Today in AgBioView with http://www.agbioworld.org - January 17, 2007
* Hungary Too Emotional on GMO Issue, Claims Biotech Expert
* Global Impact of Biotech Crops
* Need Help with AgBiotech Firms
* Texas A&M, Ag Company Establish $2.5 Million Borlaug Endowment
* Out of Bounds
* Spain Corn Crop Down, But Biotech Share Grows-USDA
* Why Do You Plant Biotech Seed? Labor A Key Driver, Economists Say
* Adoption of Bt Cotton in Pakistan
* The Truth About Organic Food
* Splicing Genes for Safe Food: Biotech Assures Protection
* We've Never Had It So Good
Hungary Too Emotional on GMO Issue, Claims Biotech Expert
- Neil Merrett, Food Production, Jan 17, 2007 http://www.foodproductiondaily.com/
Talks over a Hungarian ban on an EU approved, genetically modified (GMO) Maize crop should be judged on scientific fact rather than "irrational fears", claims a leading Biotech expert.
Speaking ahead of EU talks to be held over the issue next month, Prof. Dr Marc Van Montagu of the Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries (IPBO) believes that too often GMO debate "centres on emotional arguments, rather than looking at scientific positives." As a result he believes that processors in developing markets like Hungary and Eastern Europe are missing out on the environmental benefits offered by GMO's.
"Products like GMO maize, ensure that dangerous chemicals and pesticides are having to be used less frequently on crops, which improves the quality of any related food product, he said." He added that GMO's could also boast strong applications for soil conservation, ensuring a sustainable supply of goods to producers in the country by using modified crops more capable of retaining water and nutrients.
The latest EU GMO debate which is to be held on 20 February, will aim to discuss a number of issues regarding the use of scientifically altered crops within both the food, and non-consumables production. The topics which have already been discussed by EU experts failed to achieve a majority decision, and as such now rely on approval by a committee of EU ministers.
A topic likely to prove particularly controversial during the talks is the possibility of imposing a draft order on Hungary to lift its ban on the GMO maize. Monsanto, the company who produce the MON 810 maize seeds crop currently outlawed in the country, believes the ban contravenes the general consensus of the food industry in the EU over the product. "Not only are these laws contrary to EU law and all scientific data, they are not consistent with the growing demand for biotech crops from European farmers," said a company spokesperson.
"With more countries planting now, including a ten fold increase in markets like France, the trend is very much in the opposite direction." they added. The country is not the only member state to have blocked the product however, with neighbouring Austria also under pressure to remove its objection to the maize.
Environmental groups have backed Austria and Hungary's objections however, by opposing any use of GMO crops on the grounds that its long term health affects remain unknown and could pose a risk to consumers. Though unsure of the outcome of the discussions, Van Montagu added that the increasing willingness of the EU to debate the use of GMO's heralded changing attitudes towards the use of modified foodstuffs in the industry.
"I am convinced that most people's attitudes are changing towards the use of GMO's in the food industry," he said. Adding: "the industry is seeing past the 'Frankenstein foods' image and is now beginning to realize there are no rational arguments for not using GMO's in food production."
Global Impact of Biotech Crops
- Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, AgBioForum, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2006 via checkbiotech.org
Genetically modified (GM) crops have now been grown commercially on a substantial scale for ten years. This paper assesses the impact this technology is having on global agriculture from both economic and environmental perspectives.
It examines specific global economic impacts on farm income and environmental impacts of the technology with respect to pesticide usage and greenhouse gas emissions for each of the countries where GM crops have been grown since 1996.
The analysis shows that there have been substantial net economic benefits at the farm level amounting to $5 billion in 2005 and $27 billion for the ten year period.
The technology has reduced pesticide spraying by 224 million kg (equivalent to about 40% of the annual volume of pesticide active ingredient applied to arable crops in the European Union) and as a result, decreased the environmental impact associated with pesticide use by more than 15%.
GM technology has also significantly reduced the release of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, which, in 2005, was equivalent to removing 4 million cars from the roads.
