Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - December 12, 2006
* Upheaval Over GM Corn Seed Hardly Worth the Effort
* Can A Biotech Cassava Ease Hunger In Africa?
* Scientists Say Biotech Safe to Eat, But Worries Linger
* Africa in the Middle of U.S.-European Biotech Trade War
* Save the Rain Forest -- Boycott Organic?
* Water Scarcity and Agricultural Biotechnologies
* USDA Raises Rice Export Forecast
* Greenpeace Subsidiary in Red, Cuts Jobs
Upheaval Over GM Corn Seed Hardly Worth the Effort
- Daily News (New Zealand), Dec. 11, 2006
The hysteria over whether a tiny amount of genetically modified corn seed has entered New Zealand is founded in Green mythology and general misinformation about the science. Superstition and fear of the unknown have dominated this scene in New Zealand since 1999, when the Green Party brokered a partnership deal with the Labour Party before that year's general election -- which Labour won.
The deal included a royal commission of inquiry into the advantages and disadvantages and likely future of the new world of genetic modification, which the Greens expected would shy away from what it viewed as Frankenscience.
Fortunately, the commission's panel of four eminent, independent New Zealanders, led by a retired High Court judge, decided, after an exhaustive, 14-month, nationwide series of hearings and public submissions, that the unfolding and infinite business of manipulating genes -- to battle diseases in everything from humans to potatoes -- was a science that could not be uninvented. The rest of the world, including this country's agricultural competitors, were investing in research and development -- of, for instance, disease-free crops needing fewer sprays -- and New Zealand should try to keep abreast of the technology to support the nation's backbone industry and state revenue stream.
The royal commission's "proceed with caution" advice was, however, stalled for two years while the Greens complained about the ref and while regulatory and consultancy bodies were established -- among them the Environmental Risk Management Authority, among whose roles was the monitoring of a near-impossible zero-tolerance barrier against imported cropping seeds that might have been modified, even accidentally. Remember Corngate in 2002, when microscopically small percentages of a tweaked, disease-resistant seed, were detected? The debate was lost in Helen Clark's John "Little Creep" Campbell ambush -- and the rest of the population carried on eating GM foods, which are freely available. In prepared meals they do not even have to be identified.
And now there is Corngate II -- although there have been other suspected GM-affected seeds imported, but without the headlines. This time, four tonnes of seed have been identified as containing between one in 1000 and one in 10,000 GM seeds. The word contamination is being freely applied, and remaining stocks are destined for destruction, as are planted fields in Hawke's Bay, Gisborne and Canterbury.
The tone of the news coverage and governmental edicts conjure up images of fledgling crops glowing the dark -- and they will probably be sprayed with double-strength herbicides comprising the very chemicals their designers sought to avoid. There should be a better way, considering the inevitability of useful GM crops in the near future, and the fact such end products are already in a vast array of foodstuffs. Once again, the scene is dominated by voodoo science and paranoia, not common sense.
Can A Biotech Cassava Ease Hunger In Africa?
Eric Hand, St. Louis Today, Dec. 12, 2006 http://www.stltoday.com
Nakitoma, Uganda - The sleepy main street of Nakitoma, with its pancake seller and bicycle repairman, is little different from that of other provincial towns - just a flash of weathered, empty storefronts on the pocked road.
Barefoot children chase cars, calling out, "Bye-bye, Museveni!" For if someone is driving a car around here, he must be someone important, such as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. It is a forgettable place, except for one thing: It is the epicenter of a pandemic whose shock waves still are ravaging Africa.
It was here, 18 years ago, that a virus swept into fields of cassava. Cassava is a food staple and a source of income for hundreds of millions of Africans. The potato-like plant sustains African farmers when their less hardy crops fail. The virus has spread into at least nine countries and has cut cassava yields in half.
Christopher Mukiibi's cassava patch is still sickly. Sitting outside in a yellow foam chair by a pile of rotting mangoes, Mukiibi, 75, eats a breakfast of corn porridge and boiled cassava. An oily smoke rises from the ruins of his crumbling kitchen hearth. "It's the main crop that has sustained my family," he says through a translator. His palsied hands tremble. He asks for food and sugar. "I need assistance."
That assistance might come from the basement of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur, where a little cassava plant grows in a puddle of hormones, its leaves pressed and straining against a plastic petri dish. Scientists genetically engineered the plant in 1999 to resist the virus. Since then, they have been trying to give the technology away.
But African nations, caught between the United States and Europe in a smoldering fight over biotechnology, have yet to allow field tests on their soil. The Danforth Center scientists acknowledge that a virus-resistant cassava won't solve African hunger on its own. Hunger is a complex issue, and poverty, war, substandard health care, poor roads and exploding populations all play roles.
