Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - March 9, 2006
* Bush, Biotech Can Transform India's Countryside
* Ten Years of Biotech Gaffes?
* Rebutting the Anti-Terminator Campaign's Extravagant Claims
* Whither Agbiotechnology?
* Monsanto Sells Modified Alfalfa, Expands Biotech Crops To Five
* Panelists at AAAS Forum Urge More Aggressive Anti-Poverty Effort
* Are Genetically Modified (GM) Crops a Commercial Risk for Africa?
* Hungry Corporations: Transnational Biotech Companies Colonise the Food Chain
* We Feed the World
* Organic Foods in a Bio-Tech World - NPR Audio
* Organic farmer fed friend's body to pigs to steal his pension
Bush, Biotech Can Transform India's Countryside
- Andy Mukherjee, Bloomberg News, March 9, 2006
In the hullabaloo over the U.S.-India nuclear deal, analysts have paid little attention to an equally important accord on agriculture that was announced on President George W. Bush's visit to New Delhi last week.
Under the terms of the deal, a framework for which was drafted when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Washington in July, the U.S. and India will link their agriculture institutes and conduct joint research in biotechnology to develop, among other things, drought- and heat- resistant crops.
Singh said in parliament this week that the Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture, as the accord is named, "will become the harbinger of a second Green Revolution in our country.''
India's first Green Revolution also depended to a great extent on American know-how. When Iowa-born agronomist Norman Borlaug gave his high-yielding hybrid seeds to India in 1965, wheat production in the country was 12 million tons. Last year, it was 72 million tons.
Leftwing parties in India have pooh-poohed the U.S. offer. It was one thing, they say, for India to tap U.S. research in the 1960s when it was freely available. Following the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, even publicly funded research in U.S. universities and institutes is patented and licensed out for commercial development to companies such as St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., the world's biggest producer of genetically modified seeds.
Monsanto. "Today's gene revolution depends almost entirely on private domain science,'' the weekly newsletter of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said last month. "If we harness Indian scientific research to the U.S., then it is allowing the complete dominance of companies such as Monsanto on Indian agriculture.''
For all the angry rhetoric within India and abroad about genetically modified food, the Indian farmer sees biotechnology as a perfectly rational solution for breaking out of his low-productivity trap. Cotton production in India has been transformed since Monsanto was allowed to sell its genetically modified Bollgard seeds to farmers in 2002.
In just three years, India has jumped to the No. 7 slot among the 21 nations that grow biotech crops. Bt Cotton, as the genetically modified crop is known, was grown on 1.3 million hectares (3.25 million acres) in India last year, up from 500,000 hectares in 2004.
If Bt Cotton were a hoax -- and many "independent'' researchers in India claim that it is -- why are farmers buying the seeds at a high price?
Indian farmers produce a little more than 2.9 metric tons of rice on 1 hectare of land. That compares with almost 7.4 tons in the U.S. and is lower than in Bangladesh and Myanmar. Ditto for wheat, where India's crop yield is 29 percent lower than in China. Brazilian farmers get 2 1/2 times more groundnuts per acre of land than their Indian counterparts.
That's where Bush's offer on biotechnology research becomes critical. Only a third of India's arable farmland has access to manmade irrigation facilities. Most of the agricultural production in the country depends on fickle monsoon rains.
If biotechnology can prevent entire crops from being wiped out because of inadequate rains, volatility of agricultural production will decline. That will reduce the uncertainty of incomes for three out of five Indians.
More predictable earnings will allow farmers to boost investments, sorely needed to enhance productivity. The government's chronic budget deficits don't allow for more taxpayer funds to go into farming. Total investment in Indian agriculture, measured in constant prices, fell to 1.7 percent of gross domestic product last year from 2.2 percent in 2000.
To be sure, biotechnology will solve only one part of Indian agriculture's productivity challenge. Research has shown that irrigation may have been responsible for more of the productivity gain in Indian agriculture since 1970 than access to high- yielding seeds or fertilizers. Spread of rural literacy, too, plays a significant role in boosting farm productivity; and so do improved roads between villages and markets.
The advantage of technology over all other productivity enhancers is that it takes the least time to show results. A second Green Revolution is urgently required because the first has run out of steam.
