Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : May 11, 005
* Dispelling the Myths: The Real Facts About AgBiotech and Biotech Food
* USDA Issues Two Biotech Reports: Traceability and Future of Biotech
* Europe: How Public Plant Breeding and Eco-Transgenics Can Help
* Inaccuracy - Not Bias - Is the Scourge of the Media
* Biotech: Developing Countries Now Have Well-Developed Programs
* Golden Rice: Problem or Solution?
* Rise and Fall of the GM Debate in Zambia
* How Can We Halt The 'March of Unreason'?
* Pushing Beyond The Earth's Limits
* Greenpeace Found Guilty of Negligence
* Organic Industry's Phoney Star Wars of Fear
Dispelling the Myths: The Real Facts About Agricultural Biotechnology
and Biotech Food
- Kimball Nill, May 10, 2005
The advent of ag biotechnology has been memorable for many reasons.
One of the most curious, and for me, the saddest, is the contagion of
misunderstandings, half-truths and sometimes blatant falsehoods
spread by its critics and rivals during the past decade. These
"myths" - for often, that is all they are - have poisoned honest
debate and corrupted the judgements of politicians, journalists,
consumers, farmers, and tragically, the governments of some of the
world's poorest countries.
In 2003, the American Soybean Association (together with eight other
leading U.S. farm organizations) published Correcting the Myths. We
wanted to add the rational, independent farmers' voice to the world's
biotech debate, a viewpoint often unheard, and certainly often
ignored, in Europe and elsewhere. We sought to communicate the facts
about ag biotech, in part based on our own experiences, to counteract
some of the most egregious propaganda ever to emanate from
environmental and organic farming lobbyists.
Two years on, we realise our document needs to be updated - because
the facts just got better. Since 2003, global biotech crop acreage
has increased by 30%. Many more countries have joined the biotech
revolution. Millions more gallons of pesticide have stayed in the
warehouse or not been manufactured. Thousands more tons of soil have
been conserved. Hundreds more developing world farmers are saved from
For the doomsayers, we can also present much more unarguable data and
supporting evidence. Since 2003, dozens of scientific papers and
agronomic studies have been published, validating what we had always
known or suspected: that biotechnology really is helping farmers save
money (the poorest ones most of all), really is protecting the
environment, really is increasing food production, really is as safe
as any other way of growing food.
In 1999, Patrick Holden, head of Britain's leading organic farming
organization, the Soil Association, and one of ag biotech's most
resolute critics, famously told Reuters that Americans would reject
ag biotech with "massive opposition within a year."
Today, biotech varieties dominate U.S. crop farming with soybean,
cotton and corn production at record levels. At the same time,
Britain's organic farming sector appears to be faltering, with the
amount of land under organic production falling 5% in a single year.
Meanwhile British farmers, like those in most of the rest of Europe,
continue to be denied access to a technology used successfully by
their competitors in North and South America, Asia, India, South
Africa, and Australia.
With this in mind, and after studying the masses of new evidence, of
which this document has space to cite merely a sample, we decided
that our old title, Correcting the Myths was no longer adequate. The
myths, to borrow a favorite word of biotech's critics, are simply no
The facts have dispelled them.
Download the complete 36-page Word document "Dispelling the myths:
The real facts about agricultural biotechnology and biotech food" at
USDA Issues Two Biotechnology Reports
May 10, 2005
U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued two reports on agricultural
biotechnology that cover the evolving world requirements for the
traceability and labeling of agricultural biotechnology products and
on the complexities of predicting the use of these products in the
"These reports will help us to better understand how biotechnology is
changing the face of agriculture," said Agriculture Secretary Mike
Johanns. "Enhancing our understanding of the marketing regulations of
biotech products and how producers and consumers may be affected by
the adoption of this technology will help to guide USDA's future
decision-making in this area."
The reports, developed by USDA's Advisory Committee on Biotechnology
and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21), are entitled (1) Global
Traceability and Labeling Requirements for Agricultural
Biotechnology-Derived Products: Impacts and Implications for the
United States; and (2) Preparing for the Future.
The first report considers the proliferation of mandatory
biotechnology traceability and labeling requirements in other
countries; how different segments of the United States food and feed
supply chain are addressing those requirements; and marketplace
issues and tools that are relevant to these developments.
The second report provides USDA with an analysis of the factors that
will shape the use of biotechnology in the future. It identifies
broad trends that are likely to influence the future in some
predictable ways as well as key uncertainties that could drive the
future in different directions. The report also provides three
examples of scenarios for the future, not as predictions but as tools
to provoke thought and further analysis, plus a series of questions
to help understand the impacts of each scenario." The questions can
be applied to help analyze any scenario that may be developed.
The AC21 was established by the Secretary of Agriculture in 2003 and
examines how biotechnology is likely to change agriculture and USDA's
work over the next five to ten years and other biotechnology issues
sent to it by the Secretary.
The 18-member committee represents a broad spectrum of views and
interests and is composed of farmers, technology providers,
academics, representatives from the food manufacturing and shipping
industries, and representatives from consumer and environmental
organizations. The committee meets in public session three to four
times per year.