But international aid workers are watching the Danforth Center as it attempts to bring the first nonprofit biotech product to Africa. First and foremost, the cassava project is a scientific experiment. The Danforth Center is coaxing governments to accept a technology that is still a work in progress.
The project also will test the role biotechnology has to play in stemming hunger by boosting crop yields. Biotech has yet to make much of an impact on Africa's poorest, who, some agricultural scientists say, could benefit more from investment in roads and fertilizer.
Finally, the cassava project is an experiment in the viability of nonprofit biotechnology. The 5-year-old Danforth Center is one of just a few public-sector biotech centers that freely licenses technology for humanitarian purposes. The center tackles crops ignored by the private sector because they are grown in poor countries where there isn't a market for biotech.
Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation selected four of these "orphaned" crops - rice, banana, sorghum and cassava - for grants that would support development of genetically engineered nutritional enhancements. Some of the money went to the Danforth Center.
Getting the genetically engineered cassava into the ground in Africa is the job of Lawrence Kent, a Danforth Center nonscientist whose job depends on this science being put to use. Bolstered by the new donor money, Kent went last summer to Uganda, Malawi and Kenya to make his pitch to officials. "There hasn't been a public-sector success story for developing countries, and we'd all like to create one," he says. "There is pressure on us to succeed."
A pandemic emerges
The teenage boy in the Minnie Mouse T-shirt takes a chunk of cassava, skins it with his fingernail and bites into its raw, white flesh, a reward after a long day of hoeing. The woman who hired him also will pay him a little more than $1. She decided to uproot her tiny forest of cassava and pile the roots on a truck bound for Kampala, Uganda's capital. There, the 220-pound sacks of cassava will be sold fresh for just more than $20 - about $5 more than the woman could get in her local market.
Boiled like a potato, ground into a flour or eaten raw, cassava is a low-maintenance crop that can be found almost everywhere in Africa. It grows in poor soils and requires little water and little attention. Harvests are flexible: Roots can be left in the ground for two or three years and eaten in times of trouble. Pound for pound, cassava produces more starch per acre than any other staple food crop.
But the plant has a flaw: mosaic virus. First discovered in 1894, the virus produces a yellow mosaic pattern as it withers the leaves. Without that photosynthetic area, rootwads are puny. A plant that might ideally produce 10 big "potatoes" instead offers up just a few small ones or none at all. Routinely, mosaic infections cause farmers to lose a fifth of their crops, says James Legg, an entomologist in Tanzania who has studied cassava mosaic disease for years.
But in Uganda in the late 1980s, the virus mutated into something harsher. The new mosaic virus reduced cassava to barren stalks with useless roots. Farmers abandoned entire fields. The virus has raced across the countryside, spread by the bite of the tiny and ubiquitous whitefly. It also has spread when farmers sowed new cassava fields using the diseased stalks from infected plants.
Legg completed a survey this year that conservatively estimates a 47 percent overall loss to cassava farmers in the pandemic area, which includes at least nine nations, perhaps 11. He worries about the pandemic, which like a storm front is moving 50 miles a year toward Nigeria, the biggest cassava producer in the world. "This is huge," he says. "Farmers can't make any money from their crops. They have to eat everything they have."
Legg's loss estimate doesn't reflect the farmers who have given up on cassava and turned instead to crops such as corn, which is far more susceptible to drought. While Legg documents the losses from cassava mosaic disease, Kent, the Danforth Center's director of international programs, fantasizes about what African farmers could gain with a resistant plant.
If losses are almost half, then a resistant plant could double production. All that extra cassava could be sold, Kent says, and pay for things such as milk, medicine, newspapers, school fees and batteries. "For a poor family, that's a huge difference in the quality of life," he says.
Kent rises with the roosters on a cool, cloudy morning in Kampala. Outside the gated hotel walls, bicycles, scooters and matatus - minivans that serve as Africa's unregulated bus service - begin to honk and squeal as they compete for road space. Electricity returns to a country that suffers power cuts every night.
Kent's plane was delayed from Kenya. He didn't check into his hotel until after 1 a.m. The mosquito netting was torn, and the air conditioner didn't work. He slept poorly. He takes a bath and shaves and pops an anti-malaria pill. He prepares his papers for his first meeting, an important one, with the director of Uganda's agricultural research organization. He looks weary on this, the eighth day of a whirlwind 10-day trip. "Is it Monday?" he asks no one in particular.
Another day, another African city, another slew of official meetings. Kent wants to get the resistant cassava into the hands of farmers, but he first has to bend the ears of government officials who are debating whether to accept biotech.
