Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - December 9, 2006
* Filling Tomorrow's Rice Bowl
* O Frankentree
* Africa: Commercial Release of Striga Resistant Maize in Kenya
* Taking Aim At A Peaceful Coexistence
* Bollworm Resistance to Bt Cotton Remains Rare After A Decade of Exposure
* Estimating the Benefits of Bt Corn and Cost of Insect Resistance Management
* Transgenes Gone Wild!
* Ethical Food - Good Food?
* Voting With Your Trolley
* GE Mustard in India: 3. India's Effort in Developing GE Brassicas
Genetic Modification – Filling Tomorrow's Rice Bowl
- The Economist, Dec. 7, 2006 http://www.economist.com
'Genetic engineers are applying their skills to tropical crops'
Every hectare of paddy fields in Asia provides enough rice to feed 27 people. Fifty years from now, according to some projections, each hectare will have to cater for 43. Converting more land to paddy is not an option, since suitable plots are already in short supply. In fact, in many of the continent's most fertile river basins, urban sprawl is consuming growing quantities of prime rice-farming land.
Moreover, global warming is likely to make farmers' lives increasingly difficult, by causing more frequent droughts in some places and worse flooding in others. Scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) doubt it is possible to improve productivity as much as is needed through better farming practices or the adoption of new strains derived from conventional cross-breeding. Instead, they aim to improve rice yields by 50% using modern genetic techniques.
On December 4th the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a network of research institutes of which IRRI is a member, unveiled a series of schemes intended to protect crop yields against the ill effects of global warming. Many involve genetic engineering--which is generally embraced by farmers in poor countries even if some Western consumers turn their noses up at it. Some, though, only use genetics to identify useful genes.
For example, IRRI's scientists have found a gene that allows an Indian rice strain to survive total immersion for several weeks, and have cross-bred it into a strain favoured by farmers in flood-prone Bangladesh. In trials, the new plant produced as much rice as the original under normal conditions, but over twice as much after prolonged flooding. This trait could increase the world's rice harvest dramatically, since flooding damages some 20m hectares (50m acres) of rice each year out of a total crop of 150m hectares. By far the most ambitious project on CGIAR's list, though, involves transforming the way in which rice photosynthesises. That will require some serious genetic restructuring.
Most plants use an enzyme called rubisco to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into sugars containing three carbon atoms--a process known as C3 photosynthesis. But at temperatures above 25°C, rubisco begins to bond with oxygen instead of CO2, reducing the efficiency of the reaction. As a result, certain plants in warm climates have evolved a different mechanism, called C4 photosynthesis, in which other enzymes help to concentrate CO2 around the rubisco, and the initial result is a four-carbon sugar. In hot, sunny climes, these C4 plants are half as efficient again as their C3 counterparts. They also use less water and nitrogen. The result, in the case of staple crops, is higher yields in tougher conditions: a hectare of rice, a C3 plant, produces a harvest of no more than eight tonnes, whereas maize, a C4 plant, yields as much as 12 tonnes.
Turning a C3 plant into a C4 one, though, is trickier than conferring flood resistance, since it involves wholesale changes in anatomy. C4 plants often absorb CO2 from the air in one type of cell and then convert it to sugars through photosynthesis in another. C3 plants, by contrast, do both jobs in the same place.
On the other hand, C4 photosynthesis seems to have evolved more than 50 times, in 19 families of plant. That variety suggests the shift from one form of photosynthesis to the other is not as radical as might appear at first sight. It also gives researchers a number of starting points for the project. Some C4 plants, for example, absorb CO2 and photosynthesise it at either end of special elongated cells, instead of separating the functions out into two different types of cell. Many C3 plants, meanwhile, have several of the genes needed for C4 photosynthesis, but do not use them in the same way. In fact, the distinction between C3 and C4 plants is not always clear-cut. Some species use one method in their leaves and the other in their stems.
John Sheehy, one of IRRI's crop scientists, plans to screen the institute's collection of 6,000 varieties of wild rice to see if any of them display a predisposition for C4 photosynthesis. Other researchers, meanwhile, are trying to isolate the genes responsible for C4 plants' unusual anatomy and biochemistry. A few years ago, geneticists managed to get rice to produce one of the enzymes needed for C4 photosynthesis by transplanting the relevant gene from maize.
The task, admits Robert Zeigler, IRRI's director, is daunting, and will take ten years or more. But the potential is enormous. Success would not only increase yields, but also reduce the need for water and fertilisers, since C4 plants make more efficient use of both. Other important C3 crops, such as wheat, sweet potatoes and cassava, could also benefit. If it all works, a second green revolution beckons.
- Sharon Oosthoek, Globe and Mail (Canada), Dec 9, 2006 http://www.theglobeandmail.com
'Genetically engineered spruce and poplars could save Canada's forests from over-harvesting and vicious pests such as the pine beetle. So why aren't environmentalists hugging these trees? '
QUEBEC CITY -- When Christmas snows thaw this spring, Armand Seguin will cut down a stand of about 300 trees outside Quebec City. Although he spent years growing these spruce and poplars, he will take care to completely burn their trunks, branches, leaves and roots. And environmental groups such as Greenpeace can hardly wait for the chainsaws to rev up.
