Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : June 29, 2005
* South Africa: Farmers Reject Biowatch Claims That Bt Cotton Has
* Australian Government Pressures States to Gift GM food Ban
* Focus Shifts to Drought-Tolerant, Health Providing GM crops
* Where Conventional, Organic, GM Farms Co-exist
* Why China is Holding Up It's Own GM Soy?
* Economic Sabotage A Form of Free Speech?
* Kernals of Truth
* Int. Assessment of Ag Science & Tech for Development
* The Only Book You'll Need on Plant Biotech
South Africa: Farmers Reject Biowatch Claims That Bt Cotton Has
- Business Report (South Africa), June 26, 2005 http://www.busrep.co.za/
Claims by Biowatch that genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton has
failed and impoverished cotton farmers on the Makhathini Flats in
KwaZulu-Natal, who owe the Land Bank R18 million (R12 million
according to the bank), causing farmers to stop planting cotton
(Sunday Business Report, May 29) have been rejected as false and
misleading by 27 chairpersons of cotton farming associations on the
Makhathini Flats, representing 1 680 smallholders.
Biowatch's report says: "Bt cotton has not proved to be sustainable
in terms of reducing pesticide use nor in terms of improving income
for farmers. It is clear that Bt cotton and many other GM crops will
fail the majority of farmers throughout Africa. It has failed in
At a meeting on June 6 on the Makhathini Flats, 27 chairpersons
rejected Biowatch's claims as flawed and challenged Biowatch to meet
them face to face to substantiate their alleged factsâ or apologise
to the world for the insult caused to these farmers.
Claims in the survey by Biowatch are completely false and not
scientifically proven by peers. The survey definitely does not tally
with the comprehensive scientific study carried out by the University
of Reading in the UK in conjunction with the University of Pretoria
in 1998/99 and in 2001/02.
The report was published in Nature Biotechnology (volume 22 pages 379
to 380) in 2004. According to the report, 2 223 individual farmers'
records were analysed. Personal interviews were carried out with 100
farmers together with in-depth case studies of 32 farmers. Bt cotton
farmers achieved consistently higher yields and revenue per hectare
than non-Bt cotton farmers. Yields for Bt cotton were 40 percent
higher than non-Bt cotton. Bt farmers also paid 42 percent less for
chemicals to spray for insects, the report said.
Bt cotton has not failed farmers on the Makhathini Flats. Trials done
by the Agricultural Research Council on the Makhathini over the past
five years produced on average 2 886 kilograms per hectare for Bt
cotton compared with 2 537kg per hectare for non-Bt. That is the
average yield of farmers, a gain of 349kg per hectare. At R3 per
kilogram, that means an extra R1 047 profit per hectare planted.
Farmers agree with the statement made by Biowatch that "the area
under cotton in South Africa fell 80 percent due to the lowest cotton
price in 30 years, the strong rand, severe flooding and prolonged
drought on the Makhathini Flats, and lack of credit, which resulted
in substantial losses to farmers, leading to drastically reduced
These are the reasons Makhathini's cotton production has dropped and
why some farmers are heavily in debt. Biowatch itself has given the
answer. It is not the GM technology.
Biowatch does not understand the economics of farming. Why pick on
Makhathini? The whole agricultural sector is in debt. Commercial
farmers in South Africa owe the banks more than R30 billion, up from
R29 billion three years ago. One bank has this year withdrawn R500
million credit to commercial farmers because the maize price has
The Goodhouse Agricultural Paprika Corporation in the Northern Cape,
involving 55 emergent farmers, has just gone bust, owing the Land
Bank R49.43 million. Paprika is not a GM product. It is clear that
picking on the Makhathini Flats, where farmers are in the same
economic straits as all agriculture in South Africa, and blaming it
on the GM technology is nothing more than a mean and deliberate
attempt to discredit the GM technology.
Farmers, however, believe that this technology is the greatest
blessing to agriculture. All the farmers at the meeting agreed they
would plant nothing else but Bt cotton this coming season. More than
600 farmers paid cash for their Bt seed the past season.
Furthermore, Makhathini farmers are urging the government to approve
the new BG/RR stacked variety of cotton that is bollworm resistant
and herbicide tolerant. Farmers on the Makhathini have been planting
Bt cotton every year for the past six years. A 5kg bag of seed,
sufficient to plant 1ha, costs R220, VAT and technology fee included.
This includes the refuge seed that all farmers plant. The extra yield
more than compensates for the technology cost. Farmers buy Bt cotton
out of their own free choice.
More than 90 percent of Makhathini farmers plant Bt cotton. With Bt
cotton, farmers only spray two to three times a season for insects
compared with eight to 10 times for non-Bt, saving an extra R400 a
The KwaZulu-Natal provincial government has just given the Makhathini
farmers a grant of R3.2 million to cover input costs for the coming
season. This will be renewed next year. There is a good cotton crop
in the fields being harvested now for the 2004/05 season.
