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October 30, 2006


Refusing to Go Forward; Common Challenges, Shared Vision; Destroying Rice Trials; Rifkin - Modern Lysenko?


Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - October 30, 2006

* Biotech Crops and Economic Development
* Common Challenges - Shared Vision
* GMO Confinement
* Wisner/WORC Report on Biotech Wheat Misleading
* India: Activists Torch GM Rice Test Field
* This Crop Revolution May Succeed Where GM Failed
* .... Guardian Readers Respond to Rifkin
* Viridian Rifkin - Modern Lysenko?

Biotech Crops and Economic Development

- Ross Korves, Truth About Trade and Technology, Oct. 27, 2006 http://www.truthabouttrade.org

The recent announcement that Mexican regulatory officials are again refusing to go forward with field trials of biotech corn points out the continued confusion over economic development. Developing countries often complain about the U.S. not doing enough to open trade through the WTO negotiations process and yet refuse to adopt regulatory policies that encourage productivity increases within their own agricultures.

The link between increasing productivity, economic growth and trade makes the situation in Mexico particularly puzzling. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among Mexico, Canada and the U.S. will be fully implemented on January 1, 2008 with corn being one of the last products to be fully traded. Mexico already grows about 300,000 acres of biotech cotton, including some of the newest Bt/herbicide tolerant stacked cotton, and 60,000 acres of herbicide tolerant soybeans.

It also imports biotech cotton, corn and soybeans and products from the U.S. The field trials of biotech corn were to be in wheat growing areas of three northern states far from the "cradle of maize." Mexico cannot continue to have one foot firmly planted in international trade with NAFTA while having the other one caught in the anti-development mode of rejecting biotech corn needed to have competitive corn producers and improve incomes for its limited resource corn producers.

Economic empowerment of limited resource farmers has been given renewed attention recently with Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank receiving the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for making micro loans to poor people in developing countries. These loans, many of which are given to women, include agricultural production like egg production from chickens and modern technology like satellite phone services in rural villages.

Developing countries are considered developing because they have not increased productivity over the past 50 years to the same extent as developed countries. They include countries like Korea that have made incredible progress in productivity and are now essentially developed countries. At the other extreme are the 32 countries identified as least developed where the majority of the population has made little or no productivity improvements over the past 50 years. Countries like Mexico, China and India are in a middle category that has made substantial progress over the past 25 years, but still have significant numbers of poor people.

The broad outline of the situation has been stated before. Of the world's 6.5 billion people, half live on less than $2 per day. Of that half, 1.25 million people live on less than $1 per day. According to Dr. Robert Thompson, Professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Illinois and former World Bank official in rural development, 70 percent of the people who live on less than one dollar per day are farm families.

This is not a case of having enough food in the world, but not in the right place. Farmers themselves do not have access to productivity increasing technology to produce food for their families needs and sell significant amounts in the market. They are still using unimproved, local seeds, not using fertilizer, and not controlling crop pests with pesticides and biotechnology. The question now is how to close the productivity gap in just a few years time to reduce the potential for widespread famine and begin the process of productivity improvements that will move those farmers from $1 per day in income to $1.25 per day, then $1.50 per day and then still higher.

Institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are committing hundreds of millions of dollars to practical applications of known technology in Africa and supporting research where needed to close knowledge gaps. Government leaders are speaking out. The Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh said recently at the Second International Rice Congress in New Delhi, "We need to strike a balance between using the potential of biotechnology to meet the requirements of hungry people, while addressing ethical concerns about interfering with nature." His greatest concern is the lack of productivity improvements in rice in recent years.

Rapid gains in productivity will require the introduction of new technology into current food production systems with as few changes as possible and limited needs for producer education. Biotech seeds for existing crops fit those needs. Biotech seeds adapted to local climatic conditions can be grown and consumed the same way as traditional crops.