That's because these are Canada's first and only genetically modified trees to be grown outdoors. While some scientists believe that they represent the future of our forests -- and a forest-product industry that accounted for nearly 60 per cent of our $55.1-billion trade balance in 2005 -- others fear the fallout from experimenting with "frankenpines."
These environmentalists say trees with novel traits could spell the end of tree biodiversity and threaten the larger ecosystem. They point to scientific studies suggesting that animals developed abnormalities after being fed crops genetically engineered by biotech giant Monsanto. In short, they cannot fathom Mr. Seguin's argument that GM trees could be good for the environment.
Mr. Seguin works for the Canadian Forest Service, a federal government agency, and is one of the country's foremost experts in tree biotechnology.
Print Edition - Section Front
In 1997, he planted poplars engineered to contain a gene from an E. coli bacterium. These acted as a marker to show whether the trees could be successfully genetically altered. He then followed that experiment in 2000 by planting spruce trees that were genetically engineered to contain DNA from the insecticide Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a bacterium used to control plant pests.
Mr. Seguin needed to know that when these genes were introduced, they would persist long enough to have the desired effect. But, now that he can confirm that genes were expressed throughout these trees' lives, they must be destroyed. Still, Mr. Seguin has high hopes for his work going forward. One day, he sees plantations of trees with designer genes yielding more usable wood than they do now, removing incentive for logging old-growth forests. "I don't think we can continue to harvest the natural forest much longer," he says.
(In Mr. Seguin's home province of Quebec, the government's Coulombe Forest Commission made headlines two years ago when it denounced flawed calculations that led to over-harvesting. It recommended reducing the allowable cut by 20 per cent.)
But over-harvesting is not the only thing on Mr. Seguin's mind. He also hopes that by engineering trees that produce toxins against bugs, he can one day eliminate the need for pesticides. "I like genetic engineering more than chemically sprayed trees," he says. "Those chemicals get in the water and stay around . . . my genetically engineered spruce Bt gene will degrade."
A robust but safe pesticide-generating tree certainly has implications for British Columbia, where the mountain pine beetle infected 8.7 million hectares of pine forest last year and continues to be one of the largest causes of economic loss in the province. Says Mr. Seguin, a slim, energetic man who rides his bike to work: "These technologies have great potential for the environment. I understand there were some mistakes made in agriculture. But if we can start from zero again, I think we can present a positive aspect of GMOs [genetically modified organisms]."
Panos Grames, a forest researcher at the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation, remains skeptical. He doubts that it will ever be possible to engineer a pesticide-producing tree that could prove harmless to either other trees or to the larger ecosystems they inhabit. "The science is very experimental," he says. "With fewer insects, there are fewer birds. And insects break down organic matter for the ecosystem."
Even if the toxin a tree produces were targeted to just one insect, Mr. Grames adds, nature abhors a vacuum and another bug will inevitably come along to fill the void. "There may be a short-term gain, but there are long-term consequences every time you try to improve on Mother Nature," he says.
Speaking on the phone from his Montreal office, Greenpeace Canada's Eric Darier has concerns about Mr. Seguin's strategy as well. He argues that we know so little about how genetically modified organisms behave -- including GM trees grown in controlled test plots -- that we can't predict their impact should they find their way into natural forests.
"It's one thing to know what one gene can do. What we really don't know is the interaction between all these genes," he warns. Tree pollen can travel long distances and there are limited options for locating plantations. "Where are they going to plant these trees? On the Prairies? I don't think so. It's going to be in old clear-cut areas, next to old-growth forest."
Mr. Seguin freely admits that it will never be possible to guarantee that GM trees won't cross-pollinate. Instead, he advocates creating genes that will not harm natural forests. University of Toronto's Malcolm Campbell says the work Mr. Seguin and others are doing is crucial, that the cost of dismissing genetic engineering is too high. Climate change means trees are fighting off threats for which they have few defences -- pests and diseases more typical of warmer regions, drought, floods and extreme temperatures.
"We simply cannot afford to be throwing options out," says the molecular geneticist, part of an international team of scientists who announced in September that they had decoded the genome of the black cottonwood poplar -- a first for a forest tree. "We have to decide what level of risk is acceptable [in genetic engineering]. For most environmentalists, no risk is acceptable. I can't accept that. It's the kind of thinking that would outlaw the use of the wheel."
China seems to agree. In 2002, the government there approved commercial plantations of poplars genetically engineered with the Bt bacterium. About 1.5 million trees have already been planted. Meanwhile, big forestry companies in Canada see genetically engineered trees as a tool whose time has not yet come. Seth Kursman, the spokesman for Abitibi-Consolidated, says his company's emphasis is on natural generation. And scientists predict commercial planting in this country is still decades away.
As for environmentalists such as Mr. Darier? They recommend that Canada manage supply rather than try to keep up with demand for wood products."We're being greedy in the short term and not thinking about the medium and long term," he says. "A shortage of a commodity is a good thing. It can encourage conservation. I think we're tackling the issue the wrong way."
Toronto-based Sharon Oosthoek writes on the environment.
