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January 25, 2005


Ray of Hope; Foothills of the Future; Politics on the Plate; Reducing Hunger; Panic Without Proof; Sin of Defying Nature


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : Janaury 25, 2005

* Biotechnology Improves Lives in Africa
* Biotech Divide is a Sign of the Times
* Halving Global Hunger Is Within Our Reach
* Africa's Food Insecurity Set to Persist
* Crop Biotech Is A Strategic Investment
* Politics on the Plate
* Being Too Careful - Panic Without Proof
* Give it the Bird
* The Supposed Sin of Defying Nature

Biotechnology Improves Lives in Africa

- Deroy Murdock, Scripps Howard News Service, January 20, 2005 http://www.modbee.com/24hour/opinions/story/2035531p-10074635c.html

Frederic Bastiat, the 19th century French free-marketeer, urged politicians to meditate on both things that are seen and unseen. Something seen worldwide was last month's ferocious tsunami that killed 221,100 around the Indian Ocean, as well as the stunning delivery of relief that is helping survivors recover. Something seldom seen or heard, however, is the silent tsunami of starvation that besets Africa. Malnutrition and hunger-related diseases kill 2.2 million sub-Saharan Africans annually, by my rough estimate, a death toll 10 times greater than the waves of mass destruction that pulverized coastal south Asia and east Africa on Dec. 26.

The excellent news is that biotechnology is shining a bright ray of hope on today's grimness. Genetically improved seeds and advanced agricultural technology are boosting crop output on acres that crawled with parasites and viruses just a few years ago. These developments will keep improving lives in Africa (and throughout the Third World), so long as they are not squelched by irrationally fearful eco-hand-wringers.

As part of its Martin Luther King Day observations, the Congress of Racial Equality organized a Jan. 18 seminar on biotech's costs and benefits. As a United Nations-designated non-governmental organization, CORE invited some 700 diplomats, scientists, journalists, and Gotham high school students to debate these issues at U.N. headquarters. I was among the event's moderators.

Agricultural biotechnology, or the introduction of positive attributes in food through genetic engineering, offers the Third World three key advantages:

- Ag-biotech protects the environment. "The Green Revolution saved vast tracts of forests and wildlife habitat by increasing yields on land that was cultivated," according to Dr. Norman Borlaug, a robust 90-year-old. His groundbreaking work in this field earned him the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. "You can cut down on the amount of chemical pesticides needed to control insects."

Terri Raney of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization presented research on farm performance in the late '90s and early '00s. Biotech boosted cotton production 65 percent in South Africa and 80 percent in India. In China biotech reduced chemical use by 67 percent and in South Africa by 58 percent.

- Ag-biotech boosts the bottom line. This know-how helps the same plot of land generate more food while curbing pesticide and herbicide expenditures. Rutgers University professor Carl Pray found that conventional Chinese cotton growers sprayed pesticides 19 times per season versus just five times for those who grew insect-resistant biotech cotton. These factors boosted profits on the South African farms the FAO studied by 299 percent while Chinese net revenues burgeoned 340 percent.

- Ag-biotech makes Third World waistlines bigger. In those parts of the world, that is positive. "With this technology, my life has changed completely," said one Kenyan (sic) farmer interviewed in a film CORE unveiled at its seminar. "My wife is now big, and my children are healthier than before." His family now watches its first TV and eats fruits that are kept cool and bug-free in their new refrigerator.

Dr. Gary Comstock, a North Carolina State University ethicist, offered an interesting word of caution. Just as in America, increased farm efficiency likely will displace superfluous agricultural laborers in poor countries. Also, while biotech food has shown no negative human health effects, potential ecological risks from genetically modified pollen may merit scrutiny.

Still, as one African remarked, "We should try this technology. If it creates problems, we can stop using it." Given Africa's infinite challenges, it's hard to argue with that.

"This technology just contributes to the solution," said Monsanto's Jerry Steiner. "We need roads to get products to market. We need fertilizer. We need credit to get people started. The magic begins when you have all of these things and biotech working together."

