Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : November 5, 2004
* Illegal Seeds Overtake India's Cotton Fields
* The Cartagena Protocol and GMOs
* More on California Counties' Ballot Initiatives to Ban Biotech
* It Has Been a Blast Being a 'Biotech Bully'
* ISB News Report - November 2004 Contents..
* Scientists Going Public
* Scientists and Teachers Should Ignore Politics
* ...Ha? Scientists Must Conquer Reluctance to Speak Out
* ... Why Leave It to Others to Speak Up About Science?
* Organic Farming: Facts and Fallacies
* NGO Watcher: Q & A with Don D'Cruz
* New "Future of Food" Movie is a Hit!
Illegal Seeds Overtake India's Cotton Fields
- K.S. Jayaraman, Nature Biotechnology 22, 1333 - 1334; Nov. 2004; Reproduced in AgBioView with ther permission of the editor. www.nature.com/nbt
'Farmers are too impatient to wait for government approval.'
Indian agricultural minister Sharad Pawar admitted in parliament on August 16 that there is a flourishing illegal market in genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds, strengthening allegations by the industry that more than half of all the GM cotton now growing in the country is from unapproved varieties. Pawar, Indian scientists and seed companies want state governments to take action against the seed producers and traders to protect the industry and to prevent an impending 'biodisaster.'
India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the country's main agbiotech regulatory body, opened the door to genetically modified (GM) products in 2002 (Nat. Biotechnol. 20, 415, 2002) and now allows the sale of four varieties of insect-resistant GM cotton, all of which carry St. Louis-based Monsanto's proprietary cry1Ac gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Now in its third year of use in India, Bt cotton--including illegal varieties--is estimated to cover more than three million acres in the country, which is about one-third of the total area of planted cotton.
But, because of poor monitoring by the government, "80% of all Bt cotton growing in India are nameless, unlicensed varieties," says Sateesh Kumar, managing director of Prabhat Agri-Biotech in Hyderabad. This year, farmers have planted unapproved GM cotton in more than half-a-million acres in the Gujarat state alone, say industry executives.
The problem started in 2001 when an unlicensed Bt cotton hybrid carrying the cry1Ac gene was found growing on over 10,000 acres in the western state of Gujarat (Nat. Biotechnol. 19, 1090, 2001). Failure by the government to enforce GEAC's order to destroy the crop or to punish Navbharat Seeds, the Ahmedabad-based company that sold the unapproved seeds, emboldened seed producers to covertly multiply and sell them. Two things created the demand for this illegal variety: its demonstrated ability to resist bollworm attack and the relatively low price (Rs.600 ($13) for 450 grams compared to Rs.1,600 ($35) for an approved variety marketed by Monsanto licensee Mahyco in Jalna).
Companies are becoming frustrated at the lack of accountability for the illicit behavior. "We spend millions of rupees in research and then wait for years for regulatory clearance," says Foujdar Singh, adviser to Syngenta India Limited in Hyderabad, whose insect-resistant cotton is undergoing field trials. "But here are unauthorized varieties openly sold in market for the past three years. If this is the situation, why should companies invest in R&D at all?"
Perhaps potentially more harmful for India's cotton industry is a looming environmental disaster if pests develop widespread resistance to the Bt crop. Such resistance is typically combated by planting refugia of non-Bt cotton, which dilutes the presence of Bt-resistant genes in pest populations through gene flow. But farmers planting illegal seeds are not obliged to provide such refugia for resistance management. Syngenta's Singh predicts, "Only when there is a major pest problem farmers will wake up" and stop planting the illegal varieties without refugia.
Syngenta India Limited"The illegal proliferation of GM varieties must cease or else the biosafety regulations will be rendered meaningless," warns a government committee headed by M.S. Swaminathan, a noted agricultural scientist and chairman of his own Research Foundation in Chennai. But it is not going to be easy, because traders masquerading as farmers sell the illegal seeds in unmarked cloth bags, no bills or receipts issued, according to Singh. "Indian laws allow farmer-to-farmer sales, even of patented varieties, as long as they are not branded," explains Prabhat's Kumar.
"We have been running up and down the government corridors seeking a ban on illegal seeds, but the organized sector cannot do much unless the government is firm," says Singh. In response, government officials claim to have registered 18 complaints and to have conducted 40 raids, with arrests in four states and seizures of 62 kilograms of illegal seeds.
But industry officials doubt the sincerity of these efforts. "If the government really wanted to end the illegal trade, it could have raided the seed production centers," says Kumar. Industry sources say that illegal seeds produced in about 8,000 acres in Gujarat and 4,000 acres in Andhra Pradesh are enough to plant 2.5 million acres--about twice the quantity of legal seeds that Mahyco claims to have sold this year.