Kent is no stranger to working in Africa. A former Peace Corps volunteer, he speaks French and Arabic, and he has visited two-thirds of the continent's nations. He also is no stranger to its hardships. Twenty years ago, in the Peace Corps in Mauritania, he taught poor farmers how to grow rice. Electricity, running water and bathrooms didn't exist. Two children in his host family died within his first two months.
At the Danforth Center, Kent says, he can work for bigger changes. He has traded the warmth of village experiences for the stiff handshakes of officialdom. Now, he wears suits. "The goats in the street, or the kids making cars out of cans of condensed milk, or donkeys on the highway, or matatus with 100 people hanging off of them - those things don't catch my attention anymore," he says.
A driver in a sport utility vehicle shows up at 7:30 a.m. to pick up Kent. He enters the madness of morning rush hour. Kent has been making trips such as this since he joined the Danforth Center in 2002. Nigeria was very interested in the biotech cassava at first. The Danforth Center flew Nigeria's national biosafety committee to St. Louis. But the committee postponed approval meetings.
In 2004, Malawi nearly approved a field trial, but it was held up indefinitely by one official. Kenya is the furthest along. In 2004 it allowed a limited test in which resistant cassava plants were tested in a closed greenhouse. But in the two years since, the national biosafety committee, through postponement after postponement, has avoided approving a field test. "We spend a lot of time ramming our heads into the same walls over and over again," Kent says.
Africa remains uncertain about the future of biotechnology. Only South Africa allows biotech crops to be grown and sold. And only a few nations - Algeria, Benin and Zambia - ban biotech. The rest seem on the fence, eager for the debate to play out before they commit.
Delays are common in Africa for many things, not just biotech. In a place where good roads and fixed bus schedules are practically nonexistent, waiting is just a part of everyday life. Waiting also is a part of science. Back in 1986, Danforth Center President Roger Beachy, then at Washington University, invented the method that scientists are using to engineer the cassava. He found that inserting bits of viral DNA into a tobacco plant gives it resistance to that virus, almost like a vaccine.
A few years later, Claude Fauquet, a Danforth Center plant scientist who was also at Washington University at the time, read about the technique and began applying it to his specialty, cassava. So biotech cassava has been a work in progress for almost two decades - and Fauquet still is refining the technology.
Last spring, he discovered that offspring from the cassava developed in 1999 had suddenly lost their resistance to the mosaic virus. The current cassava was engineered more cleanly, Fauquet says, and should retain its resistance. He feels lucky to have caught the problem. If field tests had gone ahead with the old cassava, many would have declared the technology a failure.
Legg, the cassava expert, says that biotech cassava will be useful one day, but in the meantime, traditional breeders already have had some success creating a resistant cassava. "There is the sense that the hype outweighs the potential value of (biotech cassava)," he says.
In Serere, Uganda, an agricultural researcher showed off fields of healthy cassava that had been crossbred with related species for resistance to the mosaic disease. Near the research station, farmers still grow the old, susceptible cassava.
Scientists at the Danforth Center say the new breeds aren't culturally acceptable, so farmers don't use them. "It doesn't taste right. It doesn't cook right," Kent says. Some farmers complain about the consistency of the porridge made from this cassava; others complain about the taste. The Danforth Center plans to produce customized, resistant versions of the preferred cassava varieties, region by region. "Neither of us has a quick solution," Kent says.
Beachy initially thought the virus resistance technique would have been used on crops within five years of its discovery. "It takes longer than just delivering a pill or putting up a school or digging a well. Critics say, 'Why aren't you doing this faster?" Beachy says.
Waiting ? and waiting
There are few nonprofit or public-sector precedents to guide the Danforth Center. No nonprofit biotech product has yet helped the developing world. In 1992, Monsanto donated training and money to a Kenyan scientist to make a virus-resistant sweet potato. A decade later, after millions of dollars in funding, field tests showed the modified variety no less vulnerable to disease than conventional sweet potatoes.
Another public-sector example, a biotech papaya, was a success story - but only in the United States. In 1992, the ringspot virus entered the main papaya-growing region of Hawaii. In six years, it had cut fruit production in half. In that time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture genetically engineered a virus-resistant version, showed good field-test results, obtained intellectual-property licenses and gave seeds to farmers.
Now, more than half of the papaya grown in Hawaii is genetically engineered. USDA scientist Dennis Gonsalves says biotech saved the papaya industry. The technology could be used in the developing world. Scientists have engineered resistant papayas for Jamaica, Venezuela, Brazil and Thailand. Field tests have been done. But none of the nations have allowed farmers to begin growing them. "So you just wait," Gonsalves says.