Biotech seeds already have a proven track record among limited resource farmers. Huang Jikun, an economist at the Center for Agricultural Policy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, had research published in the journal Science that showed farmers growing Bt Cotton earned $225 per hectare more than farmers growing traditional cotton. He has also found that biotech rice increased incomes by $85 per hectare. For farmers who earn only $350 per year that is a huge step up the economic ladder.

South African peer-reviewed studies on insect-resistant corn reported that small corn farmers had higher yields and that providing seed at affordable prices is critical to increased biotech production among small producers. Monsanto reported recently that small South Africa farmers have reported a 40 percent increase in production with biotech corn compared to conventional corn.

As the Nobel Committee said in awarding the Peace Prize, "Every single individual on earth has both the potential and the right to live a decent life. Across cultures and civilizations, Yunus and Grameen Bank have shown that even the poorest of the poor can work to bring about their own development."

Biotech seeds are one piece of the development puzzle for the almost 15 percent of the worlds people who live on less than a dollar day and make their living as farmers.


Common Challenges - Shared Vision

- Terry Wanzek, Truth About Trade and Technology, Oct. 27, 2006 http://www.truthabouttrade.org

"The chaps in Britain who are against fox hunting aren't for the fox," said Brazilian farmer Luiz Marcos Suplicy Hafers. "They're against the rest of us having any fun."

I met Luiz last week in Des Moines while participating in the events surrounding the 2006 World Food Prize Celebration and Symposium. We were part of a day-long, farmer-to-farmer roundtable--about two dozen of us from 17 different countries gathered to discuss our common challenges and a shared vision for the future of agriculture.

It was a unique opportunity. By their very nature, farmers tend to be private people. Sometimes we're happiest when we're left alone to mind our own business.

Yet there's a fine line between minding your own business and sticking your head in the ground, ostrich-like. In our era of global economics, we need to grapple with the world around us as we never have before.

At the farmer-to-farmer roundtable, for instance, I learned that I share something in common with Diasso Dramane of Burkina Faso: We both want access to biotechnology for our staple crops.

On first glance, you wouldn't think that Diasso and I are much alike. He's a cotton grower from West Africa; I'm a wheat farmer from North Dakota. He lives in one of the poorest countries in the world; I live in the very richest. He wears brightly colored dashiki garments and speaks French; I wear blue jeans and talk like a cast member of the movie Fargo (at least that's what people tell me). And I'll guarantee you that Diasso has no concept of a North Dakota winter.

So we aren't exactly peas in a pod. But we both have observed the amazing benefits of GM crops and wish we could take advantage of them in our daily work. The hurdles we face aren't scientific--biotech cotton is widely available right now and biotech wheat could be commercialized in a short amount of time--but rather political.

For reasons that continue to mystify me, anti-biotech activists want to deny us both a tool that's improving agriculture all over the planet. I'm jealous of corn and soybean farmers who can plant biotech crops every season. They're lucky to have been early adopters: Their foes didn't have time to organize before these crops were in wide use - accepted because they were safe and made economic sense.

I can't help but conclude that biotech's foes are like those opponents of fox hunting: They aren't for farmers at all. How on earth could you lobby against the desire of Diasso, living in a country where the life expectancy is less than 50 years, to have access to technology that's used routinely in the United States and other nations? Unless Burkina Faso is permitted to enter the 21st century, it will remain hopelessly poor.

The source of many problems for Diasso is anti-technology pessimists, especially in Europe, who have planted the seeds of fear about biotechnology all over Africa. As a result, many nations have refused to take up the technology that can offer them so much. They worry that if Europeans close their markets to biotech products grown in Africa, their situation will turn worse than it already is.

Many European farmers are even more frustrated than Diasso. I talked to several of them at the farmer-to-farmer roundtable and they're deeply concerned about their ability to compete with growers who can make use of what biotechnology offers. Paradoxically, Europe is on the forefront of scientific research. Just last week, a team of Germans announced the possibility of a biotech fix to the problem of tomato allergies. Wouldn't it be ironic if EU farmers couldn't take advantage of this home-grown ingenuity?