Critics of agricultural biotechnology spin spooky stories of "Frankenfoods" that will unleash unimaginable horrors on Third World farms and First World kitchens. They argue instead for "sustainable development" to help destitute farmers "keep it real" through indigenous farming techniques not seen in America since the 19th century. Conceptually, "sustainable development" makes elite western liberals purr like kittens. For many Africans, it is as cozy as a stone pillow. Meanwhile, agricultural biotechnology is beginning to defeat two problems that tirelessly menace that blighted continent: sustainable poverty and sustainable starvation.

New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a Senior Fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Va.


Biotech Divide is a Sign of the Times

- Stewart Truelsen, Farm Week January 20, 2005 http://farmweek.ilfb.org/viewdocument.asp?did=7512&drvid=108&r=0.9311487&r=0.7418939

While India and China are stepping up their investment in biotechnology to solve problems of crop shortfalls and hunger, a radical French farmer is urging his country's citizens to take to the streets to prevent the spread of biotech foods.

The world remains divided over biotechnology, but this may be more indicative of the times than any problems with the science.

In her book "Navigating the Badlands, Thriving in the Decade of Radical Transformation," Mary O'Hara-Devereaux said, "Times of innovation are inherently messy . . . new technologies, the economy and society churn together to create an evolutionary leap in human identity." Devereaux, a business futurist, believes the world is traveling across the Badlands, not the South Dakota Badlands, but a transitional phase in history that will take us to the Foothills of the Future by 2020.

"Biological innovations will define much of the technological landscape throughout the Badlands over the next several decades. But look for these innovations to be developed more slowly than those in information technology," she said.

That's exactly what's going on now. In particular, plant biotechnology is experiencing far more resistance than advances in computers and telecommunications. In Europe, some polls show that more than 70 percent of consumers oppose genetically modified crops. Yet, the European Commission is expected to open the door to more biotech foods over the next year.

"Biology is very complicated and not well understood by many people, whether inside or outside science, including most consumers and most business leaders," O'Hara-Devereaux said in her book. She predicts that many new technologies may be slowed or even stopped because of ethical considerations, particularly those involving food and health care.

What her book seems to imply is that the difficulty in gaining worldwide acceptance of biotechnology is predictable, understandable, and probably will be overcome in time. We either overcome it or remain in an extended period of crossing the Badlands, a turbulent environment that most of us aren't comfortable in.

At the International Biotechnology Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug encouraged all stakeholders in biotechnology to do a better job of explaining the science's benefits. "After all, Mother Nature is (a) biotechnologist," said Borlaug in describing the evolution of wheat from its earliest varieties to the wheat used to make bread today.

The World Food Prize created by Borlaug was given this year to two rice breeders from Africa and Asia. Dr. Monty Jones of Sierra Leone and Prof. Yuan Longping of China were quoted in the "Des Moines Register" as crediting biotechnology for speeding up their work to develop higher-yielding rice plants.

O'Hara-Devereaux believes China will emerge as a major player on the global stage during the world's trek across the Badlands. In fact, she advises everyone to learn more about China and how to understand it and engage its people.

One thing they would find out is that China is second only to the United States in money spent on agricultural biotechnology research. This is a good sign for the future of biotechnology.


Halving Global Hunger Is Within Our Reach

- Scidev.net, January 21, 2005

About 14 per cent of the world's population is malnourished. In sub-Saharan Africa the figure is more than 30 per cent. Reducing world hunger by half is one of the top Millennium Development Goals set out by the United Nations, and the Hunger Task Force, established in October 2002, has just published a report outlining the steps needed to meet that goal.

In this article, Pedro A. Sanchez, director of tropical agriculture at the Earth Institute of Columbia University in New York City, United States, and the Indian agricultural scientist M. S. Swaminathan summarise the report’s seven recommendations, which cover economic, health and social welfare issues.

Many of the proposals hinge on science and technology, such as doubling investments in national agricultural research, providing genetically superior crops and livestock to boost productivity, and promoting simple technological solutions such as rooftop water harvesting to ease rural women’s workloads. 

Although the Millennium Project estimates that reducing hunger will cost anything from US$8 to 11 billion over the next decade, Sanchez and Swaminathan say the effort needed is well within our financial and technological capability.