Since there's little new land to be brought under cultivation -- the supply of farmland will in fact decrease because of urbanization -- increasing the productivity of agriculture will play a role in India's strategy to replicate Chinese-style economic growth of about 10 percent.
Indian agriculture has grown at an annual average rate of 2.9 percent since 1991, underperforming the rest of the economy. Doubling the trend rate of agricultural growth will add about 0.3 percentage point to the current pace of economic expansion of about 8 percent a year. As wealthier farmers consume more manufactured goods and services, economic growth will get an additional impetus.
If the nuclear deal promises relief for India's power- starved industrial sector, the agricultural agreement has the potential to transform the nation's poverty-ridden countryside. The economics are simply unbeatable.
Ten Years of Biotech Gaffes?
- Prof J Ralph Blanchfield, MBE - jralphb#easynet.co.uk -
In his "Gaffe 4: European 'novel food' regulation" John Hodgson (Nature Biotechnology "Ten years of biotech gaffes"), quoted in Agbioview 8 March 2006, the gaffe is in fact John Hodgson's. He has got his history wrong.
He writes "After years of indecision and wrangling between European Union (EU) member state governments, the European Council agreed on regulations for 'novel foods' in May 1997. A novel food was one, the legislation said, that was not "substantially equivalent" to something already on the market.
The logical thinkers in science and industry concluded that many genetically modified (GM) foods would be substantially equivalent to existing types and therefore they would escape additional and meaningless labeling. However, the EU Novel Food Regulations had not defined how equivalence or nonequivalence would be determined or indeed how big 'substantial' is."
In fact the EU 1997 Novel Foods Regulation to which he refers did/does NOT define "novel foods" in term of "substantial equivalence" (and that term does not appear anywhere in Regulation! -- which may be seen at http://europa.eu.int/smartapi/cgi/sga_doc?smartapi!celexapi!prod!CELEXnumdoc&lg=EN&numdoc=31997R0258&model=guichett In fact "novel food" was defined in Articles 1 of the Regulation as follows
1. This Regulation concerns the placing on the market within the Community of novel foods or novel food ingredients.
2. This Regulation shall apply to the placing on the market within the Community of foods and food ingredients which have not hitherto been used for human consumption to a significant degree within the Community and which fall under the following categories:
(a) foods and food ingredients containing or consisting of genetically modified organisms within the meaning of Directive 90/220/EEC;
(b) foods and food ingredients produced from, but not containing, genetically modified organisms;
(c) foods and food ingredients with a new or intentionally modified primary molecular structure;
(d) foods and food ingredients consisting of or isolated from micro-organisms, fungi or algae;
(e) foods and food ingredients consisting of or isolated from plants and food ingredients isolated from animals, except for foods and food ingredients obtained by traditional propagating or breeding practices and having a history of safe food use;
(f) foods and food ingredients to which has been applied a production process not currently used, where that process gives rise to significant changes in the composition or structure of the foods or food ingredients which affect their nutritional value, metabolism or level of undesirable substances.
Rebutting the Anti-Terminator Campaign's Extravagant Claims
- Dave Isaacs -davisaacs#xtra.co.nz -
I have noted the extravagant and exaggerated claims being madein 'The Ban Terminator Campaign' currently being run by the antigees. Similar claims are being made here in New Zealand. Several recent postings in AgBioView have refuted the claims, but only in rather general terms.
I was impressed with Nina Federoff's "Pusztai's Potatoes- Is 'Genetic Modification' the culprit?" Are you aware of any similar document on GURTS that gives an accurate assessment of the risks in this technology?
Kind regards, David
- L Val Giddings, Nature Biotechnology 24, 274 - 276; March 2006. www.nature.com/nbt . Reproduced in AgBioView with the permission of the editor.
'What will the agbiotech landscape look like in 2016? And what form will the 'doubly green' revolution take?'
