Today in AgBioView weekend from www.agbioworld.org : July 16, 2005
* Organic Farming Still Falls Short: Rodale study shows conventional
out-yields organic by nearly one-third
* Oil-Rich GM Plant May Save Fish
* Switzerland's Biotechnology Debate Grows
* Africa: Research into GM crops critical to ending hunger - IFPRI
* Biotechnology and the African Farmer
* GM Cassava Uses Viral Gene to Fight Disease
Organic Farming Still Falls Short: Rodale study shows conventional
out-yields organic by nearly one-third
- Alex Avery, Hudson Institute, aavery=at=rica.net
My email box was full of fellow AgBioViewers wondering if I'd seen
the latest paper from David Pimentel, organic
cheerleader-cum-biotech-benefits-denier (Ref: Pimentel's horribly
biased and misleading book review of Nina Fedoroff's book Mendel in
the Kitchen in Science, October 2004 and subsequent letter exchange
with myself, Prakash et al. in Science, March 2005), in the July
issue of BioScience (vol. 575, pages 573-582). Pimentel et al. claim
in this new paper that when organic farming is compared to
"conventional", the contest resulted in a tie with equal yields.
Both this paper and the earlier reports presents the latest (partial)
data from the Rodale Institute's Farm System Trial (FST), begun more
than 20 years ago and reported on in Nature, 1999 (Drinkwater, et al.
Nature vol. 396). The paper demonstrates that organic farming
produced about 30 percent less grain over 30 years than the
Moreover, it is unclear how up-to-date the "conventional" system has
been maintained, as detailed reports on frequency of tillage, etc.
are totally lacking. What I'm eager to see is a world-class
competition between the best current organic (represented by Rodale's
FST) and the best current non-organic, represented by a modern
no-till corn/soybean rotation, likely with biotech herbicide-tolerant
varieties, and perhaps insect-resistant varieties too.
But until the organic believers are willing to go toe-to-toe with
biotech and modern farming's finest, we're left to scrutinize the
results from this "organic demo plot" vs. "conventional based on Penn
State University recommendations" (whatever that means, though it's
not very well defined, though not no-till RR corn/soybeans.)
First, Pimentel et al.'s enthusiastic claims in the Cornell press
release that, "Organic farms produce same yields as conventional
farms." Not so fast there, David. First, this isn't a farm-scale
comparison. Second, the model organic "farm" represented the
1,700-square-meter plots DID NOT produce the same yields as the
conventional. As Pimentel put it, "yields per ha between organic and
conventional corn for grain may be similar within a given year." But,
on a farm-scale, system-wide basis, the corn yieldsN were nearly
double for the old-school conventional. Why? Because the organic
system required a legume cover crop, thus eliminating corn growing
opportunities such that corn was grown 60% of the time in the
conventional system vs. only 33% of the time in the organic. This was
partially compensated by a wheat crop - yet not nearly enough to
compensate for substantially higher corn yields. Third, conventional
soybean yields were 14% higher than in the organic legume rotation.
Most interesting is what Pimentel et al. DON'T report. There is no
comparison or data given on food/grain tonnage produced between the
two systems, nor a simple table giving us yearly yield data for each
crop, which would show year-to-year yield variability - an important
consideration for all farmers. Why not?
Estimating the food production difference: Using the rotation
reported in Rodale's 1999 brochure and yield averages reported by
Pimentel et al. for the years 1986-2002 (we'll be charitable and
exclude the first 5 years when conventional corn yields were 25%
higher than organic), we see that over a 5-year conventional rotation
would yield 19,659 kg/ha of corn and 5,092 kg/ha of soybeans, for a
total food production of 24,751 kg/ha. Over 30 years (six 5-year
rotations), this would yield 148,506 kg/ha of graiNn.
The organic system over three years produces 6,368 kg/ha corn and
2,235 kg/ha soybean, and an undisclosed amount of wheat. Rodale farm
manager Jeff Moyer wrote recently on the Rodale website that "My
wheat yields aren't as high as many of my conventional neighbors',
but 50 bushels an acre is worth the effort."
At 50 lbs per bushel, that works out to 2500 lbs/acre, or 2808 kg/ha.
So overall, the organic system would yield 11,411 kg/ha of grain over
a 3-year rotation, or 114,110 kg/ha over 30 years.
Score: old-school conventional system (148506) yields 30% more food
than the organic legume system (114,110).