Commercial Release of Striga Resistant Maize in Kenya
- Africancrops.net, Nairobi, Kenya http://www.africancrops.net
The Partnership to Control Striga in Kenya has organized an event in Kisumu City, Kenya on 13-15 December 2006 to facilitate the commercial release of Striga-resistant maize, locally known as Ua Kayongo. The commercial release is led by Western Seed Company and follows extensive tests, farm trials and awareness activities conducted in the last two years involving Ua Kayongo maize and other Striga eradication options for over 10,000 small scale farmers in western Kenya.
These activities were aimed at confining, reducing and eliminating Striga infestation in order to improve maize yields, food security and well being of the rural poor. The Partnership is led by Agricultural Technology Foundation, BASF, CIMMYT and FORMAT in collaboration with a network of NGOs, seed companies, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and farmer associations in Kenya. Striga hermonthica has infested approximately 200,000 ha in Nyanza and Western Provinces of Kenya and resulted in crop losses estimated at $80 million per year.
The new herbicide-resistant maize hybrid and seed coated herbicide technology is based upon inherited resistance of maize to a systemic herbicide (imazapyr), a mechanism widely recognized as imazapyr-resistance (I-R). When I-R maize seed is coated with the herbicide, Striga attempting to parasitize the resulting plant are destroyed. Imazapyr is marketed to Kenyan seed companies producing I-R Ua Kayongo maize (mixed vernacular for Striga killer) under the trade name Strigaway. More information about the event and Striga control in Kenya is available at http://www.africancrops.net/striga
Taking Aim At A Peaceful Coexistence
- Phil Jones, ISB News Report, Dece. 2006 Full report at http://www.isb.vt.edu
In August, the US Department of Agriculture revealed that allotments of conventional long grain rice harbored trace amounts of LL601, a genetically engineered (GE) rice.
US rice growers soon found their international markets sheltered behind trade barriers. The unpeaceful coexistence of LL601 in conventional rice shipments exposed the continuing need to isolate agricultural products.
Segregation of produce by its manner of production represents a relatively new development in an industry that traditionally handled fungible fruits, vegetables, and grain. Now, GE crops must be separated from conventional crops to minimize the risk of contamination from pollen drift. GE and conventional crop products must be separated from the products of organic farming during processing and transport. Otherwise, produce loses its market distinctiveness, growers lose money, and lawsuits ensue.
How can the industry achieve a peaceful coexistence of GE, conventional, and organic technologies? The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) and the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology recently published their report of a 2006 workshop that explored this question. Organizers described "peaceful coexistence" as the "ability of conventional, GE and organic growers to effectively meet the specifications of their targeted and consumer markets and ensure a strong, vibrant, diverse agricultural economy." Representatives from industry, the government, and academia offered their views on possible tactics to advance coexistence peacefully.
A copy of the report, "Peaceful Coexistence," can be obtained from the Pew Initiative On Food And Biotechnology, http://pewagbiotech.org/events/0301/WorkshopReport.pdf
DNA Screening Reveals Pink Bollworm Resistance to Bt Cotton Remains Rare After A Decade of Exposure
- Tabashnik, Bruce E. et al. 2006. Journal of Economic Entomology. 99(5) 1525 - 1530.
Transgenic crops producing toxins from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) kill insect pests and can reduce reliance on insecticide sprays. Although Bt cotton (Gossypium hirsutum L.) and Bt corn (Zea mays L.) covered 26 million ha worldwide in 2005, their success could be cut short by evolution of pest resistance. Monitoring the early phases of pest resistance to Bt crops is crucial, but it has been extremely difficult because bioassays usually cannot detect heterozygotes harboring one allele for resistance.
We report here monitoring of resistance to Bt cotton with DNA-based screening, which detects single resistance alleles in heterozygotes. We used polymerase chain reaction primers that specifically amplify three mutant alleles of a cadherin gene linked with resistance to Bt cotton in pink bollworm, Pectinophora gossypiella (Saunders), a major pest. We screened DNA of 5,571 insects derived from 59 cotton fields in Arizona, California, and Texas during 2001-2005.
No resistance alleles were detected despite a decade of exposure to Bt cotton. In conjunction with data from bioassays and field efficacy tests, the results reported here contradict predictions of rapid pest resistance to Bt crops.
Estimating the Benefits of Bt Corn and Cost of Insect Resistance Management Ex Ante
- Hurley, T. M.; Langrock, I.; Ostlie, K. 2006,.Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics. 31(2) 355 - 375.
This paper estimates farmer benefits for corn rootworm (CRW) active Bt corn and costs of complying with Environmental Protection Agency insect resistance management requirements. The estimates are obtained from farmer survey data that were collected in Minnesota in 2002, just prior to the commercial release of CRW Bt corn. The survey had a total of 630 complete responses.
Benefit estimates range from $14 to $33.4 million, while compliance cost estimates range from $3.5 to $8.7 million depending on whether or not CRW Bt corn also controlled the European corn borer and whether or not it was approved for sale in major export markets.
Transgenes Gone Wild!