For copies of the reports and more information about the AC21, visit
For copies of the reports and more information about the AC21, visit
(The link was not working.... Prakash)
Europe on Transgenic Crops: How Public Plant Breeding and
Eco-Transgenics Can Help in the Transatlantic Debate
- Ann Marie Thro (CSREES, USDA). AgBioForum, 7(3), 142-148. Excerpts
below.... Full paper at
Although a range of views about transgenic crops is found in both the
United States and Europe, some aspects that are particularly
characteristic of European views are seldom mentioned in the United
States. Awareness of these viewpoints is critical to improve the
clarity of dialogue, focus on ultimate outcomes, and inform the
development of consensus-building research, extension, and education
In the debate on transgenic crops, philosophic views are as important
as scientific data. Certain views regarding transgenic crops are more
characteristically European, less frequently articulated in the
United States, and, consequently, often less understood here. A clear
understanding of these views and what they imply is necessary for
effective dialogue. Insight into philosophical positions is critical
to focusing discussion clearly on likely ultimate outcomes. Such
insight also informs the development of consensus-building research,
extension, and education activities.
The present paper grew out of one-on-one discussions with founders of
biotechnology start-up companies and science-entrepreneur incubators
in Germany, seminars with several hundred university students in
Austria, and conversations with state and national government
officials in both countries and Croatia. These discussions extended
to journalists, "green" parliamentarians, and representatives of both
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and large businesses in all
three countries. The occasions were an Embassy Science Fellowship
(ESF) with the US Mission to Germany in 2002 and an ESF in the office
of the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of the US Department of
Agriculture in Austria in 2003. The views expressed in this paper are
personal and do not represent the position of CSREES, USDA, or any
The paper is offered as a commentary and brief introduction to some
more-commonly held European views on transgenic crops-as well as some
implications of those views that are often overlooked. The author's
immediate objectives are to encourage all participants in the GMO
debate to address philosophical and scientific issues separately,
explicitly, and thereby more clearly, and to point out action areas
(particularly for research) that resonate positively across many
groups regardless of their position on transgenic crops. The ultimate
objectives are to contribute to a broader appreciation of positive
biological and social-economic possibilities presented by transgenic
crops and to encourage research on the full spectrum of choices for
farmers and consumers.
Philosophical opposition to transgenic crops makes common cause but
has diverse origins. Some opposition is simply our human tendency to
want immediate solutions for perennially difficult problems. Other
objections are more deeply rooted and less likely to respond to
scientific data. An understanding of the nature of objecting views is
critical for clarifying what issues are actually part of the debate.
For example, dialogue with opponents of private investment in
biotechnology is as much about the role of private enterprise in
development and democracy, as it is about science.
Dialogue with opponents of science per se is as much an examination
of ways--including science--to reduce the human footprint rather than
enlarge it, and the ecological research necessary to discern the most
beneficial approaches. In both cases, discussions may be clarified by
specifying and comparing visions for the future.
Research and extension initiatives that would help to build consensus
include support for public plant breeding to serve a variety of
agricultural production systems and choices, and development of
transgenic crops with specific environmental benefits.
Inaccuracy - Not Bias - Is the Scourge of the Media
- David Dickson, scidev.net, May 9, 2005
The media is often criticised for focusing excessively on 'bad' news
about GM crops (indeed about events in general). Such criticism
ignores the fact that the main problem is not media bias, but
One of the common misconceptions about genetically modified (GM)
crops is that their main contribution to human well-being is through
increasing farmers' profits by raising crop yields. This might be
through the production and sale of food (such as corn or rice) or
staple commodities (such as cotton). But in each case, critics seek
to contrast the pursuit of profit with the potential damage that such
crops could cause, either through their impact on human health or
through their disruption of natural cycles.
What is often forgotten, however, is that there are sometimes ways in
which increasing crop productivity can also benefit both human health
and the natural environment, as a direct (if sometimes unintentional)
by-product. Perhaps the best example is crops that have been
genetically engineered to be resistant to destructive insects: these
can significantly reduce the use of pesticides.
In many developing countries, the excessive use of chemical
pesticides has taken a heavy toll. Badly protected farmers who spend
large amounts of time drenching crops with liquids designed to kill
unwanted pests frequently fall victim to overexposure to the same
poison; in some countries the deaths are numbered in the thousands
every year. And the damage such pesticides often inflict on local
wildlife can be almost as severe.
All the more reason, therefore, to welcome the results of a study
carried out in China, and published two weeks ago in the journal
Science, demonstrating a dramatic fall in pesticide poisoning among
farmers growing GM crops (see GM rice 'good for Chinese farmers
health and wealth). The study showed that up to 11 per cent of
farmers growing non-GM rice suffered from symptoms of
pesticide-poisoning. In contrast, there were no cases of poisoning
among farmers growing GM rice.
In principle, environmentalist groups might be expected to applaud
such results. After all, such groups have, in the past, been among
the loudest critics of the excessive use of chemical pesticides both
in developed and developing countries. Remember the way that Rachel
Carson's Silent Spring, a violent protest against such practices in
the United States, triggered the emergence of the environmental
movement in the early 1960s.