The full article can be read at:
AgBioForum - Latest Issue
Volume 9 // Number 3 // 2006
Insect Resistance Management for Bt Corn: An Assessment of Community Refuge Schemes- J.L. Price, J. Hyde, & D.D. Calvin
Global Impact of Biotech Crops: Socio-Economic and Environmental Effects in the First Ten Years of Commercial Use- G. Brookes & P. Barfoot
An Analysis of McLean County, Illinois Farmers' Perceptions of Genetically Modified Crops - N. Chimmiri, K.W. Tudor, & A.D. Spaulding
Consumers' Willingness to Pay for Biotech Foods in China: A Contingent Valuation Approach- W. Lin, A. Somwaru, F. Tuan, J. Huang, & J. Bai
Perceptions of Genetically Modified andOrganic Foods and Processes- J.C. Anderson, C.J. Wachenheim, & W.C. Lesch
Bales and Balance: A Review of the Methods Used to Assess the Economic Impact of Bt Cotton on Farmers in Developing Economies- M. Smale, P. Zambrano, & M. Cartel
From Bill Boland
Dear AgBioView reader:
I am a researcher with the University of Saskatchewan currently engaged in a project in which we seek to identify, on a global basis, all commercial agricultural firms with the following attributes:
* commercial agricultural firms founded or initiated by producers or cooperatives
* The firms we seek to identify must utilize some form of bio-technology as the basis for its founding and its products or services.
* biotechnology implies some form of genetic modification, trait enhancement and herbicide or pesticide resistance
* our focus is plant operations, but animal based firms would help
Are you aware of any such entities, or do you know of someone we should contact? Our ultimate objective with this project is to develop a method for local producers/cooperatives to exploit technologies coming from government labs and universities that are not of interest to large MNCs but still offer niche market potential.
Thank you for your consideration.
Texas A&M, Ag Company Establish $2.5 Million Borlaug Endowment
- Associated Press, Jan. 9, 2007 [ http://www.dfw.com/mld/startelegram/news/state/16421780.htm ]http://www.dfw.com/mld/startelegram/news/state/16421780.htm
The man who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 now has a $2.5 million endowed chair at Texas A&M University to support plant breeding and crop improvement.
Norman Borlaug, 92, won the Swedish honor in 1970 for developing high-yield wheat varieties. Heavily involved in the Green Revolution of the 1960s, Borlaug currently is a distinguished professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas.
"We consider this a tremendous opportunity to continue Dr. Borlaug's legacy," said Elsa Murano, vice chancellor and dean of agriculture at A&M, said.
The announcement of the Borlaug-Monsanto Chair for Plant Breeding and International Crop Improvement came Tuesday at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences here. Borlaug was not in attendance.
Borlaug's work aimed at increasing and diversifying crop yields in parts of the world where agriculture was less developed than in the United States, saving thousands of lives through his research advances. Funding for the endowed chair comes from Monsanto, which provides technology-based solutions and agricultural products to improve farm productivity and food quality.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Borlaug was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Presidential World without Hunger Medal in 1985. In 2005, President Bush awarded Borlaug with the National Medal of Science.
Out of Bounds
- Heidi Ledford, Nature, Jan. 10, 2007 [ http://www.nature.com ]http://www.nature.com
With the use of transgenic crops expanding around the globe, we need to decide what level of unapproved plants we are willing to accept in our diets. Zero is not an option, says Heidi Ledford.
Steve Linscombe still isn't quite sure how it happened. The director of the Louisiana State University AgCenter for Rice Research knows that he grew a few lines of transgenic rice in field trials between 2001 and 2003. He also knows that one of those lines, LLRICE601, was grown on less than one acre. What he is not clear on is how the line then wended its way into the food supply. That little mystery is now the subject of an official investigation and a class-action lawsuit.
When the escape was announced in August last year, LLRICE601 had not been approved for human consumption. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) rushed to deregulate the crop, granting permission on 24 November for LLRICE601 to be grown without a permit. By then, Japan had already declared a month-long ban on all imports of US long-grain rice, and the European Union had started to require all US long-grain rice imports to be tested and certified at the expense of the exporters. Meanwhile, Bayer CropScience, the company that created the rice strain, put the blame squarely on farmers and an "act of God".
By that logic, this would not be the first time that a deity has aided and abetted the escape of a genetically engineered crop. On 21 December, Syngenta was fined $1.5 million for allowing its unapproved pest-resistant Bt10 corn (maize) to mix into seed distributed for food. The past decade is smattered with examples of unapproved crops sneaking through containment barriers (see 'Some past escapes'). When they make it into the food supply -- as with LLRICE601 and Bt10 --public outcry and financial losses follow. But amid the calls for tighter regulations, experts say one truth is being drowned out: no amount of regulation can guarantee that these crops will not escape and multiply.
Meanwhile, the stakes are getting higher. Since 1991, the USDA has approved nearly 400 field tests of crops that produce pharmaceutical and industrial compounds, leaving many concerned that future escapes could have severe consequences for human health. A close call came in 2002, when stalks of corn designed to produce a pig vaccine were found mixed with $2.7-million worth of Nebraska soya beans destined for human consumption. Prodigene, the corn's maker, was fined $250,000 and forced to buy and destroy the soya beans.