- Andrew Leonard, Dec. 9, 2006 http://www.salon.com
Are you ready for amber waves of genetically modified switchgrass, from sea to shining sea? That's the vision of Albert Kausch, a plant geneticist at the University of Rhode Island. Switchgrass, if you recall, made its debut in the national consciousness during George Bush's State of the Union address in January. Forget about your energy-inefficient corn-based ethanol or the soybean-based biodiesel much beloved by American agribusiness giants. Switchgrass, a prairie perennial that grows on degraded land and doesn't require huge inputs of nutrients, is the stuff that biofuel evangelists swoon over.
Kausch is the brains behind "Project Golden Switchgrass." If the regular stuff produces 10 tons of plant biomass an acre, super-switchgrass will produce 20! Super-switchgrass will be resistant to herbicides and drought, and salt and cold tolerant! Best of all, super-switchgrass will come packaged with specially engineered enzymes that will help break down its tough cell walls into desirable sugars. This last point is particularly important, because despite all the hype, switchgrass-derived ethanol will require advances in cellulosic technology that have yet to be realized on commercially feasible levels.
Dr. Kausch is reported to be one of the world's experts in genetically designed grasses, and his bio says he was part of the first team to develop transgenic corn a decade ago. He's no newbie to the field. But just about every day (or every hour, if you read Biopact regularly), you can find similar press releases announcing new breakthroughs in the lab that prefigure a cornucopian biofuel future. As a research domain, the topic just gets hotter and hotter. The latest evidence came this morning -- biofuels are on the cover of the Dec. 8 issue of Science magazine. The new issue features a nice balance between two reports: One touts a breakthrough in metabolic engineering involving the wholesale genetic transformation of yeast strains that will help to vastly increase the production of ethanol. The other, co-authored by the legendary ecologist David Tilman, suggests that a biodiverse mix of multiple prairie grass species holds the most promise for the sustainable production of carbon-negative biofuel biomass.
But let's keep the focus on Kausch. Kausch also specializes in "gene confinement," a term that refers to techniques for preventing genetically modified organisms from transmitting their newfangled genes into the wild -- otherwise known as "transgene escape." Transgene escape is generally considered a bad idea -- both on intellectual property grounds (you don't want your proprietary biotechnology getting into the wrong hands) and, far more critically, because of the potential negative effects on existing ecosystems. As Kausch notes, we probably don't want corn that has been modified for ethanol production to contaminate corn that is destined for human consumption.
There are several different approaches to gene confinement. My favorite is the "exorcist" -- a technique that destroys the transgene once it is no longer necessary. But there are good questions as to whether any gene confinement strategy can work perfectly. This struggle, between efforts to boost the capabilities of plants through genetic engineering, and at the same time, prevent those new capabilities from spreading into the wild, will be one of the great scientific research stories of the 21st century. And it's hard to see how we will avoid it, given the amount of money likely to be at stake in genetically modified energy crops.
A good example of how commercial pressures are already at play in this field can be found by looking even more closely at the record of Dr. Kausch. Kausch splits his time as a scientist between the University of Rhode Island and HybriGene Inc., "a biotechnology research company that uses molecular techniques to create turfgrass with improved traits."
Guess what? There's a lot of money at stake in genetically modified turfgrass also, mainly because golf courses are always looking for new, improved grass strains. In fact, if you are a regular reader of Golf Course News, you are probably more well informed about the problems inherent in genetically modified crops than the majority of the general public.
Kausch has helped HybriGene develop a male-sterile strain of "creeping bentgrass." Bentgrass, to put it mildly, likes to propagate. Specifically, it is "a highly outcrossing [meaning it can interbreed with other grasses], wind-pollinated turfgrass variety that reproduces sexually and asexually," according to Golf Course News. It can reproduce by pollen and by seed and by root.
Creeping bentgrass made the news in August, when it was revealed that a genetically modified, pesticide-resistant strain developed by Monsanto and Scotts Co. had escaped its testbed in Oregon and was growing in the wild, interbreeding with unmodified creepgrass. Transgenes gone wild! Years earlier, when Oregon grass farmers had protested Monsanto's application for a test plot, Kausch had warned of this very possibility (reported again, in Golf Course News), "Turfgrass pollen is known to travel upwards to 3,000 feet and outcross with other grasses," said Kausch. "The industry should be concerned about companies testing with open-pollinated, engineered grasses... Turfgrasses are capable not only of outcrossing with wild relatives, but other species of grass as well."
But Kausch's critique has some back story. The biotech company he works for, HybriGene, is owned by an Oregon grass farmer named Bill Rose, who also owns Tee-2-Green, which supplies 70 percent of the world's commercially available creeping bentgrass. Bill Rose, understandably, was one of the leaders of the protests against Monsanto. Not only was he worried about his own turfgrass products getting contaminated by Monsanto's, but Monsanto was targeting his company's bread and butter.
The incestuous intermingling of science and commerce in the creepgrass market is instructive. A "better" strain of grass for golf courses is hardly a life-or-death issue for most of the world. But the stakes are raised incomprehensibly high when we start talking about energy crops. There will be tremendous pressure both to perfect gene confinement technologies andto get to market with transgenic super-crops.
For ecologists, David Tilman's vision of a reinvigorated prairie, chockfull of multiple strains of naturally occurring grasses harvested sustainably for their biomass, is alluring. But far more likely is the industrial-strength monoculture engineered with one aim in mind -- feeding the world's energy maw. And unless we're very, very careful, the transgenes will go wild, until there is no wild left.