Similarly, it could be argued that, since such groups claim to have
the interests of farm workers and small farmers at heart -
particularly when it comes to condemning their potential exploitation
by multinational seed corporations - they should have another reason
for welcoming the results of the Chinese study.
But praise has not been forthcoming from GM critics. And, partly as
a result of this silence, the media has also been relatively silent.
The news of the Chinese results has not been totally ignored. But its
coverage has been relatively muted, and certainly far less than if
the outcome had been the reverse - namely if the studies had revealed
that the GM rice actually increased the health problems experienced
by the farm workers who handled it.
All this has prompted its own comments in some quarters. A member of
the board of directors of the American Council on Science and Health
- an industry-funded body that frequently challenges the actions of
environmentalists on health and safety issues - for instance suggests
that rather than remaining silent, critics of excessive pesticide use
"should be on the rooftops shouting hosannas to biotechnology and
promoting the use of insect-resistant crops".
An appropriate response
But this reaction prompts its own response. Environmental groups are
frequently criticised for taking an excessively negative attitude
towards the issues they are concerned about. Yet that should surprise
no one, since it is after all not their function to promote new
technologies, particularly those in the commercial sphere; that can
be left the public relations experts.
Rather, such groups are important in any society precisely because of
their role in pointing out - and indeed in focusing on - either
undesirable side-effects of scientific and technological progress
that have been given insufficient attention, or potential dangers
before they occur. If such groups had been stronger in the United
States in the 1950s, the widespread ecological damage recorded by
Carson might never have occurred.
The same can be said about the media. It is not the role of the media
to give equal prominence to all news about an issue, whether good or
bad. The prominence given to a particular story will be based on a
news editor's assessment of the potential interest of readers or
viewers. Significantly, publications that have focused on providing
only 'good' news seldom generate wide audiences (or sales).
Blaming the media for giving higher priority to negative, rather than
positive, stories about GM crops is therefore missing the point.
Partly such criticism is frequently overstated; supporters of GM
often exaggerate the relative balance between the two types of
stories that appear in the media. Partly the coverage provided by
newspapers reflects the type of information that people want to read
about, particularly in a world where the potential dangers of science
and technology are often downplayed.
The scourge of inaccuracy
None of this is a reason to feel complacent about the way that issues
surrounding GM are covered in the media (or portrayed by
environmentalist critics, which often comes to the same thing). As
has been pointed out in the past in these columns, proponents of GM
crops often have a valid point when they claim that coverage of the
issue is often distorted.
But the real crime is not bias in itself. Indeed, it would be na´ve
to pretend that a journalist can (or should even pretend to) remain
totally objective about the issues he or she is covering, and a
passionate interest can often inspire high-quality reporting. In
contrast, the worst distortions come when facts are reported
inaccurately. For the wrong facts can never become the basis of good
decisions, and truthfulness (whether in reporting or campaigning) is
essential in a way that objectivity is not.
Yet inaccuracies abound on both sides of the GM debate. On the one
hand, over-enthusiasts for GM have been heard to argue that GM foods
are completely safe to eat, make no significant impact on the
environment and will eventually solve the world's food problems. On
the other, critics will play equally loose with the truth to claim
that such foods have been "shown" to be dangerous to human health, or
to overstate the potential environmental dangers compared to other
types of agricultural innovation (such as chemical pesticides).
Thomas Jefferson, one of the key authors of the US Declaration of
Independence, once wrote that "whenever the people are well-informed,
they can be trusted with their own government". Less familiar is the
phrase that followed: "that whenever things get so far wrong as to
attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights".
Jefferson was not saying that information about the good should
balance information about the bad. Rather, he was saying that
information about the bad should be accurate if it is to be corrected.
Biotechnology: Several Developing Countries Now Have Well-Developed Programmes
AgBioWorld posted an item yesterday from i-Newswire based on the FAO
press release posted on Friday. The item in i-Newswire was a cut and
slightly edited version of the original FAO press release.
The original FAO press release can be found at
The document also appears in three other languages apart from English
I thank Dr. John Ruane, Agricultural Officer (Biotechnology) of the
FAO Working Group on Biotechnology for this information.
Golden Rice: Problem or Solution?
Full article at
L SUBRAMANI analyses the pros and cons behind the latest in the
genetically modified crops - Golden Rice, that will be storming the
market one of these days.
Debate over Genetically Engineered rice's effectiveness in
eliminating Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) is still raging. Environmental
groups put their beliefs on available sources. Scientists though,
assert Golden Rice is the most viable solution. Here are the most
heard voices in Bangalore on this debate.
It has been hailed as the miracle of science: the wonder grain
capable of providing a solution for the Vitamin A Deficiency in the
world. If distributed in all countries, scientists are strident that
no child on earth would go blind or die due to lack of vitamin A.
While our hearts leap in joy to hear of an edible crop that would
virtually be the medicine for the most common problem in the
developing world, voices of dissent bring a hurried halt to
Golden Rice, after all, is not meant to be golden yellow in colour.
Critics say that in itself is a technical aberration, a puzzle posed
by nature that remains unclear to the very scientists who created it.