Also of note is Drinkwater's 1999 report of the FST, where they note
that the conventional plots received nitrogen inputs above crop
exports of 520 kg/ha nitrogen per year vs. organic legume system of
840 kg/ha N, which is a 25-60% advantage for the organic system
depending on mineralization rates of 75-100%. Not surprisingly,
Pimentel reports "Over the 12-year period of monitoring (1991-2002),
all three systems leached between 16 and 18 kg of nitrogen as nitrate
per ha per year." Even more telling, the orNganic system leached 32%
of the nitrogen applied to its fields vs. only 20% for the
Score: Conventional system was 60% more nitrogen efficient and
equally as "protective of aquatic systems". How can this be so? We've
been told time after time after time that organic farming "protects
against nutrient pollution" and doesn't "pollute aquatic systems."
This explains why; "the hairy vetch green manure supplied
approximately twice as much nitrogen as needed for the corn crop that
followed, contributing excess nitrogen to the soil and making it
available for leaching." Ooops, more organic myths going down the
Pimentel reports that "The organic system requires 35% more labor,
but because it is spread out over the growing season, the hired labor
costs per ha are about equal between the two systems. Each system was
allowed 250 hours of "free" family labor per month." Labor is most
expensive part of any farm operation, and biotech-assisted low-
no-till would drop conventional labor requirements even further, to
likely to half the labor requirement of the organic, meaning that the
organic system would require 60-100N% additional labor. That's huge.
What's most egregious in this Pimentel paper is the following
"discussion" comment: "the environmental benefits attributable to . .
. less soil erosion . . . were consistently greater in the organic
systems than in the conventional systems." Less soil erosion? Where?
Nowhere in this paper or in any past FST paper have they ever once
given data on soil erosion/loss. This paper doesn't even discuss it
until this sentence and there's ZERO data to support this claim. Did
they measure? NOPE. And remember, RodalNe is only comparing
I'd be willing to bet that the old-school conventional would easily
meet the organic system on soil erosion or even beat it, but that's
hardly the point. Comparing the Rodale's best organic with biotech
no-till rotation would likely reveal a 2 to 5-fold lower soil erosion
rate for the no-till "conventional" compared to the organic system.
Moreover, a no-till vs. organic comparison would also be revealing on
energy. As it currently stands, Pimentel/Rodale claim an organic
energy advantage of 28% and 32% total less energy used. Without the
need to plow, however, a no-till system would likely meet or beat an
So, to sum up: old-school conventional system beat organic's best by:
Total system yields: 30%
Nitrogen efficiency: 60%
Nitrogen leaching: tie
Soil erosion: Tie or 50%?
Happy debunking, fellow Agbioviewers.
Oil-Rich GM Plant May Save Fish
- Manila Bulletin, July 12, 2005
A genetically modified plant that produces all the healthy fats found
in oily fish has been developed by British scientist. The weedy type
of cress was changed to make it rich in polyunsaturated fats known as
omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The fats are believed to help reduce
heart disease and, according to some scientists, improve brain
function and mood.
Baoxiu Qi and Colin Lazarus, plant biologists at Bristol University,
develop it as an alternative source of the fats. Oily fish are
especially rich in omega-3; omega-6 is found in certain grains and
The cress was modified with genes taken from three different
microorganisms and its production of the fats raises hopes that
plants will one day be a viable alternative source.
"The next step is to add the same set of genes to leafy salad
vegetables such as spinach and lettuce," said Mr. Lazarus.
The use of modified plants would take the pressure off severely
depleted fish stocks. The potential benefits do not end there,
according to the biologists.
Oils made from the plants are also likely to be more pure than many
fish oil supplements. People with diets lacking in the fats from
fish, such as vegans, may stand to benefit. "The problem is that the
people most likely to benefit from eating these plants are the most
unlikely to go near them because they are genetically modified," Mr.
Fish and chicken are among the primary sources of omega-3 and omega-6
fatty acid, but other food contain them, albeit in smaller
quantities. Walnuts, flax seed oil and hemp all contain omega-3 while
olive oil and other vegetable oils are rich in omega-6 fatty acids.
Liz O'Neil, of the Vegetarian Society, was not convinced that
vegetarians would welcome the development. "We're not crying out for
it," she said. "If you make sure you eat the right foods, you can
already get all the omega-3 and omega-6 oils you need. There are
issues with GM and it's certainly not popular among our members."
The Vegan Society was also skeptical. "At the end of the day, this is
not about human good, it's about making a profit," a spokesman said.
According to Dr., Lazarus, whose work is published in the journal
Nature Biotechnology today, the plants could be turned into animal
feed and used in the battle against global warming.
Cows and other ruminants belch out vast quantities of methane, which
accelerates warming. "If you feed cattle and sheep these
polyunsaturated fats, they expel much less methane," Mr. Lazarus
said. The work was funded by the German crop biotechnology company
Switzerland's Biotechnology Debate Grows
- Markus Hofmann; Translated by Katharina Schoebi, Checkbiotech.org,
July 8, 2005
Even after years of debate, the issue of "biotechnology and food"
still occupies the minds of many. Instead of seeking consensus, all
too often polemics are dominating. This was once again demonstrated
during a roundtable discussion by the German-speaking Swiss consumer
forum in Zurich, Switzerland.