"Any society goes through social movements or fads, in which economically useless things become valued or useful things devalued temporarily." Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, W.W. Norton, 1998, p. 257
Biotech became a feature of commodity production agriculture ten years ago, with the introduction of insect pest–protected corn varieties. Though readers of this journal should not have been surprised, most probably did not anticipate that in the following decade, more than a billion cumulative acres would be grown in 21 countries by over 8 million farmers, 90% of them poor and in developing countries1. This marks the most rapid introduction of a new technology in the history of agriculture. Like most transformations, this one has been attended by controversy and opposition. How will the trends and factors now in play transform the landscape over the next decade?
I think all but a few science fiction writers have underestimated the transformation that has begun. Biotech has been called a Promethean science2 and it is in the process of transforming the relationship between humans and the planet. Ironically, most of the goals for agricultural transformation sought by environmentalists (e.g., improved sustainability and reduced environmental footprint) are most likely to be rendered through what many perceive as their nemesis: applications of agricultural biotech. What products will dominate in 2016? And what challenges must be overcome for this doubly green3 revolution to come to pass?
The best is yet to come
There is no doubt in my mind that in ten years, biotech will be the dominant global paradigm in commodity agriculture. It is then, however, that things will begin to get really interesting. For the next major growth sector, the smart money is on products with value added for the end-consumer. Biotech will help enable food processors to reduce the trans-fat content of foods and the related concerns that worry them. Functional foods with a variety of nutritional and health-related improvements will complement and expand these changes.
Though several major food corporations presently position themselves as GM-free, the food industry is poised to become the best friend of biotech companies and consumers simultaneously. Value-added animal feeds will also be huge (remember, the majority of grain grown in temperate latitudes today feeds livestock, not humans), enhanced in a variety of ways that improve production efficiency and reduce environmental impacts. But we will continue to see significant additional growth of plant traits benefiting producers. The complex genetic control of water metabolism is now becoming commercially tractable, presaging the introducton of drought-and saline-tolerant crops. Maturation and ripening are also becoming more easily manipulated in ways that will have significant implications for nutrition, health, production and processing economics, and more.
All these opportunities for plant modification stand to be transformed by next-generation technologies, like mini-chromosomes, that will enable the choreographed introduction of multiple genes into plants. Products based on manipulated gene expression patterns will also become much more common, particularly through genetic use restriction technologies, which will be used to switch traits on and off ad libidum (with flexible royalty schedules, no doubt), and also for intellectual property management and safety assurance. And although manipulation of biosynthetic pathways through gene expression will play a larger role, this will supplement, not displace transformation with exogenous DNA.
But to keep a narrow focus on improved plants would be to overlook a huge sector of the landscape: animals. We can expect that production of livestock, especially cattle, swine, poultry and aquatic species (tilapia, carp, salmonids, shrimp and shellfish) for human consumption will be transformed in a host of ways. Reproductive techniques, such as marker assisted selection and cloning, will transform breeding and make elite stock even more the norm and standard than they have already become. Improvements in husbandry on many fronts will enhance production efficiency and safety. A variety of methods to reduce the environmental burden of livestock production will have significant impacts, and may help complete the accelerating erosion of European resistance rooted in politics and short-term economics. Indeed, the revolution about to be visited on animal agriculture may make the pace of change in plant agriculture seem sedentary.
As impressive as the changes will be in these more traditional agricultural orbits, transformations looms in other sectors. Industrial fine chemical production, biomass energy, forestry, biodiversity protection and management, and direct production of vaccines and therapeutic medical compounds in plants and particularly in large animals are all poised for significant and rapid evolution and growth.
All in all, then, a bright future full of potential. But what are the obstacles that must be overcome?
Investment patterns. It has never been easy to turn a grubstake into a gold mine, but the field of opportunities that can now be glimpsed for agbiotech presents an embarrassment of riches. But little of this envisioned future will come to pass if it is not fueled by investment. And as important as government policies and R&D support are, unless we see a reversal of the steady decline over recent decades of state support for basic agricultural research, the dynamic driver will continue to be private sector investment.
A side note here is that activists objecting to the large role played by the private sector could do something constructive about this by making common cause with industry in lobbying for greater government support for basic research. The disincentives to private sector investment are well known, and at the top of the list is uncertainty. The most important sources are regulatory unreason and public resistance. If government blocks your product's access to the market, doom is swift. If the customer won't buy it once it hits the market, doom is also certain. What can we expect on these fronts?