Public-sector scientists say they also are hamstrung by meager funding. Monsanto says that it costs up to $100 million to bring a biotech product to market. Public-sector biotech centers don't have that much money; the Danforth Center's endowment isn't even that big.
But last year, the center was part of a consortium that won a $7.5 million grant from the Gates Foundation. The consortium not only is targeting the cassava virus resistance, but also is trying to add vitamins, minerals and proteins to the plant while subtracting compounds that make some varieties of cassava poisonous and that make it spoil.
This year, Monsanto gave the center $7.5 million more for cassava work. Fauquet counts more than $30 million now available for cassava research worldwide. "We have never had this for cassava before," he says. The money has allowed Fauquet to turn his laboratory into a halfway house - something between an academic institution and a business.
Before, he had two people working on the project. Now, he has 18. Before, he could evaluate 200 cassava plants at once. Now, 1,500. He needs twice as much greenhouse space, and, with cassava overflowing in the center, he is renting space in Earth City.
The research is slogging, unsexy work, but for Fauquet, there is urgency. As he waits for his little cassava plants to grow, African populations are exploding. There were 216 million hungry Africans in 2004, more than twice as many as in 1971. "We cannot afford to neglect this crop," he says.
And the mosaic disease marches on, laying fields to waste.
Scientists Say Biotech Safe to Eat, But Worries Linger
- Eric Hand, St Louis Today, Dec. 12, 2006 http://www.stltoday.com
Many people fear biotech foods, and scientists say they have a hard time convincing the public that genetically modified crops are no more dangerous to eat than hybrids that have existed for more than a century. "There's just a lack of knowledge," said Patrick Rubaihayo, a plant scientist at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. "It's a subject, a monster they can't understand."
Although there is little scientific debate over the safety of eating biotech crops, scientists have expressed some concerns over potential environmental effects of biotech.
So what is biotech? It's a general term, short for biotechnology, that encompasses scientific manipulations of biological organisms. Genetically engineered or genetically modified crops are a specific type of agricultural biotechnology. These crops are the result of transgenic technology, which means taking a gene from a different species and inserting it into the chromosomes of the target organism.
A gene is a section of DNA with instructions for a protein, molecules that perform most of life's useful functions. For example, transgenic cotton contains a gene from a bacterium that produces a protein that kills insects. That gene, inserted into the chromosomes of cotton, allows the plant to exude the natural pesticide itself. Genetically engineered techniques are not just for crops. Genes have been inserted into bacteria, yeast and even hamster ovaries, to make medical products such as insulin, antibiotics and cancer-fighting drugs.
Scientist Michael Hall of the U.S. Agency for International Development said there is less opposition to medical biotech than to agricultural biotech because of the perceived benefits. "When you're dying, you don't get philosophical," said Hall, biotechnology adviser for east Africa.
Critics say genetic transformations are sloppy and can produce new proteins that have toxic or allergenic effects. Biotech supporters say the new proteins are screened under current regulations.
The screening process is more rigorous than for unregulated traditional breeders, who sometimes use radiation and chemicals to induce random mutations that result in new seeds. Under U.S. organic standards, these induced genetic changes are acceptable, but the specific genetic transformations of biotechnology are not.
As public opposition to agricultural biotech lingers, the list of government and scientific bodies that have endorsed its safety grows. It includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Medical Association, the United Nations, the European Union, the World Health Organization and the International Council for Science.
A panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences, the premier U.S. scientific society, in 2002 found that "the transgenic process presents no new categories of risk compared to conventional methods" and that the "standards being set for transgenic crops are much higher than for conventional counterparts."
The panel's 2004 report found that "no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population." But some of the panels expressed concerns for the environmental impacts of biotech. Many domesticated crops need human intervention to reproduce each year, which means their genes stay put. But some genetically modified crops can cross-pollinate with nearby wild or conventional relatives. When they do, genes mix to create a new generation, much as children receive a mix of their parents' genes.
A study in August by EPA researchers found that a herbicide-resistant grass in Oregon had crossed with wild relatives outside a test plot, the first documented case in the United States of this mixing, which is called gene flow. Organic farmers view this as contamination or "gene pollution." If biotech crops cross with their own, they can't certify their crops as organic.
But some scientists say organic farmers have a false sense of purity. Gene flow occurs everywhere, all the time - not just between genetically modified crops and natural relatives, but also between hybrids and natural relatives. Gene flow from biotech plants is only dangerous if the introduced gene carries a trait that will be harmful in the new population, the scientists say.
Making drugs from crops
Another such worry is with crops that are genetically engineered to produce drugs: What if the gene that makes the drugs gets into crops destined for the dinner table?