Although the use of transgenic crops is spreading around the globe, production is still concentrated in the United States, which grows more than half of the world's genetically engineered crops. There, they are monitored by three regulatory agencies: the USDA regulates field tests, the Environmental Protection Agency monitors crops genetically engineered to produce pesticides, and the Food and Drug Administration provides a voluntary 'consultation' on the safety of crops for human consumption. That voluntary consultation sets the United States apart from many other countries, including China and many European countries, which require crops to be evaluated for toxicity and allergenicity before being approved.
In the 20 years since the USDA started to regulate field tests, it has approved nearly 50,000 field sites. But an internal audit commissioned by the USDA inspector-general and released on 22 December 2005 was severely critical. The report admonished the agency for lacking basic information about test sites, failing to inspect field tests sufficiently, and neglecting the fate of the crops after testing. USDA regulator Rebecca Besch says that a year on, many of the report's recommendations have been enacted. The agency now asks for detailed coordinates of field test sites, she says, and is revising its environmental standards.
Jeffrey Wolt, an agronomist at Iowa State University in Ames, commends the USDA for its efforts, but says that tougher regulations are no guarantee of confinement. "There has been this strong effort by regulators and industry to tighten this stuff up," he says. "But no matter how much you ratchet it down, the risk is not going to be absolute zero because that's a scientific impossibility."
Other scientists agree. Transgenic plants have many ways to escape. For plants pollinated by wind and insects, such as canola, pollen transfer is a constant threat. And although seed harvesting and processing equipment is designed to keep different varieties apart, there is no guarantee of success. "Just like anything, it is not 100%," says Linscombe. "You could have a seed that gets caught somewhere in a planter and later jars itself loose." And of course even if only a few seeds make their way into breeding stock, their numbers can then multiply.
Meanwhile, says Michelle Marvier, an ecologist at Santa Clara University in California, the focus on designing effective biological containment has kept attention away from an even more slippery culprit: human error. "The reality is that humans are involved, and we inevitably make mistakes." She warns that any risk evaluation of a genetically engineered crop should consider that crop likely to escape.
Several countries have opted not to take that risk. After the news of LLRICE601 contamination, major exporters in Vietnam announced that they would not be growing any transgenic rice. And even some countries that grow genetically modified crops are cautious about the ones they will accept. Argentina, for example, the world's second largest producer, refuses to grow any genetically engineered crop that has not been approved for consumption in its major export markets, including the European Union. That policy is intended to prevent unintended mixing of crops from hurting Argentina's robust agricultural export sector (although it hasn't protected neighbouring Brazil — which did not allow genetically engineered crops until last year — from repeated contamination from Argentina's transgenic stocks).
In the United States, the idea is that escape can be prevented if producers know that they will be punished if unapproved plant material is detected in the food supply. If a company is responsible for contamination, it typically has to remove the unapproved material at its own expense, and as an additional deterrent, deal with the flurry of negative press that undoubtedly follows. "It is really bad for the reputation of these firms and the technology itself," says Guillaume Gruere, an agricultural economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC. But he says that the regulatory agencies' zero-tolerance policy clashes with the inevitability of escape. "The problem is the threshold. If you want zero percent, it's going to be pretty much impossible."
And despite the negative press, US public opinion of genetically modified crops seems to have been changed little by the escapes so far, judging from the results of a survey done by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology last year. The number of Americans who approve of genetically modified food has hovered unchanged at around 26% for the past five years, whereas the number that explicitly disapproves has shrunk from 58% to 46%.
What about crops that produce pharmaceuticals and industrial compounds? In 2003, the USDA issued stricter guidelines for containment of these plants. Isolation distances from food crops were increased, and field test sites were to be inspected more frequently. And so far, no such strains have been deregulated, meaning that they must always be contained no matter how well they are tested.
But Margaret Mellon, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Food and Environment programme, doubts that those regulations will be enough. Her organization has called for a ban on the outdoor production of pharmaceuticals in food crops, arguing that the amount of regulation needed to guarantee containment would be prohibitively expensive both to the government and to researchers. The union has gone through the USDA regulations and analysed points at which transgenic crops could still escape, such as machine cleaning and seed transport. "Regulations that are sufficiently stringent to plug all of those holes really are not feasible," says Mellon. "We see how much trouble the agency is having even with the current ones." Instead, she argues, production of pharmaceuticals or industrial compounds should take place only in non-food crops such as tobacco.
The problem is that such a ban would have a chilling effect on research, because the technology for creating and processing transgenic food crops is well understood and therefore much cheaper. At this stage, a US ban seems unlikely, and no other country has an official ban on pharmaceutical-producing crops. In 2005, the Oregon Department of Agriculture convened a panel to evaluate the risks and potential economic benefits of growing animals and plants that produce pharmaceuticals in the state. The panel concluded last October that the benefits outweigh the risks.
