher yields in drought years16.
But to maintain the soil's nitrogen content in the long term, organic farmers must grow a legume or other nitrogen-fixing crop regularly. This takes land out of commercial production, reducing the overall yield of a plot over time. Although some legumes are edible, the most efficient nitrogen-fixers, such as clover, are not. The Rodale researchers managed to minimize lost yield by growing legumes over the winter, but this may not be practical in harsher climates; nor will it provide the same benefit in warmer regions where cash crops are grown year round.
Vaclav Smil, a natural-resources researcher at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, calculates that there is an even bigger obstacle to organic edging out conventional farming any time soon. He says that the total nitrogen available to organic farmers through manure and legumes amounts to less than half the total nitrogen consumed by the world's farms today -- some 85 million tonnes. More cover cropping may increase the available nitrogen, but this is a luxury farmers in places such as Indonesia or China can ill afford. "In these countries, you cannot plant crops that no one will eat," Smil says.
In large part, the huge nitrogen inputs required by modern agriculture are needed to grow sufficient grain to raise livestock: producing a kilogram of lean meat requires 25–50 kg of grain. Even with sufficient nitrogen, organic farms would have a hard time meeting this demand, Smil says, because they must grow a variety of crops to maintain soil health and defend against pests. Turning over entire farms to grow maize and soya beans to feed livestock isn't a viable option.
Even stalwart supporters of organic agriculture agree. But their line is that we should eat less meat and more vegetables, and embrace an organic future. The argument that organic farming can't produce enough food "only works if you assume that we continue to expand production of cheap meat", says Peter Melchett, policy director of Britain's Soil Association.