Ethical Food - Good Food?
- The Economist, Dec 7, 2006 http://www.economist.com
If you think you can make the planet better by clever shopping, think again. You might make it worse
"You don't have to wait for government to move... the really fantastic thing about Fairtrade is that you can go shopping!" So said a representative of the Fairtrade movement in a British newspaper this year. Similarly Marion Nestle, a nutritionist at New York University, argues that "when you choose organics, you are voting for a planet with fewer pesticides, richer soil and cleaner water supplies."
The idea that shopping is the new politics is certainly seductive. Never mind the ballot box: vote with your supermarket trolley instead. Elections occur relatively rarely, but you probably go shopping several times a month, providing yourself with lots of opportunities to express your opinions. If you are worried about the environment, you might buy organic food; if you want to help poor farmers, you can do your bit by buying Fairtrade products; or you can express a dislike of evil multinational companies and rampant globalisation by buying only local produce. And the best bit is that shopping, unlike voting, is fun; so you can do good and enjoy yourself at the same time.
Sadly, it's not that easy. There are good reasons to doubt the claims made about three of the most popular varieties of "ethical" food: organic food, Fairtrade food and local food (see article). People who want to make the world a better place cannot do so by shifting their shopping habits: transforming the planet requires duller disciplines, like politics.
Buy organic, destroy the rainforest
Organic food, which is grown without man-made pesticides and fertilisers, is generally assumed to be more environmentally friendly than conventional intensive farming, which is heavily reliant on chemical inputs. But it all depends what you mean by "environmentally friendly". Farming is inherently bad for the environment: since humans took it up around 11,000 years ago, the result has been deforestation on a massive scale. But following the "green revolution" of the 1960s greater use of chemical fertiliser has tripled grain yields with very little increase in the area of land under cultivation. Organic methods, which rely on crop rotation, manure and compost in place of fertiliser, are far less intensive. So producing the world's current agricultural output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. There wouldn't be much room left for the rainforest.
Fairtrade food is designed to raise poor farmers' incomes. It is sold at a higher price than ordinary food, with a subsidy passed back to the farmer. But prices of agricultural commodities are low because of overproduction. By propping up the price, the Fairtrade system encourages farmers to produce more of these commodities rather than diversifying into other crops and so depresses prices-thus achieving, for most farmers, exactly the opposite of what the initiative is intended to do. And since only a small fraction of the mark-up on Fairtrade foods actually goes to the farmer-most goes to the retailer-the system gives rich consumers an inflated impression of their largesse and makes alleviating poverty seem too easy.
Surely the case for local food, produced as close as possible to the consumer in order to minimise "food miles" and, by extension, carbon emissions, is clear? Surprisingly, it is not. A study of Britain's food system found that nearly half of food-vehicle miles (ie, miles travelled by vehicles carrying food) were driven by cars going to and from the shops. Most people live closer to a supermarket than a farmer's market, so more local food could mean more food-vehicle miles. Moving food around in big, carefully packed lorries, as supermarkets do, may in fact be the most efficient way to transport the stuff.
What's more, once the energy used in production as well as transport is taken into account, local food may turn out to be even less green. Producing lamb in New Zealand and shipping it to Britain uses less energy than producing British lamb, because farming in New Zealand is less energy-intensive. And the local-food movement's aims, of course, contradict those of the Fairtrade movement, by discouraging rich-country consumers from buying poor-country produce. But since the local-food movement looks suspiciously like old-fashioned protectionism masquerading as concern for the environment, helping poor countries is presumably not the point.
Appetite for change
The aims of much of the ethical-food movement-to protect the environment, to encourage development and to redress the distortions in global trade-are admirable. The problems lie in the means, not the ends. No amount of Fairtrade coffee will eliminate poverty, and all the organic asparagus in the world will not save the planet. Some of the stuff sold under an ethical label may even leave the world in a worse state and its poor farmers poorer than they otherwise would be.
So what should the ethically minded consumer do? Things that are less fun than shopping, alas. Real change will require action by governments, in the form of a global carbon tax; reform of the world trade system; and the abolition of agricultural tariffs and subsidies, notably Europe's monstrous common agricultural policy, which coddles rich farmers and prices those in the poor world out of the European market. Proper free trade would be by far the best way to help poor farmers. Taxing carbon would price the cost of emissions into the price of goods, and retailers would then have an incentive to source locally if it saved energy. But these changes will come about only through difficult, international, political deals that the world's governments have so far failed to do.
The best thing about the spread of the ethical-food movement is that it offers grounds for hope. It sends a signal that there is an enormous appetite for change and widespread frustration that governments are not doing enough to preserve the environment, reform world trade or encourage development. Which suggests that, if politicians put these options on the political menu, people might support them. The idea of changing the world by voting with your trolley may be beguiling. But if consumers really want to make a difference, it is at the ballot box that they need to vote.
Voting With Your Trolley
- The Economist, Dec 7, 2006 http://www.economist.com
Can you really change the world just by buying certain foods?