Ventria Bioscience has genetically engineered rice specifically to produce proteins found in breast milk that can be used to combat diarrhea in children. The company, based in Sacramento, Calif., abandoned plans to grow the rice in California and in Missouri because of farmers' fears that the pharmaceutical rice couldn't be kept separate from table rice. Anheuser-Busch, the nation's largest buyer of rice, said it wouldn't buy Missouri rice if the pharmaceutical rice was grown in the state. Ventria announced in September plans to move its operations to Kansas, where rice isn't grown for food.
Biotechnologists say farmers can safely segregate crops. Canadian farmers, for example, for years have kept two conventional canola varieties separate. One variety produces oil used in food; the other makes an industrial lubricant that would be harmful if eaten. Moreover, in the case of pharmaceutical rice, they say rice self-pollinates, which means its pollen is less likely to travel long distances to cross with related rice plants.
Yet this summer, traces of a genetically modified rice were found in Missouri and Arkansas storage units, even though the herbicide-resistant rice was tested in Louisiana State University plots years ago. The maker, Bayer CropScience, hadn't sought USDA approval. Europe and Japan banned imports; rice prices plummeted; and rice farmers sued Bayer. The genetic traces pose no health or food safety concerns, the FDA and USDA say.
Rubaihayo, the plant scientist in Uganda, supports biotech, but he also blames companies for overselling it - for making it so glamorous that people began to fear it.
Fears of new foods are nothing new. In medieval times, Catholic priests tried to ban coffee, calling it "Satan's beverage." For a while, the potato was thought to cause leprosy, tuberculosis and rickets. And the tomato, now the world's most popular fruit, was considered poisonous well into the 19th century.
In the 20th century, the safety of milk pasteurization and food irradiation was hotly debated even though the processes make food safer.
So Rubaihayo isn't surprised that people are scared of biotech. But he wishes they weren't. "This is an ordinary technology that will not make miracles but could solve some problems," he says. "And it will not make disasters."
He adds, "We have to go back and start again. And tell them that they were scared of nothing."
Africa in the Middle of U.S.-European Biotech Trade War
- Eric Hand, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 12 2006 http://www.stltoday.com/
The story is the stuff of legend. Drought leads to famine across southern Africa. The U.S. ships aid across the Atlantic: millions of tons of corn, some of it genetically modified.
European environmental groups warn about the dire effects of allowing the corn in. The Zambian president calls the corn "poison." Food is locked in warehouses while people go hungry.
Four years ago, these events were a prism through which both sides of the biotech debate saw their worldview refracted. Supporters said: Here is the human cost of European irrationality and the missed opportunities of biotech. Skeptics said: Here is a deliberate provocation by the U.S., which could buy grain in Africa but instead works to secure a foothold to market its own biotech products.
The biotech conflict between Europe and the U.S. is a trade war that's being fought by proxy in Africa in a way that recalls an African proverb: When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled. "It's not about science, really. It's about trade," says Wisdom Changadaya, a pro-biotech scientist in
Malawi, which today mills donated biotech corn into flour to prevent it from being planted as seed. "These big nations are fighting. We happen to lose." Scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur say the suspicions aroused by the trade war have hampered their efforts to field-test a biotech cassava, one of the most important food crops in Africa. Seven years ago, they genetically engineered the cassava to resist a virus that is ravaging the crop. The nonprofit biotech center wants to give the plant away.
But Lawrence Kent, the center's director of international programs, has been unable to get field tests approved. While the cassava virus continues to advance on farmers' fields, the biotech debate continues in government offices. Several African nations have banned biotech, several have embraced it, while many remain on the fence. Last summer, Kent went to Kenya, Uganda and Malawi to push yet again for the technology that could double cassava yields in the virus-affected areas.
"You want to do something with your life before you die," he says. "When I don't see (results) coming, I feel sad and lost. I need someone to sometimes say, 'Keep going. Keep going.'"
A 'Trojan horse'
Zachary Makanya wishes Kent and other biotech pushers would stop. He is the country coordinator for an anti-biotech nongovernmental organization near Nairobi that coordinates the efforts of groups throughout Africa. Makanya levels a barrage of criticisms against biotech, but they are political and economic criticisms, not scientific.
He says U.S. food aid is a "Trojan horse" that would put African markets in jeopardy. Crops like corn pollinate via the wind. When genetically modified corn arrives in a new location, genes can flow and mix with existing corn crops. In the eyes of European regulators, African corn exports therefore would be tainted. "By bringing (genetically modified food) into Africa we are actually killing our only market -- for organics," he says.
--are staple cereals for which Africa is a net importer. "Africa is not going to be a (corn) exporter to Europe," he says. "They're dreaming they will be an Iowa."
