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March 4, 2008


EU remains recalcitrant; Limagrain moves trials to US; Czech GM potatoes


* Agricultural trade squeals
* Crop supplies 'dicey'
* Bakers see folly of rejecting biotech
* Africa's organic farms
* Book: How Biotech is Being Kept Out of Africa
* Victorian GM moratorium ends
* Limagrain Moves GM Tests To The US
* GM potatoes to be planted by Czech farmers


Agricultural trade squeals

- Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko, Washington Times, Feb. 29, 2008


European Union officials adamantly refuse to let the World Trade Organization save them from themselves.

Despite a 2005 WTO ruling that some European countries were breaking international trade rules by prohibiting the importation of gene-spliced, or "genetically modified (GM)," crops and foods, Europe remains recalcitrant, unrepentant - and on the verge of slaughtering its own livestock industry.

European Union agriculture ministers failed yet again Monday to permit imports of five biotech crops intended for animal feed, causing a group that represents European farmers to warn that without greater use of gene-spliced crops, the livestock industry could be decimated.

European shortages of grain for animal feed and soaring prices - caused by both the rejection of gene-spliced grains and the diversion of corn to production of ethanol for fuel - are causing panic among livestock producers. Pig and poultry farmers have been forced to reduce their output, while consumer consumption is down because of higher prices.

Although the WTO bluntly scolded the EU for imposing a moratorium on gene-spliced crop approvals from 1998 to 2004, that finding was a foregone conclusion. European politicians, including then-EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstroem, had acknowledged that the moratorium was "an illegal, illogical, and otherwise arbitrary line in the sand."

The WTO also made clear that national bans on certain gene-spliced foods in Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Luxembourg were blatant violations both of those countries' treaty obligations and EU rules, but the European Commission has been impotent in persuading its rogue members to conform to EU policies. Not only are most of those national bans still in place, but last October, French President Nicolas Sarkozy instituted a new moratorium on the commercial cultivation of gene-spliced corn.

The most important victory for the United States and its partners was the WTO's judgment that the European Commission failed to abide by its own regulations by "undue delaying" of approvals for 25 gene-spliced food products. The culprit here was (and is) the EC's highly politicized, sclerotic, two-stage approval process: Each application first must be cleared for marketing by various scientific panels, and then voted on by politicians, who routinely contravene the scientific decisions.

As the WTO pointed out, the relevant EC scientific committees had recommended approval of all 25 product applications. But, for transparently political reasons rather than concerns about consumer health or environmental protection, EU politicians repeatedly refused to sign off on the final approvals.

It is important to remember that these are superior products made with state-of-the art technology that is both more precise and predictable than other techniques for the genetic improvement of plants. The safety and importance of gene-splicing technology have been endorsed by dozens of scientific bodies around the world, including the French Academies of Science and Medicine, U.K. Royal Society, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, American Medical Association, and many others.

The good news is that the WTO chastised the European Union for failing to follow its own regulatory rules. The bad news is the absence from the panel report of any condemnation of those rules themselves, though they are blatantly unscientific and impose gratuitous regulation and clear violations of WTO-enforced trade treaties.

Under various of those treaties, member countries are free to enact any level of environmental or health regulations they choose - so long as (1) every such regulation is based on the results of a risk analysis showing some legitimate risk exists and (2) the degree of regulation is proportional to that risk.

Every risk analysis by countless scientific bodies worldwide has shown that the splicing of new genes into plants, per se, introduces no incremental risks. A 2001 European Commission report summarizing the conclusions of 81 different EU-funded research projects spanning 15 years concluded that, because gene-spliced plants and foods are made with highly precise and predictable techniques, they are at least as safe as and often safer than their conventional counterparts.

In 2003, then-EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Affairs David Byrne acknowledged that the official European Commission position was that currently marketed gene-spliced crop varieties posed no greater food safety or environmental threat than the corresponding conventional food varieties.

None of this has translated into more enlightened decisions on either policy or individual products, however (although over the last few years the EU has approved a small, token number of gene-spliced product applications in order to pretend its regulatory apparatus is now in compliance with the WTO ruling).

By requiring extraordinary testing procedures for an admittedly safer technology, the EU approach is not only disproportionate but manifests an inverse relationship between the degree of risk and amount of regulatory scrutiny. This is both absurd and illegal, but at a "background" briefing in February 2006, an unnamed "EU official" noted that, "[i]t is nevertheless clear, beyond any doubt, that the EU will not have to modify its [biotechnology] legislation and authorization procedures."

Because uncertainty is anathema to investment in costly research and development, few companies are likely to risk the tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs needed to pursue each new agbiotech product in Europe. Even worse, the less developed nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America, which once anticipated that agricultural and food biotechnology could provide them a brighter and more self-sufficient future, will continue to be shut out of the important European market by policymakers' callous obstructionism.


With crop supplies 'dicey' do we want to roll the dice?

- Bruce Freitag, Farm & Ranch Guide Mar. 2, 2008


Just before giving up his post as interim U.S. Agriculture Secretary last month, Chuck Conner warned that growing enough corn, soybeans and wheat to meet food, feed and biofuel demands this year is going to be "very dicey." He thought that we farmers were up to the challenge this year, but many of us are concerned that we will be denied the tools we need for the long run.

Renewable fuels are a new challenge. Congress has mandated 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels per year by 2022. Corn-based ethanol is expected to be about 40 percent of that, which will require a 130 percent increase over current ethanol production levels.

