Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org: March 28, 2006
* Suzuki Has Gloom-and-Doom Agenda
* Borlaug as Living God
* Note to AgBioView from the writer of above piece on Borlaug
* Borlaug's Nephew Sends a Note to AgBioView
* Scientists Seek Biotech Answer to Hunger
* Swiss Botanist Supports Expanded Plant Biotechnology
* Is Modern Biology Depressing? Should Biotechnologists 'Get a Life?'
* High Cost of Pseudo-Environmentalism
* Capitalism at the Crossroads: The Unlimited Business Opportunities in Solving the World's Most Difficult Problems
Suzuki Has Gloom-and-Doom Agenda
- Simon Bridge, The Ottawa Citizen March 26, 2006
Re: The seeds of discontent, March 22.
I am sure that I am not the only reader who failed to follow the logic in David Suzuki's article on seeds engineered to produce sterile crops. For those readers who missed the article, here's the two-second summary:
- farmers buy genetically altered seed that is resistant to certain herbicides (presumably leading to higher yields);
- the seed produces offspring that are sterile, forcing farmers to purchase new seed every year;
- global food security is destroyed, all the world's biodiversity is lost, farmers are left in financial ruin while enormous transnational seed corporations laugh it up with their bankers.
One could be excused, after reading Mr. Suzuki's article, for thinking that an evil genius was running around the countryside, forcing farmers to trade their unclean, mixed-seed stocks for his genetically pure seed stock, which they would have to repurchase year after year.
I'm no farmer, but I have a lot of respect for them, and I'm pretty sure that Canadian farmers are capable of making sound financial choices provided they are given the greatest possible range of options. Farmers who stand to make more money by using the genetically altered seed will buy it; those who don't, won't. No one is forcing them to use the seed.
Now, the case may be different in developing nations, where basic technological advances such as irrigation are often lacking, where farmers cultivating tiny plots lack the economies of scale afforded many Canadian farmers, and where property rights enshrined in law are often an afterthought. But Mr. Suzuki fails to distinguish this.
I may not be a farmer, but I am a biologist, and Mr. Suzuki's argument for the loss of the world's biodiversity is unclear to me. The last time I walked past a farmer's field it was hardly brimming over with endemic life forms. It was pretty much a monoculture of whatever crop was being grown. Even if the crop is made less genetically diverse, it's still cropland. Most people I know who are worried about global biodiversity loss are worried about habitat degradation in hotspots like rain forests or coral reefs, not agricultural lands.
Again, the situation may be different in developing nations, but Canada's ceasing to respect the moratorium on "terminator" technology affects farmlands in Canada only.
As with most of his other arguments, Mr. Suzuki may have been able to convince me if he had stuck to his scientific training and presented a well-reasoned argument. Instead, he consistently leaps to the worst-case doom-and-gloom conclusion, making his agenda obvious and, in my eyes, costing him all credibility as the scientist he claims to be.
Borlaug as Living God
- Chandrabhan Prasad, The Pioneer (New Delhi), March 26, 2006
Born in 1766, Thomas Malthus vegetated into history's first civilised doomster. To him, population will grow geometrically but food production only arithmetically. In other words, England was to turn into history's largest graveyard. While Malthus lived until 1834, England didn't starve, and became graveyard of that intimidating prophecy.
The resilient Malthusianism wasn't dead, though. Paul Ehrlich wasn't any novelist. Yet, his Population Bomb (1968) sold like a fiction. Ronald Bailey, in his exceptionally moving narrative (Reason, May 2000), captures mood of the historic Earth Day, April 22, 1970, when doomsters had a field day.
