Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - December 20, 2006
* GM Files: Getting the Truth Out There
* Economic Impact of Dominant GM Crops Worldwide: A Review
* Living Off Rats to Survive in Zimbabwe
* Try Doing Something Useful
* Fighting Famine
* Junk Medicine: Monkey Experiments - Watch Out for Absolutists!
* James Lovelock Interview: The End of Eden
GM Files: Getting the Truth Out There
- Glenn Tong, The Age (Australia), Dec. 20, 2006 http://www.theage.com.au
Emile Zola famously wrote of the Dreyfus case in his open letter J'accuse that "Truth is on the march and there is no stopping it".
The world is increasingly acknowledging the truth that climate change is fact and not fiction. But are we prepared to explore every technological option available to us to respond to this alarming development?
Worsening drought conditions around Australia have brought into sharp focus the need for new technologies to meet the challenge of global warming. The indisputable reality is that we cannot afford the indulgence of ignoring genetically modified (GM) crops amid this worsening crisis. Gene technology allows the production of crops that can be grown much more efficiently in drought areas.
Taking wheat as one example, at present 35 to 50 per cent of the world's wheat is grown in drought-affected regions. The annual global wheat crop is valued at more than $23 billion. With drought affecting wheat supplies around the world, commodities traders are predicting record high prices for the staple. New research into drought-tolerant varieties could greatly increase the world's supply of wheat in the face of harsher climatic conditions.
However, we cannot sit on the fence indefinitely and wait for others to take the lead. Investment in GM technology is long term. New plant varieties cannot be produced overnight, like ratcheting up production at a manufacturing plant. Investment now will produce new plant varieties in about 10 years' time.
The Federal Government has rightly provided a very generous assistance package of several hundred million dollars for farmers afflicted by the drought; but handouts are only part of the solution. Most farmers would rather get on with the job than accept government assistance. If we could develop new crop varieties that can grow and prosper in water-starved areas, we could ease the burden in these most difficult times.
Australian researchers have developed some innovative technologies with real potential to help drought-affected farmers; but this research requires investment. Last June the Molecular Plant Breeding Co-operative Research Centre announced an expansion of its joint research and development program with global group BASF Plant Science. The objective of the $28 million project is to develop high-yielding wheat varieties that are drought tolerant and more resistant to fungal diseases. Business needs to invest in more of this type of research to bring the benefits of GM technology to the world.
Apart from the potential to one day produce drought-tolerant wheat varieties, GM technology offers an exciting new world of renewable and clean fuels. Fossil fuels are finite and produce more pollutants than biofuels. There are GM technologies that offer the potential to facilitate efficient conversion of biomass to bioethanol. And other GM technologies have the potential to improve conversion of plant-derived oils into biodiesel.
In the face of reservations about this technology in some quarters, much more needs to be done to communicate the facts about GM crops. For a long time the climate-change debate was plagued by a chorus of minority voices casting doubt on the validity of the science. Only now, after the tireless efforts of many campaigners, is it clear that the scientific community is of a consensus view. Global warming is a reality. In much the same way, Australians need to know that GM crops have been endorsed by the World Health Organisation and our federal regulatory body, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand.
Australians should also be aware that the vast majority of the scientific community is supportive of GM crops. To date, about 25 Nobel laureates have signed a petition endorsing GM crops. Large populations (for example, in the US and Canada) have consumed GM crops over an extended period of time with no demonstrable ill effects.
Australian farmers should also be given the facts about GM crops in global export markets. Canada, one of our major competitors, has been marketing both GM and non-GM canola to several export markets for many years, earning a lot of export income. The more time it takes Australia to adopt GM technologies, the more advantage we give our competitors.
The history of humankind, by and large, has been one of advancement. The conquering of many diseases is testimony to our capacity and preparedness to improve the human condition. GM crops offer a unique opportunity to play a leading role in helping feed a growing world population that will need to produce more food under ever worsening drought conditions.
Dr Glenn Tong is chief executive of Molecular Plant Breeding CRC.
Economic Impact of Dominant GM Crops Worldwide: A Review
- Manuel Gmez-Barbero and Emilio Rodrguez-Cerezo, European Commission, December 2006 http://www.jrc.es/home/pages/detail.cfm?prs=1458
A decade after the first GM crop was commercially planted the GM crop landscape is dominated by four major crops (soybean, cotton, maize and canola) and two agronomic traits (herbicide tolerance and Bt insect resistance). The American continent (US, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Canada) still accounts for the majority of the GM crop area in the world (over 90 %) with China and India following. Overall, more than 20 countries in all continents grow GM crops, of which 14 are considered developing countries.
