Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - June 29, 2004:
* NGO LETTER TO THE FAO
* What is Science?
* EU governments deadlocked over genetically modified corn
* Kenya unveils $12m greenhouse
* No quick fix to Africa's food problems
* Realizing the Promise and Potential of African Agriculture
* Law 'may stifle German science'
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NGO LETTER TO THE FAO
NGOs in support of FAO report, "Agricultural biotechnology: meeting the needs of the poor?"
An open letter to Mr. Jacques Diouf, Director General of UN Food and Agriculture Organization
Dear Mr. Diouf,
We, the undersigned organizations and NGOs involved in farming and agricultural issues, wish to express our support and agreement with the FAO report released Monday, May 17 ("Agricultural biotechnology: meeting the needs of the poor?").
We applaud the FAO for moving the discussion about agricultural biotechnology away from polarizing political rhetoric and either/or debates toward how best to utilize and apply agricultural biotechnology to the needs of the world's poor and undernourished. This is a most welcome advancement of the international discussion.
The FAO is to be commended for its balanced, well-reasoned approach. The report acknowledges that while there are potential risks from the use of agricultural biotechnology, the potential benefits are both large and greatly needed given the challenges humanity faces in feeding a larger, more affluent population from an already limited land and resource base.
Far from proposing a "technological fix" to food security problems, the report acknowledges that biotechnology alone cannot solve the problems of the poor and that a multifaceted approach is needed to address systemic poverty and malnutrition in developing regions. The report also stresses the need to carefully assess the socio-economic, food safety, and environmental impacts of biotechnology on a case-by-case basis, considering both the opportunities and risks.
Importantly, the report acknowledges that biotechnology offers tremendous promise in increasing food security, food safety, and economic opportunities for smallholder farmers in developing countries.
Biotechnology can speed up conventional breeding, address intractable disease problems, create crops that resist disease and insect pests and displace toxic chemicals that harm the environment and human health, help combat difficult endemic livestock diseases, and improve the nutritional quality of dietary staples heavily relied upon by the poor.
Because the technology is embodied in the seed, these may be easier for small-scale, resource-poor farmers to utilize than the technologies of the previous and successful Green Revolution.
While currently led by the private sector and focused on developed countries in the West, the report notes that there are critical opportunities ahead for biotechnology to address the particular needs of the poor and that cooperation and adequate funding are needed to ensure that the needs of the poor are not neglected and barriers to access are overcome.
Noted in the report are public-private partnerships, increased funding for public-sector transgenic crop research, and technical and regulatory capacity-building in developing countries to ensure they have the skills and knowledge necessary to make their own decisions about the use of biotechnology.
The report notes that the emerging evidence on the economic impacts of transgenic crops for smallholders is positive, with enhanced incomes and reduced pesticide exposure.
Finally, the report highlights some of the difficult agricultural and nutritional problems faced by smallholders in developing countries, and the unique and powerful ways that agricultural biotechnology can address these issues.
Perhaps most importantly, this FAO report acknowledges the food safety of transgenic products currently on the market. The report stresses that regulation should be science-based and noted the critical role of the Codex Alimentarius Commission and International Plant Protection Convention in easing international tensions in trade and food aid.
We commend the FAO and your office for weighing in on this important yet still contentious area and offering reasoned optimism about the role that agricultural biotechnology should play in meeting the needs of the poor and humanity in the 21st century.
Director of Research
Center for Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421
(540) 337-6354, or -6387
Frances B. Smith
Executive Director, Consumer Alert;
Founder and Coordinator
International Consumers for Civil Society
1001 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 1128
Washington, DC 20036
From: "Lance Kennedy"
Subject: What is Science?
Date: Sat, 26 Jun 2004 21:29:18 +1200
I would be seriously interested in some feed-back on a few thoughts. When I went through my formal education - primary, secondary and tertiary - I learned a great deal about science, eventually graduating with a science degree. One thing I was never taught is " What is science?" I learned an awful lot about science and what was part of this vast field, but never what it actually was. I have since thought a lot about this, and read a great deal on the subject. I have come to a few conclusions, and would like to get a bit of feed-back on these. First : a quickee definition of science.
"Science is the art of testing."
In science, new ideas are subject to test. Until something has been tested, again and again, it will not be accepted. The methods of testing ideas are debated and brainstormed until only the very best are used.
The scientific process is like building a very tall building (the fabric of science) by pre-testing every component to make sure each is absolutely sound, before putting it together. The final structure is solid and will not collapse. The non-scientist is like a builder who accepts material without proper testing and sees his efforts fall over due to faulty building blocks. Because we thoroughly test each new idea in science, the structure we create is lasting.
To quote three great scientific thinkers.