Cotton is the ideal cash crop for small-scale farmers. It has been
proved all over the world. The biggest expansion is in India, which
introduced Bt cotton two years ago. The area under Bt cotton grew
from 100 000ha in 2003 to 500 000ha last year. The yields increased
by 30 percent.
In 2004, China increased Bt cotton planting for the seventh
consecutive year to 3.7 million hectares. When Biowatch says Bt
cotton is not for small-scale farmers, we must look at India and
China for results.
- Phenias Gumede, Chairman, KZN Cotton Growers' Association; and
- TJ Buthelezi, Chairman, Umbongwa Cotton Farmers' Association (an
umbrella organisation for 37 smallholder farmer associations in
Australian Government Pressures States to Gift GM food Ban
- Asia Pulse, June 28, 2005
Most states have moratoria in place on GM crops until 2008, but the
situation varies in each jurisdiction. Federal Agriculture Minister
Warren Truss believes the bans are "unscientific" and has again
called for them to be scrapped.
He has criticised the states for sending delegations to the BIO 2005
conference in the United States this week in the hope of attracting
biotechnology investment, while still maintaining the moratoria. "How
can the states and territories hope to attract any investment while
they keep their moratoria on GM crop cultivation in place?" Mr Truss
said in a statement. "You also have to question the credibility of
Victoria hosting next year's Agricultural Biotechnology International
Conference while maintaining a moratorium on the commercial use of
Cotton is the only broadacre crop in Australia that contains GM
plants, while the cut-flower industry is permitted to grow
genetically modified blue carnations around the country. About 80 per
cent of the national cotton crop, grown in NSW and Queensland, is now
made of GM varieties. Queensland is the only state without a
moratorium and relies on regulation by the federal Office of the Gene
NSW, while allowing GM cotton, has a moratorium on commercial GM food
crops to 2006, along with South Australia and the ACT. Moratoria are
in place in Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia until 2008.
There are also different rules in each state for regulating and
managing research and development and field trials.
Mr Truss said the government has invested about $1.3 billion in
biotechnology-related research and development since 2003 and more
farmers should be able to take advantage of GM advances. "The real
losers are Australian farmers who are quickly falling behind their
major competitors as they are denied the benefits of new
technologies," he said.
"How much longer can Australian farmers match overseas competitors if
unscientific state bans on genetically-modified organisms deny them
access to higher-yielding, pest and disease resistant,
drought-tolerant plant varieties?
"These bans are usually based on claims that being GMO-free will
deliver marketing advantages for Australian products. How many more
years do we have to wait for the so-called market advantage to
Focus Shifts to Drought-Tolerant, Health Providing GM crops
- M.R. Subramani, The Hindu Business Line. June 29, 2005
As genetically modified (GM) crops gain acceptance among farmers, the
focus has now turned to development of varieties that are
drought-tolerant and those that can deliver health benefits.
"The focus has clearly turned to using biotechnology to derive crops
that can sustain themselves in times of drought. Also, research is on
to ensure plants contain less or no mycotoxins, which are carcinogic
and less transfatty acids," says Dr Eric Sachs, who is in charge of
scientific affairs at Monsanto. Researchers at the Donald Danforth
Science Center for plant research agree that such experiments have
not gathered pace. "This does not mean that such crops will be out in
the market tomorrow. Research is on and it could take 5-10 years to
reach the results of laboratory to land," say scientists at the
At Donald Danforth Center, one of the Indian-related research that
is currently on is to produce a rice variety that is rich in folic
acid, which can rectify malnutrition problems and be a good source of
nutrition for lactating mothers. Another experiment of relevance to
developing nations, particularly Africa, is to develop a cassava
(tapioca) variety that can withstand the mosaic virus. "Cassava is an
important food source for Africa and this research will go a long way
in ensuring food sufficiency in that continent," scientists say.
Research personnel, both in the private and public sectors, assure
that all these developments would be safe for human consumption and
environment-friendly. "Our crops derived from biotechnology are
approved by the US Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug
Administration and the Environment Protection Agency," says Dr Sachs.
According to Dr John P. Purcell, Global Leader, Scientific Affairs,
Monsanto, research in biotechnology crops has broadened to control
pests that are hard to kill through pesticide or have developed
immunity to such chemicals. "In fact, the research is currently on to
provide farmers a combination of various factors in the crop," he
In the pipeline are soyabean that have low linolenic acid, corn that
have high lysine content and essential amino acids and corns with
high oil content. "There are a number of companies that are working
on drought-tolerant and stress-tolerant varieties," Dr Purcell says.