How long the illegal seeds will rule the Indian Bt market is unclear. The fight is expected to intensify in two years when 12 more varieties of Bt cotton hybrids developed by Raasi Seeds, Ankur Seeds and Mahyco are expected to reach the market.
The Cartagena Protocol and GMOs
- François Pythoud, Nature Biotechnology 22, 1347 - 1348; Nov. 2004; Reproduced in AgBioView with ther permission of the editor. www.nature.com/nbt
To the editor: More than 100 countries have ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Identification of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the shipping documentation was one of the main contentious issues addressed by the 1st Meeting of the Parties (MOP1) to the Protocol, which took place in Kuala Lumpur in February 2004. As raised in a commentary by De Greef in the July issue (Nat. Biotechnol. 21, 811–812, 2004) and in two related news stories1, 2, the decision seems to have raised concerns among the research community and agriculture trade associations. As I had the privilege to chair the Working Group that specifically discussed identification, I would like to try to provide some clarifications.
The identification requirements specified in the Cartagena Protocol in paragraph 2 of Article 18 set out what information needs to be provided in the documentation accompanying trans-boundary movements of GMOs. This information does not pertain to the labeling of shipments of GMOs in the sense of putting markings or description of contents of shipments on packages or containers. The information conveyed through documentation accompanying the shipment is intended to help authorities, as well as relevant operators in the transit or importing states, to identify what shipment is passing through or coming into their territories so that they are able to undertake appropriate action in handling the shipment.
It is therefore appropriate to appreciate, from the outset, the distinction between labeling (in the conventional meaning of the word) on the one hand, and identification through accompanying documentation as required in the Protocol, on the other. It is also important to emphasize that the information contained in the accompanying documentation is not intended to be used as a basis for risk assessment by the authorities of the importing country. For such purposes, the Protocol foresees more detailed notification provisions.
The documentation requirements set out by the Cartagena protocol vary according to GMO's intended use. Those destined for contained use or intended for intentional introduction into the environment should be clearly identified as such in the accompanying documentation. In the latter case, additional information is also required specifying the identity and the relevant traits and characteristics of the GMO(s).
On the other hand, the content of the documentation accompanying shipments of GMOs intended for direct use as food or feed or for processing--in other words agricultural commodities--was not fully resolved during the protocol's negotiation. For the time being, such shipments shall be identified as 'may contain' GMOs. However, this should be seen as a temporary measure because the Protocol requires that a decision on the detailed documentation requirements for such transgenic organisms, including specification of identity and any unique identification system, be taken within two years after entry into force (that is, before September 2005).
There were several achievements at MOP1, six months after the Protocol entered into force. Sets of practical recommendations based on available practices were adopted to facilitate implementation of the documentation requirements. For example, in order to avoid unnecessary administrative burden, it was decided to integrate the protocol's documentation requirements into commercial invoice or other relevant existing documentation systems, such as the Shippers Declaration of Dangerous Goods for Pathogenic Micro-organisms. Moreover, templates were provided as examples for documentation that shall accompany GMOs for contained use or for intentional introduction in the environment. Those templates will help users, including scientists, to fulfill their obligations.
Another important achievement was the recognition that, when available, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD; Paris) unique identifier for transgenic plants could be used to cover information requirements in the documentation. The OECD unique identifier is based on the transformation event and works as a key to access additional relevant information on the transgenic crop. All the crop varieties derived from one transformation event will share the same unique identifier. Developers have attributed the OECD unique identifier to almost all transgenic crops approved for commercialization so far. Using the OECD unique identifier, information on those transgenic crops is already accessible through the Biosafety Clearing House, the information exchange platform of the Cartagena Protocol (http://bch.biodiv.org/).
MOP1 also decided that any GMO shipment should detail common and scientific names of the GMO and information on the transformation event(s) used in its creation. However, this requirement is designed to be as flexible, depending on the intended use of the GMO. For example, for GMOs intended for food or feed, governments are 'urged' to require exporters, for the time being, to include such information in accompanying documentation or the reference to the unique identifier. At this stage, parties to the protocol and other governments are strongly encouraged that this information be made available with each shipment.
This reflects the actual practice in some countries that have ratified the protocol, where a simple statement such as 'may contain' in the shipment documentation without any reference to the identity of the GMO is insufficient. It does not preclude any final decision on this specific issue that will have to be taken at the next meeting of the parties to the protocol (MOP2). Along the same line, information on transformation event and risk class should not be provided with all samples shipped for research. For GMOs destined for contained use (which includes most research activities), such additional information would be provided only when appropriate, and, in some cases, would be limited to the availability of the information itself (e.g., risk classes apply only to pathogenic microorganisms).