"The battle to feed all of humanity is over," Ehrlich would thunder around. "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980", he had decreed. Harvard biologist George Wald estimated that "civilisation will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken." "Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born," wrote Ehrlich. "Between 1980 and 1989, some four billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the "Great Die-Off", he calculated. William and Paul Paddock in their Famine-1975 (1967), thought 'India isn't worth saving'. "It is already too late to avoid mass starvation," declared Denis Hayes. "To some overcrowded populations, the bomb may one day no longer seem a threat, but a release", said biologist Rene Dubos. India fell in this category. Stunningly, by 1980, when India was to enter the 'Great Die Off' phase, it had a buffer stock of 15.5 metric tons of wheat. Between 1960-'80, India's food production rose by 1.58 times and population by 1.55 times. Clearly, food production had now outpaced population growth. Thanks to the Green Revolution, the world's Famine Republic turned into a food exporting nation.
Most Indians who escaped sure death, see Green Revolution as God's own gift, without knowing who that God was. So much so that, when India decided to accord Padam Vibhushan to him this January, he was described as a 'Mexican scientist'. Enveloped by ignorance and ingratitude, India was silent this March 25 too - no celebrations, no seminars, and no public rallies. "Doomsters can be defeated by science alone", says my scholar colleague D Shyam Babu. "Not necessarily", argues Sunil Sardar, a Delhi based evangelist friend of mine. To Sunil, saviour of a billion plus humans must be the God himself.
I know not as where to place Norman Borlaug on his 92nd birth anniversary. Borlaug saved dozens of my own family members, and millions of India's poor. Memories of 60s may appear an act of fiction. The starving poor would climb banyan trees to steel fruits from birds, while beasts waited on ground for the left over.
Borlaug's high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat restructured the very relationship between man and nature. From time immemorial, man would wipe out forests to grow more food. Borlaug was to change that forever. He proved that production could be boosted geometrically by re-engineering the seed itself. "India's transition to high-yield farming spared the country from having to plough an additional 100 million acres of virgin land", says Salil Singh, a California based documentarian.
During 1970-2000, the world population rose by 2.5 billion. To feed this additional mass of people, most of the forest cover the world over may have been wiped out. To irrigate millions of acres of new landmass, earth's most of the ground water may have drained out by now. Borlaug saved the earth as well. Alternatively, Borlaug saved honour of the third world. In the absence of Borlaug, the US could have ruled the world by its wheat power alone. Yet nations such as India chose silence over salutation.
Awarded the Nobel in 1970, Borlaug was born in 1914. He obtained a doctorate in plant pathology and genetics. In 1944, he entered Mexico to trigger history's greatest revolution. Hitherto, every God was manmade. But here is a man, who dissolved into a God. Must be a sheer coincidence -Borlaug's grandfather was an evangelist.
"Norman Borlaug is America's greatest gift to India. Not only he is a great scientist but also a wonderful humanitarian who helped steer India towards food self-sufficiency", says Prof CS Prakash, a prominent scientist at the Tuskegee University, US. He will bring glory to Bharat Ratna and even a honourary citizenship will be a token of our collective gratitude. The least the world can do is - to celebrate March 25 as the Man & Nature Day.
Note to AgBioView from the writer of above piece on Borlaug
Dear Prakash: I was a born Dalit (CSP- 'untouchables' in India) - most of us in extremely poor families. Our parents have experienced what hunger meant to them. Borlaug's mission insured that the poor get food to eat. Only the rich: eco-terrorists can talk of organic food.
You may be surprised to know that in early '50s, the land lord would wait for famine to strike so that they could sell their grains for higher prices. Borlaug changed that for ever.
As I continue with my research with meagre resources, I find Dr. Borlaug's as the greatest environmentalist the history has ever seen.
It is time that we got together to explore this aspect of Borlaug's life- as the savior of the mother earth. In other words, more science into Seeds modification will secure earth even greater.
Next year, I will organize a gala "Man & Nature Day" celebration in New Delhi on Borlaug's birthday.