Monsanto officials say that following the success in introducing
Bollgard Bt cotton in India, efforts are now on to introduce a
superior Bollgard II variety. "Greenhouse trials are on to introduce
Bt corn also," an official said.
According to the Biotechnology Industry Organisation Guide for
2005-06, area under Bt cotton in India witnessed a 400 per cent rise
between 2003 and 2004 to 1.2 million acres. It is the highest growth
recorded by any country during the year, with Brazil registering a 66
per cent growth in coverage of genetically modified crops.
On genetically modified products that could hit the market within six
years, it says the list extends to apples, bananas and wheat. The
organisation says DuPont is developing a glyphosate resistant crop.
Monsanto, on the other hand, has developed an Alfalfa (fodder) crop
that allows application of herbicide to kill weeds while it grows,
and apples that have in-built resistance against codling moth.
There are at least seven varieties of GM corn in the pipeline,
including ones that nutritionally enhances, three varieties of corn
and two strains of soyabean."As acceptance of biotechnology crop
grows, we will see the research widen to ensure that yield increases
without any increase in the arable area," says Dr Purcell.
Where Conventional, Organic, GM Farms Co-exist
- M.R. Subramani, The Hindu Business Line, June 28, 2005
Mr. Jim Petersen, a fourth-generation US farmer, can be a David or
Goliath, depending on which side of the argument you are. He is
neither an advocate of genetically modified (GM) organism nor for
organic crops or for that matter conventional agriculture. In fact,
he is a man who practices all three forms of cultivation in his huge
farm of 600 acres in Knoxville, Iowa.
His story, as farm scientists, advocates and analysts see, is one
that favours co-existence of conventional, organic and GM farming.
"Till 2002, we were doing 50:50 of conventional and GM crops in the
400 acres we hold. Then, a family known to us approached and offered
to allow us farming in 160 acres onthe condition that we do only
organic cultivation. We agreed to it," Mr Petersen said at a session
of the international convention of Biotechnology Industry
"So in 2003, we began cultivating organic oats and a bit of soyabean.
We, in fact, did a little bit of maths to go about our farming. First
we planted oats in March, then we went in for conventional and GM
corn in April. In early May, we planted conventional and ready
roundup soya and in the middle of May, we planted organic corn and
followed it up with organic soya," he said.
In 2003, he couldn't clear the weeds in the fields where organic
crops were sown and that affected the production. But the other crops
gave him a good yield. Last year, he got good results from all the
three. How Mr Petersen manages all the three forms of farming is that
he has a buffer zone that separates the organic crops from
conventional and GM ones. "We have a 25-foot buffer area for corn
and grass that acts as buffer for soya," he said. But there is one
thing that he clarifies. "I am not in the export market and,
therefore, am not certain about its prospects," he said.
It is certainly possible for co-existence of all the three forms of
farming, says Mr Drew L. Kershen of the College of Law, University of
Oklahama. He was part of the panel that discussed on co-existence of
these crops and is a legal expert on the issue. "Farmers will have
to have the choice to the technology they think is the best. Studies
say that even in pure hybrids, there is presence of broken and
foreign material to the extent of 2 per cent," he said.
In the global market, there is an allowance of 2 per cent and this
can ensure peaceful co-existence of all sorts of farming in any part
of the world. Quoting a study of the Organic Farm Research Fund of
the US, he said 92 per cent of organic farmers faced no problem from
"But four per cent of the farmers said they suffered loss in terms of
market price," he said, adding that this was due to the contract they
had entered into with the buyers. Remember, the conflict is more
where the tolerance level is zero," he said.
It is an accepted norm that speciality producers should bear costs to
implement measures to avoid foreign or GM material to get premium for
their produce, according to Mr Kershen. "Even the International
Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) has issued a
guideline that says organic certification does not imply that a
produce is free of genetic material. The certification can guarantee
a product without genetic material but not in totality. Therefore,
when sellers or growers sign a contract, it is necessary that they
keep these things in mind," Mr Kershen said. "Growers should
understand that they get paid for production protection and not for
purity," he said.
According to Mr Fred Yodder, a former president of the US National
Corn Growers Association, it is not difficult for different forms of
farming to co-exist, provided the neighbouring farmers are taken into
confidence. "You have to base things on science primarily," he said.
Meanwhile, some non-governmental organisations have come out in
favour of growing GM crops. For example, AfricaBio, a
non-governmental organisation based in South Africa, has urged the
African and Asian countries to allow cultivation of GM crops. "Only
GM crops can meet the food and nutritional requirements of the
people, most of them who are suffering from poverty," Ms Jocelyn
Webster of the organisation said.
"In South Africa, detail research has been done by various arms of
the Government on genetic crops and they have been found to be safe
for human consumption," she said.
Why China is Holding Up It's Own GM Soy?