The implementation of the Cartagena Protocol is a process that will build upon practical experience gained by governments and stakeholders. This is especially relevant for documentation requirements. Indeed, all users, in particular scientists and agricultural commodities operators, will be urged to report either to their national focal point for the Cartagena Protocol or to the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity on their practical experiences with the use of the tools developed by the MOP1, such as templates or the unique identification system. Such feedback will help guide future decision making.
Last but not least, as DeGreef recently emphasized in these columns, the scientific community will certainly gain from a stronger participation in the program of work of the Cartagena Protocol. This will ensure that their legitimate concerns are fully taken on board.
1. Cyranoski, D. Nature 428, 6 (2004).
2. Cyranoski, D. Nat. Biotechnol. 22, 372 (2004).
Swiss National Focal Point for the Cartagena Protocol, Swiss Agency for Environment, Forests and Landscape, 3003 Bern, Switzerland. email@example.com
More on California Counties' Ballot Initiatives to Ban Biotech
- From Alan McHughen, , Nov 3, 2004
Four California counties (Marin, Butte, San Luis Obispo and Humboldt) considered banning GMOs yesterday.
Humboldt was a loser from the beginning, as even the initiative authors abandoned campaigning efforts when legal advice pointed out that the ordinance as written would give power, unique in the free world, to a County Agriculture Commissioner to summarily incarcerate suspected offenders. Even in Humboldt County, this was likely to be challenged as unconstitutional. But the authors are re-writing an improved version for the next round. Perhaps this time they will allow accused farmers access to a court hearing prior to being jailed.
Marin County, a largely suburban bedroom county with little agriculture, passed the ordinance with little fanfare. Not surprising, considering there are no GMOs in cultivation there and so no opposition campaign.
Butte and San Luis Obispo were both true battlegrounds, with real campaigns. They were also the only counties to mobilize farmers and scientists to try to educate citizens on what, exactly, were the implications of passing the initiatives. Public debates, education sessions and 'town hall' meetings provided an opportunity for interested locals to hear messages from both sides, pro- and con-. In these two counties, the anti-GMO initiatives failed by significant margins.
Where public scientists and local farmers were heard-- in San Luis Obispo and in Butte-- the measures failed. Where these voices were not heard, in Marin County, GMOs are now banned. There's a lesson here.
It Has Been a Blast Being a 'Biotech Bully'
- Harry Cline, Western Farm Press, November 3, 2004
"You are having a blast with this thing!" remarked a friend not long ago about my tirades and harassment of the anti-biotech crowd in this space over the past few months.
No question about it. It has been a real treat taking on groups like the Organic Consumers Association and Californians for GE-Free Agriculture and the like and reprinting their e-mails. They palm their propaganda and are seldom challenged. When they are challenged, they fire back meekly and go looking for others to fool with their half-truths and misinformation. Ask them for peer review science to back up their arguments, and they high-tail it to someone who will listen and not argue.
Although most of my anti-GE friends have given up e-mailing me, I did receive one final inquiry from Californians for GE-Free Agriculture's campaign coordinator Renata Brillinger asking if we could continue dialogue on the subject. That included an offer of a column from Californians for GE-Free Agriculture in Western Farm Press. I said sure, as long as I could provide pro-biotech articles for their newsletters. Sorry, I did not just take a tumble off the turnip truck. Have not heard back from Renata.
Most rational-thinking people realize that going toe-to-toe with radicals of any ilk is a losing battle. I guess the past few columns and issues of Western Farm Press have certified me as irrational. (Don't agree so quickly).
Sure the "Biotech Bully" moniker has been run to wear. However, don't mistake the fun for passion. I will forever remain passionate on the subject. I have interviewed too many people, read too much and seen too much in the field for anyone to tell me biotech agriculture is evil. Issues yes, evil no.
I am sorry the organic folks are afraid biotech pollen may somehow damage them and their crops. I would rather have a little biotech pollen on my corn than some of the stuff they put on garden-grown organic corn. Biotech pollen will not spread bacteria and viruses.
When I first began reading about Golden Rice and how it could prevent blindness of 500,000 children each year by increasing the amount of Vitamin A they receive, I guess you could say I became a biotech radical. To stop that from helping children under the guise that decades of testing and retesting biotech crops is not enough is criminal.