Science paper at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/307/5708/357?ijkey=j1k8l3EIaiHnY&keytype=ref&siteid=sci


Africa's Food Insecurity Set to Persist, Says Researcher

- Benson Kathuri, The Standard (Nairobi), January 24, 2005 http://allafrica.com/stories/200501241166.html

The proposed green revolution for Africa's agriculture faces numerous challenges that may take decades to tackle, according to a researcher, Dr Norman Borlaug. Borlaug, who is credited with changing the face of agriculture in Asia in the early 60s, says African farmers are the most marginalised lot in the world today.

Borlaug, a Nobel laureate and the father of Green Revolution in Asia, says illiteracy, poor infrastructure and low use of fertiliser are key factors that have lowered crop production in Africa. "Lack of infrastructure is killing Africa as kilometres of paved roads per million people remain extremely low," he said. Speaking during an international agricultural conference in Nairobi yesterday, Borlaug said while there was 20,987kms of paved road for every one million people in USA, there was only 59kms for similar number of people in DRC Congo.

The poor infrastructure in Africa, he said, has made transportation of agricultural products to markets very difficult in most countries. The laureate also pointed out that there were 146 million illiterate adults in the continent, most of them women. This, he said, meant that modern technology in agriculture could not easily be adopted.

Borlaug remarks now cast doubts whether the G8 countries' green revolution for Africa project would ever be a reality. The G8 countries that comprise the eight richest countries led by the US have promised to fund a multibillion-shilling programme under the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD).

Kenya's agriculture minister Kipruto arap Kirwa said the continent remained hunger stricken despite the huge agricultural potential. "Average maize production in Asia has risen by three tonnes per hectare, but sub-Saharan Africa is currently producing only one tonne per hectare," he says.

The conference funded by the Rockefeller Foundation brings together researchers and other agricultural experts from the continent to map out the way forward for agricultural development. Among the issues to be discussed is the controversial genetically modified organisms (GMO) technology that has pitted the US against the European Union (EU). While US has emerged as the global campaigner for GM foods, the EU has adamantly refused to embrace GMOS.


Crop Biotech Is A Strategic Investment

- Bhagirath Choudhary, Financial Express (India), Jan 24, 2005 http://www.financialexpress.com/fe_full_story.php?content_id=80505

International Service for Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications' (ISAAA) recent report on the global status of commercialised biotech crops ranks India first in terms of percentage growth of biotech crops in 2004.  It has shown a 400% increase in biotech cotton hectarage, to touch 500,000 ha. It follows the worldwide experience of the highest growth of biotech crops in 2004, to reach 81 million hectares-an increase of 13.3 million hectares over 2003.  For the first time, the absolute growth in biotech crop area was higher in developing countries (7.2 million hectares) than in industrial countries (6.1 million hectares). 

The study also reported that approximately 8.25 million farmers in 17 countries planted biotech crops in 2004, 1.25 million more than those planted biotech crops in 18 countries in 2003. Notably, 90% of these farmers were in developing countries including 7 million farmers in China and 300,000 farmers in India alone.

In 2004, for the first time, Paraguay officially planted biotech soybean and joined the club of biotech countries.  The number of biotech mega-countries, (50,000 hectares biotech crops) increased from 10 in 2003 to 14 in 2004 with Paraguay, Spain, Mexico and the Philippines joining in. 

The study reports a continued growth in all four commercialised biotech crops such as soybean, maize, cotton and canola.  These four major biotech crops are geared to occupy almost the total area under a particular crop, thereby breaking GM and non-GM paradox.  For example, in the United States biotech cotton occupies 80% of total cotton cultivated area, so does 77% canola in Canada, 98% soybean in Argentina and 100% cotton in Australia.  The increased hectarage and impact of the five principal developing countries (China, India, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa) growing biotech crops are important trends with implications for the future adoption and acceptance of biotech crops worldwide.

India, along with China, has identified crop biotechnology as a strategic science investment in order to contribute to food, feed and fibre security.