HAS the supermarket trolley dethroned the ballot box? Voter turnout in most developed countries has fallen in recent decades, but sales of organic, Fairtrade and local food--each with its own political agenda--are growing fast. Such food allows shoppers to express their political opinions, from concern for the environment to support for poor farmers, every time they buy groceries. And shoppers are jumping at the opportunity, says Marion Nestle, a nutritionist at New York University and the author of "Food Politics" (2002) and "What to Eat" (2006). "What I hear as I talk to people is this phenomenal sense of despair about their inability to do anything about climate change, or the disparity between rich and poor," she says. "But when they go into a grocery store they can do something—they can make decisions about what they are buying and send a very clear message."
Those in the food-activism movement agree. "It definitely has a positive effect," says Ian Bretman of Fairtrade Labelling Organisations (FLO) International, the Fairtrade umbrella group. Before the advent of ethical and organic labels, he notes, the usual way to express political views using food was to impose boycotts. But such labels make a political act out of consumption, rather than non-consumption--which is far more likely to produce results, he suggests. "That's how you build effective, constructive engagement with companies. If you try to do a boycott or slag them off as unfair or evil, you won't be able to get them round the table."
Consumers have more power than they realise, says Chris Wille of the Rainforest Alliance, a conservation group. "They are at one end of the supply chain, farmers are at the other, and consumers really do have the power to send a message back all the way through that complicated supply chain," he explains. "If the message is frequent, loud and consistent enough, then they can actually change practices, and we see that happening on the ground."
The $30 billion organic-food industry "was created by consumers voting with their dollars," says Michael Pollan, the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (2006), another of this year's crop of books on food politics. Normally, he says, a sharp distinction is made between people's actions as citizens, in which they are expected to consider the well-being of society, and their actions as consumers, which are assumed to be selfish. Food choices appear to reconcile the two.
How green is your organic lettuce?
Yet even an apparently obvious claim--that organic food is better for the environment than the conventionally farmed kind—turns out to be controversial. There are many different definitions of the term "organic", but it generally involves severe restrictions on the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers and a ban on genetically modified organisms. Peter Melchett of the Soil Association, Britain's leading organic lobby group, says that environmental concerns, rather than health benefits, are now cited by British consumers as their main justification for buying organic food. (There is no clear evidence that conventional food is harmful or that organic food is nutritionally superior.)
But not everyone agrees that organic farming is better for the environment. Perhaps the most eminent critic of organic farming is Norman Borlaug, the father of the "green revolution", winner of the Nobel peace prize and an outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilisers to increase crop yields. He claims the idea that organic farming is better for the environment is "ridiculous" because organic farming produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food. Thanks to synthetic fertilisers, Mr Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10%. Using traditional techniques such as crop rotation, compost and manure to supply the soil with nitrogen and other minerals would have required a tripling of the area under cultivation. The more intensively you farm, Mr Borlaug contends, the more room you have left for rainforest.
What of the claim that organic farming is more energy-efficient? Lord Melchett points out for example that the artificial fertiliser used in conventional farming is made using natural gas, which is "completely unsustainable". But Anthony Trewavas, a biochemist at the University of Edinburgh, counters that organic farming actually requires more energy per tonne of food produced, because yields are lower and weeds are kept at bay by ploughing. And Mr Pollan notes that only one-fifth of the energy associated with food production across the whole food chain is consumed on the farm: the rest goes on transport and processing.
The most environmentally benign form of agriculture appears to be "no till" farming, which involves little or no ploughing and relies on cover crops and carefully applied herbicides to control weeds. This makes it hard to combine with organic methods (though some researchers are trying). Too rigid an insistence on organic farming's somewhat arbitrary rules, then--copper, a heavy metal, can be used as an organic fungicide because it is traditional--can actually hinder the adoption of greener agricultural techniques. Alas, shoppers look in vain for "no till" labels on their food--at least so far.
What about Fairtrade? Its aim is to address "the injustice of low prices" by guaranteeing that producers receive a fair price "however unfair the conventional market is", according to FLO International's website. In essence, it means paying producers an above-market "Fairtrade" price for their produce, provided they meet particular labour and production standards. In the case of coffee, for example, Fairtrade farmers receive a minimum of $1.26 per pound for their coffee, or $0.05 above the market price if it exceeds that floor. This premium is passed back to the producers to spend on development programmes. The market for Fairtrade products is much smaller than that for organic products, but is growing much faster: it increased by 37% to reach €1.1 billion ($1.4 billion) in 2005. Who could object to that?
The standard economic argument against Fairtrade goes like this: the low price of commodities such as coffee is due to overproduction, and ought to be a signal to producers to switch to growing other crops. Paying a guaranteed Fairtrade premium--in effect, a subsidy--both prevents this signal from getting through and, by raising the average price paid for coffee, encourages more producers to enter the market. This then drives down the price of non-Fairtrade coffee even further, making non-Fairtrade farmers poorer. Fairtrade does not address the basic problem, argues Tim Harford, author of "The Undercover Economist" (2005), which is that too much coffee is being produced in the first place. Instead, it could even encourage more production.
Mr Bretman of FLO International disagrees. In practice, he says, farmers cannot afford to diversify out of coffee when the price falls. Fairtrade producers can use the premiums they receive to make the necessary investments to diversify into other crops. But surely the price guarantee actually reduces the incentive to diversify?