Back in Louisiana, Linscombe plans to enact a few new regulations of his own. After his experience with LLRICE601, he says that he will be taking drastic measures to separate any experimental crops from his breeding stock, to at least minimize the chance of contamination. He is considering buying separate processing equipment for genetically modified crops. And he plans to greatly exceed the typical three-metre distance that is required between strains. "We have two farms that are located five miles apart," he says. "Any transgenic work in the future is going to be on one farm, and the breeding work on the other.
Spain Corn Crop Down, But Biotech Share Grows-USDA
- Reuters January 16, 2007
Corn plantings in Spain have been decreasing in recent years, but the biotechnology crop's share of the total grew in the 2006 marketing year, a U.S. agricultural attache said an Friday.
Genetically engineered corn was estimated at 132,696 acres (53,700 ha.) in 2006, meaning the biotech crop made up 14.8 percent of total corn plantings, up from 12.8 percent in the previous year, the report said. But corn plantings overall have decreased due to water shortages, it added. Attache reports are not official USDA data.
Following are highlights of the report. To see the full report, visit the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service Web site at http://www.fas.usda.gov/scriptsw/attacherep/default.asp
"During marketing year (MY) 2006, Spanish corn producers increased biotechnology corn plantings as a percent of total corn hectares planted. While MY 2006 planting statistics are not yet final, we estimate that Spanish farmers planted 53,700 hectares of biotechnology corn, and using this approximation (we believe our estimate is conservative and expect that final numbers will be even higher), biotechnology corn comprised 14.8 percent of total corn plantings, up from last year's 12.8 percent ratio. Spanish corn farmers have indeed decreased total planted corn hectares (all varieties and types) since the record achieved in 2001, but the reductions are related, in large part, to prevailing shortages of irrigation water and more recently to severe drought conditions.
However, during the same period of consideration, Spanish corn growers, in regions where the corn borer is prominent, have increased biotechnology corn plantings. The statistics paint a very clear picture of the value modern technological advances in seed-corn breeding has for corn producers in areas where the corn borer is difficult or impossible to control through any other pest-control method. The regions of Aragon and Catalonla are the most susceptible to corn borer infestation, and since MY 2001, farmers in these two Autonomous Regions have increased dramatically biotechnology corn plantings.
The biotechnology corn planted and harvested in Spain in used exclusively in the production of compound feeds where it is Iabeled to contain "genetically modified organisms" before it is sold for use in Spain's robust livestock industry. The compound feed industry labels all feeds with the same "GMO" notice, because there is not a political, social, nor economic impediment to doing so, and because it is the most economic means of dealing with the EC-mandated labeling and traceability legislation .
Why Do You Plant Biotech Seed? Labor A Key Driver, Economists Say
- Stu Ellis, Agriculture Online, Han. 16, 2007 http://www.agriculture.com
Why do you use Roundup Ready soybeans? Lower production cost? Better yields? Time savings?
How about Bt corn, or Roundup Ready corn? Lower production costs? Better yields? Time savings? Are your reasons the same for each crop or different?
The University of Illinois Farm Gate has an idea what the real reason may be. See if you agree on this issue, and you may end up with an entirely different approach to genetically modified crops and the way you incorporate them in your operation.
The background for this comes from ag economists Dr. Carl Nelson and Justin Gardner at the University of Illinois. They looked at Genetically Modified Crops and Labor Savings in U.S. Crop Production in an attempt to find out why 90% of U.S. soybean acreage is glyphosate resistant, yet there is no significant profit advantage to using Roundup Ready soybeans, which of course are glyphosate resistant. Another study theorized the use of genetically modified crops allowed farmers to save on management time. But do all of them allow a time savings? Some of us have spent a lot of time walking beans, but cornfields haven't been walked since Grandpa was farming.
A 2002 study found:
1. Bt cotton is likely to be profitable in the cotton belt and reduces pesticide use.
2. Adopting Bt corn should provide a small yield increase, and in some cases adopting causes significant increases in profit.
3. For herbicide tolerant soybeans cost savings should offset any revenue loss due to yield drag.
A 2001 study found:
1. Herbicide tolerant technology leads the farmer to substitute relatively less-expensive glyphosate for other herbicides.
2. Farmers realize a change in the shadow price of labor and management.
3. Due to glyphosate s effectiveness at killing larger weeds, weather induced spraying delays do not significantly affect weed control.
4. When farmers switch to herbicide tolerant technology substitution effects lead to a decrease in the price of alternative herbicides.
In 2005 herbicide tolerant crops made up 87% and 60%, of U.S. soybean and cotton acreage respectively, while 35% of the corn acreage and 60% of cotton acres were insect resistant.