- Alex Avery
Chinese Academy of Sciences scientist admits that China is holding up
biotech soybean planting approvals until it has enough home-grown
biotech varieties to compete with Monsanto.
This seems to me to be a pretty clear admission of using approval
hold-ups as de facto trade barriers to foreign intellectual property.
Hmmmmm. Yet another case to be brought against the Chinese in the
World Trade Organization, along with subsidized textile exports,
software, movies, and music, to name just a few.
While we at the Hudson Institute are staunch proponents of free
trade, especially in ag products, the rules need to be enforced. (Of
course, the same goes for the US's indefensible cotton, peanuts, and
Alex Avery, Center for Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute
> Controversy Grows Over China's Biotech Crops
> - Geoff Dyer, Financial Times, June 24, 2005 http://news.ft.com
> Disagreements over genetically modified cotton in China were a mere
>skirmish compared with the looming battles over rice,
Economic Sabotage A Form of Free Speech?
- Lawrence Kogan, Rural News, New Zealand, June 28, 2005
A good example of the type of economic sabotage engaged in by
environmental extremists in the UK during the past five years
involves genetically modified (GM) food, feed and seed. Extremist
efforts have focused, since at least 1999, on terrorizing and causing
economic loss to industry (biotech and pharmaceutical companies),
farmers and scientists that dared to go forward with outdoor
government-planned GM trials. Their ultimate goal was to stop the
trials altogether, hamper government GM research efforts, and to
block industry's development and distribution of GM products to
British supermarkets and retail stores. The intended effect of such
conduct was to deny the British public a potentially useful, and
perhaps, essential new technology.
The UK government had planned to conduct trials in 55 fields by the
end of 2000 - 25 fields for maize and oilseed rape and 30 fields for
either sugar or fodder beets. Additional farm-scale trials were
planned for 2001 and 2002. While government estimates had suggested
that a total of 75 participating farms were needed to conduct a
viable study, mounting Greenpeace pressure during this three-year
period made it difficult to recruit enough farms. As the Guardian
reported in September 2000, of the 31 English and Scottish farms that
had originally signed up for the trials, 26 were placed on a
Greenpeace hit list, and two others pulled out due to local pressure.
The trials had been facilitated by the Supply Chain Initiative on
Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC), an industry group drawn from
the plant breeding, agrochemical and farming sectors, whose objective
was to ensure that the commercial introduction of GM crops in the UK
is managed openly and responsibly. SCIMAC had drawn up a code of
practice on the transfer of information about GM products along the
supply chain and guidelines on the management of herbicide tolerant
crops. While the UK government (DEFRA) initially welcomed this 4-year
initiative, it did not, for political reasons, endorse outright
SCIMAC's risk management guidelines.
Greenpeace-driven economic sabotage was catapulted into the public
limelight following the non-guilty jury verdict rendered on September
20, 2000, at the criminal trial of Greenpeace UK executive director,
Peter Melchett. Melchett and 27 other members of Greenpeace had been
criminally charged on July 26, 1999, with raiding (trespass),
damaging (vandalism) and trying to remove (theft) six acres of a GM
maize crop that were being grown by local Norfolk farmers for seed
company Agr-Evo Ltd (now the agrochemical company Aventis). At trial,
Melchett successfully invoked the subjective facts-intensive defense
known in Britain as "the Tommy Archer defense" which, as the
Independent wrote, "relied on the jury accepting that the defendant
genuinely believed that the action would prevent greater damage being
In other words, the group's otherwise illegal actions were justified
because the group "honestly" believed that it was responding to an
even greater potential threat posed to the environment by the
pollination of GM crops. As a result, environmental extremists
believed they were given the green light to destroy the UK's GM crop
research program, and along with it the crops themselves. This
mindset was reflected in the remarks of Charles Secrett, director of
Friends of the Earth UK: "As far as I can see this throws the door
open for people to legitimately destroy GM crops that are about to go
A number of additional attacks against GM crop trials followed the
issuance of this verdict. The irony of these events was plain for all
to see. Individual farmers had willingly participated in UK
government planned GM crop trials facilitated by a cautious industry,
which were intended to provide more information to the public about
the potential scientific risks and benefits associated with
herbicide-resistant crops. This was precisely the kind of information
environmental extremists such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth
had demanded all along but chose to ignore for political reasons.
These environmental extremists, however, were not satisfied until
they could also disrupt and destroy the business relationships that
existed along the British food supply chain.
As early as the fall of 2000, the US Department of Agriculture had
noted how Greenpeace-induced "hysteria surrounding genetically
engineered (GE) food" had prompted pledges from a number of British
supermarkets to phase out meat, eggs and dairy products from animals
fed GM crops. In other words, Greenpeace was able to successfully
shape consumer demand for GM products as well as influence producer
and retailer supply of such products. This was achieved by promoting
consumer misinformation and fear and by engaging in guerilla-type
military tactics against companies, their employees and their
suppliers. The goal was plainly and simply economic sabotage, at both
a micro and macro level.