The consumer forum had good intentions. For once, it was hoped that
not (only) opponents and proponents of biotechnology would be invited
to the panel, but also people involved in this area, such as
researchers, farmers, industrialists and suppliers. Thus, the
organizers hoped to create a factual and informative event that
should enlighten the public about "biotechnology in the area of
conflict of chances and fears." However, the discussion about
biotechnology rapidly devolved into a polemic exchange of bl/ows, too.
To produce for the consumer
First, the president of the Swiss National Farmer's Union and
SVP-National-Councilor, Hansjoerg Walter, lost his temper. Arthur
Einsele, a representative of the seed-industry, said that genetically
engineered plants were better and healthier than plants treated with
pesticides, because they were treated with fewer pesticides.
"If an representative of Syngenta is saying this, it gets dangerous,"
Walter said. "Syngenta is one of the most powerful producers of seeds
and plant protecting agents worldwide, and as such would control the
market. Industries must not prescribe what sort of agriculture
farmers have to practice. Farmers will defend themselves against
this," Walter continued.
Farmers should produce those products that the public demands. The
great majority would not want to eat genetically engineered
vegetables. Therefore, the Swiss National Farmer's Union is
campaigning for Swiss agriculture free of gene technology. In this
way, farmers could claim a place on the market with their
This exchange angered Beda Stadler, professor of Immunology at the
University of Bern. He noted he would pay anyone SFr 1,000 ($ 800)
who was able to prove that genetically engineered food is harmful to
"It is a myth, that organic products are healthier than those
produced by genetic engineering. Organic farmers also use pesticides.
This is actually much worse, as farmers are using still copper.
Unlike modern crop protection products, copper is not be
biodegradable and stays in the soil."
To which Walter retorted, that the use of copper would be rigorously
controlled. "That is true. Four kilograms of copper would be allowed
per hectare?," Einsele affirmed.
Gene technology in chocolate
As there was no agreement on this topic, they tried to steer the
discussion to the market, which seems to function according to
rational laws. Walter said, "There are no genetically engineered
products which offer an additional advantage for the consumer. So why
should we offer them?" Professor Stadler rebutted, "The public cannot
form a view on these products, because in Switzerland, biotechnology
is hindered. The often praised freedom of choice does not exist."
This was confirmed by a representative of Migros, Stefan Flueckiger.
Migros ensures that no product is somehow genetically engineered,
because of consumer demand. However, it would not be easy to really
prove that this is the case. In particular, it would be difficult to
get GM-free additives. Their exclusion would increase the price of
the products. For GM-free glucose used for jam, for example, Migros
has to pay an additional premium of SFr 160,000 ($ 135,000) compared
to genetically engineered glucose -/ and thus the customer has to pay
GM-free production of milk chocolate is no longer possible, Stadler
said, because the lecithin therein is generally made of genetically
engineered soybean. "All those, who ate milk chocolate in the past
few years, consumed genetically engineered food."
Flueckiger denied this, saying that their lecithin was derived from a
GM-free production. Stadler shook his head in resignation. "It may be
so, that people will always be afraid of something, even without
Now, this trait meets with biotechnology.
Africa: Research into GM crops critical to ending hunger - IFPRI
- REUTERS July 15, 2005
NAIROBI, (IRIN) - Research into genetically modified (GM) crops is
crucial to improving food security and reducing poverty in Africa,
according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
"Food security is of serious concern to the African continent and
public sector research into GM foods is of direct importance to the
smallholder farmers, who need something both to eat and to sell,"
said Joel Cohen, IFPRI senior research fellow, at a media briefing on
Thursday on biotech crop research in Nairobi, Kenya. "Current biotech
research has the potential to reduce the use of pesticides, increase
drought tolerance and improve the nutritional value of staple foods,"
IFPRI said in a statement on Wednesday.
Cohen, who was presenting the findings of a study on the development
of GM crops by public research institutes in Egypt, Kenya, South
Africa and Zimbabwe, stressed that despite the common view that
corporations drove the GM food agenda, a few African countries had
vibrant public biotech research programmes.
IFPRI said improvements in crops brought about by public biotech
research could "benefit the environment, improve health, reduce the
cost of food and increase the incomes of poor smallholder farmers
throughout Africa". According to the organisation, a 10 percent
increase in the level of agricultural productivity was associated
with a 7.2 percent reduction in poverty.
Cohen said research into GM crops by African governments often
targeted the improvement of indigenous plant varieties relevant to
local use by small-scale farmers. Kenya, for example, was engaged in
public biotech research into producing drought-resistant maize;
Uganda was involved in researching insect-resistant bananas.