Gardner and Nelson believe that there either has to be a profit motive or a labor savings reasons for the adoption of a biotech crop. If it is not profit related, they say, "Farmers can then reallocate household labor to off-farm work or leisure thus increasing household welfare and maintaining the same on-farm profit."
And they add, "If the household exhibits a preference for on-farm work there will be important implications in how the household allocates labor. If the preference is strong enough then all available labor will be allocated to on-farm work, constrained by the number of hours in the day or off-farm obligations."
What Gardner and Nelson found in their analysis was:
1. Adopting herbicide tolerant soybeans, under conventional tillage, reduces household labor by 23 percent. Consequently, "It appears that farmers are substituting HT soybeans for household labor, freeing up the resource for off-farm employment and leisure."
2. Neither Bt corn nor HT corn has a statistically significant impact on household labor. This result can easily be explained, in the absence of Bt technology many corn farmers simply do not attempt to control for corn borers.
3. Unlike Bt corn, adopting Bt cotton saves household labor. Bt cotton requires less spraying. This difference amounts to a 29% decrease in household labor.
4. With the exception of corn, we find that GM crops save labor.
Farmers have adopted biotechnology for a wide variety of crops, but for different reasons. Weed control in soybeans can be labor intensive, so herbicide tolerant soybeans have become quite popular. Pest control in cotton requires many field operations, so insect resistant cotton has become quite popular. While corn yields can suffer from both insects and weeds, their control has not been labor intensive. However, biotech corn has become popular because of its positive impact on farm financial welfare.
Adoption of Bt Cotton in Pakistan
- Ijaz Ahmad Rao, The Nation (Pakistan), Jan 8, 2006 Full article at http://www.nation.com.pk/daily/jan-2007/8/bnews6.php
Saying that "Cotton is an important cash crop for Pakistan" would be an understatement. It accounts for 8.2 per cent of the value added in the agriculture sector and about 2% to GDP, adds over $2.8 billion to the national economy. Livelihood of the millions of farmers and of those employed along the entire cotton value chain is dependent on this single crop. Their entire lifestyle and socioeconomic parameters are shaped by the performance of cotton sector - meaning, it is "The life line of the national economy".
The Truth About Organic Food
It's not healthier or Greener, and it's incapable of feeding the world. So why is it back in fashion?
Rob Lyons, Spiked Online, January 2007 Full article at http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/2691/
It's not like David Miliband to say something sensible. New Labour's greener-than-thou environment secretary and warm favourite to be next leader-but-one is usually in the front rank of eco-worriers when discussing climate change or recycling, recently suggesting that people are right to fear global warming and that he was afraid, too.
So imagine the annoyance of organic food supporters this week at Miliband's comments about whether organic food is healthier: 'It's a lifestyle choice that people can make. There isn't any conclusive evidence either way. It's only four per cent of total farm produce, not 40 per cent and I don't want to say that 96 per cent of our farm produce is inferior because it's not organic.'
Splicing Genes for Safe Food: Biotech assures protection on cellular level
- Henry I. Miller, San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 14, 2007 [ http://sfgate.com/ ]http://sfgate.com/
During the past several months, there have been two high-profile outbreaks of E. coli-related illnesses, one traced to spinach and one to lettuce. The casualties: three deaths and about 300 illnesses nationwide.
Incidents of this kind are usually investigated by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, but for some reason -- and in the absence of any apparent hint of criminal behavior -- the FBI also became involved in the spinach investigation.
If the G-Men intend to add food poisoning to their investigatory mandate, they'll need more agents: There are 76 million cases and 5,000 deaths annually in the United States caused by food contaminated with microorganisms, according to government figures. Foodborne infections are most often caused by the bacteria Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli 0157:H7, and by caliciviruses, also known as the Norwalk and Norwalk-like viruses. These cause "stomach flu," a misnomer because none of these organisms is related to influenza.
Federal officials investigating the spinach outbreak have been able to narrow their search to a handful of ranches in the Salinas Valley and appear to be focusing on wild pigs as the cause of contamination. Both outbreaks seem to be over, and spinach and lettuce are available again. But do we know what the problem was? Will it recur? And most important, on whom can we rely to protect us from future outbreaks of contamination and food-borne illness?
First, it's clear we can't rely on growers of fresh produce to protect us 100 percent of the time. Modern farming operations -- especially the larger ones -- already employ strict standards and safeguards designed to keep food free of pathogens. And most often they work: Americans' food is not only the least expensive, but also the safest, in the history of humankind. The vast majority of food poisoning cases result from consumers' improper handling of food -- in particular, from inadequately cooking chicken or permitting the juices from raw poultry to contaminate other foods.