Regulatory unreason. The principal locus of global regulatory unreason is not Brussels, but a non-European could be forgiven for thinking so. In fact, the unreason that blooms in Brussels is rooted in national capitals where it is an artifact of many forces. None is more important than the peculiarities of parliamentary democracy, which in this case magnify the consequences of short-term financial self-interest and cynical power politics masquerading as concern for the environment.
But the positive environmental impacts of no-till agriculture and the frequent superiority to all alternatives of biology-based solutions to agricultural problems are increasingly difficult to deny. Few outside Europe are diverted by the weak arguments of the opponents, and strong signals suggest the resistance in Europe is crumbling--which is to say, naked self-interest is in the ascendant. And the rest of the world is well on the way to full-scale embrace of biotech in agriculture1. But vision-impaired governments still can have a negative impact on the rate and scope of progress.
Europe has no monopoly on unreason. There has been a surprising dearth of government leadership in the United States over the past several years, and long-awaited adaptations of the existing, robust regulatory regime to emerging challenges in both the plant and animal worlds are eagerly awaited. Administration guidance on animal cloning is long overdue, and its release will have a galvanic effect. All reasonable questions and more seem to have been answered about transgenic salmon, and a decision on this product should reach the end of its decade of FDA scrutiny soon. The fact that these decisions are so many years behind schedule is a surprise, and a major misstep one would not have expected from those now in power.
The present US Administration does not seem to recognize the need to adapt regulations to lessons learned from experience at a rate consistent with the rapid pace of technological advance. Instead of reducing current burdens on the majority of applications shown to be straightforward and at least as safe as expected, and refocusing scrutiny on remaining areas of uncertainty, the trend seems to be towards more generally strict application of regulations that are being rapidly outmoded by technological developments. There is a better way. Let us hope those in government corridors discover it soon.
There are reasons for good cheer on the international front, however, as four new countries joined the ranks of last years' 17 in growing crops improved through biotech1. To the dismay of Luddites, three of these are in Europe (Portugal, France and the Czech Republic). Canada is holding steady, Latin America is moving forward, most notably in Brazil, and regulators at the federal level in Australia continue to make reasoned decisions based on the facts, despite political foolishness at the state level (several GM bans at the US state level suggest that local Australian officials have no monopoly on fecklessness). But the overall global trends are favorable. In another decade the number of countries growing biotech crops could easily break 60.
Public acceptance. Here we enter the realm of smoke and mirrors, or, in Benjamin Disraeli's phrase, "Lies, damn lies, and statistics."
Statistical tools are insufficiently robust when data are derived from self-assessment by inconstant humans. A well-constructed public opinion poll can produce solid data that allow sound conclusions, but folks who actually want good data and can pay for it are outnumbered by those with an axe to grind and a pecuniary interest. So the field is awash with unreliable push-polls serving various ulterior motives. Thankfully, there is a sword for this Gordian knot. Looking past what people say they think in response to cleverly worded questions, and measuring what they actually do, we see consistent patterns emerge.
There are exceptions to the rule, but around the world, food consumers faced with choices more often than not cast their economic ballots for lower prices and better flavor, in that order. Those concerned about safety do not rank biotech as a production method about which they are most concerned. This is why the activists opposed to biotech fight so hard to demonize it with misleading campaigns to stoke fear, to stigmatize biotech with misleading labels and in fact to deny consumers the choice they claim to favor. But despite sporadic activist successes on rare favorable turf, the facts will out, and consumers around the world are accepting foods derived from crops improved through biotech. This will accelerate as qualities of direct interest to consumers proliferate, and the activists will have to move to new fund-raising gimmicks as increased sunlight reduces the bogey-man value of biotech.
Changes in the wind
Assuming that regulation presents no fatal obstacles and public acceptance continues to increase, what changes can we expect in the business landscape?
Consolidation will no doubt continue, driven by one of the strongest forces in the history of humanity: the desire for cheaper food. Agriculture will continue change along multiple axes: some driven by technological advance, some by consumer pull and some by changing government policies as the consequences of the World Trade Organization's (Geneva, Switzerland) Uruguay Round and 2001 Doha Agenda--perhaps the most major reform of global trade in recent history--continue to unfold.