Published research analysing ex post the impacts of GM crops adoption at farm level is now abundant and includes studies of HT soybeans in the US, Argentina and Romania; of Bt cotton in China, India, South Africa, Argentina, Mexico, US and Australia; of Bt maize in the US, South Africa and Spain; and of HT canola in Canada. Most studies are based on surveys of commercial farmers (adopters and non-adopters of the technology). The picture emerging is that adoption of GM crops has taken place at a rapid rate and driven by a number of reasons including on-farm and off-farm benefits. On-farm benefits are derived from reducing production costs (weed control costs for HT crops and pest control costs for Bt crops). For some crops there are also yield increases (particularly in the case of Bt cotton), affected in some regions by the fact that GM traits have not yet been introduced in all local varieties.
Net benefits for farmers due to GM crop adoption may also derive from off-farm income. For example, adoption of HT soybean in the US had no significant effect on on-farm income, but resulted in crop management simplification, increased free time, and larger off-farm incomes for adopting farmers resulting in net benefits for adopters. Finally, some crops are adopted by farmers as an "insurance" against seasonal variability in yields, even in the absence of significant increases in gross margin.
The net economic benefits for farmers are nevertheless variable in regional terms. One reason is that the crops are designed to solve pest and weed problems which vary greatly in their geographical distribution and impact on production. In fact, adoption rates of a given GM crop in different regions of the same country can be very variable. Second, all GM crops cultivated to date have originated in North America and the process of introducing the GM trait into varieties suitable for all regions has not been finalised (the "germplasm" effect).
Ex post analyses also show that adoption of dominant GM crops and on-farm economic gains have benefited both small and large farmers. Small farmers have shown no difficulty in adopting the technology and adoption rates are not related to farm size. Moreover, detailed analyses (for example of Bt cotton in China) show that increases in gross margin are comparatively larger for smaller and lower income farmers than for larger and higher income farmers.
Ex post analyses provide data on the effects of GM crop adoption on the use of agricultural inputs. Bt cotton adoption has resulted in a significant decrease in the use of insecticides in all cases studied (25% of all insecticide used in agriculture world wide is for cotton cultivation). Bt maize adoption has induced only a little decrease in insecticide use since the pests Bt maize is designed to resist were not usually controlled by insecticide applications. The adoption of HT soybean has resulted in the displacement of several herbicides by one single product that is considered to be less toxic than the herbicides it replaces. Use of this herbicide has increased. HT soybean adoption has been associated with reduced fuel consumption per hectare and with the adoption of reduced soil tillage practices.
The adoption of HT soybean has been linked to increased use of land (normally from pasture crops) for soybean production in Argentina. The aggregate economic effects of GM crop adoption (welfare creation and distribution) have also been studied ex post, although the number of studies published and their coverage is less comprehensive than analyses of on-farm effects. Aggregate studies show positive changes in economic welfare for countries adopting GM crops. The absolute value of these gains varies widely depending on the assumptions made for the aggregate models. In most cases farmers (adopters of the GM crop) are the main beneficiaries, followed by seed suppliers (the biotech industry) and consumers (due to lower market prices). The welfare distribution ratio between adopting farmers and seed suppliers is strongly affected by the price premium paid by farmers for GM seeds. Variations in price premium depend on the intellectual property regime affecting GM seeds in each particular country, on the market availability of GM varieties developed by the public sector and on company pricing policies.
Due to the scant adoption of GM crops in EU agriculture, ex post impacts have only been analysed for the case of Bt maize cultivation in Spain. Adoption has resulted on average in larger gross margins for adopting farmers (12% increase over the average gross margin per hectare of maize production) yet with large regional variations. The welfare created by Bt maize adoption in Spain is shared by adopting farmers and seed industry (roughly 75%/25%). In recent years, a number of ex ante analyses of the possible economic impacts of GM crops if introduced into EU agriculture have been published. Ex ante evaluations have a strong modelling component and a number of parameters, such as yield effects and cost reductions at farm level, have to be estimated from experiences in field trials and/or other countries. Several GM crops have been covered (HT rapeseed, HT sugar beet, Bt maize, Bt cotton) in various Member States. The studies range from on-farm impacts to more aggregate levels. Positive on-farm economic benefits are predicted by these studies, derived from a reduction of production costs for farmers.