The writer is National Coordinator, ISAAA, South Asia Office


Politics on the Plate

- Tom Pelton, The Baltimore Sun, January 23, 2005

'Three authors bite into an often unappetizing global stew of government subsidies, corporate agribusiness and genetically modified crops.'

In 2002, the farmers of Zambia were starving, eating leaves, sticks and poisonous berries in an attempt to survive the worst famine to rake southern Africa in years. President Levy Mwanawasa declared an emergency. But when the United States offered a shipment of corn, he rejected it, insisting his people would rather starve than eat genetically-modified American grain.

The American agriculture industry was flummoxed. They had been tinkering with the DNA of crops to make it resistant to pests and herbicides, and regarded the results as healthier and better than the food produced "naturally." Americans eat this corn every day with no evidence that the enhancement makes anyone sick.

It turns out that there was another explanation for Zambia's resistance. President Mwanawasa was worried not about the health implications of the engineered food, but about the political consequences. His country had a lucrative trade agreement with the European Union, which rejects genetically modified foods and might have cut off imports of Zambian corn and carrots if the country imported "unnatural" American corn. The fear was that the Zambians would start planting the American corn and then export it, thereby tricking Europeans into eating food that they were attempting to boycott.

As the Zambian episode shows, food can be more than just something people swallow. Increasingly, it has become a politically charged subject bearing on thorny issues of foreign trade, labor rights, scientific experimentation and environmental policy.

Unlike Europeans, Americans tend to resist thinking about the politics of the food we eat. We want it fast and utilitarian. Or we yearn for gourmet meals, which is all about pleasure, not policy. Sometimes we obsess about carbs or calories, and some of us avoid McDonalds because we see the angel of death in French fries. But that's all personal. The idea of selecting one food over another to protest an international trade policy requires an amount of selfless, intellectual effort that seems downright alien in the presence of a tender rib-eye or a juicy melon.

Shopping to avoid pesticides or labor abuses is also, by and large, a pastime strictly confined to the wealthy, who can afford to pay premiums at Whole Foods to indulge their consciences. Most working parents struggle to find time to make their children's school lunches, let alone select the apple from a local organic cooperative that is "GM (genetically modified) free."

But three new books give consumers powerful reasons to start thinking about the American system of subsidized food production. In different ways, the authors detail how the simple act of chomping an ear of corn in Zambia or Glen Burnie can have monumental importance. Depending on your perspective, taking a bite can be seen as an act of buying into corporate meddling in the natural world; enjoying scientific progress that makes food healthier; or endorsing American trade policies that reverberate around the world.

All three of the authors talk about the politics of food, but they offer different perspectives.

In Mendel in the Kitchen (Joseph Henry Press, 350 pages, $27.95), Nina Federoff, a professor of biology at Penn State University, convincingly argues that the Europeans have wrongly politicized and demonized genetically modified crops, to the harm of poor people in the Third World. Federoff (who collaborated on this book with science writer, Nancy Marie Brown) argues that "GM" corn, soybeans and other foods - which are everywhere in American supermarkets, but unlabeled - are more healthful than "natural" crops, because they contain fewer fungal toxins. And they can survive pests better than other plants. Obstructions to engineered food, she insists, deny desperately needed help to starving people in Africa and elsewhere.

Christopher D. Cook, an investigative journalist who has written for Harper's and other magazines, doesn't focus on the issue of genetic modification in his Diet for a Dead Planet (The New Press, 325 pages, $24.95). He writes a blistering polemic that details why American agriculture should be weaned from multi-billion dollar government subsidies that undermine Third World farmers, leaving them impoverished while Americans grow obese.

In recent book now out in paperback, It's All for Sale (Duke University Press, 240 pages, $18.95), Village Voice staff writer James Ridgeway gives appalling examples of how a shrinking number of big corporations suck up our nation's agricultural welfare programs.