Another objection to Fairtrade is that certification is predicated on political assumptions about the best way to organise labour. In particular, for some commodities (including coffee) certification is available only to co-operatives of small producers, who are deemed to be most likely to give workers a fair deal when deciding how to spend the Fairtrade premium. Coffee plantations or large family firms cannot be certified. Mr Bretman says the rules vary from commodity to commodity, but are intended to ensure that the Fairtrade system helps those most in need. Yet limiting certification to co-ops means "missing out on helping the vast majority of farm workers, who work on plantations," says Mr Wille of the Rainforest Alliance, which certifies producers of all kinds.
Guaranteeing a minimum price also means there is no incentive to improve quality, grumble coffee-drinkers, who find that the quality of Fairtrade brews varies widely. Again, the Rainforest Alliance does things differently. It does not guarantee a minimum price or offer a premium but provides training, advice and better access to credit. That consumers are often willing to pay more for a product with the RA logo on it is an added bonus, not the result of a formal subsidy scheme; such products must still fend for themselves in the marketplace. "We want farmers to have control of their own destinies, to learn to market their products in these competitive globalised markets, so they are not dependent on some NGO," says Mr Wille.
But perhaps the most cogent objection to Fairtrade is that it is an inefficient way to get money to poor producers. Retailers add their own enormous mark-ups to Fairtrade products and mislead consumers into thinking that all of the premium they are paying is passed on. Mr Harford calculates that only 10% of the premium paid for Fairtrade coffee in a coffee bar trickles down to the producer. Fairtrade coffee, like the organic produce sold in supermarkets, is used by retailers as a means of identifying price-insensitive consumers who will pay more, he says.
As with organic food, the Fairtrade movement is under attack both from outsiders who think it is misguided and from insiders who think it has sold its soul. In particular, the launch by Nestlé, a food giant, of Partners' Blend, a Fairtrade coffee, has convinced activists that the Fairtrade movement is caving in to big business. Nestlé sells over 8,000 non-Fairtrade products and is accused of exploiting the Fairtrade brand to gain favourable publicity while continuing to do business as usual. Mr Bretman disagrees. "We felt it would not be responsible to turn down an opportunity to do something that would practically help hundreds or thousands of farmers," he says. "You are winning the battle if you get corporate acceptance that these ideas are important." He concedes that the Fairtrade movement's supporters are "a very broad church" which includes anti-globalisation and anti-corporate types. But they can simply avoid Nestlé's Fairtrade coffee and buy from smaller Fairtrade producers instead, he suggests.
Besides, this is how change usually comes about, notes Mr Pollan. The mainstream co-opts the fringe and shifts its position in the process; "but then you need people to stake out the fringe again." That is what has happened with organic food in America, and is starting to happen with Fairtrade food too. "People are looking for the next frontier," says Mr Pollan, and it already seems clear what that is: local food.
"Local is the new organic" has become the unofficial slogan of the local-food movement in the past couple of years. The rise of "Big Organic", the large-scale production of organic food to meet growing demand, has produced a backlash and claims that the organic movement has sold its soul. Purists worry that the organic movement's original ideals have been forgotten as large companies that produce and sell organic food on an industrial scale have muscled in.
This partly explains why food bought from local producers either directly or at farmers' markets is growing in popularity, and why local-food advocates are now the keepers of the flame of the food-activism movement. Local food need not be organic, but buying direct from small farmers short-circuits industrial production and distribution systems in the same way that buying organic used to. As a result, local food appears to be immune to being industrialised or corporatised. Organic food used to offer people a way to make a "corporate protest", says Mr Pollan, and now "local offers an alternative to that."
Think globally, act locally?
Buying direct means producers get a fair price, with no middlemen adding big margins along the distribution chain. Nor has local food been shipped in from the other side of the country or the other side of the world, so the smaller number of "food miles" makes local food greener, too. Local food thus appeals in different ways to environmentalists, national farm lobbies and anti-corporate activists, as well as consumers who want to know more about where their food comes from.
Obviously it makes sense to choose a product that has been grown locally over an identical product shipped in from afar. But such direct comparisons are rare. And it turns out that the apparently straightforward approach of minimising the "food miles" associated with your weekly groceries does not, in fact, always result in the smallest possible environmental impact.
The term "food mile" is itself misleading, as a report published by DEFRA, Britain's environment and farming ministry, pointed out last year. A mile travelled by a large truck full of groceries is not the same as a mile travelled by a sport-utility vehicle carrying a bag of salad. Instead, says Paul Watkiss, one of the authors of the DEFRA report, it is more helpful to think about food-vehicle miles (ie, the number of miles travelled by vehicles carrying food) and food-tonne miles (which take the tonnage being carried into account).
The DEFRA report, which analysed the supply of food in Britain, contained several counterintuitive findings. It turns out to be better for the environment to truck in tomatoes from Spain during the winter, for example, than to grow them in heated greenhouses in Britain. And it transpires that half the food-vehicle miles associated with British food are travelled by cars driving to and from the shops. Each trip is short, but there are millions of them every day. Another surprising finding was that a shift towards a local food system, and away from a supermarket-based food system, with its central distribution depots, lean supply chains and big, full trucks, might actually increase the number of food-vehicle miles being travelled locally, because things would move around in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles.