Richard Feynmann - "Science is the cult of the unbeliever." In other words, a scientific thinker has to be totally skeptical of every new idea and especially his/her own.
Carl Sagan - " The core of science is prediction." The predictive test is paramount. For any new hypothesis, we must make testable predictions. These must be tested by novel experiments or observations.
Carl Popper - "The falsifiability principle." The purpose of scientific testing is to falsify wrong ideas. Since we cannot prove to 100% certainty any opinion, we must settle for eliminating those that are wrong.
Put these together, and we get a definition, not of the whole of science, but at least of the essential centre of science.
"Science is the process of study in which new ideas are treated with skepticism, tested by making predictions based upon the hypothesis, followed by suitable novel experiments or observations, with the express purpose of falsifying wrong ideas."
Based on the incredible success rate of the scientific process, I believe that this should be the 'gold standard' against which all human ideas should be judged. If something repeatedly passes the predictive testing process, then it can be considered an acceptable model of reality. Otherwise no.
Do the opponents of GM follow this principle?
Do they treat their ideas with skepticism?
Do they apply the principle of predictive testing?
Is their aim to falsify wrong ideas?
EU governments deadlocked over genetically modified corn
- Associated Press, June 28, 2004
BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union governments on Monday failed to agree on a contentious proposal to approve Monsanto Co.'s genetically modified corn for use in processed food.
Diplomats said EU environment ministers meeting in Luxembourg were deadlocked in a vote on giving approval to the introduction of the corn product, known as NK603.
Nine EU countries — Latvia, Denmark, Cyprus, Hungary, Malta, Italy, Greece, Austria and Luxembourg — voted against the license, and two countries, Belgium and Spain, abstained.
Nine others, led by Britain and the Netherlands were for the approval.
The stalemate however, will not prevent the EU's head office from approving the corn for sale on the European market. That decision is expected in the next few weeks, officials said.
The European Commission urged EU governments last Friday to approve the corn hybrid, produced by St. Louis-based Monsanto, after it underwent "a thorough safety assessment for any adverse impact on public health."
The union last month lifted its six-year moratorium on approving genetically modified organisms. Under EU rules, member states have three months to decide whether to accept requests for biotech products for sale in the EU. If they fail to reach a decision, it is left to the Commission to decide on the application.
The stalemate reflects the deep divisions in Europe over the use of biotech foods.
Genetically altered crops remain unpopular among many consumers in the wake of recent food-related health scares, from mad cow disease to poisoned poultry.
In May, a biotech variety of corn made by Switzerland's Syngenta AG was approved for import and sale, but not cultivation. It was the first such approval for a biotech product in the EU since 1998, when a de facto moratorium was imposed in response to public fears about the health and safety of bioengineering.
The U.S. administration has accused the EU of violating international trade rules by hindering the marketing of genetically modified food. Although it has welcomed the EU's lifting of a moratorium, it continues with a complaint against Europe at the World Trade Organization. An initial ruling is expected in September.
Kenya unveils $12m greenhouse
- News24.com, 29/06/2004, By Kimani Chege
Nairobi, Kenya - Kenya has stepped to the forefront of African agricultural biotechnology with the inauguration of a 'level II biosafety greenhouse' that will allow containment of genetically modified (GM) crops at the experimental stage.
Kenya is only the second sub-Saharan country to possess such a facility - the other being South Africa.
The greenhouse will allow Kenyan scientists to conduct GM experiments that conform to international biosafety standards. And researchers from elsewhere in the region will also be able to develop research projects within the facility.
Officially opening the facility, Kenya's president Mwai Kibaki endorsed the use of genetically modified crops to increase yields, but warned that guidelines were necessary.
"We have to move quickly and embrace biotechnology in our farming," said Kibaki, who stressed the financial impacts of crop pests and disease in Kenya. "With judicious application of biotechnology, it is possible to save this country from incurring these losses."
The greenhouse was developed jointly by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the International Centre for Maize and Wheat Research (CIMMYT), which also trained scientists to manage the facility at its centre in Mexico.
The director general of CIMMYT, Masa Iwanaga, says the opening of the greenhouse in Kenya will open up a stream of new opportunities both in research and agricultural progress.
"With this greenhouse opening, and the training of competent staff to manage it, Kenya and KARI have positioned themselves to be leaders in sub-Saharan Africa in the use of biotechnology to meet the rapidly growing need to increase food production", says Iwanaga.
The greenhouse was built as part of the Insect Resistant Maize For Africa project. This aims to develop a maize variety resistant to the stem borer, an insect that causes massive crop losses in Africa. It cost $11.5m and was funded by the Kenyan government and Switzerland-based Syngenta Foundation.