Several weeks ago I received a call from a University of Oklahoma law professor who offered Western Farm Press an article he authored with a University of Illinois food microbiology professor about how Bt corn has been discovered to be a primary factor in reversing a trend of horrible birth defects among Hispanic women. It is the most serendipitously amazing science stories you will ever read.
I will not tell you more than that. I wanted you to read it for yourself in Western Farm Press or on the Western Farm Press Web site. I received it after my last edition went to the printer so it could not be published before the anti-biotech balloting in the four California counties. It was printed in the San Luis Obispo Tribune before the election and possibly elsewhere.
To read that research report and give credence for a second to the not-enough-testing and pollen contamination arguments of the anti-GE crowd is ludicrous. Win or lose last Tuesday, the fight is not over. Mail or e-mail (from www.westernfarmpress.com) that article to everyone you know. The radicals will not quit, win or lose, and neither should agriculture. Be an irrational radical for biotech.
ISB News Report - November 2004 Contents...
* Novel Genes for Control and Deterrence of Sucking Insect Pests
* Designer Constructs for T-DNA and Dissociation (Ds) Mediated Insertional Mutagenesis in Plants
* Aberrant mRNA Expression of Maize Rust Resistance Gene in Wheat and Barley
* Biotech Bug Conference Speakers Call for Regulation and Public Involvement
* Continued Losses Put Pressure on Monsanto Product Launch
* The Center for Food Safety Refutes Criticisms of its GM Rice Report
- Editorial, Nature 431, 88; October 21, 2004. www.nature.com
'Should scientists let the public help them decide how government research funds are spent? Yes they should, because the consequences are to be welcomed, not feared.'
Science communication, circa 1600: discussions with the public, according to one prominent researcher, are little better than listening to the "maunderings of a babbling hag". So said William Gilbert, a pioneer of research into electricity and magnetism.
Today's scientists are, at least in the main, a more open-minded bunch. But the prejudices and fears that underlie Gilbert's remark have not entirely gone away, as reactions to some new initiatives show.
Take last month's report by Demos, a UK political think-tank. For many researchers, it will make frightening reading. The left-leaning Demos makes the first coherent call for 'upstream engagement' — the involvement of non-specialists in setting research priorities. British scientists have seen the public swayed by misleading media coverage of genetically modified (GM) food and vaccines. For them, the proposal must seem close to giving the lunatics the keys to the asylum.
Such concerns will not be restricted to Britain: environmental organizations across Europe are committed in practice to ending research into GM crops. Some religious groups in the United States would end research involving human embryos if they had the power to do so. And it would be impossible to develop safer and more efficient nuclear power stations, which will probably be needed to tackle climate change, if anti-nuclear groups have too much influence on research policy.
Yet there are good reasons why scientists should ignore these fears and embrace upstream engagement. On an ethical and political level, the research community has no right to reject public involvement outright. Taxpayers fund research, buying themselves the right to help shape its course. Objecting to public involvement would simply undermine the current enthusiasm shown for science funding by some governments, such as those in the United States and Britain.
Balance of power
There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that upstream engagement, if managed properly, will not bring an end to any area of research. Such engagement is already being quietly and usefully practised in the research-charity sector, where the trustees of many funding organizations are non-scientists. And the slew of new initiatives being proposed for the public sector involve giving the public less power than the trustees, and certainly not a veto over research spending.
When worrying about engagement, British researchers may also be swayed too much by the GM fiasco, in which propaganda put out by environmental groups and the biotechnology industry made public debate extremely difficult. But other exercises have proved less combative and more fruitful. The Natural Environment Research Council, for example, last year ran public consultations on a new research programme. It led to a new theme -- the sustainable management of marine bioresources -- being added to the programme.
Get the process right, and other consultations could produce equally meaningful input. No one wants to haul people off the street and make decisions based solely on questionnaires. There are numerous mechanisms for engaging the public, from citizens' juries to consensus conferences and deliberative mapping processes. The details vary, but all involve giving non-specialists access to a range of different perspectives on a particular topic, and allowing them to develop their own recommendations through structured discussion. Sociologists say that the techniques need to be evaluated to see which works best, but that's no reason not to start now.
Upstream engagement is no panacea. On its own, it won't solve Britain's crisis over trust in science. Nor will it resolve thorny questions about what types of science are worth pursuing, and which should be avoided because of links to technology such as weapons of mass destruction. But it is worth doing -- provided that all involved consider two points before beginning.
First, the processes must be long-term and properly funded. Money spent on engagement is often diverted from basic research. So if governments are serious about upstream projects, they should talk to research agencies about how to ring-fence money to run the consultations. In Britain, this is likely to amount to a few million a year across all sciences, a fraction of a per cent of the total science budget.