Research carried out at Lincoln University in New Zealand found that producing dairy products, lamb, apples and onions in that country and shipping them to Britain used less energy overall than producing them in Britain. (Farming and processing in New Zealand is much less energy intensive.) And even if flying food in from the developing world produces more emissions, that needs to be weighed against the boost to trade and development.
There is a strand of protectionism and anti-globalisation in much local-food advocacy, says Gareth Edwards-Jones of the University of Wales. Local food lets farming lobbies campaign against imports under the guise of environmentalism. A common argument is that local food is fresher, but that is not always true: green beans, for example, are picked and flown to Britain from Kenya overnight, he says. People clearly want to think that they are making environmentally or socially optimal food choices, he says, but "we don't have enough evidence" to do so.
What should a shopper do? All food choices involve trade-offs. Even if organic farming does consume a little less energy and produce a little less pollution, that must be offset against lower yields and greater land use. Fairtrade food may help some poor farmers, but may also harm others; and even if local food reduces transport emissions, it also reduces potential for economic development. Buying all three types of food can be seen as an anti-corporate protest, yet big companies already sell organic and Fairtrade food, and local sourcing coupled with supermarkets' efficient logistics may yet prove to be the greenest way to move food around.
Food is central to the debates on the environment, development, trade and globalisation--but the potential for food choices to change the world should not be overestimated. The idea of saving the world by shopping is appealing; but tackling climate change, boosting development and reforming the global trade system will require difficult political choices. "We have to vote with our votes as well as our food dollars," says Mr Pollan. Conventional political activity may not be as enjoyable as shopping, but it is far more likely to make a difference.
Genetically Engineered Mustard in India: 3. India's Effort in Developing GE Brassicas
- C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India www.fbaeblog.orghttp://www.fbae.org/Channels/Views/genetically_engineered_mustard_3.htm
The success of North America and Australia in developing GE Canola using the barnase/barstar gene system, gave an impetus to develop GE mustards in India.
GE Brassicas in India: ProAgro, a private seed company in India, obtained from Belgium, a high yielding GE mustard based on the barnase/barstar gene system, in 1966. After several years’ of back crossing with the Indian varieties, ProAgro was permitted by the Review Committee for Genetic Manipulation (RCGM), to conduct field trials at 50 locations in Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, with seven entries of three GE test hybrids and four check varieties for comparison. The field trials were co-ordinated by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which submitted a report to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). However, ProAgro’s application for commercialization of the high yielding GE mustard got caught in procedure and there ever so many new questions each time in the GEAC, leading to protracted delays. ProAgro got frustrated and withdrew its application.
Apart from Pro-Agro’s aborted attempt, the following Brassica crops are in development in India: In collaboration with Monsanto and Michigan State University, and under the support of the United States agency for International Development (USAID), the Tata Energy Resources Institute, New Delhi (TERI), has been developing since 2000, a GE mustard variety with high levels of b-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A), using Monsanto’s technology.
The Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, is developing a water-stress resistant mustard variety, with genes CodA and Osmotin and one with Bt Cry 1Ac for pest resistance. The University of Delhi, South Campus (UDSC) and the National Research Centre for Weed Science, Jabalpur, are using the barnase/barstar system to improve the yield in mustard. On October 13, 2006, the Supreme Court of India permitted the UDSC to go ahead with field trials, an exception to its earlier directive to the GEAC to stop new field trials until further orders.Bt Cry1Ac containing pest resistant varieties are being developed in cauliflower (Mahyco and Sungrow Seeds) and cabbage (Sungrow Seeds).
ProAgro’s field data:
The aborted attempt of ProAgro in commercializing a high yielding GE mustard has, however, provided extensive field data that can be of immense use to others in the field.
Pollen drift and gene flow in GE varieties:
Cross pollination studies were conducted in Haryana for two seasons (2001 and 2002), on the Indian GE mustard by ProAgro. The RCGM reported that the extent of gene flow was assessed on the basis of the percentage of survivors on spraying the herbicide Basta, on the border rows of about 2500 non-GE mustard plots. It was reported that the mean survival, an indicator of gene flow, was 0.1 per cent at five meters, 0.02 per cent at 10 meters and zero anywhere from 15 to 150 meters. The conclusion is that the risk of gene flow from GE to non-GE mustard was minuscule and has no significant biological or environmental impact.
Pollen drift becomes significant, only if the drifted pollen were viable, produced viable seed that resulted in fertile offspring. Mere pollen drift does not mean gene transfer. Even if there was gene flow, it is of no consequence because the introduced gene system, where herbicide resistance gene is linked with male sterile plants, causes production of only sterile pollen incapable of fertilization. A two-year study of herbicide tolerant canola from Australia (Science, 2002) confirmed this. The prescribed acceptable levels of GE component in non-GE canola seeds (less than one percent), has never been crossed.
Seed and oil yield of GM mustard in field trials:
In 2002, the RCGM reported that ProAgro’s test hybrids yielded 19 to 24 per cent more seed, containing about 15 per cent more oil, than the check varieties.