Big companies will continue to adapt their business plans at varying rates, and their financial success will vary accordingly. The dominant big six of today will certainly be reduced to five, if not four, over the next decade. On the other hand, I believe small companies will continue to proliferate because the new opportunities are even more numerous than the substantial challenges. These enterprises will either be snapped up by bigger fish or, rarely, manage their own metamorphoses into established mature and sustainable businesses themselves.
Indeed, though commercial success by today's major corporate players will certainly be much larger a decade on, the outlook will be dramatically different. A subset of today's small and medium enterprises will have achieved major commercial success, and more academics will find, as shown by the transgenic papaya example, that they have overestimated the regulatory obstacles. The constellation of global players will be radically different as the technology diffuses overseas. The success of biotech rice in Iran, and its imminent success in China, signal a looming transformation in the global landscape.
Governments rarely move with alacrity, so even if the downward trends of public sector support for agriculture research are reversed, it is most likely that private money will continue to impel the most rapid innovations and change. No doubt, there will be surprises, pitfalls, missteps and foolish choices. But in ten years time, we will likely look back and wonder how we ever could have doubted.
1. James, C. Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2005. ISAAA Briefs No. 34. (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, Ithaca, New York 2005).
2. Serageldin, I. & Persley, G.J. Promethean Science: Agricultural Biotechnology, the Environment, and the Poor (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, Washington, DC, 2000).
3. Conway, G. The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century (Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, NY 1997).
L. Val Giddings is an independent consultant with 22 years experience in agricultural biotechnology. For the eight years ending in December, 2005 he was Vice President for Food and Agriculture of the Biotechnology Industry Organization based in Washington DC. lvgiddings#yahoo.com
Monsanto Sells Modified Alfalfa, Expands Biotech Crops To Five
- Jack Kaskey, Bloomberg News, March 8, 2006
Monsanto Co., the world's largest developer of genetically modified seeds, started selling alfalfa seed modified to resist the company's Roundu p weed killer, expanding biotech crop offerings to five. Japan last month agreed to import Roundup Ready alfalfa following approvals by Mexico and Canada, spokeswoman Mica DeLong said today. That prompted St. Louis-based Monsanto to promote the product at a trade show last week after initial sales for 50,000 acres last fall, she said. The U.S. gave regulatory approval in June.
Roundup Ready alfalfa was developed with Forage Genetics International, based in Nampa, Indiana. About 23 million acres of alfalfa were harvested in the U.S. last year, DeLong said.
Panelists at AAAS Forum Urge More Aggressive Anti-Poverty Effort
- Edward W. Lempinen, AAAS.org, February 2006
On a typical day, tens of thousands of people worldwide will die of causes related to poverty. What compounds the tragedy is that humans have the scientific, technological and medical tools to prevent those deaths, if only the world were committed to the goal.
That was the assessment shared by a panel of researchers and policy experts Thursday at the AAAS Annual Meeting in St. Louis. Gathered for the meeting's first formal session -- a breakfast with some 60 U.S. and international reporters -- the panelists stressed that much could be done immediately to relieve world poverty, and that the effort would bring benefits not only to poor nations, but to affluent nations as well.
"It's very sad and makes the world much more dangerous," said Per Pinstrup-Anderson, a professor of food, nutrition and public policy at Cornell University in New York. "More people will be motivated to commit acts of terror to express their rage at the growing disparity and unfairness between the rich and poor."
Speakers at the forum offered the journalists a troubling foundation of facts. World population has grown from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 6.5 billion today, with another 2 to 3 billion expected in the first half of the 21st century. Some 800 million people worldwide don't get enough to eat every day. The three richest people in the world have more money combined than the 550 million poorest.
Claude Fauquet, an expert on the cassava plant at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, said the starchy tropical root crop is one of the top calories sources in poor countries. While productivity averages about 10 tons per acre, it could be raised to 80 tons per acre with improved cultivation techniques and better pest and disease control.
Other panelists urged support for genetically modified crops, saying that Western political opposition results in hunger and death in the developing world. A woman who has just lost her child because of drought and crop failure "couldn't care less" if food was genetically modified, Pinstrup-Anderson said. "She wants a solution."