Yet the problem extends far beyond Europe. Last week, Mexico delayed approval on seven applications for field tests of biotech corn. This is a de facto extension of a moratorium that's been in place for eight years. Although it was supposedly lifted last year, the government--which is perhaps trying to placate an opposition movement that very nearly was elected into power this summer--has done absolutely nothing to help farmers who would like to make use of biotechnology.

We farmers may be at the mercy of the weather--that's another thing that we like to talk about--but we don't have to be at the mercy of governments that could care less about our prosperity. If we recognize our common challenges, we may be able to band together and solve them.

Terry Wanzek grows corn, soybeans, and wheat on his family farm in North Dakota.
A former ND state legislator, Mr. Wanzek serves as a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology


GMO Confinement

- Gordon Couger -gordon.couger.at.gmail.com

We can easily defuse the threats of trying to confine GM pollen by applying the same zero tolerance to the coliform bacteria from the water flowing off organic farms. We have solid evidence to back up the danger of run off from farms using manure. The three valleys in California, The on going problem in the high density farm areas of California that use tertiary sewer water, have a high density of dairy frames that compost manure on a large scale and are a source of run off. The area is also has a wild hog population that roam as it pleases and can spread e. coli from one farm to the next. These valleys are the source of half of the E. coli O57:H7 food recalls in the last few years in the USA shows manure is not safe on uncooked food.

The organic industry cautions people not use manure in compost at home for fear of easily killed parasites claiming commercial composting is does a better job. At best that's an ignorant understating of large scale composting and at worst an out right lie. Commercial composting is done in large windrow and mixed with loaders and farm equipment. It is absolutely sure to miss some material in the mixing process as the bucket over flows when its filled or part of the pile is missed in the mixing process.

I have composted cotton gin trash in 10 tuck load lots. Compared to many commercial composting operations it was a really small deal. While I got the compost hot enough to kill 99.9% of the weed seed I still had the weediest mess in my life on the ground I put it on. Killing weed seed and bacteria by composting work the same. I never had a problem with weed seed in the gin trash I composted in my back yard where I could carefully mix the compost. But I can't see a way to scale it up in an way that anyone can afford.

I'll be glad to keep my pollen at home if the organic farmer will keep his fecal contaminated erosion products, run off water and aerosol's on his place. That included the stuff the wild life drags off in the from if disease.


Wisner/WORC Report on Biotech Wheat Misleading

- Aberdeen American News (South Dakota) Oct. 27, 2006 http://www.growersforwheatbiotechnology.org

A report by ag economist Robert Wisner of Iowa State University, "Potential Market Impacts from Commercializing Round-Up Ready Wheat," is misleading, sponsored by a fringe environmental activist group that opposes biotechnology in agriculture.

The report was released in September by Wisner and the Western Organization of Resource Councils, an environmental activist group which includes the Dakota Resource Council as an affiliate. Both are profiled online at www.activistcash.com

"This report is not peer reviewed, independent research," says Al Skogen, a Valley City, N.D. farmer and chairman of Growers for Biotechnology. "The WORC/DRC funded Wisner's report and collaborated on the information it contains. Among the information sources listed as references are Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, which brings into question the credibility of the WORC/DRC report, as well as their affiliations and motivations."

Skogen says the report fails to take into account domestic and export markets that would accept biotech wheat, as well as the prospective economic benefits. The main determining factor for the success and profitability of biotech wheat production is the ability of the marketing/transportation system to develop a segregation system which is affordable, dependable, and acceptable to foreign consumers, according to the study "Potential Impacts of GM Wheat on United States and Northern Plains Wheat Trade" by Richard Taylor, Eric DeVuyst, and Won Koo of the NDSU Center for Agricultural Policy and Trade Studies.

Their research indicated a market differential of about $2-$4 per metric ton or 5 to 10 cents per bushel comparing the price for biotech wheat compared to non-biotech. Skogen says this differential would be more than offset by lower production and input costs as well as higher yields. These are among the potential benefits in the commercialization of biotech wheat that have been pointed out by both economists Dr. Colin Carter at the University of California and Dr. Bill Wilson at NDSU.