Lawrence A. Kogan is an international business, environment and trade
attorney who has advised the National Foreign Trade Council on WTO
trade and environmental issues. He is now CEO and Co-Director of the
Institute for Trade, Standards and Sustainable Development, an
independent, non-partisan not-for-profit organization dedicated to
the promotion of a positive paradigm of sustainable development,
consistent with WTO and free market principles. Visit itssd.org
Kernals of Truth
- Henry I. Miller, MD une 29, 2005 http://www.techcentralstation.com
The world is going corn-crazy and maize-mad . . . again. Five years
ago, there was near-hysteria over "contamination" of yellow corn and
products made from it -- chips, tortillas, taco shells and the like
-- with tiny amounts of a gene-spliced variety called StarLink.
Federal regulators, who had approved the variety for livestock, but
not human consumption, initiated a massive recall of more than 300
perfectly safe corn products, costing StarLink's producer more than
$100 million and disrupting U.S. corn exports.
History is repeating itself. In March, it was reported that between
2001 and 2004 the Swiss agribusiness company Syngenta had
inadvertently mislabeled and sold to American farmers small amounts
of an unapproved corn variety called Bt10, as Bt11, an approved
variety. The European Union and Japan are demanding that corn
imported from the United States be tested and found to be free of
However, except when sophisticated genetic tests are employed, Bt10
is indistinguishable from another government-approved and widely
planted, insect-resistant variety, Bt11; the two differ only by the
presence of an antibiotic-resistance gene and by a handful of
nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA) in an inert region of the
newly introduced gene that confers resistance to an insect called the
corn borer - far less than the differences between various commercial
varieties of corn. Moreover, both StarLink and Bt10 are actually far
less likely than thousands of other products on the market to cause
allergic or other health problems.
Predictably, anti-biotech groups have made a meal of this mishap,
blaming both Syngenta and inadequate government regulation. As usual,
they've missed the point. Syngenta is certainly culpable for having
sold a variety that had not yet been approved - and the company
deserves to be sanctioned - but the fundamental problem with both
StarLink and Bt10 lies not with the industry or its products but with
the Enivronmental Protection Agency's wrong-headed regulatory
policies toward gene-spliced plants. The furor over such
inconsequential incidents amounts to a monumental - and terribly
costly - hoax.
Why costly? Even after it was obvious that StarLink posed no harm to
consumers, EPA failed to establish tolerance levels for its presence
in food - which, in turn, required FDA to recall harmless but
technically "adulterated" foods that contained minuscule amounts of
StarLink, subjecting the producer to legal liability. Although this
situation was of no more concern than the presence of tiny amounts of
non-iodized salt in boxes of the iodized variety, a class-action
lawsuit alleging that consumers ate food unfit for human consumption
resulted in a settlement against Aventis, StarLink's producer. In
other words, the distribution of crops not approved for human
consumption presents the risk of legal liability even if no consumer
has suffered any toxic, allergic, or other health-related harm. What
ever happened to the concept of "no harm, no foul?"
These kinds of kerfuffles are the inevitable result of regulations
that treat gene-spliced products as though they pose some inherent,
systematic, unique risks, when it is clear that they do not.
Gene-splicing is an extension, or refinement, of less precise and
predictable techniques for genetically improved products with which
consumers and government regulators have long familiarity and
Gene-spliced food and other products are actually safer than those
made with less precise techniques, but EPA holds gene-spliced foods
to a higher standard than other similar foods. For gene-spliced crop
and garden plants such as corn, wheat and tomatoes that have been
genetically improved for enhanced pest- or disease-resistance,
regulators require hugely expensive testing that actually exceeds
what is required for toxic chemical pesticides. This policy fails to
recognize that there are important differences between spraying
synthetic, toxic chemicals, and genetic approaches to enhancing
plants' natural pest and disease resistance.
EPA's policy is so damaging and outside scientific norms that it
galvanized the scientific community. A consortium of dozens of
scientific societies representing more than 180,000 biologists and
food professionals published a report almost a decade ago warning
that unscientific regulatory policy would discourage the development
of new pest-resistant crops and prolong and increase the use of
synthetic chemical pesticides, increase the regulatory burden for
developers of pest-resistant crops, limit the use of biotechnology to
larger developers who can pay the inflated regulatory costs, and
handicap American companies competing in international markets. All
of these misfortunes have come to pass.