More importantly, funding organizations must make a genuine commitment to react to the results of engagement processes. This doesn't mean simply accepting the outcomes; research councils should clearly remain in ultimate charge of priority setting. But for the process to be meaningful, funders must explain why they choose to accept some pieces of advice and reject others. The UK government ran a public debate on genetic modification last year and is widely believed to have ignored the results -- something only a little less offensive than talking about babbling hags.
Scientists and Teachers Should Ignore Politics
- Nature 431, 627 (07 October 2004)
Sir - We read with interest your News story "Nobel laureates spearhead effort to put Kerry in the White House" (Nature 430, 595; 2004) about scientists campaigning in the United States.
Nobel laureates have more productive ways to benefit society than entangling themselves in the chaotic web of political campaigns. The expertise of the American Nobel laureates is in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine - otherwise they would have received their Nobel Prizes for peace efforts. Why should their expertise in their chosen subjects make them masters in the sphere of politics?
We witnessed an example of this activity in Taiwan's 2000 presidential elections, and we find reasons for concern. Taiwan's only Nobel laureate, the chemist Lee Yuan-tseh, supported the Democratic Progressive Party nominee, Chen Shui-bian, before Chen's election to office in 2000. After that election, Lee continued to speak out on political matters, with sometimes mixed results. Lee has been involved in educational reforms in Taiwan for more than a decade, but last year university lecturers launched a signature campaign, asking him to take responsibility for what they considered to be failures in educational reform.
Yet Lee's scientific achievements have been rightly acclaimed. He has also been honoured as a Chinese scholar by the People's Republic of China. Perhaps his greatest skill is in inspiring a younger generation to become teachers themselves. Lee's reported words at a recent award ceremony for teachers in Taipei are worth recalling: "It is teachers, not politicians, who control the lifeline of society."
We recently heard that the 82-year-old Chinese scientist Yang Cheng-ning, who received the 1957 Nobel Prize in physics and has lived for many years in the United States, now teaches physics at Tsinghua University in Beijing as well as continuing his research. This is what laureates should be doing, not taking part in politics.
- Minna J. Hsu, Department of Biological Sciences, National Sun Yat-sen University, Kaohsiung 40424, Taiwan; Govindasamy Agoramoorthy, Department of Applied Foreign Languages, Tajen Institute of Technology, Yanpu, Pingtung 907, Taiwan
Scientists Must Conquer Reluctance to Speak Out
- Nature 431, 1036 (28 October 2004)
Sir - We read with some concern the views of M. J. Hsu and G. Agoramoorthy in Correspondence, that "Scientists and teachers should ignore politics" (Nature 431, 627; 2004). They argue that scientists help society most effectively through teaching and research, rather than by taking part in election campaigns. In the current political climate in the United States, this well-intentioned argument represents a grave threat to both science and society.
The politicization of science threatens to undermine the value of science to society by obscuring scientific consensus and misleading policy-makers and the public. Although the threat is external - and most apparent in the suppression and manipulation of science by the Bush administration - the resolution is largely internal. More than 5,500 scientists have signed the Union of Concerned Scientists' statement of protest, and more than 1,800 environmental scientists have signed a separate statement at http://www.scienceinpolicy.org. But it will take a greater outcry from the scientific community to bring this issue to the prominence it deserves. Scientists must step forward to protest against the manipulation of their results, or the obfuscation of accepted science will become an enduring tactic in political manoeuvring.
Already, scientific information is often clouded in the public arena. Evidence from competing expert witnesses in court cases, for example, makes it difficult for juries to decipher scientific evidence.
Attempts at journalistic balance similarly give equal weight to ideas that have unequal scientific support. This practice - which is neither good journalism nor an effective presentation of scientific knowledge - often creates the misconception that there is serious scientific debate about a particular issue when, in reality, there is virtually none.
For example, journalists gave roughly equal attention to the views of isolated scientists, including those funded by stakeholding industries, long after the wider scientific community reached consensus over the health threat posed by smoking and over the likelihood of human-induced climate change. In the former case, outcry from physicians and scientists finally penetrated the disinformation campaign by the tobacco industry (to society's great benefit). Yet in the climate-change arena, the naysayers still have a significant voice despite the consensus against them.
Politicians increasingly employ a similar misrepresentation of science in public policy debates. If such manipulation is allowed to continue, scientists' constructive provision of unbiased, realistic assessments to policy-makers will be compromised.