Skogen says that there is no biotech wheat yet commercially available, however the discussion goes way beyond the round up ready technology. There is potential value up and down the food chain for wheat with better drought tolerance, scab/vomitoxin tolerance, better nutrient utilization, salt tolerance, better weed control, and traits targeted at consumers and end users, such as better nutrients, milling and baking characteristics, allergy-free, and enhanced starch and renewable fuel capabilities.

"Biotechnology should of course be viewed as just one facet of wheat R&D. It isn't the cure-all remedy for everything that ails the wheat industry. Without biotechnology in the research toolbox, however, wheat will continue to lose ground to other crops," Skogen says.

The Wisner/WORC report inadvertently acknowledges this acreage trend. The report attributes the decline in wheat acreage in part to 'accelerated growth in demand for alternative crops and development of varieties of alternative crops more suited to the short growing season of the Northern Plains.' "What are those crops that are replacing wheat? They're primarily biotech corn, soybeans, and canola " he says.

Misinformation invoked by a small yet vocal group of activists left unchecked only serves to fan unjust skepticism about a technology that is the most regulated and researched of any ever adopted within agriculture, Skogen says.

No biotech wheat is yet commercially available, however it is estimated that over 70% of foods purchased in the US grocery stores already contain accepted biotech ingredients, Skogen says. Further, he points out that over 10 billion acres of biotech crops have been grown successfully worldwide, and much of the world already buys and accepts other biotech grain.

"Canola, corn, and soybeans produced organically, conventionally, and through biotechnology are segregated and marketed successfully every day within domestic and global markets for food, feed, and fuel uses," Skogen says.


India: BKU Torches GM Rice Test Field in Karnal

- New Indian Express, Oct. 30 2006 http://www.newindpress.com

Chandigarh: In a serious setback for field tests of genetically modified (GM) rice, activists of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) have torched the sole field in Haryana where tests for the modified rice variety were being carried out.

The incident took place at Rampura in Karnal district on Saturday where modified rice was in the harvest stage. Some 400 BKU activists torched the crop, saying it would contaminate soil and affect the existing variety of rice. After the incident, BKU threatened to burn all such fields in the country where trials are underway.

The Rampura land, where the tests were on, had been leased by a farmer to Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd (Mahyco), Monsanto's seed partner in India. Mahyco-Monsanto was the first to release Bt cotton in India in 2002.

Mahyco has been authorised by the Government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) to undertake field trials for GM rice in the country. Rakesh Tikait, BKU's national spokesperson and son of BKU president Mahinder Singh Tikait, told this website's newspaper that ''such trials will be disastrous for the farmers as they will not only contaminate the soil, but also adversely affect yield from existing rice varieties''.

''On Friday, we got a tip-off from Hyderabad that such tests were underway in Karnal. So we decided to burn the harvest. We have also sent a team to Gorakhpur (UP) where similar trials are going on in a field. We are awaiting the report,'' Tikait said. Sources said that no complaint has been registered by the Karnal police so far.


France: Royal Loses Her Cool After Boos From Party Members

- David Rennie, Telegraph (UK), Oct 28, 2006 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/10/28/wfrance28.xml

A cascade of bad news has hit the once unstoppable campaign of Ségolène Royal to win the French Socialist Party's presidential nomination.

Miss Royal -- derided by her rivals as a policy-light populist -- yesterday failed to conceal her indignation after she was booed and whistled by about half the 6,000 Socialist party members who attended a candidates' debate in Paris.

Miss Royal was also under fire for her claim that genetically modified food crops had been shown by "public health reports" to have significant effects on foetuses in the womb and should therefore be banned from open-air cultivation.

No public health or academic reports exist to back up her claim, experts told Le Figaro newspaper.