But even the presence of biotechnology in a country in Africa has caused some European importers to ask for expensive genetic testing or segregation of crops. "It's a big problem," Hall says. "It scares the daylights out of African traders." In Malawi, for example, tobacco growers worry about biotech tobacco seeds slipping into the country, for fear its organic European export market would be threatened.
The politics of biotech have influenced trade decisions in other parts of the world. China has grown biotech cotton for a decade. But it does not grow biotech soybeans, even though it imports some for feed. That's because it can export homegrown, nonbiotech soybeans at a premium to Japan and Korea.
In the U.S., Monsanto withdrew a planned commercial release of biotech wheat partly because of industry concerns that Canadian growers would resist growing the biotech wheat and would capture export markets to Europe, which was likely to balk at taking U.S.-grown biotech wheat.
Europe's de facto freeze on biotech imports, though it ended in 2003, has raised African suspicions, Makanya says. "Europe has more knowledge, education. So why are they refusing (genetically modified foods)? That is the question everybody is asking," he says.
Precaution and risk
The U.S.-European divide on biotech has much to do with competing cultural approaches to food and risk. Europeans are intimate with their food. They want to know where their wine and cheese hail from. Food safety scandals such as a mad-cow disease outbreak in Britain left consumers shaky. Some risk experts say the scandals spurred European fears of biotech.
The "precautionary principle" now forms the official basis for European Union environmental policy. One definition of the principle is: Lack of knowledge or certainty about a risk means that steps should be taken to limit that risk. The precautionary principle led Norway to ban Kellogg's Corn Flakes because of the uncertain risk of added vitamins and minerals, while Denmark banned cranberry drinks because of the uncertain risk of extra vitamin C. The bans were later overturned.
In contrast, the U.S. tends to celebrate risk-taking. The burden of regulation is on government agencies to show evidence that a company's product is risky before steps are taken to stop the company. The U.S. is the No. 1 grower of biotech crops, representing 55 percent of the global biotech area planted last year.
The World Trade Organization ruled this year that the European Union was wrong to ban biotech imports between 1999 and 2003. Since then, a few European nations, including Germany and France, have allowed small test plots to go forward, though it is unclear whether consumers will accept biotech products. Activists last summer continued to burn biotech test fields in France.
Africa is caught in the middle. In the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union pitted African nations against one another and supported like-minded regimes. A similarly checkered map has now emerged with biotech. For example, South Africa grows genetically engineered crops, while Zambia and Benin have banned biotech. Most countries remain undecided.
The debate is occurring in the ministerial hallways of African capitals. In the dry, red fields of southeastern Uganda, biotech still is a mystery. In Kadimukoli, a loose federation of shade and shacks down a dirt track teeming with pink-frocked schoolchildren, a handful of farmers didn't have an opinion about biotech. They didn't have an opinion because they didn't know what genetically modified crops are. They just knew that their cassava was sick.
One of the farmers, Jane Wattaba, says it has been hard to support her 10 surviving children since her husband, a member of Parliament, was murdered in the early 1980s. Her small cassava grinder is broken, the repair money sacrificed to pay school fees for her children.
Over a lunch of boiled cassava, she says that farmers have weathered the damage caused by the cassava virus by obtaining varieties that show better resistance — one is called "Red Cross" after the aid organization that brought it to Kadimukoli. She says she would like to test a cassava called "St. Louis."
Deadlines to meet
When Kent returned from Africa last summer, he was more optimistic that this could happen. In Kenya, field tests of conventional cassava plants have begun. These plants will be compared to biotech cassava in future field tests that Kent said could happen next year. He said Ugandan officials were so enthusiastic that they approached him. Malawi was a bit more skeptical but still interested in the cassava project, he says.
Even if Kent gets permission for field tests, biotech cassava is still years away from farmers' fields. And deadlines must be met. "Donors put pressure on us. You have to deliver," Kent says.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Monsanto Fund have given the Danforth Center millions of dollars to genetically modify the cassava so that it is virus-resistant, fortified with vitamins and minerals and lacking in cyanide-producing chemicals. The grants are for five years and specify more than 100 mileposts in the coming years, from rounding up intellectual property rights to performing human trials of the zinc and iron fortification.
Kent says a significant milestone will occur early next year, when field tests for the first genetically modified cassava -- for the reduction of cyanide-producing chemicals — begin in Puerto Rico. Danforth Center scientists won't be able to test their virus-resistant cassava in Puerto Rico because the disease doesn't exist there. But Kent hopes that a test of genetically modified cassava on U.S. soil will allay African officials' fears that they are guinea pigs.