Europe Finds You Can Be Too Careful - Emphasis On Precautions Fuels Panic Without Proof

Rebecca Goldsmith The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), January 23, 2005 http://www.nj.com/business/ledger/index.ssf?/base/business-8/1106460954309430.xml

LONDON - A United Kingdom watchdog's warning last week to keep cell phones out of the hands of young children set off a wave of hysteria here. In a country where almost everyone has a cell phone, including a quarter of those ages 7 to 10, the sense of anxiety was palpable. Headlines screamed of malignant tumors. Newspaper front pages carried brain scans blotted by bright-red growths.

The U.K. distributor of a phone for kids pulled the product. A few days later, an Italian distributor followed suit.

There was only one problem with the panic. The report in question contained no proof cell phones are harmful to children, or anyone else.

"There's no hard evidence of a health risk," said Michael Clark, the "science spokesman" for the National Radiological Protection Board, the United Kingdom's government-appointed radia tion watchdog, which sounded the alarm. "What we're talking about here is a risk of a risk."

Last week's mobile phone scare was a classic example of a broader pattern in Europe. Consider Europeans' disdain for genetically modified foods, or the European ban on importing American beef treated with hormones. In both cases, scientific evi dence of a health risk is vague.

But Europeans aren't waiting for proof of harm before declaring food or products unsafe. Increasingly, they are measuring safety by the "precautionary principle," a ubiquitous but controversial fea ture of European law.

Under this principle, a mere hunch of a hazard can be enough to justify warnings or outright bans. The approach reverses the burden of proof, so manufacturers have to show something is safe be fore selling it. The principle's mantra is "better safe than sorry."

Americans ascribe to a more science-based approach for regulating food and technologies, more like "innocent until proven guilty." One notable exception is pharmaceuticals, where drug makers have to prove safety in extensive trials.

Duke University law professor Jonathan Wiener said he believes Europe's precautionary principle may be appropriate for evaluating pollution and other environmental hazards. Sometimes, he said, "the signs of approaching danger are worth addressing even though harms have not emerged."

But many believe it has gone too far. The precautionary approach has taken on 50 different interpretations across Europe. It makes investors jittery, as they never know when products might fall afoul of regulations. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations, along with international trade groups, have lobbied against it.

"This is going to collapse on it self eventually, because it's just going to stagnate the whole European Union," said Gary Marchant, an Arizona State University law professor who co-authored a recent book, "Arbitrary and Capricious: The Precautionary Principle in the European Union Courts" (AEI Press, $20). "Any product can be banned by it."

The European approach dates to the early 1900s in Sweden, when environmentalists reacted against the late but sudden onset of the Industrial Revolution and its toll on rural farming communities. The cautionary principle was formally adopted by the European Union in 1992.

During the past decade, the approach gained currency across Europe, after a series of public-health disasters eroded faith in regulators. Among them were the spread of mad cow disease in humans in Great Britain, tainted blood banks in France and dioxin-poisoned food in Belgium.

Citizens blamed politicians for failing to protect them from health dangers. Now, scientists and regulators try to safeguard their jobs and reputations by noting even the remotest danger of a safety risk. "This is post-(mad cow) Britain," said Clark, of Britain's radiological protection board. "No scientist comes out and says, 'Zero risk,' or 'This is safe.'"

The precautionary approach reflects a kind of democratization of regulatory functions. Previously, regulations were the product of close collaboration between businesses and bureaucrats who made secret agreements behind closed doors. Nothing was transparent or available to the public.

Now, regulators take advice from a wide range of "stakeholders," from citizens groups to nonprofit organizations, on the theory the result will be fairer. Precaution applies to most areas of regulation, especially those that touch on the environment, health and safety.

Detractors of the precautionary principle point to what they see as the irony of "risk-risk tradeoffs." For instance, Europeans ruled out one kind of plastic in children's toys, causing manufacturers to use alternate substances whose risks also are unknown. Or, in the case of the cell phones, the warning about an infinitesimal risk of a benign tumor took precedence instead of the safety of children who used the phones in case they became lost or abducted.

Critics allege the approach enables fear-mongers to create false alarms for their own self-interest. Opponents charge abusive regulators use the approach to justify subjective calls for political reasons. Americans have accused Europeans of using the principle to ban American-made products, such as genetically modified foods, thus creating an "invisible tariff."