This Crop Revolution May Succeed Where GM Failed

- Jeremy Rifkin,The Guardian, October 26, 2006

'Gene splicing has been made obsolete by a cutting-edge technology that greatly accelerates classical plant breeding'

For years, the life-science companies - Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Pioneer etc - have argued that genetically modified food is the next great scientific revolution in agriculture, and the only efficient and cheap way to feed a growing population in a shrinking world. Non-governmental organisations - including the Foundation on Economic Trends, of which I am president - have been cast as the villains in this agricultural drama, and often categorised as modern versions of the Luddites, accused of continually blocking scientific and technological progress because of our opposition to GM food.

Now, in an ironic twist, new cutting-edge technologies have made gene splicing and transgenic crops obsolete and a serious impediment to scientific progress. The new frontier is called genomics and the new agricultural technology is called marker-assisted selection (MAS). The new technology offers a sophisticated method to greatly accelerate classical breeding. A growing number of scientists believe MAS - which is already being introduced into the market - will eventually replace GM food. Moreover, environmental organisations that oppose GM crops are guardedly supportive of MAS technology.

Rapidly accumulating information about crop genomes is allowing scientists to identify genes associated with traits such as yield, and then scan crop relatives for the presence of those genes. Instead of using molecular splicing techniques to transfer a gene from an unrelated species into the genome of a food crop to increase yield, resist pests or improve nutrition, scientists are now using MAS to locate desired traits in other varieties or wild relatives of a particular food crop, then crossbreeding those plants with the existing commercial varieties to improve the crop. This greatly reduces the risk of environmental harm and potential adverse health effects associated with GM crops. Using MAS, researchers can upgrade classical breeding, and cut by 50% or more the time needed to develop new plant varieties by pinpointing appropriate plant partners at the gamete or seedling stage.

Using MAS, researchers in the Netherlands have developed a new lettuce variety resistant to an aphid that causes reduced and abnormal growth. Researchers at the US department of agriculture have used MAS to develop a strain of rice that is soft on the outside but remains firm on the inside after processing. Scientists in the UK and India have used MAS to develop pearl millet that is tolerant of drought and resistant to mildew. The crop was introduced into the market in India in 2005.

While MAS is emerging as a promising new agricultural technology with broad application, the limits of transgenic technology are becoming increasingly apparent. Most of the transgenic crops introduced into the fields express only two traits, resistance to pests and compatibility with herbicides, and rely on the expression of a single gene - hardly the sweeping agricultural revolution touted by the life-science companies at the beginning of the GM era.

There is still much work to be done in understanding the choreography, for example, between single genetic markers and complex genetic clusters and environmental factors, all of which interact to affect the development of the plant and produce desirable outcomes such as improved yield and drought resistance. Also, it should be noted that MAS is of value to the extent that it is used as part of a broader, agro-ecological approach to farming that integrates new crop introductions with a proper regard for all of the other environmental, economic and social factors that together determine the sustainability of farming.

The wrinkle is that the continued introduction of GM crops could contaminate existing plant varieties, making the new MAS technology more difficult to use. A landmark 2004 survey conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that non-GM seeds from three of America's major agricultural crops - maize, soya beans and oil-seed rape - were already "pervasively contaminated with low levels of DNA sequences originating in genetically engineered varieties of these crops".

Not surprisingly, MAS technology is being looked at with increasing interest within the European Union, where public opposition to GM food has remained resolute. In a recent speech, Stavros Dimas, the EU's environment commissioner, noted that "MAS technology is attracting considerable attention" and said that the EU "should not ignore the use of 'upgraded' conventional varieties as an alternative to GM crops".

As MAS becomes cheaper and easier to use, and as knowledge in genomics becomes more easily available over the next decade, plant breeders around the world will be able to exchange information about best practices and democratise the technology. Already plant breeders are talking about "open source" genomics, envisioning the sharing of genes. The struggle between a younger generation of sustainable-agriculture enthusiasts anxious to share genetic information and entrenched company scientists determined to maintain control over the world's seed stocks through patent protection is likely to be hard-fought, especially in the developing world.