Most of the research published on the economic impacts of GM crop introduction has considered a global market with no significant segmentation and has not looked at costs incurred to preserve identity of GM and non-GM harvests and supply chains. The domestic markets of GM crop producing countries are not segmented (no distinction is made between commodities of GM and non-GM origin) and the export markets for identity-preserved non-GM varieties of these crops remain niche markets at global level. Price differences at the farm gate for the non-GM counterparts of dominant GM crops have not been common.
Several developments suggest that these assumptions may have to be changed. One is the potential introduction in the main GM-producing countries of GM crops for direct human food use, such as wheat or rice. Even in a country with no GM labelling regulations, such as the US, it has been suggested that the introduction of a crop like wheat might be accompanied by identity preservation and segregation systems, and thus creating differentiated market segments and price differentials. Also, regulatory developments worldwide are taking place in this field at national and multi-national level. Many world regions are adopting specific legislation on labelling and traceability for all GMOs, produced domestically or imported.
Some studies have recently tried to modelGM crop introduction including segmentation of markets and identity preservation costs. The results show that these costs can be substantial and depend mainly on the tolerance threshold considered for segregation. In some scenarios, these costs outweigh the economic benefits derived from the introduction of GM crop, resulting in a net welfare loss at global level. It is very difficult to model how these costs will be shared by different actors (price scenarios and regulatory frameworks may influence this aspect).
Finally, in the case of the EU, analyses ofthe economic impacts of introducing GM crops in agriculture should now consider the novel concept of coexistence between GM and non-GM agriculture developed by the EU, i.e. the segregation measures that should be taken at farm or regional level to ensure that farmers can provide EU consumers with a choice of GM or non-GM harvests that comply with EU labelling standards.
EU Member States have begun drafting coexistence rules and have targeted GM farmers as the ones taking the measures (if necessary) and incurring the costs. Measures being established include technical measures (respecting isolation distances from non-GM crop fields), organisational measures (communication in advance of the decision to plant GM crops) and in some UE Member states a fixed levy per hectare of GM crop cultivated. A similar framework does not exist currently in other areas of the world where GM crops are cultivated. The impact of these recent developments in the GM crop adoption process and economic balance of GM crops on-farm needs further study.
Complete paper at http://www.jrc.es/home/pages/detail.cfm?prs=1458
Living Off Rats to Survive in Zimbabwe
- CNN, Dec 19, 2006 Full article at http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/africa/12/19/koinange.zimbabwe/index.html
Twelve-year-old Beatrice returns from the fields with small animals she's caught for dinner.
Her mother, Elizabeth, prepares the meat and cooks it on a grill made of three stones supporting a wood fire. It's just enough food, she says, to feed her starving family of six.
Tonight, they dine on rats.
"Look what we've been reduced to eating?" she said. "How can my children eat rats in a country that used to export food? This is a tragedy." (Watch as Beatrice digs for rodents in the fields of Zimbabwe)
This is a story about how Zimbabwe, once dubbed southern Africa's bread basket, has in six short years become a basket case. It is about a country that once exported surplus food now apparently falling apart, with many residents scrounging for rodents to survive.
According to the CIA fact book, which profiles the countries of the world, the Zimbabwean economy is crashing -- inflation was at least 585 percent by the end of 2005 -- and the nation now must import food.
Zimbabwe's ambassador to United States, Machivenyika Mapuranga, told CNN on Tuesday that reports of people eating rats unfairly represented the situation, adding that at times while he grew up his family ate rodents. "The eating of the field mice -- Zimbabweans do that. It is a delicacy," he said. "It is misleading to portray the eating of field mice as an act of desperation. It is not."
Ncube believes that if Mugabe keeps control, Zimbabwe will continue to sink into an "abyss," and experts agree the only way the nation will eventually get off its knees is when a new president is elected. "The key will be when Robert Mugabe moves out of the picture as a leader of Zimbabwe," Gutto said.
Until such time, Zimbabwe seems set to remain as a nation of food lines and fuel queues, of shacks and squatters, of rats and rat-eaters -- a nation fast grinding to a halt. "I can't remember the last time I ate real food," says Elizabeth, the mother feeding her family. "We can't afford anything anymore. We're now just eating these rats to survive."
Try Doing Something Useful
- Brian Griffiths, Dec. 19, 2006 http://blog.briangriffiths.com/2006/12/try-doing-something-useful.html
While the United Nations kvetches about the U.S. and how evil we are all, can we all stop for a second an examine the fact that people in Zimbabwe have been reduced to eating rats?
I have been saying for years that the U.S. and other nations need to take action in Zimbabwe due to the actions of Dictator Robert Mugabe. Problems have existed for years, particularly getting desperate after Mugabe's "land reform" which stole private property from landowners and handed it over to the poor, driving the landowners out of the country. That didn't worked, so Mugabe redistributed the land to political favorites and has allowed his people to starve to death.