-- Read about Chandra Bhan Prasad
Borlaug's Nephew Sends a Note to AgBioView
- Ted Behrens Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation, http://www.normanborlaug.org/
As we reflected on Norman Borlaug's 92 Birthday here in Iowa, I recalled my most recent breakfast meeting I shared with him in Des Moines last week. I asked where he would be on his birthday. He shook the question off in his typical Borlaug mannerism, with one hand waving off, steering the conversation away from himself . . .his personal life and accomplishments. He said he would be on a plane to New York to meet with Nigerian leaders and he quickly moved on to discuss other hunger related problems which he hoped to address in the coming weeks.
I have of course known, admired and loved this man for nearly 60 years as a close family member but I am still always surprised, to some degree, by his determination in all things.
As we finished our discussions and as we prepared to leave, he pulled the breakfast bill quickly away so he could pay for it. He scribbled his name, with a firm but shaky hand on the receipt. I watched in awe to see him guide his pen first with his right hand then with both hands shaking and forcing his signature upon the credit card receipt. He worked very hard to scribble that signature out on the receipt. My Grandmother Clara Borlaug - (Norman's mother) suffered from severe Rheumatoid Arthritis for many years . . .so too did my mother. Fortunately for Norm, for most of his life, he has remained quite free of the 'Borlaug arthritis genetic code'. However of late he does seem suffer some from its effects and I think it is painful for him to write.
The same signature (written as a young man) is inside the chicken house and milk house at his Boyhood farm my Foundation is attempting to renovate and show to the world. I hope much of the world can witness the small farm where this amazing journey began and you can witness that determined signature written there for all of humankind to see.
Thank you for sending the beautiful article about Norm which appeared in the Pioneer newspaper recently and for your continued work to remind all of us of about his remarkable life and work.
More on Borlaug at http://www.agbioworld.org/biotech-info/topics/borlaug/index.html
Scientists Seek Biotech Answer to Hunger
- Carey Gillam, Reuters March 27, 2006 http://today.reuters.com/
As he pores over plant tissue and petri dishes in a biotech seed lab in Johnston, Iowa, Luke Mehlo is half a world away from his home in South Africa.
But though the corn fields of Iowa bear little resemblance to the arid plains of Africa, the research center where Mehlo toils has become home to a unique joint venture that is merging African agricultural interests with U.S. money and technology.
The goal is to turn sorghum -- a common U.S. row crop used in animal feed, cereals and industrial products -- into a plant that can not only weather devastating drought but also yield a rich blend of vitamins and minerals. Researchers believe such a combination could help combat the hunger and malnutrition ravaging parts of Africa.
"A lot of people have died on the African continent, quite unnecessarily," said Mehlo, a molecular biotechnologist who came to Iowa from South Africa in October. "We seek to have a crop that will enable us to survive during disasters and food shortages."
Tweaking Genes Mehlo is one of a team of African scientists who will be working in Iowa over the next three years, tinkering with the genes of sorghum seeds. An estimated 300 million people in arid regions of Africa rely on sorghum as a food source along with other crops. But while conventional sorghum is already known to do well in drought conditions, it lacks certain key nutrients.
By taking genes from other crops as well as manipulating genes within the sorghum plant itself, scientists believe they can remake sorghum into a more easily digestible crop richer in vitamins A and E, iron, zinc and amino acids and protein.
Pioneer Hybrid International, a subsidiary of Dupont, is a key U.S. partner and the sole commercial player in the endeavor. Pioneer has donated $4.8 million in gene technology, and is lending manpower and facilities for visiting African scientists at its Johnston headquarters. "Africa is a place where biotechnology is necessary," said Dean Oestreich, President of Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. "It would be a big step to take and make a food crop more nutritious for people in Africa."
The patented technology donated by Pioneer has already shown feasibility in corn seeds, making successful genetic changes in sorghum likely as well, according to Paul Anderson, a Pioneer grain manager and a member of the oversight committee for the "African Biofortified Sorghum" project. Still, it is expected to take eight years and a second round of funding before a specialized seed is ready for market.