If properly used as part of a much larger systemic and holistic approach to sustainable agricultural development, MAS technology could be the right technology at the right time in history.
Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The Biotech Century; jrifkin@foet.org


Comments from readers:


MAS is indeed a promising technology, and I particularly like its open-source approach. Whether MAS wins out over transgenic crops will depend on a whole number of factors, only some of which are to do with the science involved.

The only problem I have with the way in which MAS is being promoted here is the false distinction between MAS and genetic engineering. MAS *is* genetic engineering, albeit of a more refined type than the crude gene splicing of transgenic crops, where, as Jeremy Rifkin points out, only one or two traits are selected for, and genes from widely different species are sometimes used. The question is purely of degree, and it's worth remembering that humans have been engineering genes ever since we first started to breed plants and animals. It is wrong to portray MAS as holistic, green and good, and GM as reductionist, brown and bad.
Politics may be simple-minded, but the real world is not.


The question appears to be: to what extent single or multiple gene markers can reliably predict the transfer of complex genetic traits (those arising from the interaction of multiple genes products rather than that of a single gene), which then become stably expressed (i.e. reliable transmission from one generation to the next) in the progeny through natural interbreeding. If this is possible then there is no other way of achieving this, since the transfer of single genes (or even of several genes) does not necessarily result in a stably transmissible phenotype (i.e. growth characteristic).

I assume traits like 'yield' will be genetically complex, but insecticide resistance can be confered through a single gene. Could not some of the problems with the present GM approach (those which make it commercially interesting - e.g. the need to re-engineer the seed for each cycle of planting) be overcome by a judicious amalgam of both approaches. An example would be to engineer a single gene into a crop that normally doesn't express it (i.e. there are no wild relatives that can be used in interbreeding that express the trait/gene) and then use a MAS approach to sequential breeding until you achieve a more 'natural' and transmissible integration of the gene into the crop plants genome?

Interesting stuff. As often in science, commerce goes hard at the first hint of translatable IP and trips up, but the real long term applications come in the second and third wave refinements.


Strikes me that like Banjolele says we may only be seeing the beggining of this and it will take commercial users a long time to get the right approach. The other problem here seems to be the too exclusive use of patents to protect research- patents are a good idea in that they allow those that find something to own it for a while- but it does seem at the moment that they are used to restrict the overall public good in favour of some individuals. Obviously we need some kind of a patent system in order to encourage people to invest in innovation- but on the other hand there does need to be wider dispersion of the ideas- or we'll get the disaster that we have with aids drugs generics. Maybe what we need is a much shorter time in which patents expire or as an alternative we need to have institutionalised distances between those that do the research and those that produce the food, with licenses being sold from teh first to the second for a small ammount.


The problem with all things like this is that you can only access traits that exist in the variation present in relatives. If the trait is not present you cannot select it. No BT toxin in the leaves or roots to deter pests, no salt resistance etc, etc.

Crossing a crop with a wild relative is not just a matter of pulling out a desirable trait, you also have to retain all your other desirable traits that the relative doesn't have and avoid deleterious ones. MAS helps you do the sorting without having to grow plants to maturity and test them, but it does presuppose you know about all these traits, including multi gene ones and how they interact.

So a useful help for conventional breeding? yes. A replacement for GM? no.


The very idea of picking certain 'desirable' traits and then messing about with plants, like some kid pulling wings off flies, to achieve them, is disgusting. That it is expressed here in the special vocabulary invented to elevate the scientists to god-like status is even more repulsive.

Isnt it ENOUGH that we can simply select good characteristics by planting those plants that show them, and avoiding those plants that dont?

Why the insane hubris? Why this need to control? Why the lack of respect for plants that have taken many millions of years to emerge?

It is already PROVEN that simple organic growing methods produce MORE 'yield' as you call it, than all your cockamamie microscopic dangerous GM twiddling, and no side-effects.

"A replacement for GM" - you bloody fool, its people like you that will lead us into a dark age indeed, if we dont stop you.

Fish farms full of lice, fields full of weird crops, people racing along as if life was some mad competition - a paradise lost, by the ego of man.