Scientists worldwide agree that adding genes to plants does not make
them less safe either to the environment or for humans to eat. Even
so, activists and regulators have leveled their sights on
gene-splicing, which is more precise, circumscribed and predictable
than other techniques and can better exploit the subtleties of plant
pathology. For example, both StarLink and Syngenta's Bt10 varieties
were made by splicing into corn a bacterial gene that produces a
protein toxic to corn borer insects, but not to people or other
mammals. The gene-spliced corn not only repels pests, but when
harvested is less likely to contain Fusarium, a toxic fungus often
carried into plants by insects. That, in turn, significantly reduces
the levels of the fungal toxin fumonisin, which is known to cause
fatal diseases in horses and swine that eat infected corn, and
esophageal cancer in humans. Thus, gene-spliced, insect-resistant
corn is not only cheaper to produce but is a potential boon to public
health; and, by reducing the need for spraying chemical pesticides
on crops, it is environmentally friendly.
Policy makers have ignored a fundamental rule of regulation: that the
degree of scrutiny of a product or activity should be commensurate
with the risk. Instead, for agricultural research and development the
degree of oversight of gene-splicing is inversely proportional to
risk, but there is virtually no impetus from any quarter for
rationalizing this deplorable status quo.
Flawed regulatory policy ensures that StarLink- and Bt10-like
debacles will continue to occur. American farmers, companies and
consumers will all reap what government regulators have sown.
Henry I. Miller, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the
Competitive Enterprise Institute, headed the FDA's Office of
Biotechnology from 1989-1993. His latest book, The Frankenfood Myth:
How Protest and Politics Threaten the Biotech Revolution, was picked
by Barron's as one of the Best 25 Books of 2004.
International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development
"How can we reduce hunger and poverty, improve rural livelihoods, and
facilitate equitable, environmentally, socially and economically
sustainable development through the generation, access to, and use of
agricultural knowledge, science and technology?"
The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology
for Development (IAASTD) is a unique international effort that will
evaluate the relevance, quality and effectiveness of agricultural
knowledge, science, and technology (AKST); and effectiveness of
public and private sector policies as well as institutional
arrangements in relation to AKST.
The IAASTD is a three-year collaborative effort that will assess AKST
in relation to meeting development and sustainability goals of:
- Reducing hunger and poverty
- Improving nutrition, health and rural livelihoods
- Facilitating social and environmental sustainability
The project is a major global initiative, developed out of a
consultative process involving 900 participants and 110 countries
from all regions of the world. The IAASTD has been launched as an
intergovernmental process, with a multi-stakeholder Advisory Bureau,
under the co-sponsorship of the FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO, the
World Bank and WHO.
The IAASTD is now soliciting author nominations for the Global
Assessment. Deadline for the receipt of nominations have been
extended until June 27, 2005. Authors will be selected to ensure
multidisciplinary, geographic and gender balance. Please send
nominations to with copy to
including a 3-page cv for each expert nominated
plus the name of the chapter/subchapter for which they are being
nominated. Self nominations are welcome.
The Only Book You'll Need on Plant Biotech
- Book Review by Jay Lehr, Ph.D., Environment News, The Heartland
Institute; July 1, 2005
'Review of Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically
Modified Foods by Nina Federoff and Nancy Marie Brown; National
Academies Press, October 2004; $16.47 cloth, 370 pages, ISBN
This book is among the most meticulously documented and well-written
science texts I have ever had the pleasure of reading. While I do not
presume to have read every book produced thus far on modern
biotechnology or plant genetics, I will nevertheless wager that no
one has done it better.
In some ways it is four books in one. The authors tackle the ancient
history of biotechnology, predating even Gregor Mendel and his famous
garden pea studies in the yard of his monastery in the 1860s. But
they also recount Mendel's interest in the genetics of bees and mice,
which few ever learn about.
The authors then follow the modern genomic advances by Crick and
Watson, Cohen and Boyer, and all who came before, in between, and
thereafter. They not only explain the moment-by-moment conceptual and
laboratory development of these advances, but make every effort to
teach the science along the way.
The latter part of the book reviews the political and sociological
aspects of biotechnology in the modern world, offering unbiased,
objective details before drawing the only possible conclusions.
Simply put: Genetically modified plants are the answer to the world's
potential food supply problems; organic agriculture as it is
presently defined cannot contribute significantly to society's needs.
Genetic Engineering's Long History
Genetic engineering is not new. For nearly a century, scientists have
been cloning pink grapefruit from a mutant strain discovered on a
tree in Florida in 1907. Scientists developed the Red Rio grapefruit
in 1968 by exposing grapefruit buds to thermal neutron radiation at
Brookhaven National Laboratory.
The most significant changes in grains and advances in knowledge
about crop genomes occurred many years ago. When we eat wheat, we
consume varieties mutated by nuclear radiation. It is not known what
happened to the genomes, but we have been eating this wheat safely
Today, with more extensive knowledge and new applications of the
technologies resulting from genetic engineering, our scientists have
more control over the genetic changes introduced, and their work is
more precise than ever before.