"Genetically modified crops need to be developed according to the needs of different places in the world," said Raven. "But insisting on the idea that they are the solution, or that they should be proscribed -- it doesn't make sense in either direction."
Panelist Roger N. Beachy, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, said scientists and technological experts must go into poor countries as equal partners with local researchers and officials, sharing their knowledge and acknowledging their ignorance. "There is a lot for all of us to do, in all disciplines," he said.
Are Genetically Modified (GM) Crops a Commercial Risk for Africa?
- Robert Paarlberg, International J Technology and Globalisation (IJTG), Vol. 2, No. 1/2, 2006.
Excerpt below...Full text at
What risks might Africa face if it decided to plant genetically modified (GM) agricultural crops? A rough calculation based on current export profiles for one sampling of eastern and southern African countries suggests that the commercial export risks incurred outside of Africa would be quite small. Most of Africa's exports of goods that might be considered GM currently go to other African countries, rather than to Europe, Asia, or some other GM-sensitive destination. This raises a trade policy coordination challenge for Africa, but only a small commercial export risk beyond Africa.
Africa’s food crisis calls out for answers. In June 2004, at an international food conference in Ethiopia just prior to an African Union summit meeting, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan observed that roughly one third of all adults in sub-Saharan Africa are currently malnourished. This hunger crisis is nearly certain to grow worse: crop yields in Africa tend to be much lower per hectare than in Asia or Latin America, and in 31 out of 53 African countries food output has actually been declining, while population is expected to double by 2030 to reach 1.5 billion.
What Africa needs, according to Kofi Annan, is a revolution in farm productivity, "a uniquely African Green Revolution – a revolution that is long overdue, a revolution that will help the continent on its quest for dignity and peace." What might this uniquely African revolution in crop productivity look like?
Africa mostly missed the original Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which brought higher yielding varieties of wheat and rice into Asia, made productive through expanded irrigation and increased applications of chemical fertiliser. These conventionally developed Green Revolution 'miracle seeds' worked well under the conditions that prevailed in much of Asia: good water and topography for irrigation, access to credit for the purchase of chemical inputs, adequate road systems to get the fertiliser in and the expanded grain production out, and established local traditions of growing crops in monoculture, including wheat and rice. In most of Africa these conditions do not exist.
Under these challenging circumstances, the options for creating a 'uniquely African Green Revolution' might seem limited. One new technical option is the development of new crop varieties through genetic engineering techniques, which splice desired genes into crop plants from more distant relatives, or even non-relatives. A first generation of these genetically modified (GM) agricultural crops was developed by private seed companies in the 1990s and included insect-resistant cotton and maize, engineered to contain genes from Bt, a soil bacterium that produces a protein that many kinds of insects cannot digest. Farmers that plant Bt varieties of cotton and maize can control insect damage with fewer sprays of toxic insecticides.
Another early genetic trait engineered into GM crops was resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (trade name Roundup). Fields planted with ‘Roundup Ready’ GM crops can be kept free of weeds usually with a single application of glyphosate, which allows farmers to save the cost of multiple applications of weed killers that can be more toxic and more persistent in the environment. Before these first generation GM seeds were released for commercial sale to farmers in 1995–1996, government regulators in the USA, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere screened them for risks to human health and the environment, and found no increase in such risks compared to conventional crops.
This crop revolution has been a success on its own terms, at least in some of the more prosperous commercial farming regions for which most GM crops have been developed. Where farmers have been permitted to plant these first generation GM crops, they have performed largely as advertised, saving both time and money by reducing the need to purchase and spray expensive and toxic chemicals to controls insects and weeds .
This recent spread of GM crops is commercially interesting, yet it has been primarily centered in farming regions that were already productive rather than in the struggling regions of Africa. Why has the new 'gene revolution' failed, so far, to deliver greater productivity benefits to Africa, where the benefits are needed most?
It thus seems regrettable that so few African farmers have been given official permission by their governments to plant any GM crops. Except for South Africa, the commercial planting of GM crops – even cotton – has not yet been approved anywhere on the African continent. The slow progress toward approval of GM crops in Africa reflects at least three separate policy fears: food safety fears, environmental safety fears, and fears of losing commercial sales of farm products abroad. How justified, in each case, are these fears?