There is a limit to how safe we can make agriculture, given that it is an outdoor activity and subject to all manner of unpredictable challenges. If the goal is to make a field 100 percent safe from microbial contamination, the only definitive solution is to pave it over and build a parking lot. But we'd only be trading very rare agricultural mishaps for fender-benders.
It has also become painfully clear that we can't rely on processors to remove the pathogens from food in every case. The recent spinach-based outbreak demonstrated that our faith in processor labels such as "triple washed" and "ready to eat" must be tempered with at least a little skepticism. Processors were quick to proclaim the cleanliness of their own operations and deflect blame toward growers. But all of those in the food chain share responsibility for food safety and quality. In fairness to processors, there is ample evidence to suggest that no amount of washing will rid all pathogens from produce. The reason is that the contamination may occur not on the plant, but in it. Exposure to E. coli or other microorganisms at key stages of the growing process may allow them to be taken into the plant's vascular system.
Citing this, advocates of food irradiation have stepped forward to claim that their technology can provide the assurance consumers demand and deserve. To be sure, irradiation is an important tool to promote food safety and is vastly underused, largely due to opposition from the organic food lobby and to government over-regulation.
"If even 50 percent of meat and poultry consumed in the United States were irradiated, the potential impact of food-borne disease would be a reduction (of) 900,000 cases and 300 deaths," according to Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota.
But irradiation is no panacea. Although it effectively kills the bacteria, it does not inactivate the potent toxins secreted by certain bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium botulinum. The toxins can cause serious illness or death even in the absence of the bacteria -- a distinction certain to be appreciated by anyone who ingests food contaminated with them.
So if consumers can't be protected by growers or processors or even irradiation, what can protect them?
There is technology available that can inhibit microorganisms' ability to grow within plant cells and block the synthesis of the bacterial toxins. This same technology can be employed to produce antibodies that can be administered to infected patients to neutralize the toxins and can even be used to produce therapeutic proteins (such as lactoferrin and lysozyme) that are safe and effective treatments for diarrhea, the primary symptom of food poisoning.
But don't expect your favorite organic producer to embrace this triple-threat technology, even if it would keep his customers from getting sick. Why? The technology in question is recombinant DNA technology, or gene-splicing -- an advance the organic lobby has vilified and rejected at every turn.
For organic marketers, the irony is more bitter than fresh-picked radicchio. The technology that affords them the best method of safeguarding their customers is the one they've fought hardest to forestall and confound.
Perhaps in the aftermath of the recent E. coli contamination of spinach and Taco Bell lettuce, the organic lobby will rethink its opposition to biotechnology. Perhaps the people involved will begin to appreciate the ways in which this technology can save lives and advance their industry. Perhaps they will permit science, common sense and decency to trump ideology.
I'm not betting the farm on it. After all, admitting you're wrong is hard. Blaming others is easy.
Henry I. Miller is a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution. His most recent book is "The Frankenfood Myth." He headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology from 1989 to 1993. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We've Never Had It So Good
- Daniel Ben-Ami, Sp!ked, 16 January 2007 Full review at http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/2714/
Interview: Indur Goklany, author of The Improving State of the World, slaps down today's voguish pessimists with some eye-opening facts. "The Improving State of the World: Why We're Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet, Indur Goklany, Cato 2007"
It is a sobering thought that, until relatively recently, most readers of this article would be dead before they reached their current age. As recently as 1900 the average human life expectancy worldwide is estimated to have been about 31 years. In the Middle Ages it was 20-30. Even those readers who have not yet reached their twenties would probably not have many years left if they lived in the pre-industrial era.
That assumes, of course, you were lucky enough to be able to read. Mass literacy is another recent development. For most of human history people were – literally – preoccupied with a life-and-death struggle to find enough to eat. The idea that, at least in the developed world, starvation would no longer be an imminent threat would be hard to imagine. The possibility of people sitting at a computer screen reading articles on the internet would be almost impossible to conceive.
Yet rather than celebrate the immense achievements of economic development, there is a widespread feeling of resentment. Many people in the developed world believe that life is getting worse. Economic growth and technological development are viewed with anxiety and sometimes outright hostility. If our great-grandparents could be brought back to life they would be astonished by humanity's achievements but also bewildered by our ungrateful attitudes towards these gains.
In this context, The Improving State of the World should be warmly welcomed. Not only does Indur Goklany, a policy analyst based in Washington DC, show how human well-being has improved immensely in recent years. He also points the way to improving things still further in the future.