Federoff and Brown methodically trace the development of nearly every
major grain consumed by society today, providing details of their DNA
mutations. They also trace the need for fertilizer and its early
applications in the nineteenth century. For flower lovers, the
complete story of Luther Burbank and his plant grafting techniques is
Roots of Green Revolution
Many readers will especially enjoy the full story of Norman Borlaug
as it plays out on the pages of this book. Many people are aware that
he won the Nobel Prize in 1971 for launching the Green Revolution,
but few of us know the complete and wonderful details of his
education, research, and teachings. And Borlaug's story is not yet
complete: He still works full-time in this field at Texas A&M
University, traveling the world more than 150 days a year ... at age
A brief summary of Borlaug's Nobel Prize work is recorded in the book
as follows: "As Borlaug explained in the Nobel lecture, 'Through a
series of crosses and re-crosses (of wheat) begun in 1954, dwarfness
was incorporated into the superior, new-combination Mexican types,
finally giving rise to a group, or so-called dwarf Mexican wheat
varieties.' By changing the plant's architecture to emphasize a
short, sturdy stalk, the dwarfness trait allowed the wheat to produce
heavier seed heads given enough water and nitrogen without falling
over in a breeze. In addition, the plants were not affected by length
of day (and so could grow at a range of latitudes) and were highly
resistant to wheat rusts. The result, in Borlaug's terms, was a
'yield blast-off.' A few seasons after the new variety was introduced
Mexico became self-sufficient in wheat. When introduced into Pakistan
and India, the wheat had the same yield-boosting effects."
Explanation of Genetics
Genetics is by no means an easy science to understand, and I will not
say this book makes a simple primer that is easily understood. But it
does make significant breakthroughs in genetics education. For me
this was one such example:
"Genes can change, they can duplicate and delete, and genomes
scramble. It is increasingly evident that what genes do depends more
on what they are than where they are--although both a gene's
immediate neighbors and its general genomic neighborhood can
influence its expression. But evolution takes a long time--like the
movement of tectonic plates. The evolution of a plant is measured in
millions of years, not in the months it takes to grow a crop of corn."
Debunking Biotech Critics
The authors analyze in more detail than is warranted all the major
technical charges made against biotech by its many detractors. With
great precision they defeat each false claim without bias, never
calling the opponents what this writer is inclined to label them.
No one has ever scientifically refuted the anti-biotech crowd as well
as Federoff and Brown do in this book. Their patience in doing so is
Safety of Biotech Food
If you are interested in biotechnology and genetically modified
foods, you have most likely read the stories of StarLink corn and
monarch butterflies. But I promise you that you have never read the
complete story of either of these.
StarLink corn is a biotech corn that was approved only for animal
feed when some of it found its way into taco shells. Activist groups
duped the media into reporting that this was causing widespread
allergic reactions in people. Later, the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC) released a study showing that StarLink corn
produced absolutely no adverse effects on people who had consumed it.
Similarly, activist groups duped the media into reporting that
biotech corn fields were causing widespread monarch butterfly deaths.
Later, EPA concluded that biotech corn poses very little risk to
The retelling of these fraud-filled scandals on the pages of Mendel
in the Kitchen is alone worth the price of this book. Along the way
you will learn precisely how grains that contain a gene that produces
the protective Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium work their
damage upon unwanted insects ... and also why they cannot be harmful
to man and other animals.
Federoff and Brown also do a great job explaining all the precautions
that have been taken by the government and the biotech industry to
ensure the pests they target with Bt seeds do not become resistant to
the toxins generated by the plant. This concern is continually thrown
up by the anti-biotech crowd with no scientific support.
Predominance of Natural Pesticides
The book's chapter on organic food, titled "The Organic Rule," is the
best primer on organic agriculture that you will ever find. Again the
authors exhibit a complete lack of bias. Until the final pages of the
chapter, one would have no idea which, if any, side of the organic
food issue the authors lean toward.
But in the end they evaluate their own data and make many very strong
and persuasive statements regarding the inability of organic farming
to supply the needs of a hungry world.
In this chapter they also summarize the many contributions of Bruce
Ames in eliminating the concerns over trace amounts of agricultural
pesticides in our food. More than 99 percent of the chemicals people
eat are natural. Coffee, for example, contains more than a thousand
different chemicals. Twenty-eight of those have been tested in rodent
bioassays, and 19 have been found to be carcinogenic in mega doses
fed to rats and mice.
Plants produce many natural pesticides. Seventy-one of these have
been tested, and 37 are cancinogenic in mega quantities to some
rodents. Ames proves in a variety of ways that these high-dose rodent
bioassays have no relevance to the health of human beings.