Flirtatious governments have disappointed him before, but he doesn't indulge in cynicism. Kent credits his local priest with giving him some newfound perspective. Before he left for Africa, the priest gave him a poem from Archbishop Oscar Romero, an activist Salvadoran priest assassinated in 1980.
The poem begins: "It helps now and then to step back and take the long view / The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts / It is even beyond our vision
"We plant the seeds that one day will grow / We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise
"It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way."
Save the Rain Forest -- Boycott Organic?
- Andrew Leonard, Salon.com, Dec. 12, 2006. Commentary with hyperlinks at http://www.salon.com/tech/htww/2006/12/11/borlaug/index.html
Do the ideals of organic farming and the triumphs of the Green Revolution have to be locked in mortal combat?
In the culture wars, there is a conservative faction that loves nothing better than savaging the organic-farming movement as an elitist affectation that is out of touch with economic reality. This contingent is ecstatic today, gleefully passing around a paragraph from a recent Economist article summarizing the negative views on organic agriculture held by famous agronomist Norman Borlaug.
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 fertilizers 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 fertilizers, Mr. Borlaug points out, global cereal production tripled between 1950 and 2000, but the amount of land used increased by only 10 percent. 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.
In other words, as one commenter to Tyler Cowen's Marginal Revolution joked, if you want to save the rain forest, boycott organic!
Borlaug expressed himself directly, and even more pungently, on this topic in an interview with Reason magazine conducted in 2000.
> Reason: What do you think of organic farming? A lot of people claim it's better for human health and the environment.
> Borlaug: That's ridiculous. This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material that you have -- the animal manures, the human waste, the plant residues -- and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than 4 billion people. In addition, if all agriculture were organic, you would have to increase cropland area dramatically, spreading out into marginal areas and cutting down millions of acres of forests.
> At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There's a lot of nonsense going on here.
> If people want to believe that the organic food has better nutritive value, it's up to them to make that foolish decision. But there's absolutely no research that shows that organic foods provide better nutrition. As far as plants are concerned, they can't tell whether that nitrate ion comes from artificial chemicals or from decomposed organic matter. If some consumers believe that it's better from the point of view of their health to have organic food, God bless them. Let them buy it. Let them pay a bit more. It's a free society. But don't tell the world that we can feed the present population without chemical fertilizer. That's when this misinformation becomes destructive.
This shouldn't even be a debate! Those are strong words, and naturally, they are dismissed outright by organic farmers. Borlaug's every contention is hotly disputed. There are studies that purport to prove that organic farms have the same or better yield than conventional farms and that small farms produce much more per acre than large farms. As for organic sources of nitrogen -- vast amounts of currently generated cattle manure are not recycled into the system at all. And then there are the really big questions. How long can the current application of synthetic fertilizers be sustained, ecologically, and what happens if the price of oil rises to a point where using petrochemically derived fertilizers becomes economically unfeasible?
The Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota has put together a nice page of links on this very topic, including a pointer to a summary of research studies comparing organic yields (conducted before 2000) with conventional farming practices. The author finished with this riposte to Borlaugian technological determinism.
> Hunger is a problem of poverty, distribution, and access to food. The question then, is not "how to feed the world," but rather, how can we develop sustainable farming methods that have the potential to help the world feed and sustain itself. Organic management practices promote soil health, water conservation and can reverse environmental degradation. The emphasis on small-scale family farms has the potential to revitalize rural areas and their economies.
> Counter to the widely held belief that industrial agriculture is more efficient and productive, small farms produce far more per acre than large farms. Industrial agriculture relies heavily on monocultures, the planting of a single crop throughout the farm, because they simplify management and allow the use of heavy machinery. Larger farms in the third world also tend to grow export luxury crops instead of providing staple foods to their growing population. Small farmers, especially in the Third World, have integrated farming systems where they plant a variety of crops maximizing the use of their land. They are also more likely to have livestock on their farm, which provides a variety of animal products to the local economy and manure for improving soil fertility.
> In such farms, though the yield per acre of a single crop might be lower than a large farm, total production per acre of all the crops and various animal products is much higher than large conventional farms ... Conversion to small organic farms therefore would lead to sizeable increases of food production worldwide. Only organic methods can help small family farms survive, increase farm productivity, repair decades of environmental damage and knit communities into smaller, more sustainable distribution networks -- all leading to improved food security around the world.
So there you have it: The two poles of the debate. One side envisions a world of small organic farms knit together into sustainable ecological networks. Another pins its hopes on continuing technological advances that must aggressively increase yields in order to cope with an ever-burgeoning global population. Representatives of the two sides rarely have kind words for each other.