Mr. Rifkin,
Why this "OR" approach. We use both techniques to look for useful new tea cultivars.
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This is genetic engineering under a different name and through a different process- just as much as is exhibited at Crufts, Tattersalls and other exhibitions of animal breeding. Introducing growth and quality characteristics as well as pest and herbicide resistance through this approach may not have the negative attributes that gene-splicing bestows but conceptually it's the same. The question is does nature in the cross-breeding process decline certain efforts which gene-splicing doesn't- not that the gene-splicing effort is necessarily successful.

It's a pity that the commercial aspects so often get in the way of being able to roll out these advances for everyone. It's instructive to look at the pricing of seeds in the local retail outlet and the difference between new F1 varieties and excellent but historic ones.
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I really hope Dithers' post is a brilliant satire of the dangers of reciting cliches without thinking and using emotive language to paper over gaps in logic. If not, it's kind of alarming that there are people who honestly think selective breeding is equivalent to pulling wings off flies. One small point:
> 'It is already PROVEN that simple organic growing methods produce MORE 'yield' as you call it, than all your cockamamie microscopic dangerous GM twiddling, and no side-effects.'

Arguably true if you look at yield per acre; not true if you look at yield per person working the land. The economics of agriculture are complex and simply whining vaguely about how organic farming alone would solve all our problems is simpleminded without at least some consideration of the massive social and economic upheavals that would likely follow any wholesale move in such a direction.


Dithers, with all due respect you are not getting the point here. All of the crops that we eat, organic or otherwise, emerged from selective plant breeding; none are "natural" in that they are not found in the wild in the state in which we cultivate them. The big changes - the appearance of wheat, for example, which is not found at all in the wild - were the ones that happened at the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones (I simplify!), but many have come about only in the last century or less. This is not remotely equivalent to pulling wings off flies - it is simply crossing plants that have good traits and selecting, from the progeny, those where those traits are both present (again, I simplify). MAS enables this process to be speeded up very considerably, which given the speed with which we are going to have to adapt to changing environments over the next century, is potentially a very useful thing.

Incidentally, some of the plant breeding that produced the varieties that you now buy from your organic greengrocers was done by irradiating seeds with X-rays or gamma rays to increase the mutation rate, so that there would be a much higher level of variation to choose from in these plant breeding experiments.
Organic refers to how plants are cultivated, not to how they have been bred. Agriculture of any type is impossible without plant breeding.


I'm not sure how a degree in economics qualified Jeremy Rifkin to spout bullshit about technology he patently knows nothing about, but it's a continuing feature of American anti-intellectualism we must put up with. So let's turn to economics. If GM crops were a failure, farmers would no longer be planting them, buisness in GM crops would be decreasing and new countries would not be investing in the technology. Unfortunately for Jeremy's hypothesis, the reverse is true. Planting of GM crops continue to grow as farmers realise the economic benefits. Economically, GM crops are an astounding success.

So what about this 'new' technology that Jeremy is so keen on. Markers have long been used by plant breeders to follow desired traits, before the new frontier than Jeremy has just discovered - genomics - plant breeders used phenotypic markers to follow traits. Phenotypic markers were used to build genetic maps of plant genomes which assisted in breeding. The trouble with phenotypic markers is that they were not always desirable in the product plant and they have a very low density. Genetic markers have a much higher density and the companies Jeremy says support GMO as the next great scientific revolution in agriculture - Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Pioneer etc - these very companies have been investing millions in genetic markers for the past 15 years precicely for the purpose of plant breeding. So why would they still think GMO was the next great scientific revolution in agriculture if they already know how valuable markers can be?