Ames estimates Americans eat somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000
natural pesticides every day, ingesting 1,500 milligrams of such
chemicals per person. That is about 10,000 times more than the 0.09
milligrams of synthetic pesticide they eat in conventionally grown
food each day.
Ames concludes, "There is no convincing evidence that synthetic
chemical pollutants are important as a cause of human cancer." He
states emphatically, "if reducing synthetic pesticides makes fruits
and vegetables more expensive, thereby decreasing consumption, then
the cancer rate will increase, especially for the poor."
Organic Farming's Costs
People who argue for organic farming as a world-wide solution to
hunger often overlook three points: organic farming makes food more
expensive, requires that more land be put under cultivation, and
requires that more hard, manual labor be performed to harvest the
Federoff documents this very well. When explaining the organic growth
of potatoes in Bolivia she quotes Per Pinstrup-Andersen, former
director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute
"To have enough manure, the organic farmers must either reduce the
size of their potato fields or put more land to the plow. When the
cost of the additional land is factored into the study, the figures
for yield per hectare do not look so good. If we set aside the
ecological risks of bringing more land under cultivation, organic
farming may be a perfectly acceptable solution in regions with unused
land that can be cultivated without damaging the environment." But,
Federoff adds, "Such regions are becoming scarce."
Ebbe Schioler, a colleague of Pinstrup-Andersen at IFPRI, described
the work environment of organic rice growers in Africa: "The weeds
they faced were stout thistles, coarse grasses, large thick-leaved
plants with tough stalks, and little bushes that produce powerful,
deep-reaching root systems. The farmers use no herbicides. Everything
is done by hand and hoe, and even though the children do their bit,
it is still touch and go. It takes 40 days of sweating and straining
each year to keep just one hectare of land weed-free."
Federoff concludes her chapter on organic farming as follows:
"Suggestions that organic farming is appropriate for countries with
high population pressure and limited arable land and water supplies
sounds suspiciously like Marie Antoinette's famous statement, 'Let
them eat cake.' Or as Peter Raven, head of the Missouri Botanical
Garden, has noted, 'Organic agriculture is essentially what is
practiced in sub-Saharan Africa today, and half of the people are
starving, so it is clear that more [than organic techniques] is
While "sustainable agriculture" is a term that hides its intention to
promote organic farming, Mendel in the Kitchen tells the real facts
about what we would logically conclude to be meant by the
term--namely, using land wisely to feed the world.
Economist Indur Goklany has calculated that were we still using 1961
farm technology, we would need to put 82 percent of the Earth's land
surface under cultivation ... rather than the 38 percent we actually
use. Borlaug calculates that the Green Revolution has saved 20
million square miles of wilderness since 1950. Dennis Avery of The
Hudson Institute has pointed out that the world's 16 million square
miles of forest would all have to have been destroyed without modern
The authors of Mendel in the Kitchen, in an effort to promote real
sustainable agriculture, offer an excellent tutorial on reduced
tillage and no-till farming. They point out that continuous
cultivation has been a misguided bad habit driven by the desire to
have pretty fields, the need to eliminate weeds before effective
herbicides were available, and a lack of understanding of soil health.
Federoff correctly explains the basic reasons to reduce tillage on
cropland: reduce runoff, increase soil moisture, eliminate soil
erosion, improve soil tilth, increase carbon content, improve air
quality, improve surface water quality, and increase wildlife habitat
... not to mention the saving on labor, fuel, and wear and tear on
Possible Future Breakthroughs
In the closing chapter, "Food For Thought," the authors open with a
poignant quote from Dr. Florence Wambugu of the Kenyan Agricultural
Research Institute. She said, "You people in the developed world are
certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods,
but can we please eat first?"
In this chapter, readers are given more reasons for optimism about
the future impacts of plant biotechnology than one could possibly
imagine. Virtually all of the impediments to expanding crop yields
around the world are linked to insufficient nitrogen fertilizer,
inability to fix adequate quantities of carbon from the atmosphere
while maintaining sufficient moisture uptake, or the inability to
grow in soils high in salt or aluminum. These problems must be
overcome if farmers' yields are to double or perhaps even triple to
meet the demands of a human population that will reach 8 or 9 billion
within 50 years and demand more and better food.
It seems unlikely the future holds another simple breakthrough, like
the synergy between dwarfing genes and fertilizer that made the Green
Revolution possible. But a breakthrough that enhances the use of
nitrogen or the efficiency of photosynthesis or the use of soils
previously toxic to growth could push yields up dramatically.
Mendel in the Kitchen may ultimately hasten the day of such
breakthroughs. It could be used as a college textbook in
biotechnology for a variety of courses focusing on science, history,
and politics. If you have an interest in any one of these areas, the
book is a wonderful read.
Jay Lehr, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is science director for The