The widespread perception that Europe is more cautious than the United States has largely been shaped by a small number of sharp international conflicts, about such things as genetically modified foods, hormones in beef and cli mate change, Duke's Wiener found. As it turns out, both the United States and Europe are selectively precautionary.

In some areas, such as threats of cancer, U.S. regulators are even more precautionary than Europeans. In other areas, such as diesel fuel, Americans and Europeans focus on different risks. Diesel fuel use is extremely low in the United States because Americans opt for stricter air quality standards, while its use is much higher in Europe, where regulators focus instead on keeping carbon dioxide emissions low.

The psychology behind the precautionary principle runs deep, said Julian Morris, executive direc tor of the International Policy Net work, a think tank here. Now that modern technology can solve major threats such as disease and hunger, minuscule threats have taken on the worry quotient, he said.

"We have a genetic tendency to be susceptible to worries because of the historic threats we have faced. We have built-in defense mechanisms, which encourage us to be cautious," he said.

But the inherent absurdity of out-of-control precaution will bring its demise, Morris said. "The fact that if you applied the precautionary principle to itself it would self-destruct means that it will be replaced by more rational ways of evaluating risk," he said.


Give it the Bird

- Daily Telegraph (UK), January 25, 2005 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

Sir - Some GM crops might be capable of being grown in ways that are neutral or even beneficial to
farmland wildlife, but the Broom's Barn study (News, Jan 19) certainly does not identify one.

Based on a meagre four sites, this study has to be put in the "interesting but not convincing" category.
This contrasts with the overwhelming evidence from the Farm-Scale Evaluation study (based on 65 sites
for each crop) that farmers who "follow the instructions on the can" would end up with less wildlife in
their fields of GM sugar beet than farmers who stuck to conventional non-GM beet.

Where the recent study is interesting is in suggesting, although only weakly because of the tiny sample
size, that there might be techniques to reduce or eliminate these harmful impacts on wildlife. What it does not do is persuade the public that we want GM sugar in our tea.

- Dr Mark Avery, Director of Conservation, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Sandy, Beds

Not Bird Brained

Sir - Dr Mark Avery (letter, Jan 20) describes our work on the environmental benefits of GM sugar beet
as "interesting but not convincing", because of the tiny sample size. There were four, normal-size field
trials over two years, and the results were statistically highly significant. Otherwise, a leading scientific
journal would not have published them.

The next logical step is a large-scale field study designed to assess the potential wildlife benefits that we
have demonstrated, with revised "instructions on the can".

Why doesn't Dr Avery join us in persuading the biotech companies to alter the "instructions on the can"
in carrying out large-scale field experiments? I think it is time to challenge Dr Avery publicly to show
open-minded commitment to exploring the benefits to farmland birds by working with us on such a
study. Bird lovers would like to know the answers.

- Dr John Pidgeon, Director, Broom's Barn Research Station Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk


The Supposed Sin of Defying Nature

- Russell Blackford, Better Humans, Jan 19, 2005

'Why are policy debates still plagued by an irrational idea that refuses to die?'

Appeals to what is "natural" have a long history in policy debates about unpopular practices—such as homosexual acts, technological innovations and, particularly in recent times, manipulating DNA. The assumption is that there is something wrong morally about interfering with nature's processes, or defying nature itself—however, exactly, those ideas are to be understood.

You'd think that any concept of the inviolability of nature would long have been abandoned by philosophers, ethicists and cultural commentators. But sadly it isn't so. Nature's inviolability is still a club to bash any controversial practice or technology that conservative thinkers dislike.

John Stuart Mill's essay On Nature seemingly exploded the whole idea more than 100 years ago, but it persists in 21st century policy debates. It's like a vampire with a stake through its heart that refuses to die. Choose any of a vast range of controversial topics, from gay marriage to genetic enhancement and beyond, and you'll find a few thinkers willing to argue that it must be stopped because it defies nature.

And so we're left with two questions: Why does this argument persist? And is there anything that we can do about it?

Read on at http://www.betterhumans.com/Features/Columns/Eye_of_the_Storm/column.aspx?articleID=2005-01-19-1