The reason is that breeding programs are long, expensive and non-transferable. A single breeding program may take 20 generations, at 2 generations per year that's still 10 years of breeding. Genetic markers just helps you map your traits better, select the offspring from the breeding program with better accuracy which can reduce the number of generations needed for a successfull program. Unfortunately each breeding program is specific for each crop. GM technology on the other hand is very transferable. I don't need 100,000 genetic markers to introduce the BT gene into corn and I don't need to find some wild relative that contains insect resistance. Once I have cloned the BT gene and made a construct I can genetically modify whatever plant I want, maize, rice, soybean, cotton and they'll all become insect resistant! That is the agricultural revolution that everyone is so excited about and that is why GM technology is far superior to any breeding program.
> "categorised as Luddites because of our opposition to GM food"
You are a Luddite if your opposition is not based in scientific fact but in fear of the unknown. Given the lack of understanding shown in the articule and the absence of critical scientific evidence against GM crops, it leads to the impression that your opposition is based more on fear than fact, which makes you a Luddite.

> "transgenic crops a serious impediment to scientific progress [...] GM crops could contaminate existing plant varieties, making the new MAS technology more difficult to use."

What nonsense, where do you think Pioneer get their inbred breeding lines from? Do you imagine they go to a random field and just grab a handfull of any old seed? Breeding lines for producing F1 hybrids are closely guarded and grown in total isolation. In any event, a genetic insertion even would be so easy to spot and discout that it would make no different to any map-based breeding program.

> "Not surprisingly, MAS technology is being looked at with increasing interest within the European Union"
Why is that not suprising? After all the major biotech companies closed shop in Europe because the EU effectively banned licencing of any GM crops what else were the remaining biotech companies going to do? It's not suprising because economically the biotech companies weren't given the option to do anything else. They had to turn to mapping QTLs because there was no other way to make money.

> "The struggle between a younger generation of sustainable-agriculture enthusiasts anxious to share genetic information and entrenched company scientists determined to maintain control over the world's seed stocks through patent protection is likely to be hard-fought, especially in the developing world."
That's what you'd like to think isn't it? Shame the facts don't support your opinion. Large numbers of farmers in the developing world already grow GM crops. Monsanto made it's entire maize genome freely available to the public. Patent licences were freely given to the developers of golden rice. Philanthropic projects in the US already work with developing world crops like cassava to genetically modify and improve its resistance to devastating viruses and its nutritional value.

> "MAS technology could be the right technology at the right time"
There is little doubt that improved use of markers will go hand in hand with the development of better GM crops.


Viridian Rifkin

- Philip Chaston, October 26, 2006


Jeremy Rifkin is a well-known opponent of genetic modification who has attempted to ally himself with the Religious Right in the past as a broad based coalition to oppose the biotech century. He has now popped up at the Grauniad, no less, frequenting 'Comment is free' with a piece on marker-assisted selection. Rifkin supports this new technology as an aid to classical plant breeding and as a alternative to genetically modified foods.

In Rifkin's worldview, genetic technology that utilises linked traits within a species is fine, but moving beyond the species barrier is unnatural and forms a type of engineering, It is an arbitrary distinction between the artificial and the natural. Indeed, Rifkin appears to be rather unaware of the obstacles placed in the path of GM crops by regulatory authorities.

With a flourish to the supposed environmental pollution of GM crops, Rifkin argues that MAS can only thrive with the implied banning of genetically modified organisms, wither through planting or trade.
> The wrinkle is that the continued introduction of GM crops could contaminate existing plant varieties, making the new MAS technology more difficult to use.

But the final argument in favour of MAS is its location within the politicised economy of 'sustainability', championed by the greens, where institutions, technologies and cultures are morally assessed through their adherence to certain goals.

> Also, it should be noted that MAS is of value to the extent that it is used as part of a broader, agro-ecological approach to farming that integrates new crop introductions with a proper regard for all of the other environmental, economic and social factors that together determine the sustainability of farming.

Although not on the disastrous scale of Lysenko, Rifkin departs down the same dangerous road of encouraging technology for attaining political objectives. If the GM companies were wrong for cheerleading their programmes, why is Rifkin to be excused for promoting his agenda via MAS?

Still, if Rifkin is promoting technologies that expose the arbitrary conventionalism underlying his philosophy, why should we ignore the chance for these inconsistencies to be exposed.