Pioneer will have no rights to revenues from the biotech sorghum once it is developed and commercialized, said Anderson. But the company, already locked into tight competition in the commercial seeds market, hopes that success with biotech sorghum might help open doors for other biotech crops in countries currently skeptical of genetically altered crops.
Gates Gives Money Chief funding for the project comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with the National Institutes of Health. The foundation last summer awarded a $16.9 million grant for the project, making it the largest of four grants handed out by the foundation for the improvement of food through technology.
"Sorghum is a huge staple throughout the world, particularly in Africa where people suffer from some of the worst conditions," said Carol Dahl, director of the foundation's global health technologies group. Indeed, millions of people in Africa are currently suffering starvation and malnutrition as extended drought and baking heat strip them of food and water.
Along with the sorghum project, the Gates group is funding projects aimed at creating more nutritious bananas, cassava and rice as part of a total of $450 million in grants for improved nutrition, disease prevention and treatment, Dahl said.
Biotech sorghum and other crops are not expected to eradicate the devastation caused by drought, but they could partly ease the pain, researchers believe. "We have to wait... until we have a complete story," said Mehlo. "But we are already ahead of schedule and we have materials that are very very promising. There is so much light at the end of the tunnel."
Swiss Botanist Supports Expanded Plant Biotechnology
- Ag Professional, Mar. 27, 2006 http://www.agprofessional.com/
Many factors affecting biodiversity are directly and indirectly related to agriculture and the need to produce more food for more people on limited arable land.
"The priority is to feed the people, but we must do it in a way to keep as much biodiversity as possible," says Klaus Ammann, former director of the Botanical Garden and an Honorary Professor Emeritus at the University of Berne, Switzerland, in an interview made available by Monsanto Company.
Practices and technologies that increase the productivity of existing farmland is one way to help limit any negative impact on biodiversity, the Monsanto release said. Critics often try to relate GM crops with negative impacts, yet the benefits of GM crops related to biodiversity are documented.
"I have screened thousands of studies and scientific peer-reviewed papers, and I have not seen single documentation of permanent negative impact on biodiversity done by genetically engineered crops," Ammann says. "It's a myth that this has happened."
These and other of Ammann's comments will be available in a new video and podcast online at http://www.biotech-gmo.com
In fact, growers can more easily incorporate no-tillage practices with herbicide-tolerant GM crops, which generates improvements in soil life and fertility, according to the Monsanto release. Independent research and a decade of commercial-scale usage also demonstrate that non-target insects are more abundant in insect-tolerant GM crops (Bt crops).
"I cannot understand why people are against this technology," says Ammann, a member of the Biosafety Committee for Switzerland. "If we want to survive as human beings on this planet, we need to produce more food on smaller amounts of land. This is certainly done best with biotechnology. We cannot do that by just romantically following on old-fashioned agriculture. We must come to terms with using modern technology."
Is Modern Biology Depressing? Should Biotechnologists 'Get a Life?'
'The narrow depressing view of biotechnology versus the imaginative, happy perspective'
- David Tribe, GMO Pundit, March 27, 2006.
Full commentary at http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/2006/03/narrow-depressing-view-of.html
The Pundit has been touring second hand bookshops yet again. He couldn't help buying Altered Genes II, Edited by Richard Hindmarsh and Geoffrey Lawrence, Scribe Publications 2001. At least it was cheap (with water damage, reduced to only A$5).
But it does offer a very depressing view of what modern biological sciences actually are. In one of the main science-focused chapters of this book, for instance, Peter R. Wills portrays biotechnologists as having frankly uneducated views about the organisms they deal with on a day to day basis. Peter writes as if molecular biology was simply and purely a strict 'reductionist' molecular approach, and a very peculiar 'reductionism' at that.
According to Peter Wills (page 54): "Molecular biologists now wish us to believe that our understanding of the molecular processes that occur within cells, and what this knowledge tells us about organisms, has been determined without any recourse to ideas beyond which those that have been proven to be 'true' in physics and chemistry."