And, the issues don't quite end there. According to the environmental
group Greenpeace, several questions about the Genetically Engineered
crop remains unanswered. To begin with, Greenpeace questions the
wisdom of embarking on an expensive technical solution that could put
human health and the environment to severe risk. They claim
alternative solutions such as consumption of leafy vegetables, drugs
with vitamin A and the available rice varieties with higher
pro-vitamin A (Beta-Carotene) have to be explored.
The Rise and Fall of the GM Debate in Zambia
- Zarina Geloo, Business Africa, May 3, 2005. Forwarded by Piero Morandini.
Zambia made international headlines in July 2002 when it ordered the
United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to take back over 35,000
tonnes of food aid - just when three million Zambians faced hunger
caused by a severe drought.
The government argued that the WFP's consignment of genetically
modified (GM) maize could harm Zambian agricultural exports if non-GM
Zambian farms became contaminated. It pointed to studies conducted by
scientists in the United States, Europe and South Africa which
demonstrated that "insufficient evidence was available to demonstrate
their (GM's) safety."
The US, the main food donor to the WFP along with the UN agency's
Lusaka office, tried its best to persuade the government to rescind
the order, but Zambia remained adamant. When reports surfaced of
hungry villagers looting the WFP storage houses where the GM maize
was kept, the government cranked up its propaganda machinery. First
it ensured that the government electronic and print media, the
largest in the country, reported its side of the story. It then
organised what it called a "consultative debate" - but it was largely
seen as an anti-GM legitimacy-seeking conference.
The US on its part paid for airtime on national television so that a
group of visiting African-American government officials could counter
the Zambian government view. In all of this, the media remained
largely a passive recipient of information. Because journalists had
very little knowledge of the issue they could be easily manipulated
in either direction. In this case, the government prevailed. Those
who were opposed to the introduction of GM crops into Zambia can be
broadly categorised into three groups.
First there was the powerful lobby of agricultural exporters -
consisting of groups such as the Tobacco Association of Zambia, the
Zambia Export Growers Association and the Zambia Coffee Growers'
Association. They were mainly concerned about the potential loss of
the European market if their farms were contaminated by GM organisms
(the European Union bans imports of GM crops). Zambia exports about
27,216 tonnes of cotton and about 2,000 tonnes of tobacco annually to
Europe. Food exports constitute more than 30 percent of Zambia's
Gross Domestic Product.
Then came the Organic Producers and Processors Association of Zambia,
which was worried about the effects of GM crops on sustainable
agriculture. Finally, there was widespread concern among small-scale
farmers, who comprise more than three-quarters of all Zambian
farmers. They argued that GM crops could contaminate seeds grown by
them - the so-called 'informal seed sub-sector' supplies 80 per cent
of all planting seeds in Zambia.
However, there was little technical debate on bio-safety or analysis
of crop contamination. If anything, says radio presenter Anthony
Mwikita, the story quickly became one of Zambia standing up to the
US. "It was a David versus Goliath kind of story - people were proud
that Zambia took a decision and defended it under intense pressure,
against the US and the WFP, for the good of her people. It was a
purely populist issue with the government being made to look like the
good guys. Journalists were not interested in GM. It was all about
standing up to a perceived bully."
Mwikita has since tried to put alternative views on the radio but
found their proponents unwilling to go on air. "There is so much
anti-GM feeling that those who are pro-GM are scared of public
opinion and keep quiet." Kelly Kaunda of the Media Institute of
Southern Africa adds, "there is a knowledge among journalists that
the government has put some kind of a closure on the debate and there
are few people willing to resurrect the story."
Even some well-known critics of the government, such as the Women's
Lobby Group, the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) and
opposition political parties, went along with the official stand.
One influential research paper, co-sponsored by the JCTR and Kasisi
Agriculture Training Centre, received wide media coverage. Titled
What is the impact of GMOs on sustainable agriculture in Zambia? it
argued that commercial GM crops had little, if anything, to offer to
small-scale farmers. In fact these crops were likely to exacerbate
rural household food insecurity and further erode the little cash
income that might be there.
The paper said Zambia should wait for more clarity on the potential
risks to and long-term impacts on human health, the environment and
the agricultural infrastructure before considering the adoption of GM
crops. "During this waiting period, however, there is a need to build
the capacity to test and control GM crops." Another research paper,
published by Third World Network Africa, examined the
'appropriateness' of three GM crops - Bt cotton, Bt maize and
virus-resistant sweet potato - by assessing whether or not the crop
is demand-led, site-specific, poverty-focussed, cost-effective and
environmentally and institutionally sustainable.
Its conclusion: "The maximum gains from genetic modification are
small, much lower than with either conventional breeding or
agroecology-based techniques." However, a study by the Zambian
National Farmers Union, Agricultural Biotechnology and Biosafety in
Zambia: A ZNFU Position Paper for Input into Government Policy and
Legislation, did outline some potential benefits of GM crops, which
included: the positive impact on national food security with
genetically modified crops becoming a valuable tool to complement
conventional and organic approaches; and the reduction of input costs
(such as insecticides and herbicides) through resistance to various
pests and reduction of the level of crop management.