When GM crops were first planted, it was easier for critics and skeptics to use the novelty of this technology to raise questions about safety to consumers, and also to the environment. Particularly in Europe, were official food safety regulators were not widely trusted (in part because they had been wrong about BSE), early assurances from governments that it was safe to plant and eat GM crops encountered skeptical resistance. With the passage of time, however, the legitimate foundations of this skepticism have been weakened. For ten years now, authoritative agencies have had a chance to study the actual performance and impact of this first generation of approved crops under field conditions and in the food chain, and they have so far found no credible scientific evidence of added risks to human health or to the environment, compared to the conventional crop counterparts.
Measuring commercial export risks
African states do have reason to fear a loss of some commercial exports if GM crops are planted, yet the dollar value of the exports at risk will usually be very small, because most of Africa’s agricultural exports do not consist of the products – such as soybean or maize - that are currently available in GMO varieties, and when African countries do export such ‘possibly GMO’ products it is usually to other African countries, rather than to Europe, Asia, or GM-sensitive destinations.
European importers do sometimes turn away shipments they view as 'contaminated' with GMOs. For example, the nations of the EU stopped importing bulk shipments of maize from the USA in 1998, at an annual cost to US exporters of $250 million, because some GM maize varieties grown in the USA had not yet been approved in Europe. The EU began lifting this de facto moratorium on new GM crop approvals in 2004, but only while replacing the moratorium with a new set of labelling and tracing regulations that that left even products that had been officially approved burdened and stigmatised, including processed products and animal feeds that had not previously required a label.
In some cases private European import firms have gone beyond the terms of official restrictions by refusing to buy even the meat of animals that might have been raised on GM feeds (beef from Namibia was once turned away by a private importer because it had been fed GM maize from South Africa). To a lesser extent, importers in Asia and in the Arab World have also become GM-sensitive, and have begun following the European practice of either shunning GM products or burdening and stigmatising them with market segregation, testing, and labelling requirements.
The commercial export risks for Africa are therefore real, yet on inspection they prove to be small. This paper reviews the recent trade patterns of more than 12 countries in Eastern and Southern Africa and finds that only a small share of total farm exports from these states have been 'possibly GM' products, and that only a small share of these sensitive exports are going to GM-sensitive markets such as the European Union.
The future of GM crops in Africa
Until now it has been relatively easy for critics of GM crops to dismiss the potential of this technology in Africa, because private international companies when taking the early lead developed products such as GM soybeans grown primarily by wealthy commercial farmers in the Temperate Zone countries, rather than GM varieties of sorghum, cowpeas, or cassava the 'orphan crops' grown by poor farmers in the tropics. This market-driven misdirection of research priorities continues to constrain the deployment of GM crops to poor farmers, although not perhaps forever.
One new departure has been a recent competition, among all three of the big GM crop companies – Syngenta, DuPont, and Monsanto – to develop crops with drought-tolerance (DT) traits. Scientists within these companies have now successfully isolated genes conferring significant drought tolerance, and they have transferred these genes using genetic engineering into agricultural crop plants such as soybean, rice, and maize, with exciting results in early greenhouse and field trials. If DT traits such as these can eventually be transferred to tropical varieties of maize, wheat, rice, sorghum, or millet, they could offer poor African farmers something far more valuable than the insect resistance or herbicide resistance traits of the first generation of GM crops.
DT crops would give small farmers in Africa, and also in the drylands of South Asia, a partial safety-net against the cyclical food crises that afflict these regions whenever rains fail. The 2001–2002 drought in Southern Africa put 15 million people at risk and required a massive food aid response from the international community. An earlier drought in 1991–1992 had been even more severe, putting 18 million people – many of them poor maize farmers – at a food security risk and in need of international food aid.
A next generation of genetically engineered DT crops might thus begin to provide for Africa something closer to the ‘uniquely African Green Revolution’ that Kofi Annan called for in 2004. To open the way for that possibility, governments in Africa must begin to see that the commercial export risks of allowing GM crops to be planted will for the most part be risks that the African governments themselves can control.