Goklany, who has worked in environmental policy for over 30 years, says it was partly his Indian upbringing that motivated him to write the book. Most of the people he meets in his professional capacity, specialising in climate change and in health policy, have a bleak view of the world. They tend to assume things are getting worse all the time. 'I don't share that point of view,' he tells me. 'A lot of that has to do with my background. Because I'm an Indian I've got an idea of how bad things can really be.' That led him to spend seven years 'moonlighting' on the book to set the record straight. He has also written previous books on the precautionary principle and on air quality as well as numerous articles (1).
Goklany, an electrical engineer by training, bases his case on the systematic examination of masses of facts and data. It is not possible to summarise the details in a relatively short review but some of the main indicators of human well-being are clear.
Perhaps life expectancy is the single most important. The average human life span has more than doubled from 31 years in 1900 to 66.8 in 2003. In the developed world it had risen to 75.6 years by 2003 while in the developing world it was 63.4.
Closely related to rising life expectancy is the sharp fall in infant mortality. In the Middle Ages more than 200 babies out of every 1,000 live births died before the age of one. In other words, one in five children failed to reach their first birthday. While today it is considered 'natural' for children to outlive their parents, at least in the developed world, that is a relatively recent development. It used to be a common experience for parents to see their children die. Today the average global infant mortality figure has fallen to 56.8 per 1,000 while in the developed countries it is 7.1.
A large part of the improvement is life expectancy and infant mortality is the result of an increase in the quantity and quality of food available. The global average for food available in terms of calories per person per day rose from 2,254 in 1961 to 2,804 in 2002. For developed countries the rise over that period was 24 per cent while for developing countries it was 38 per cent.
These figures alone tell several stories. The first is that the whole of humanity, including the developing world, has benefited as a result of rising prosperity. Although there remains a substantial gap between the rich and poor countries, the developing world is still much better off than it was. And in terms of the main indicators of human well-being the gap has narrowed substantially even though it remains significant. The developing world has benefited both from rising prosperity and the diffusion of technology. A key challenge now is to close the gap completely.
There are exceptions to this improving trend but these confirm rather than contradict the close connection between economic growth and quality of life. The countries of the former Eastern bloc, and the former Soviet Union in particular, suffered enormous social dislocation with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. For several years in the 1990s the economy shrank and key social indicators, such as life expectancy, worsened. Sub-Saharan Africa has also suffered terribly as a result of sluggish economic growth, along with new and resurgent diseases, since the late 1980s.
One important reason Africa has suffered has to do with problems with the diffusion of technology. One of the most tragic is the impact of bans on the use of DDT, an insecticide which is particularly effective at killing mosquitoes. Western governments discouraged the use of DDT as a result of health and environmental concerns highlighted by environmentalists. 'African governments were nudged into rejecting what was available and very effective but had a very bad environmental reputation,' says Goklany. Such campaigns failed to properly balance environmental factors against the immense human cost of malaria. The World Health Organisation estimates there are at least 500million acute cases of malaria a year globally leading to over one million deaths. About 90 per cent of the deaths occur in Africa and young children are the main victims (2).
Goklany, who had two bouts of malaria as a child, says some people object to the white residue sometimes left by DDT when it is sprayed indoors. But in his experience this was not a concern for those threatened by the disease. 'I don't remember anyone complaining about the white residue. If you've ever had malaria you don't complain about that because it's a disease that, if you get it, knocks out several weeks of your life, even if you get over it eventually.'
Those who favoured the indoor spraying of DDT were vindicated in September 2006 when the World Health Organisation (WHO) once again approved the practice. After nearly 30 years of being phased out the WHO conceded the science and data justified the use of DDT (3).
But the combination of economic growth and technological development is not just beneficial to human well-being in a narrow sense. Goklany also argues strongly that the environment becomes better fit for human beings as a result of progress. For example, his book starts by quoting a passage from Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) which describes London mired in coal dust and factory smoke. At that time, diseases such as cholera and typhoid were rife as London's water supply was grossly polluted. But the building of London's sewage system and the implementation of public health measures cleaned up the city. Londoners now enjoy a cleaner environment than ever despite – or rather because of – the greater level of economic development.
What is true of London also applies more generally. Greater prosperity makes it possible to clean the air and rivers. Biodiversity can also increase, and the amount of forested land can expand. Higher agricultural productivity means there is often less pressure on land than in the past. 'If you look at the data, richer countries are generally better off environmentally than poor countries,' says Goklany.
In fact one of the ways The Improving State of the World differs from similar books is in spelling out a theory of what Goklany calls 'environmental transition'. The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjørn Lomborg, a Danish statistician, overlaps with Goklany's book in using data to show that human well-being is improving (4). But Goklany goes further in explaining how the combination of economic growth and technological development allows humans to improve their environment.