Today, Agriculture Minister Mundia Sikatana insists his government
consulted all stakeholders and made an informed decision. Sikatana
says Zambia will not go back on its decision: "We do not have
conclusive evidence that GM food is good for us and we reserve the
right to refuse it." The government has now prepared a legal
instrument on bio-safety legislation to help regulate and monitor
GMOs. It will also establish a national bio-safety authority - part
of a five year plan to initiate bio-safety research and protection of
Alongside this authority the Southern Africa Development Community
(SADC) has set up an advisory committee to develop a standardised
policy for the entire region. WFP spokesperson in Lusaka Jo Woods
says it no longer stocks GM maize in Zambia, adding "We have moved
on, this debate has run its course and things have been settled." The
US Embassy in Lusaka said the Zambian government had taken a decision
and that there was no more debate on the issue.
According to Father Peter Henriot of the JCTR, people are generally
comfortable with the ban on GM food - "that's why there has been no
further debate." Meanwhile, subsistence farmers Melita and her
husband Joseph Nkomani who suffered crop failure at the time and were
in need of food aid, feel they should have been given information to
make an informed choice. "We were the ones who went hungry. The
option should have rested with us."
Zarina Geloo is a freelance writer with Panos Features specialising
in development issue
How Can We Halt The 'March of Unreason'?
- Helene Guldberg, Spiked-Online, May 9, 2005 http://www.spiked-online.com/
"Why we need to defend the Enlightenment against dodgy science and
In his new book The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the
New Fundamentalism, Dick Taverne - who has had careers in politics,
law, economics and industry, and who now sits as a Liberal Democrat
in the UK House of Lords - presents a formidable case against what he
terms 'dogmatic environmentalists'.
Yet he was not always critical of their 'dodgy science'. He admits to
being one of many who 'fell under the spell of Rachel Carson' when
reading her book, The Silent Spring, in 1962. In the late Sixties, as
a Labour treasury minister, he took time off from 'contemplating the
economic problems of the UK' to attend a conference at which Paul
Ehrlich - the widely read prophet of doom - was 'the star attraction'.
Taverne later joined both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, and in
the mid-Seventies - to make his 'small contribution to cleaner air' -
gave up owning a car in favour of a bicycle. 'It is a most enjoyable
way to travel about London', he says. 'You can be sure of arriving on
time, and you suffer none of the frustrations of being stuck in
traffic jams or not finding anywhere to park' (unless you try to park
your bike in the vicinity of the Houses of Parliament, that is, where
there are numerous signs war"ning that the police may destroy
Having also used a bicycle as my main form of urban transport for
many years, I agree with Taverne about its merits. But it is also an
indictment of our capital city's transport system that almost every
journey in London is faster by bike than it is by public transport.
Despite his longstanding concerns for the environment, Taverne
doesn't pull his punches when it comes to attacking 'irrational and
fundamentalist forces' in the environmentalist movement. 'I am a
militant rationalist', he tells me. 'Not that I think all that
matters in the world is reason, or that poetry and music do not
matter. But where reason is applicable and things can be judged by
evidence, then we cannot discard reason and evidence.' Taverne set up
the charity Sense About Science in 2002, and his Ma"rch of Unreason
contains a wealth of evidence against the benefits of alternative
medicine and organic farming and for the benefits of genetically
Taverne is concerned that irrational practices - 'eco-fundamentalism'
and fundamentalist religion - are flourishing, and undermining the
health of civilised society. He is 'a great admirer of the
Enlightenment as a glorious period in the history of mankind', and
warns that we are in danger of turning back the clock. The 'back to
nature' movement is 'a deeply disturbing anti-Enlightenment
reaction', he argues.
In The March of Unreason, Taverne warns that 'many people have become
increasingly sceptical about the benefits of new technology and no
longer trust experts. Possible risks from new developments loom
larger in the public mind than possible benefits and we hear
constantly about the need to apply "the Precautionary Principle", as
if it is some scientific law that needs no further explanation.'
Although Taverne is 'an optimist by nature', he does not believe we
should view the world through rose-tinted glasses. But he does think
it is 'an extremely unfortunate feature of life if we are
pessimistic'. His optimism allows him to view the 'back to nature'
movement as 'a passing fad'.
'Homeopathy and alternative medicine: they all claim it works', he
says. 'Of course it works. The placebo effect works. Witchcraft
worked when people believed in it. Anything that makes people feel
better is, in a sense, a good thing, but it is also a form of
deceit.' He thinks that alternative medicine will do a lot of damage,
but that 'in due course people will come to realise - perhaps through
education - that modern medicine is much more important than going
back to ancient superstitions'.
He also believes that the popularity of 'organics' will fade. 'But at
the moment', he says, warning me that he feels very passionately
about this issue, 'organic farming is deeply damaging. The idea that
we can save the world by going organic is not just an illusion and a
throwback to pre-historic days; it is also positively damaging.
Organic farming is a very inefficient use of land'.
Taverne's critics are, it seems, as passionate about this issue as he
is. 'Writing for the Guardian, I get a certain amount of abuse if I
write something in favour of genetically modified crops or if I
question any other fads - but if I write something attacking organics
I get a torrent of abuse.'