It hasn't helped that pressure groups have convinced Zimbabwean authorities to reject genetically modified grains, either.
If the UN really wants to do something useful, how about getting some humanitarian relief to these people and putting pressure on Zimbabwe to reform itself now? I understand that it means the UN would have to take time away from bashing the US, blaming Israel, and keeping questionable taxpayer funded perks, but this would actually save some lives and do some good.
- Dean Kleckner, Truth About Trade & Technology, Dec.15, 2006 http://www.truthabouttrade.org
Famine is a matter of life and death--if we donít feed hungry people, they will starve. You've probably seen the statistics, advertised by relief groups, claiming 20 children die each minute because they donít get enough food.
That's an unsettling figure. I just came across another that's almost as dreary. It involves people who suffer from malnutrition but donít die--they go on to lead what must be enormously difficult lives.
Here's what I read, in an online trade-policy report: South Korea is preparing for an anticipated eventual reunification with North Korea. However, one factor previously overlooked was how to care [for] the North's expected large numbers of retarded persons. One estimate holds that up to 25 percent of the populace could be mentally retarded by 2030 due to malnutrition.
Wow. Can you imagine?
The opponents of biotechnology sometimes invoke the classic book Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, as a fictional warning about the future. The irony is that North Korea is a brave new world of the actual present--and that biotechnology may help reduce the problem of malnourishment.
In Huxleyís story, set in the 26th century, humanity has created a caste system based on intelligence, with the whip-smart "Alpha-Plus" class at the top of the social hierarchy to the semi-moronic "Epsilon Delta" class at the bottom.
The differentiation occurs at the earliest stages of life. Social engineers determine how many Epsilon Deltas they will need, and so they deliberately withhold nutrients to ensure that they will have enough people to perform menial jobs without complaint.
Itís a brutal portrait--and so is North Korea, which is apparently becoming a nation of Epsilon Deltas under the dictatorial rule of Kim Jong-il. Anybody who has visited South Korea knows that it doesn't have to be this way. Seoul is a prosperous city full of industrious people; Pyongyang might have shared its wealth if its leaders had embraced freedom rather than totalitarianism.
Now a group of scientists warns that malnutrition could become a bigger problem in the future--not just in North Korea, but everywhere. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) says that climate change will have a major impact on farmers, and that harvests will shrink if new crop varieties donít keep up with shifting weather patterns.
Iím no global-warming alarmist: I can't get a good forecast for next week, let alone decades from now. Yet Iím willing to recognize that temperatures have been getting warmer in recent years. (The scientific disagreement is about the cause.) But, whatever the cause, everybody in agriculture must keep an eye on the outcome. If current trends continue, according to one report, South Asiaís wheat harvest could fall by half over the next 50 years. Similar catastrophes may await other regions. (To put this in perspective, the population of South Asia is about 1.5 billion Ė roughly 65 times the population of North Korea!)
There are potential opportunities as well: The same report suggests that warmed-up parts of Alaska and Siberia could become wheat fields.
For the areas that might fare poorly, biotechnology offers at least a partial solution. Genetic modification allows scientists to create new types of crops and do it with incredible speed compared to the slow methods of conventional breeding. Crops with traits that will allow them to flourish in hotter or wetter or drier environments are already in the 'GM pipeline'.
A generation ago, Norman Borlaug helped spark the Green Revolution. By transforming the way farmers worked the land, he saved billions of people from starvation and malnourishment. He has won all kinds of awards for his efforts, from the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 to the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor just last week.
We are now on the brink of a Gene Revolution, which promises to extend the benefits of the Green Revolution into a new century that must confront the old enemy of malnutrition as well as the poorly understood challenge of climate change. We will want every possible tool at our disposal, including the best that modern science has to offer--and that, of course, includes agricultural biotechnology.
Famines that inflict starvation and malnourishment that destroys quality of life will always be with us. It may be impossible for mortals to build heaven on earth, but we know that hell on earth--or something frightfully close to it--is an unfortunate possibility.
Just ask one of North Koreaís Epsilon Deltas. As Shakespeare once wrote: "O brave new world/That has such people in it!"
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade and Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org
Junk Medicine: Monkey Experiments
- Mark Henderson, The Times and Sunday Times (London), Dec. 16, 2006
Watch out for absolutists
The most controversial of all animal experiments are those that involve non-human primates. While the biological similarities between humans and monkeys make the latter particularly good tools for studying many diseases, the great complexity of their brains also enhances their capacity for suffering. As a poll in the journal Nature revealed this week, many scientists who do not flinch from using mice or zebra fish in their work take a different attitude to marmosets and macaques. They are not always certain that the benefits of such work are worth the price.