In the early stages of development the primary aim is – as would be expected – promoting growth. But as countries become wealthier they can afford to broaden their focus. 'The richer a country, the greater its ability to do something about environmental concerns,' says Goklany. 'And the reason is simple – they have the economic infrastructure and the human capital to do something about it.' In effect, the richer countries have the ability to buy themselves a better environment.
The theory of environmental transition leads to unexpected insights and hope for the future. For instance, Goklany concedes that the fish supplies in the world's oceans are at the wrong side of the environmental transition. Over-fishing is causing dwindling supplies in many areas. This is particularly tragic as the oceans, despite making up 71 per cent of the earth's surface area, only supply about one per cent of humans' calorie requirements and about five per cent of our protein.
However, unlike environmentalists, he does not draw the conclusion that limits ought to be placed on using the oceans as a food resource. On the contrary, he likens the present system of fishing to the primitive hunter-gathering that preceded the advent of agriculture on the land about 10,000 years ago. Just as agriculture allowed for massive increases in the productivity of food production on the land, he argues that aquaculture – commercially farming the sea – could substantially bolster output from the oceans. 'We have developed agriculture for land but we haven't done a whole lot for our oceans,' he says.
So far, aquaculture has only taken off at the margins, such as inland areas, rather than marine areas. For many developing countries it is increasing in importance as a source of food. For example, in 2002 China was responsible for 69.8 per cent of the world's aquaculture production with another 12.7 per cent coming from India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand and Viet Nam. However, Goklany believes the potential to develop this source of food still further is enormous. He also argues that developing aquaculture would lessen pressure on the land as the need to harvest land areas as a source of food would be reduced.
Despite Goklany's positive assessment of what humanity has achieved so far he does not see future progress as inevitable. In particular he regards the precautionary principle, which he sees as being widely applied in contemporary society, as a barrier to development. It has become standard practice to one-sidedly exaggerate the risks of technological developments while downplaying the benefits.
Genetically modified (GM) crops, which Goklany sees as capable of improving both the quality and quantity of food available to humanity, are a prime example. Such crops have fed 300million Americans and tens of millions of visitors to the country with no apparent ill-effects since 1996. Yet there are still widespread and unfounded fears in Europe about the potential dangers of GM foods.
If there is a problem with Goklany's work it stems, like its strengths, from his technocratic approach. For example, he calls for an 'honest' application of the precautionary principle based on a balanced assessment of the risks and rewards of any technological advance. Yet the problem with the precautionary principle is not simply that its advocates are dishonest about assessing risks. A key question is: What is it about contemporary society that pre-disposes so many people to be fearful of risks and blind to the benefits of progress? Such questions are, by their nature, beyond the scope of a straightforward analysis of the data on human well-being.
When pushed, Goklany concedes that anti-technology attitudes are probably deep-rooted, particularly in Europe. 'I suspect you're right,' he says. But it is not a question he examines in the book. He also sees Europe as the main culprit in this respect while underestimating the strong culture of risk aversion in America. Precaution is an organising principle of state policy on both sides of the Atlantic. What was once a defining characteristic of environmentalism has become mainstream.
Nor does he consider the question of why growth scepticism has become so strong despite the immense benefits of progress. While he recognises this is an important question he decided to define it as outside the remit of his book.
In a way the final criticism is churlish. Examining the roots of growth scepticism is itself a substantial task. It also demands a fundamentally different approach to one rooted in numerical data. The chapter in Bjørn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist that attempted to sketch an answer to the question was the weakest in the book.
Overall, The Improving State of the World is an excellent antidote to the miserabalist attitudes that dominate contemporary society. Indur Goklany has painstakingly conducted a thorough and balanced assessment of the data to show that human well-being is better than ever. He also points the way to improving things still further in the future while warning of the risks of precaution. It does not provide the whole story but it is a vital component in the case against those who attack human progress.
The Improving State of the World is published by Cato (buy this book from Amazon (UK) Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA).
Visit Daniel Ben-Ami's website at www.danielbenami.com.
(1) His earlier books were Clearing the Air (Cato 1999) and The Precautionary Principle (Cato 2001). His many articles include a critique of the Stern report on climate change, co-authored with several others, in the October-December 2006 issue of World Economics.
(2) WHO gives indoor use of DDT a clean bill of health for controlling malaria, WHO press release, 15 September 2006. For earlier spiked articles on the DDT controversy see Roger Bate, Without DDT, malaria bites back and Dave Hallsworth, Why we need DDT.
(3) WHO gives indoor use of DDT a clean bill of health for controlling malaria, WHO press release, 15 September 2006
(4) Bjørn Lomborg The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge 2001). See The Skeptical Environmentalist, by John Gillott and 'This is a case of table pounding', by Helene Guldberg.