The first line of criticism is usually that he must be in the pay of
big companies. It seems almost impossible to put the case for
progress, science and development today without being accused of
being in bed with big corporations. Taverne has no illusions about
the motivations of such corporations, warning that they have to be
watched, 'like all organisations with an agenda'. 'But I don't find
that companies are necessarily more motivated to cause ill to mankind
than the movements designed to save the pla"net', he says.
Neither pressure groups nor companies are accountable or democratic,
but at least companies face the discipline of the market. As Taverne
points out, 'If a company produces a dud product it may ruin the
company. Look at what happened to Distillers (Biochemical Ltd) after
the thalidomide scandal. It disappeared.'
Taverne does not believe that pressure groups face a similar kind of
discipline. 'Their only test of success is whether they increase
their network of support. And the more scare stories they raise, the
better they will be at raising money. They suffer a bit if scare
stories are exposed, but not much, as we seem quickly to forget about
He points out that the Brent Spar saga did not do much damage to
Greenpeace. In the mid-Nineties, Greenpeace initiated a campaign to
stop Shell from dumping a disused giant oil rig in the Atlantic
ocean. Shell might be one of the most powerful companies in the
world, but in the face of Greenpeace's effective media campaign and a
Europe-wide boycott of its petrol stations, it caved in and left
Brent Spar in a Norwegian fjord instead. The Natural Environment
Research Council later confirmed that disposal in "the mid-Atlantic
would have been a cheaper and environmentally more beneficial way of
getting rid of the rig.
The 'dogmatic environmentalists' that Taverne persuasively criticises
in The March of Unreason have a lot to answer for. But I wonder
whether Taverne is endowing them with too much power? In his book, he
traces 'some of the reasons for this change from optimism to
widespread suspicion and pessimism towards science that exists today,
and identif[ies] the rise of the environment movement as probably the
He warns that 'there is a semi-religious streak in the green
fundamentalists. When they say "I don't give a damn about the
evidence because I know I am trying to save the world", then they are
not a million miles away from the creationists who say "I don't give
a damn about the evidence because it is written in the Bible"'.
Green and religious fundamentalists are fairly easy targets, but they
are ultimately not the main problem. The problem goes far deeper and
is all-pervasive: it is today's cultural climate of cynicism and
pessimism that provides a fertile ground for 'dogmatic
environmentalists' to feed on. A society that has lost faith in
humanity - in our ability to face up to challenges and to improve our
condition - will allow environmentalists to present themselves, much
to Taverne's disdain, as 'a noble band of crusade"rs struggling
against malign forces in society that will damage or destroy the
planet'. They are pushing at an open door.
It seems that Taverne, the optimist, has perhaps underestimated the
forces of conservatism that we are up against today. The march of
unreason, which Taverne believes will ultimately retreat partly of
its own accord, may actually be a lot harder to fight against. It is
not the strength of the ideas put forward by the 'back to nature'
brigade that makes the battle such a challenge, but the lack of
forward-looking ideas at the heart of public life.
What we need is a robust defence of reason, science and democracy,
because without these things society will stagnate. And although The
March of Unreason risks, in parts, attaching too much importance to
eco-fundamentalists, it provides an engaging defence of Enlightenment
The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New
Fundamentalism, by Dick Taverne, is published by Oxford University
Pushing Beyond The Earth's Limits
- Lester R Brown, The Futurist, May 2005
'The future will see not just more mouths to feed, but a growing
demand for higher-quality, more resource-intensive food. The world's
farmers may not be up to the many challenges of meeting those
During the last half of the twentieth century, the world economy
expanded sevenfold. In 2000 alone, its growth exceeded that of the
entire nineteenth century. Economic growth, now the goal of
governments everywhere, has become the status quo. Stability is
considered a departure from the norm.
As the economy grows, its demands are outgrowing the earth, exceeding
many of the planet's natural capacities. While the world economy
multiplied sevenfold in just 50 years, the earth's natural
life-support systems remained essentially the same. Water use
tripled, but the capacity of the hydrological system to produce fresh
water through evaporation changed little. The demand for seafood
increased fivefold, but the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries
was unchanged. Fossil-fuel burning raised carbon dioxide ([CO.sub.2])
emissions fourfold, but the capacity of nature to absorb it changed
little, leading to a buildup of [CO.sub.2] in the atmosphere and a
rise in the earth's temperature. As human demands surpass the earth's
natural capacities, expanding food production becomes more difficult.
Losing Agricultural Momentum
Environmentalists have been saying for years that, if the
environmental trends of recent decades continued, the world would one
day be in trouble. What was not clear was what form the trouble would
take and when it would occur. Now it has become increasingly clear
that tightening food supplies will be our greatest trouble and that
it will emerge within the next few years. In early 2004, China's
forays into the world market to buy 8 million tons of wheat marked
what could be the beginning of the global shift from an era of grain
surpluses to one of grain scarcity.
World grain production is a basic indicator of dietary adequacy at
the individual level and of overall food security at the global
level. After nearly tripling from 1950 to 1996, the grain harvest
stayed flat for seven years in a row, through 2003, showing no
increase at all. And production fell short of consumption in each of
the last four of those years. The shortfalls of nearly 100 million
tons in 2002 and again in 2003 were the largest on record.