Unfortunately, calling on scientists to defend their work from political manipulation bumps squarely against a deep reluctance among scientists to appear partisan. After all, the impartiality of science is largely responsible for the confidence most Americans have in scientific information. Scientists are legitimately concerned that advocacy may undermine the public perception that scientists are relatively apolitical and concerned primarily with facts. But what use is a voice that is held in high esteem but never raised?
We argue that the current assault on science sufficiently threatens the role of science in society to merit the risk of speaking out. Advocacy is less dangerous than sitting quietly on the sidelines while politicians and interest groups undermine the scientific method by perpetrating junk science.
- Stephen Porder, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305-5020, USA; Kai M. A. Chan, Center for Conservation Biology, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305-5020, USA; Paul A. T. Higgins 151 Hilgard Hall, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720-3110, USA
Why Leave It to Others to Speak Up About Science?
Sir - Your correspondents M. J. Hsu and G. Agoramoorthy (Nature 431, 627; 2004), seem to deny to scientists a right that lawyers, financiers, writers and even movie stars claim for themselves, which is direct involvement in political processes.
If this was ever a wise policy it is surely no longer, when science is so often the pawn of politics and individual politicians. The law on stem-cell research, for example, varies from one country to another according to political dogma. As a postgraduate researcher at a British university, I urge scientists to spare such time as they can afford to be involved with politics -- as I have done myself, serving on a local council and even standing for parliament.
There is no good reason why lawyers and movie stars should have an exclusive right to debate science matters, any more than scientists should have the final say in the film industry or the law. The fewer impenetrable membranes with which scientists surround themselves and their work, the better.
-- Ian Flintoff, 22 Chaldon Road, London SW6 7NJ, UK
Organic Farming: Facts and Fallacies
- Gurumurti Natarajan, The Hindu (India), Nov 2, 2004 http://www.hinduonnet.com/op/2004/11/02/stories/2004110200111600.htm
Organic farming is being touted as the panacea for a whole range of maladies afflicting third world rural society. These range from low agricultural output to wasteful dumping of massive doses of farm chemical on cultivated lands as to reach toxic levels. It is cited as being the viable relief from the fatigue of Green Revolution besides heralding holistic solutions to rural poverty alleviation providing employment opportunities to rural women. And it includes claims that organic foods are healthier for human and animal consumption.
What is organic farming and what is the primacy of this method over other methods? Stated succinctly, any method of cultivation that does not use any manufactured chemical (such as urea, pesticides, fungicides, etc.) for raising a crop or during its transit through harvest, storage, processing into foods and distribution is regarded as "organic."
Interestingly, however, this is how ancient man's foray into agriculture began centuries ago! The soil abounded in naturally occurring minerals which supported raising healthy crops that gave a plentiful harvest. Disease and pest pressure was minimal or non-existent and human need for the farm produce was limited owing to the small size of the community and the sparse animal population.
Over a period of time, as demand for food production increased with the increasing population, new methods and techniques to increase farm productivity became necessary. Thankfully, the advent of chemistry coupled with a better understanding of crop physiology provided one array of crop production improvement techniques via chemical fertilizers to replenish depleted minerals in the cultivated lands. Strides in other disciplines helped, arming the farmer with pesticides and fungicides to combat pestilent microbes and insects that devoured crops and grain.
Modern organic farming is much the same as our forefathers practised but in a significantly different era with its attendant pressures brought about by efflux of time. The soil today is nowhere as rich in native minerals as witnessed centuries ago due to constant depletion brought about by farming and other physical phenomena, some natural, others inflicted by human development.
Likewise, the biotic stresses on plants have increased manifold because microbes and insects that predate on them are constantly evolving to resist their annihilation wrought by human intervention via chemical warfare and from their own zest to survive and succeed.
This brings us to the question of the unique primacy of organic farming. Undoubtedly, organic farming reduces build-up of residual chemicals (insecticides/pesticides/fungicides) on the surface of plant leaf, fruit and grain which, when not adequately washed, enters human and animal gut which can be injurious to health. Yet, equally, abstinence from the use of such chemicals has led to build-up of deadly mycotoxins in foods that are every bit as dangerous to human and animal life -- fumonisins by Fusarium afflicting maize and aflotoxins by Aspergillus damaging chilly, groundnut, cashew, etc.
It is well established, likewise, that organic farming gives low yield and therefore jacks up the price of farm produce. Besides, claims of organic produce tasting better are nothing short of pandering to the whims of the rich who can afford to pay twice as much for the same rice or cucumber as raised by traditional farming.