He emphasised the importance of GM research in Africa reaching a
stage where it could help the farmers, noting that "if the research
stays in the lab, there will be no benefit to the farmers". However,
the introduction of GM seeds into African soil and GM crops into
indigenous markets is an issue that remains extremely contentious;
critics have argued that biotechnology is not the solution to
Africa's poverty and hunger.
"We have not exploited research into conventional seeds enough,"
Angela Wauye, officer in charge of food security at Action Aid Kenya,
told IRIN. "In Kenya, we are not ready to handle GM crops - we do not
even have a biosafety bill in place."
Cohen stressed that the agency was interested in "biosafety first",
saying all plants produced by the various public biotech research
institutes were submitted for review to the relevant national
biosafety channels and regulatory bodies.
"We must address the real reasons our agricultural sector is
performing so dismally," Wauye said. "Poor farmers must be empowered
by the government to be able to access credit, cheaper farm inputs
and better infrastructure."
She pointed out that "because of poor roads, transporting crops from
Marsabit [northern Kenya] to [the eastern Kenyan port of] Mombasa is
more expensive than transporting the goods from Mombasa to Europe."
Wauye also said not enough was known about the effects of GM crops on
the environment and on human health. "We may not have seen any
effects of GM crops so far, but more research needs to be done into
their side effects over prolonged periods."
Although research was a very important component of the struggle to
end hunger, Wauye noted that it was important to focus the research
on issues that were relevant to Africa. "The research must be driven
by national needs - we must be our own agenda-setters," she added.
Biotechnology and the African Farmer
- Crop Biotech Update, July 15, 2005 http://www.isaaa.org (Via Agnet)
Carl K. Eicher and colleagues of the Department of Agricultural
Economics. Michigan State University write on 'Biotechnology And The
African Farmer,' a staff paper produced and published online by the
university. It seeks to answer why most African governments
underinvest in modern and productive agriculture, and why countries
in Africa are fearful of supporting and investing in the gene
The paper is divided into five parts. The first discusses the
problem; the second and third present the case studies on the use of
genetically modified (GM) crops in Africa; the fourth draws lessons
from the case studies; and the fifth discusses what financial
resources, infrastructure, and expertise (scientific, technical,
political, institutional, and financial) are needed to help Africa
overcome these barriers and join the global biotech revolution.
The researchers conclude that agricultural biotechnology has the
potential to help African smallholders, and also confer benefits to
consumers, the environment, and health of farmers and farm worker. In
particular, it concludes that investment in major agricultural
biotechnology institutions should be given immediate and sustained
priority; African capacity in biosafety, regulatory procedures, and
research, among others, should be strengthened; and African
governments should invest in long term training pr5ograms for African
scientists to allow them to become efficient borrowers of GM research
while building their own capacity to carry out the same research in
For more details, read the paper at
GM Cassava Uses Viral Gene to Fight Disease
- Wagdy Sawahel, SciDev.Net, July 15, 2005
Researchers have used genes from a virus that periodically devastates
cassava crops in Africa to create cassava plants that can resist the
virus. The finding could save African farmers large economic losses.
African cassava mosaic virus is transmitted to cassava by whiteflies
when they feed on the plant. In parts of East and Central Africa,
epidemics of the disease can lead to total losses of harvests.
So far, the only way to fight the virus is by using massive doses of
insecticide to kill whiteflies. But this can be prohibitively
expensive for subsistence farmers and can threaten their health and
that of surrounding plants and animals.
Now, Peng Zhang and colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of
Technology in Zurich have used the virus's own genetic material as a
weapon against it.
Three genes are essential for the virus to replicate. Each of these
carries the code for a piece of RNA, a kind of genetic material
similar to DNA.
RNA can be inactivated when a matching strand binds to it. Knowing
the structure of the gene that makes the RNA allows researchers to
create matching genes. This is exactly what Zhang's team did. They
created 'matching' genes for the three crucial strands of RNA and
inserted these into cassava plants. They expected that whenever the
modified cassava cells were infected by the virus, the RNA made by
the inserted genes would find and stick to the viral RNA,
inactivating it and preventing the virus from replicating.
In tests, when the plants were exposed to small amounts of the virus,
the researchers could see no signs of disease, suggesting their
theory was verified. With higher doses of the virus, symptoms were
Zhang told SciDev.Net that although the modified cassava plants were
much more resistant to the virus, experiments under natural
conditions were needed to confirm the method's effectiveness. His
research group plans to work with others in Kenya, Nigeria, the
United Kingdom and United States to conduct these experiments.
Zhan's team published their findings in the July issue of Plant
Biotechnology Journal 3, 385 (2005)