Consumption exceeded production for four years, leading world grain
stocks to drop to the lowest level in 30 years. The last time stocks
were this low, in 1972-1974, wheat and rice prices doubled. Importing
countries competed vigorously for inadequate supplies. A politics of
scarcity emerged, and some countries, such as the United States,
In 2004, a combination of stronger grain prices at planting time and
the best weather in a decade yielded a substantially larger harvest
for the first time in eight years. Yet even with a harvest that was
up 124 million tons from that in 2003, the world still consumed all
the grain it produced, leaving none to rebuild stocks. If stocks
cannot be rebuilt in a year of exceptional weather, when can they?
From 1950 to 1984, world grain production expanded faster than
population, raising the grain produced per person per year from 250
kilograms to the historic peak of 339 kilograms--an increase of 34%.
This positive development initially reflected recovery from the
disruption of World War II, and then later solid technological
advances. The rising tide of food production lifted all ships,
largely eradicating hunger in some countries and substantially
reducing it in many others.
But since 1984, growth in grain harvests has fallen behind growth in
population. The amount of grain produced per person fell to 308
kilograms in 2004.
Africa is suffering the most, with a decline in grain produced per
person that is unusually steep and taking a heavy human toll. Soils
are depleted of nutrients, and the amount of grainland per person has
been shrinking steadily due to population growth in recent decades.
But in addition, Africa must now contend with the loss of adults to
AIDS, which is depleting the rural workforce and undermining
agriculture. In two of the last three years, grain production per
person in sub-Saharan Africa has been below 120 kilograms--dropping
to a level that leaves millions of Africans on the edge of starvation.
Several long-standing environmental trends are contributing to the
global loss of agricultural momentum. Among these are the cumulative
effects of soil erosion on land productivity, the loss of cropland to
desertification, and the accelerating conversion of cropland to
nonfarm uses. All are taking a toll, although their relative roles
vary among countries.
In addition, farmers are seeing fewer new technologies to
dramatically boost production. The high-yielding varieties of wheat,
rice, and corn that were developed a generation or so ago doubled and
tripled yields, but there have not been any dramatic advances in the
genetic yield potential of grains since then.
Similarly, the use of fertilizer has now plateaued or even declined
slightly in key food-producing countries. The rapid growth in
irrigation that characterized much of the last half century has also
slowed. Indeed, in some countries the irrigated area is shrinking.
And now, two newer environmental trends are slowing the growth in
world food production: falling water tables and rising temperatures.
The bottom line is that it is now more difficult for farmers to keep
up with the growing demand for grain. The rise in world grainland
productivity, which averaged over 2% a year from 1950 to 1990, fell
to scarcely 1% a year in the last decade of the twentieth century.
This will likely drop further in the years immediately ahead.
If the rise in land productivity continues to slow and if population
continues to grow by 70 million or more per year, governments may
begin to define national security in terms of food shortages, rising
food prices, and the emerging politics of scarcity. Food insecurity
may soon eclipse terrorism as the overriding concern of national
The Challenge Ahead
We must not underestimate the challenges that the world faces over
the next half century. There will be a projected 3 billion more
people to feed, and 5 billion who will want to improve their diets by
eating more meat, which requires more grain (as livestock feed) to
produce. Meanwhile, the world's farmers will still be fighting soil
erosion and the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, as well as newer
challenges, such as falling water tables, the diversion of irrigation
water to cities, and rising temperatures.
The World Food Summit of 1996 in Rome set a goal of halving the
number of hungry people by 2015. That would require reducing the
ranks of the hungry by 20 million a year. While some progress was
made in the 1990s, it has not been enough. And things have gotten
even worse: By the end of the century, the number of hungry people in
the world began to increase, rising to 798 million in 2001. This
increase in hunger is not too surprising, given the lack of growth in
the world grain harvest during this period.
Looming over this darkening horizon is the prospect that other
countries will soon fall victim to the Japan syndrome of accelerating
economic growth and shrinking grain harvests. Will India's grain
production peak and start declining in the next few years, much as
China's did after 1998? Or will India be able to hold off the loss of
cropland to nonfarm uses and the depletion of aquifers long enough to
eradicate most of its hunger? There are signs that the shrinkage in
India's grain area--a precursor to the shrinkage of overall
production--may have begun.
Because aquifer depletion is recent, it is taking agricultural
analysts into uncharted territory. Water tables are falling
simultaneously in many countries and at an accelerating rate, but we
cannot be certain exactly when aquifers will be depleted and
precisely how much this will reduce food production. And in a world
of rising temperatures, there is added reason to be concerned about
world food security.
On another front, in Africa the spread of HIV/AIDS is threatening the
food security of the entire continent as the loss of able-bodied
field workers shrinks harvests. In sub-Saharan Africa, disease begets
hunger and hunger begets disease. In some villages, high
HIV-infection rates have claimed an entire generation of young
adults, leaving only the elderly and children. Without a major
intervention from the outside world, the continuing spread of the
virus--combined with the hunger that is cutting life expectancy in
half in some countries--could take Africa back to the Dark Ages.