The biochemical pathways of the plant in absorbing the minerals from the soil, photosynthesis or grain filling do not differentiate between the different sources of macro- and micro- nutrients made available to it, be it from a bag of manufactured compound fertilizers or from a bale of farm yard manure underpinning the lack of superiority of any mineral derived from living beings (plant, animal or microbe) compared to the one manufactured in a chemical plant.
This is so because plants and animals absorb chemicals and process them in their elemental form and not the compound or complex form that we frequently encounter them as. Thus, the elemental form of nitrogen is what is absorbed from urea, ammonium nitrate, DAP, farm-yard manure or processed organic waste available to the plant before it is converted into a host of other molecules that go to form carbohydrates, proteins and fats in living tissues. Likewise, the rice that we eat is a complex carbohydrate which is broken down to its elemental form of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen before being further processed and is not absorbed in the compound form!
From a different perspective, a drop of cobra venom or ricin from castor bean, both genuinely organic substances, would prove to be just as lethal as hydrogen cyanide manufactured in a chemist's lab regardless of the former being devoid of any 'inorganic contamination' -- two random examples merely to underpin the fact that there is nothing sacrosanct about organic!
As to the other claims that organic farming provides employment to women labourers in weeding operations (because organic farming does promote excessive growth of weeds in the absence of chemical control for weeds) or cleaning of harvested grain (damaged by insect and fungal attacks in the absence of chemicals to control this damage), it is waxing eloquent on employment opportunities of the back-breaking and un-remunerating kind! This is perpetuation of low yields at the farm, recurrent attacks of weeds, microbes and pests so rural farmers can continue to produce less and stagnate in perpetual poverty, their women folk can be yoked to uneconomic `employment' while the affordable rich can take their pick at a fabulous premium for no intrinsic worth in return!
Instead of making a false pitch for organic foods on fictitious premises, it is best left to the choice of the producer and the consumer to make his pick based on truthful, science-based knowledge. We owe it to them to allay any unfounded fears of new technologies while equally sharing the truth about organic foods.
NGO Watcher: Q & A with Don D'Cruz
- Monthly Planet, August 2004, www.cei.org. Full interview at
'An Expert on the international "non-governmental organization" (NGO) movement on the movement's growing stature and its challenge to the free market' . CEI recently interviewed Don D'Cruz, a Research Fellow at Australia's Institute of Public Affairs (www.ipa.org.au), who is a leading authority on the international NGO movement.
CEI: How did you become interested in studying the international NGO movement?
Don D'Cruz: About four or five years ago, the Institute of Public Affairs decided to set up a NGO Project to examine the levels of transparency and accountability in the NGO sector, which was about the time that I started working here. I was just instantly fascinated by some of the big NGOs. I had always wondered what happened to the Left after the "End of History." Well, I found out. They either joined existing NGOs or formed their own.
CEI: In an April 2004 article in Ethical Corporation magazine, you note that NGOs' "lack of transparency lies at the center of their credibility. While many people have heard of NGO brands like Oxfam, Greenpeace, and WWF [World Wildlife Fund], few actually know much about how these organizations operate and perform." To what do you attribute this problem? What strategies do you suggest to address it?
D'Cruz: These NGOs don't want to be transparent because they realize that people will become very cynical about them if they come to understand how they operate and how they make decisions. The pathology of fundraising that runs through these organizations would certainly undermine any notion of altruism that people might hold about them. The strategy to counter this is straightforward: Do research and publish your findings. Focus on the
media because the power of these NGOs lies in their ability to generate media. Media is their oxygen, once the media start to question them then they are in trouble.
CEI: Which major international NGOs do you consider the biggest offenders in terms of radical activism, misuse of funds, and lack of transparency?
D'Cruz: I know that many people might immediately think of Greenpeace-- and I agree that Greenpeace is just a disgraceful organization--but Oxfam for me is the worst. Generally, if you encounter a radical NGO in the Third World you will find that it has some connection with Oxfam (Oxfam has 3000 "NGO partners" around the world.) And, of course, all of this is generally being done with aid money designated for promoting civil society.
CEI: You speak of NGOs becoming "politicized." Could you comment on this trend and what, if anything, can be done about it?
D'Cruz: Naturally many NGOs are political by nature, but when I say "politicized," I really mean "captured." This is when NGOs that are essentially fairly neutral and conservative in nature--not conservative in an ideological sense--find themselves traveling down a more radical path after a few new staff appointments. The only thing that can be done if you are a member of one of these organizations is to fight it, or draw attention to what is happening to other members who might not be aware of what is happening.