Pundit can testify that molecular biologists in general are exposed to, and excited by this and many other extended visions of biology. They tell him so, when they recommend books for him to read, like Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, as my friend CS Prakash has done. It is really quite surprising that Peter Wills doesn't want to accept that molecular biologists in general ponder frequently about the extended reach of the phenotype.
For instance, molecular biologists do in fact read paperbacks like The Red Queen by Matt Ridley, on the cover of which we find: "Animals and plants evolved sex to fend off parasitic infections. Now look where that has got us. Men want BMWs, power, and money in order to pair-bond with women who are blond, youthful and narrow wastedŠa brilliant examination of the scientific debates on the hows and whys of sex and evolution. "(Independent )
Molecular biology may focus on the gene and the molecule as a starting point, but it works upward through a hierarchy of concepts to rules and concepts that are definitely not solely explained by physics. The ideas encompassed by the extended phenotype include thoughts about blondes, BMWs, and why and how both humans and plants can survive infections by nasty parasites.
The Pundits Bottom Line: In order to fully savour molecular biology's full reach, don't confine yourself just to Peter Wills or Richard Hindmarsh's rather depressing takes. Certainly read Richard Dawkins to the full, but why not try Christopher Wills (of The Runaway Brain fame), and also Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Ilya Prigogine, Helena Cronin and a host of others. Enjoy biology like the Pundit does, and come to realise molecular biologist's have normal lives too, away from just meeting and making the mad molecules.
High Cost of Pseudo-Environmentalism
- Dr. Michael P. Federici, Political Science, Mercyhurst College, Erie, PA
Walter Williams, professor of economics at George Mason University, and Dr. Fred Singer from the Science and Environmental Policy Project, discuss the economic and noneconomic costs of pseudo-environmentalism (in this CD/DVD). The conversation focuses on the issue of whether or not the United States is taking the right approach to the environment.
The discussants agree that much of what passes for environmentalism today is based on parochial interests rather than creditable science and the common good. Williams and Singer criticize Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich for their Malthusian predictions that have proven to be grossly inaccurate. They claim that the results of following the policy prescriptions of pseudo-environmentalists like Carson and Ehrlich is not a cleaner environment but inefficient use of scarce resources.
The opportunity cost of pseudo-environmentalism is the good that could have been done in other areas of public policy. Specific examples of imprudent policies, like the banning of DDT, are discussed. Dr. Singer questions the scientific validity of much environmentalism. He agrees with Walter Williams that environmentalism has been used to advocate government control of people's lives much like the discredited ideologies of socialism and communism. Both discussants believe that providing the media with accurate information about the environment would help educate the public about the dangers of pseudo-environmentalism.
Capitalism at the Crossroads: The Unlimited Business Opportunities in Solving the World's Most Difficult Problems
- Stuart L. Hart, Wharton School Publishing, 2005; ISBN: 0131439871, $25
Global capitalism stands at a crossroads--facing international terrorism, worldwide environmental change, and an accelerating backlash against globalization. Today's global companies are at a crossroads, too: finding new strategies for profitable growth has never been more challenging. Both sets of problems are intimately linked, says Stuart L. Hart--and so are the solutions.
Hart shows companies how to identify sustainable products that can drive new growth as they also help solve today's most crucial social problems. Drawing on his experience consulting with top companies and NGOs worldwide, Hart shows how to integrate new technology to deliver profitable solutions that reduce poverty and protect the environment at the same time. Along the way, you'll learn how to become truly indigenous to all your markets-and avoid the pitfalls of traditional "greening" and "sustainability" strategies.
This book transcends yesterday's stale debates about globalization, pointing the way toward a capitalism that's more inclusive, more welcome, and far more successful. But great ideas aren't enough. Hart presents on-the-ground techniques for transforming them into reality, helping leaders re-ignite innovation, growth, and profitability in their own businesses, starting today.