No quick fix to Africa's food problems
- SciDev.net, David Dickson, 28 June 2004
African countries require less of an Asian-style 'green revolution' than a 'cultural revolution' involving ideas, attitudes and institutions. This must include, but not be limited to, a belief in science-based innovation.
If United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan had expected a simple answer when he asked scientists two years ago what they could do about the food crisis in Africa, he will have been disappointed when he received their reply last week. The implication behind the way that Annan's question was phrased — how can a 'green revolution' be achieved in Africa? — is that the solution might be found in a set of relatively straightforward scientific and technical innovations in plant breeding. After all, it was the development of new, high-yielding strains of rice and wheat that lay behind the original 'green revolution' that was achieved in Asia and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps Africa could benefit in a similar way?
But, as the scientists' response, which was presented to Annan at a ceremony at the UN headquarters in New York last Friday, makes clear, Africa is a different case. The response came from a panel established by the InterAcademy Council (IAC), a body set up by scientific academies across the world to provide expert advice to the UN system and other international bodies on science-related issues. As their report, Realizing the promise and potential of African agriculture: Science and technology strategies for improving agricultural productivity and food security in Africa, makes clear, many factors combine to make the alleviation of food shortages in Africa – both acute and chronic – significantly more complex than in Asia.
At root is the wide diversity of farming and food systems on the continent, a reflection partly of the variety of ecological and climatological conditions, partly of cultural traditions. Other factors range from a lack of a sound scientific infrastructure in educational institutions, to inadequate roads and storage facilities which mean that, even when food is produced, it often can't get to where it's needed, or rots before it can be used.
One of the main virtues of the IAC report is the extent to which it underlines that, unlike Asia and Latin America, there are no technical fixes to Africa's food problems (a particularly refreshing conclusion at a time when proponents of genetically-modified foods are claiming to offer one). Rather, it emphasises that creating a situation in which the continent is able to provide enough food for its population requires action at many levels.
Some of these are scientific; new, high-yielding crop varieties are certainly needed, and GM foods are likely to have their place, alongside new varieties produced by more conventional breeding techniques. Others range from the need to stem the brain drain of the best and brightest graduates in agricultural sciences, to the political measures required to ensure an adequate 'enabling environment'.
If there is a weakness in the report, it is perhaps the reluctance to send a sufficiently strong political message about the urgency of actions at all these levels. It is already widely recognised that the way farming subsidies in rich countries block market access for many farmers in poor countries is an international disgrace. But so too is the fact that spending on agricultural research in the whole of Africa in less than half of that spent by a single university in the United States. Or even that scientific research is almost non-existent in many of the continent's universities, the legacy of decades of neglect by donor agencies and national governments alike.
A familiar complaint
Part of the problem, of course, is drawing attention to the problem is not new. It arrives on television screens across the world whenever part of the continent, be it Sudan, Ethiopia or Southern Africa, suffers a particularly severe drought, leading to widespread famine, and equally widespread — if often only temporary — concern about Africa. It is also familiar to aid agencies, ranging from the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation, to the centres that make up the Consultative Group in International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The latter in particular perhaps receive less credit from the IAC panel than they are due for the substantial amount of work they already carry out across the continent on issues identified in the report (such as the four crop systems identified for priority treatment).
Furthermore the politics of food is no stranger to Africa. Unsurprisingly on a continent where security of food supply is the top item on the personal agenda of a high proportion of the population, there is a widely-used saying that "the politics of Africa is the politics of the stomach". The danger is that the IAC report could, if left to fend for itself, become yet another well-meaning contribution to an ongoing debate that fails either to address or to become embedded in wider political realities.
That would be a wasted opportunity. For the report does contain an important message that is new, namely that boosting food production and food security across the continent requires a multifaceted but coherent strategy. It is a strategy that has science and technology at its centre (and therefore requires nurturing the individuals and building the institutions capable of delivering this science, as well as a substantial increase in financial support). But it is also a strategy that acknowledges that science and technology can only take root in a fertile environment.
This means more than just persuading either national politicians or international aid agencies to put support for agricultural research even higher up their agenda. It also means ensuring that the potential benefits of agricultural science are genuinely moulded to the needs of local farmers (hence the insistence in the report that farmers organisations become directly involved in research priority setting). Which in turn means concentrated efforts at using modern communications technology to provide information on the range of choices that are available; M. S. Swaminathan, the 'father' of the Green Revolution in India, and one of the co-chairs of the IAC panel, speaks of the way that such technology can be used for the important task of 'demystification' of modern science and technology (for example, in the techniques of tissue culture).