In a world where the food economy has been shaped by an abundance of
cheap oil, tightening world oil supplies will further complicate
efforts to eradicate hunger. Modern mechanized agriculture requires
large amounts of fuel for tractors, irrigation pumps, and grain
drying. Rising oil prices may soon translate into rising food prices.
Feeding the World
If grain imports continue to grow in Asia, where half the world's
people live, and if harvests continue to shrink in Africa, the
second-most-populous continent, we have to ask where tomorrow's grain
will come from. The countries that dominated world grain exports for
the last half century--the United States, Canada, Australia, and
Argentina--may not be able to export much beyond current levels.
The United States has produced as much as 350 million tons of grain a
year several times over the last two decades, though never much more
than this. The country exported about 100 million tons of grain a
year two decades ago, but only an average of 80 million tons in
recent years, as demand has increased domestically. The potential for
expanding grain production and export in both Canada and Australia is
constrained by relatively low rainfall in their grain-growing
regions. Argentina's grain production has actually declined over the
last several years as land has shifted to soybeans, principally used
for feeding livestock rather than people.
By contrast, Russia and Ukraine should be able to expand their grain
exports, at least modestly, as population has stabilized or is
declining. There is also some unrealized agricultural production
potential in these countries. But northern countries heavily
dependent on spring wheat typically have lower yields, so Russia is
unlikely to become a major grain exporter. Ukraine has a somewhat
more promising potential if it can provide farmers with the economic
incentives they need to expand production. So, too, do Poland and
Yet, the likely increases in exports from these countries are small
compared with the prospective import needs of China and, potentially,
India. It is worth noting that the drop in China's grain harvest of
70 million tons over five years is equal to the grain exports of
Canada, Australia, and Argentina combined.
Argentina can expand its already large volume of soybean exports, but
its growth potential for grain exports is limited by the availability
of arable land. The only country that has the potential to
substantially expand the world's grainland area is Brazil, with its
vast cerrado--a savannah-like region on the southern edge of the
Amazon basin. Because its soils require the heavy use of fertilizer
and because transporting grain from Brazil's remote interior to
distant world markets is costly, it would likely take substantially
higher world grain prices for Brazil to emerge as a major exporter.
Beyond this, would a vast expansion of cropland in Brazil's interior
be sustainable? Or is its vulnerability to soil erosion likely to
prevent it from making a long-term contribution? And what will be the
price paid in the irretrievable loss of ecosystems and plant and
In sum, ensuring future food security is a formidable, multifaceted
problem. To solve it, the world will need to:
* Check the HIV epidemic before it so depletes Africa's adult
population that starvation stalks the land.
* Arrest the steady shrinkage in grainland area per person.
* Eliminate the overgrazing that is converting grasslands to desert.
* Reduce soil erosion losses to below the natural rate of new soil formation.
* Halt the advancing deserts that are engulfing cropland.
* Check the rising temperature that threatens to shrink harvests.
* Arrest the fall in water tables.
* Protect cropland from careless conversion to nonfarm uses.
About the Author: Lester R. Brown is president of the Earth Policy
Institute, 1350 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 403, Washington, D.C.
This article draws from his most recent book, Outgrowing the Earth:
The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and
Rising Temperatures (W.W. Norton, 2005), which is available from the
Futurist Bookshelf, www.wfs.org/bkshelf.htm. For additional
Greenpeace Found Guilty of Negligence
- Associated Press, May 10, 2005
KETCHIKAN, Alaska - A jury found Greenpeace guilty Monday on two
misdemeanor criminal negligence charges that were filed after the
group's ship entered Alaska waters for an anti-logging campaign
without required paperwork.
Greenpeace's ship came to Alaska to conduct an anti-logging campaign
in the Tongass National Forest. The ship was carrying more than
70,000 gallons of "petroleum products" at the time, court papers
said. Under state law, a large non-tank vessel must file an oil spill
response plan application five days before entering state waters.
Greenpeace had not, but said the oversight was quickly corrected.
State regulators charged Greenpeace, ship Capt. Arne Sorensen and
ship agent Willem Beekman with multiple counts of misdemeanor
criminal negligence last July for not filing the spill plan or having
proof of financial responsibility in case of a spill.
The six-person state District Court jury convicted Greenpeace on two
counts of failing to have the oil spill prevention plan and acquitted
the group on the two counts of failing to obtain a certificate of
financial responsibility. Sorensen was convicted on three counts, and
Beekman was acquitted on all charges.
Organic Industry's Phoney Star Wars
A flash animation produced by the makers of The Meatrix has been
released today attacking conventional agriculture. Designed to
coincide with the release of the latest Star Wars movie, Organic
Trade Association (OTA)'s presentation claims that "an empire of
pollution and pesticides- genetic engineering- has destroyed the
planet?" OTA's Store Wars presents conventional agriculture,
represented by Darth Tater, as the "evil dark side of the farm--more
chemical than vegetable" and encourages shoppers to chose organic
over 'toxic conventional foods.'
Found at http://www.storewars.org/ the site also makes health,
quality and taste claims comparing organic with conventional
While they cannot make any substantiated claims that organic food is
healthier for your or better for the planet, their chief trick up
their sleeve is to scare you about the conventional food. In this,
they have done a very good job with this video which is funny. If
only it was true....