My question is: Where's the middle ground? Where is the attempt to merge technological innovation with state-of-the-art ecological conscientiousness? Is it, by definition, an unforgivable sin to imagine a genetically modified rice strain that is drought resistant and can handle higher temperatures, farmed sustainably, with a minimum of petrochemical fertilizer inputs? Is it heresy to concede that Borlaug's contributions contributed immensely to India's being able to feed itself (something that many critics said was impossible) while at the same time acknowledging that we can do better?
FAO E-Mail Conference: Water Scarcity and Agricultural Biotechnologies
- FAO-BiotechNews, Dec. 12, 2006, http://www.fao.org/biotech/index.asp
The FAO Biotechnology Forum is devoting its next e-mail conference to the role that biotechnologies can play in helping developing countries cope with water scarcity. Organised in collaboration with FAO's Water Resources, Development and Management Service, the conference will cover issues such as the use of biotechnologies to increase the efficiency of water use in agriculture and the use of micro-organisms in wastewater treatment.
To discuss and exchange experiences on this subject, we invite you to join the conference. This will be the 14th conference hosted by the Forum since it was launched in 2000. The conference, as usual, is open to everyone, is free and will be moderated. It begins on 5 March and finishes on 30 March 2007.
All e-mail messages posted during the conference will also be placed on the Forum website (http://www.fao.org/biotech/forum.asp). To join the Forum (and also register for the conference), send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org leaving the subject blank and entering the following text on two lines: subscribe BIOTECH-L
Those who are already Forum members should leave out the first line of the above message, to register for the conference. For more information, contact email@example.com
USDA Raises Rice Export Forecast
- Farm Futures, Dec 12, 2006 http://www.farmfutures.com
Although the European Union still won't buy U.S. rice due to concerns about unapproved biotech rice in shipments, USDA raised its forecast for U.S. rice exports in its December supply and demand report.
The 2006-07 forecast for U.S. rice is up to 102 million hundredweight, compared to a 97 million estimate in November. USDA says increased imports of U.S. rice in Iraq, Mexico and other Central American countries helped offset the loss of the EU market.
"Despite a reduction in exports to some markets due to [presence of unapproved] biotech rice, exports to other markets are doing well, particularly to markets in the Western Hemisphere," USDA says.
European Union officials discovered an unapproved strain of genetically modified rice in U.S. rice shipments to Europe earlier this year, prompting the EU to halt U.S. rice imports.
'German Subsidiary of Greenpeace Ends the Year in Red; Cuts Jobs'
Germany: Greenpeace Plans Dismissals (Greenpeace plant Entlassungen)
- Marco Carini, Die Tageszeitung, Dezember 1, 2006 (Improved automatic translation from Vivian Moses)
'Staff are begining to feel the financial crisis of the eco-activists. Because donations no longer flow so lavishly, 20 employees will lose their jobs with the rest having to accept income reductions'
Hamburg - Greenpeace Germany is in crisis. For the first time, the Hamburg centre of Germany's largest and financially strongest environment organization has negotiated "operational dismissals" and drastic "reductions in salary". This afternoon the Greenpeace management meets with Brigitte Behrens in a first exploratory discussion with the Greenpeace works council. It concerns reductions of up to 20 of the 160 jobs in the eco-organization. For the remaining workers the prospects are for longer hours and lower salaries and bonuses.
The background for the planned dismissals is that donation income of Greenpeace has stagnated for years. The organization is increasingly failing to penetrate the media with its campaigns. Since costs continue to rise, Greenpeace Germany is living on his reserves. With a budget of approximately € 40 million, in the past year alone they spent € 800,000 more than they received. In spite of the contributions from 554.000 members, in the current year the gap between income and expenditures lay the region of millions.
Moreover, Greenpeace Germany has to contribute to Greenpeace International: in the past year that amounted to € 12.4 million and in 2007 is estimated to be at € 13 million. In addition, the German environmental activists undertook to provide € 8 million towards the building of a new Greenpeace flagship to replace the "Rainbow Warrior II".
In order to balance the budget, savings in 2008 are to be approximately € 3 million; according to Greenpeace spokeswoman Svenja Koch they will amount to € 2.1 - 2.2 million on in-house staff salaries. A reduction of about 20% is needed in the personnel budget, achievable only by dismissals. Up to 20 jobs are to be lost. Altogether, said Koch, about € 1 million needs to be saved on the permanent staff.
Also in the package, the remaining staff are to be asked to make a "solidarity contribution" for a Greenpeace reorganization. In the corridors of the Greenpeace centre the word is going round that the management wants to everyone to work 2.5 hours more per week coupled with a 3% salary reduction plus a halving of the Christmas and holiday pay, bonuses and the in-house child benefit.