Hungry Corporations: Transnational Biotech Companies Colonise the Food Chain
- Helena Paul, Devlin Kuyek, Lucy Michaels, Ricarda Steinbrecher; Amazon.com price $27.50; 256 pages; Zed Books, 2004; ISBN: 1842773011
This book is about the growing dominance of transnational corporations over many aspects of our lives, from executive super-pay to private sector pension funds. The authors of this book look at the hi-tech agro-chemical and genetic engineering companies that now dominate the food chain. In this detailed account, they show how a handful of companies have accelerated the industrialization of agriculture; penetrated the previously independent world of scholarly research; manipulated public opinion, and more.
We Feed the World
- (A short documentary in German language from Austria attacking modern agriculture, globalization and of course, GM crops.....CSP
Every day in Vienna the amount of unsold bread sent back to be disposed of is enough to supply Austria's second-largest city, Graz. Around 350,000 hectares of agricultural land, above all in Latin America, are dedicated to the cultivation of soybeans to feed Austria's livestock while one quarter of the local population starves. Every European eats ten kilograms a year of artificially irrigated greenhouse vegetables from southern Spain, with water shortages the result.
WE FEED THE WORLD is a film about food and globalisation, fishermen and farmers, long-distance lorry drivers and high-powered corporate executives, the flow of goods and cash flow–a film about scarcity amid plenty. With its unforgettable images, the film provides insight into the production of our food and answers the question what world hunger has to do with us .
Interviewed are not only fishermen, farmers, agronomists, biologists and the UN's Jean Ziegler, but also the director of production at Pioneer, the world's largest seed company, as well as Peter Brabeck, Chairman and CEO of Nestlé International, the largest food company in the world.
Watch the trailer at http://www.we-feed-the-world.at/en/trailer_quicktime.htm
Organic Foods in a Bio-Tech World
- WRMA Radio Station, Harrisonburg, VA (National Public Radio affiliate)
Listen to the program at http://wmra.org/inchive.html
You've probably heard the terms Organic Standards, Sustainable Farming and Genetically Modified Organisms, but do you really know what they mean? Are organic foods really more nutritious? And what about the safety of genetically altered foods. We discuss the differences between, and challenges facing, Bio-Tech and Organic farming.
Guests: * Alex Avery, Director of Research and Education for the Center for Global Food Issues and is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Organic Food which will be released early this summer. * Adam Eidinger, Washington D.C. representative for the Organic Consumers Association.
And now from our 'really weird news department'.....
'Extreme Organics': Organic farmer fed friend's body to pigs to steal his pension
- Allan Hall, The Scotsman, March 8 2006 http://news.scotsman.com/international.cfm?id=348732006
A GERMAN organic farmer has admitted to feeding a elderly friend who died while visiting him to his pigs in order to claim his pension. The pigs were then later eaten by people who bought the meat at local butchers' shops.
Christian Roeben, 28, from Fritzlar, near Frankfurt, told locals who questioned him about his friend, Friedhelm Bogner, that he had left his sheltered housing unit and gone into a nursing home. Roeben said he had cancelled his meals on wheels because he no longer needed them at his new address.
But in reality Mr Bogner, 73, became a meal for pigs - or rather several meals - after he died of heart failure while visiting his "friend". Now Roeben, who was undergoing a "financial crisis" when he hatched his plan, has admitted freezing the body before chopping it up to mix in with oats and swill for his herd of swine.
Mr Bogner passed into the human food chain long ago. Roeben told police after he was arrested this week: "OK, it was stupid but I was broke. It's not like he could use the money anymore." Mr Bogner died when visiting him in January 2005. Roeben, a former chairman of the local young farmers' group, placed his dead friend into a chest freezer in his cellar - and then began to use his pension book.
Detectives said that a few weeks after Mr Bogner's death, Roeben removed the body from the freezer and chopped it up with a chainsaw. Then he fed the remains over a week-long period to his pigs, which he sold to meat suppliers as "bio-fed" animals. But Mr Bogner's friends, a group of pensioners, refused to accept that he had moved away. Roeben is being held on charges of disturbing the peace of the dead and fraud. He faces up to ten years in jail if found guilty.