Equally important is the need to ensure that agricultural science and technology is sufficiently sensitive to the requirements of ecological sustainability. It is easy enough to say, given that soil fertility levels are already low — and that the fertiliser inputs required to reverse this are relatively high, often costing more than it does in Europe or America — that Africa can ill afford the environmental degradation that has too often accompanied efforts to boost agricultural productivity elsewhere. Yet too often ignorance, mixed with unreflective pursuit of the technical fix that chemical herbicides and pesticides offer, levy a heavy toll in both human and environmental health.
Indeed, if there is to be a revolution to meet Africa's food needs, what is needed is less of a Green than a cultural one. Perhaps it should also appropriate the Maoist slogan 'let a hundred flowers bloom', reflecting the fact that complementary initiatives are needed across the continent, at all scales and levels of activity. The message of the revolution should not lie in preaching a blind faith in agricultural science and technology. Rather it should underline the need to promote ideas and attitudes, and the individuals and institutions they embody, to ensure that agricultural science and technology are better placed — and better handled — to enable them to fulfil the potential that they offer to the continent.
Realizing the Promise and Potential of African Agriculture
Africa is rich in both natural and human resources, yet nearly 200 million of its people are undernourished because of inadequate food supplies. Comprehensive strategies are needed across the continent to harness the power of science and technology (S&T) in ways that boost agricultural productivity, profitability, and sustainability -- ultimately ensuring that all Africans have access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs. This report addresses the question of how science and technology can be mobilized to make that promise a reality.
Full report at:
Law 'may stifle German science'
Research group says GM law, applauded by environmentalists, will trigger scientific exodus
- BioMedCentral.com, June 28, 2004, By Ned Stafford
A new law passed by Germany's parliament that strictly regulates genetically modified (GM) crops will almost certainly stifle innovation and trigger an exodus of GM scientific research from Germany, according to a top official of the German Research Foundation (DFG).
The new legislation comes after a spring planting season filled with increasingly public—and contentious—skirmishes between Germany's robust environmental movement and frustrated scientists over the issue of GM crops. The new law had the strong support of German Agriculture Minister Renate Kuenast, a member of the environmentally friendly Green Party, which is the junior governing coalition partner of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's SPD Party.
Kuenast described passage of the bill as a success for consumer protection and the rights of non-GM farmers who fear crop contamination from adjacent GM fields.
Jörg Hinrich Hacker, vice president of the DFG, told The Scientist that particularly worrisome for researchers are sections of the new law dealing with liability and penalties to planters of GM crops.
Under the new law, planters of GM crops that are found to contaminate adjacent non-GM fields can be held liable for damages even if they followed planting instructions and other regulations. Furthermore, the new rules removed reference to an acceptable threshold for GM pollen contamination. Hacker said this will allow non-GM farmers with even trace levels of GM pollen to seek monetary reimbursement if they can prove the contamination decreased the market value of their crops.
Because of the new law, some German universities and other research organizations involved in GM research will not want to take the financial risk, said Hacker, who also is head of the Institute for Molecular Infection Biology at the University of Wuerzburg.
"Science in the field of molecular biology… will become weaker in Germany," Hacker said. "Some of this experimental science will go to foreign countries."
The new law also will create bureaucracy that will hinder GM research, Hacker said. For example, under the new rules, GM researchers who previously needed to deal with only one authority will now have to gain approval from two authorities, one for contamination/location issues, and one for release issues.
The legislation also requires GM planters to seek regulatory approval at least 3 months in advance of planting, which Hacker believes in practice will result in waits of at least 6 months for approval. Such delays could be crippling for some scientists, who he said are working under intense competition and/or working with foreign colleagues.
"If scientists cannot proceed [with the next round of experiments], then they are not working in an ideal situation," Hacker said.
The new law requires planters of GM crops to provide a central public register with exact location of fields and other pertinent information. The information would be available over the Internet.
Earlier this year, anti-GM activists destroyed GM wheat fields. A few weeks later, concerns about destruction prompted researchers in one project to plant nearly 30 GM cornfields in secret locations.
Hacker appeared ambivalent about the central public register, at first saying that he can understand the need to make the exact location of fields public. But when pressed whether the DFG supported creation of the central public register, he said: "No. I cannot say so."
Hacker added: "From my point of view, we have to convince the GMO activists not to destroy, not to commit illegal acts." Until that time comes, he conceded that researchers will have increase security for GM fields.
Henning Strodthoff, gene technology expert at Greenpeace in Hamburg, told The Scientist that Greenpeace strongly supports the public register, adding that it simply brings Germany in compliance with EU Directive 2001/18, which requires registration of GM fields.
Strodthoff described other aspects of the law as "progress," saying it will improve transparency, minimize potential GM contamination, and increase liability for planters of GM crops.
"If GM crops are allowed, then we need strong regulations," Strodthoff said. When asked what Greenpeace would prefer in a GM planting law, he said: "Our goal is to stop GM planting. We want GM planting to be forbidden."