The Weatherall inquiry into primates in medical research, which reported this week, sought to provide some reassurance. While its conclusion that monkeys are sometimes irreplaceable was widely anticipated, it also added an important nuance to the vivisection debate.
The panel of scientists who do not work with monkeys stopped well short of declaring all such experiments justified. Given these animalsí greater cognitive capacities, the potential gains for human medicine must be huge, and impossible to obtain otherwise, to justify primate work.
Though the report found such experiments to be "morally required" when the goal is an HIV vaccine that would save millions of lives, that calculus does not apply to every purpose. A good example is research into how restricting calorie intake influences ageing. While work with nematode worms and mice suggests this can improve longevity, the panel was not persuaded that extending these studies into primates is worthwhile.
The cost in suffering outweighs the likely medical benefit. Universal judgments are impossible. A case-by-case approach is the only appropriate course.
It is one that should be applied far more widely to questions of scientific ethics and risk. For example, the debate over genetically modified crops is usually framed in absolutes. One side argues that GM crops should be approved because they can improve yields, provide more nutritious food and reduce herbicide use. The other calls for an outright ban: GM can introduce health risks, damage the environment, and make farmers over-reliant on big business.
The result is a polarised shouting match, yet both sides are right. The technology itself is neutral, capable of being used for good or for ill. What matters is how it is exploited in individual crops. Some GM foods contain new allergens, or reduce biodiversity, and should not be licensed. But it does not follow that all GM crops are bad. Case-by-case assessment is a more rational way forward than a blanket ban or, for that matter, a general seal of safety.
The same is true of cloning. Identical technology can be used either to produce stem cells for medical research, or to try to create a cloned human being. That one of these outcomes is undesirable, however, does not make the case for a ban. It is illegal to throw boiling water in someoneís face, but we do not outlaw kettles. Different applications of the same technology can be considered separately, and approved only when the potential benefits outweigh the costs.
There are those, of course, for whom this approach is never going to be satisfactory. If you believe animals should never be harmed for the benefit of human beings, case-by-case logic will have no appeal.
Such ideological arguments deserve respect from those who do not agree. But perhaps because they have little popular resonance, those who hold them often prefer to claim that the practices they oppose are useless or dangerous as well. Dogma often masquerades as science, and it is sometimes hard to tell which is which. A good clue is to play hunt the absolutist. When a group insists that case-by-case regulation is no substitute for an outright ban, it is a fair bet that ideology lies behind it.
Mark Henderson is Science Editor of The Times
James Lovelock Interview: The End of Eden
- Michael Powel, People and Planet, Dec. 18 2006. Full interview at http://www.peopleandplanet.net/doc.php?id=2900
James Lovelock, eminent scientist, inventor, author and originator of the Gaia hypothesis that the earth is in effect a living, self-regulating organism, was the subject of a recent revealing interview by Washington Post staff writer Michael Powell. In this he explains just why he believes this time, that we have pushed the earth too far.
Lovelock favours genetically modified crops, which require less water, and nuclear energy. Only the atom can produce enough electrical power to persuade industrialised nations to abandon burning fossil fuels. France draws 70 per cent of its power from nuclear plants.
But what of Three Mile Island? Chernobyl? Lovelock's shaking his head before you complete the litany. How many people died, he asks. A few hundred? The radiation exclusion zone around Chernobyl is the lushest and most diverse zone of flora and fauna in Eurasia.
Sir Brian Heap accepts this. But he worries that South Asia and Africa are about to suffer the terrible consequences of First World excesses. What of our responsibility to them? "The poor aren't our problem," Heap says. "We're their problem."
Lovelock acknowledges the moral conundrum. But he sees no we-are-the-world solutions. The heat waves that kill millions, the powerful typhoons, the droughts that suffocate cities, will force a retreat to nationalism.
After a couple of hours, you wonder about his own good cheer. His internal combustion engine shows few signs of flagging; he wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and reads, writes and tramps through the countryside. The studiously polite Lovelock seems a touch annoyed only at the suggestion he's frivolous about what the future holds.
"People say, 'Well, you're 87, you won't live to see this,' " he says. "I have children, I have grandchildren, I wish none of this. But it's our fate; we need to recognize it's another wartime. We desperately need a Moses to take us to the Arctic and preserve civilization.
"It's too late to turn back."