CEI: Today, NGOs are ubiquitous at meetings of international bodies like the United Nations and World Trade Organization (WTO), where they are accorded "consultative" status. What does this status entail? Also, why do international bodies indulge these NGOs by allowing them to disrupt meetings, harass opponents, and, in the case of the WTO, even work against the host organization's goals? What should be NGOs' proper role at international meetings?
D'Cruz: Consultative status is all about access and influence. Influence also translates into money. International bodies indulge these groups for a variety of reasons, ranging from a mistaken belief that NGOs represent public opinion to a rather more pathetic and short-sighted belief that they can placate them or reason with them. As to the proper role of NGOs, it very much depends on the forum. Quite clearly, not all forums should be open to NGOs. Some should have NGO access provided they conform to what my colleague Gary Johns calls NGO Protocols--that is, where they are required to provide information on whom they represent, their expertise, their governance, their funding and a range of other issues. Also, any contributions that they make should be transparent. Simply having an opinion doesn't necessarily qualify you to sit down at a negotiating table.
New "Future of Food" Movie is a Hit!
- Denise Caruso, AlterNet, August 23, 2004. Full review at http://www.alternet.org/story/19628
In less skillful hands, a film about genetically modified (GM) food could have been tough sledding for regular folks to sit through. Making visual sense of the science alone would be a daunting task. But The Future of Food is an engaging and lucid presentation of not only the science of genetic engineering, but of the people and the politics behind what looks to be a pitched battle to control the global food supply.
Deborah Koons Garcia, a long-time documentary filmmaker (and wife of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia), spent the past three years writing, directing and producing Food for her Mill Valley, CA-based Lily Films. The idea for the film came after her award-winning educational series "All About Babies," an in-depth examination of the first two years of a child's life. She's had a lifelong concern about how food is grown, and "I always wanted to make a big film about agriculture that was as thorough as 'Babies,'" said Garcia.
While The Future of Food falls short of Garcia's goal of creating a hybrid of Silent Spring and The Battle of Algiers, that's hardly her fault. First, there's a shameful lack of scientific data about genetic engineering overall: simply not enough to support or condemn GM food in the same way that Carson condemned DDT. As one scientist says, transgenic manipulations are "probably the largest biological experiment humanity has ever entered into," while there's been virtually no long-term risk or safety analyses to support their widespread deployment. As for Algiers: so far, successful guerrilla warfare against multinational corporations has proven to be even more difficult to sustain than war on the equally elusive target of terrorism.
That said, the film is an eloquent, compelling introduction to one of the most complicated, critically important and criminally overlooked issues of the day. It's a story well-told, mostly by the people who are living it the film's "consultants," as they're called, are for the most part involved in blowing the whistle, or trying to, on the present situation.
People who know the subject matter may have some quibbles with Garcia's presentation. For example, nowhere in the film does she say that she tried to contact Monsanto for a comment, although apparently she did and they didn't respond. Noting this would have deflected at least the most obvious criticism about why and how Food is an un-balanced representation of the situation.
And some of the facts of the cases she presents in particular, the Percy Schmeiser case may have suffered a bit from wishful interpretation. The Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser decision made headlines around the world because for the first time a company won control over the higher life form in this case, the plant that contained its patented gene, and not just the gene itself.
But according to an article on the decision, published in the July-August 2004 issue of the newsletter GeneWatch, "the Court was at pains to point out that its decision was based on the facts as found at trial and that in different factual circumstances, a different legal outcome" might have resulted. The factual circumstances were that a year after Schmeiser's fields were contaminated, Monsanto's tests showed that 95 to 98 percent of his plants contained the company's patented gene.
"The issue is not the perhaps adventitious arrival of Roundup Ready Canola on Mr Schmeiser's land in 1998," it says in Paragraph 92 of the decision. "What is at stake in this case is the sowing and cultivation [its emphasis] which necessarily involves deliberate and careful activity on the part of the farmer."
Nowhere does Schmeiser or the film explain the conflict between the original, accidental arrival of Monsanto's canola on his land and the court's finding undisputed by Schmeiser that he'd sown and cultivated the seeds once they were there. Analyses of the case have been based on wildly diverging versions of what actually happened. By not acknowledging this factor in the court's decision, the film again opens itself to accusations of selective interpretation of the facts.
But these are small as quibbles go. If The Future of Food starts making the rounds on VHS and DVD in living rooms, as Garcia is hoping it will, it might well start a movement that cannot be stopped in the usual fashion; that is, by maligning researchers or suing farmers. Garcia says she often sees people cry during the film, or they "get so freaked out about food that they stay awake at night and end up going through all their cupboards checking ingredients and chucking food."