Add in the vagaries of climate. Two years ago, drought in France and Spain resulted in the worst corn production in 50 years. In Australia, where drought has been persistent since 2002, some wheat farmers failed to harvest a crop for the first time in 40 years. Wheat yields were also disappointing in Europe. U.S. corn production was down 5 percent because of drought in 2006, but it rebounded in 2007.

Last December, Jacques Diouf, the head of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, warned that people were already starting to go hungry in poor countries because hotter weather was shrinking the food supply and pushing up prices.

Pest pressure does not ease up. Last year heavy rains in the United Kingdom produced widespread fungal diseases in potatoes and other crops. In the U.S. the spread of blight and Sudden Death Syndrome in soybeans continues to be a concern while soy stockpiles are at their lowest levels in years. Insects remain a perennial threat to all crops, and we must be vigilant to ensure that weeds don't cut into yields.

While Mother Nature unleashes all sorts of tricks, the human population continues to climb by an estimated 75 million per year. Global population is projected to rise from 6.6 billion today to more than 8 billion by 2025. As India and China become more industrialized, they lose crop productivity while their people demand more grain-fed meat and protein.

This month India's foremost farm scientists warned that their country is headed for a crisis in food productivity. They called for a new "Green Revolution" and easy access to modern technologies to boost productivity.

Farmers need all the help we can get to meet this global demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel. Modern science gives us confidence, but global politics makes us queasy.

Many companies are developing new tools, such as drought-resistant crops. Others are working on disease resistance. Already we have crops that ward off some insects, but we need to target more pests.

Other developers are working on grain that produces more ethanol while leaving co-products suitable for livestock feeds. Seeds that boost yields and control pests are our best hope of meeting global demand.

Tools are not all coming, however. Many opponents continue to resist. Over the protests of French farmers, that country banned biotech corn that controls a devastating pest.

The World Trade Organization is frustrated in trying to overturn the European Union's policy of not approving any new biotech crops. Incredibly, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan opposes biotechnology in Africa, where starvation threatens millions of lives.

Here at home, activist groups in league with big organic interests disparage modern agricultural technologies so as to create consumer uncertainty. Their rhetoric does more than expand the niche organic market; it contributes to bad policies. It's one thing to try to create customers; it's quite another to impede the development of technologies that give farmers the best chance of meeting the incredible production challenges that lie ahead.

If things are dicey today, just imagine what they will be in a few years.

(Freitag, a farmer from Scranton, N.D., is vice-chairman for Growers for Biotechnology.)


Bakers starting to see folly of rejecting biotechnology

- Paul Aasness, AgriMarketing, Feb. 28, 2008


Despite the fact that most wheat farmers have welcomed the advent of biotechnology, end users have not been so supportive.

The end user, especially millers and bakers, argued that the advantages gained with biotechnology were for the growers' benefit only. They made it clear that they were not interested in purchasing commodities that were genetically modified -- especially wheat.

It seems now, however, that the tide may be turning. The milling and baking industry is suddenly realizing that the sky-high cost and critically short supply of wheat is directly related to the absence of efficient technologies in wheat.

Farmers, including myself, have seen huge advantages in growing biotech corn and soybeans. Many of us have reduced our wheat acres steadily in the past 10 years since biotech corn and soybeans became available. Control of pests such as corn borer and corn rootworm and superior weed control with Roundup Ready corn and soybeans have been welcomed with open arms wherever they have been tried. Today, 73 percent of the corn and 91 percent of the soybean acres in the United States have one or more biotech traits. All this has taken place in a little over 10 years since biotech seeds were first available to us. It's hard to justify fighting to produce wheat when it's much more efficient and profitable to produce a biotech crop.

In 2007 the national corn yield average was 152.8 bushels per acre, 16 bushels up from just 10 years ago, largely due to biotechnology. In contrast the national average wheat yield for 2007 was 40.6 bushes per acre, unchanged from a decade earlier. The shift away from wheat production to corn and soybeans has resulted in the highest wheat prices ever recorded in United States history at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange. The price shock is alarming the food companies that produce bread, cereal, crackers and pasta.

At a recent meeting of the Joint Biotech Committee of U.S. Wheat Associates and the National Association of Wheat Growers, a spokesperson for the North American Millers Association said millers and pro-biotech growers are no longer at opposite poles.

This change of attitude was further confirmed by an excellent editorial in Milling and Baking News, which is the premier trade journal for the milling and baking industry and is heralded not only nationally but throughout the world. Their editorial titled "Huge Price Paid for Opposition to Biotechnology" reveals some sobering admissions on the part of millers and bakers.

The article states that they have been "day-dreaming" and that their opposition was based largely on "unproven fears about how consumers will react to foods made from bioengineered crops." In conclusion the editorial stated that "costs and prices like those registered this year in wheat ought to awaken opponents of biotechnology to realize how greatly their stance is costing themselves and the economy."

Unfortunately biotech in wheat has a lot of catching up to do. Companies that were willing to invest in wheat have moved their research focus to more accepting crops. While corn and soybean producers can look forward to additional biotech traits that are soon to be released, no such optimism exists for wheat. It now appears, however, that a new ally is emerging and ready to accept our efficiently grown U.S. wheat.

Hopefully, we producers who have reduced or eliminated wheat altogether can look forward to once again placing wheat back into our rotation.


Africa's organic farms

- Robert Paarlberg, International Herald Tribune, Feb. 29, 2008


Approach any serious-looking college student in the Boston area, where I teach, and ask them what kind of food and farming system they would like to see. Most will say they don't want food from factory farms with a large carbon footprint. They want foods locally grown on small family farms. They don't want crops grown using synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides; they want crops grown "organically." They want farm animals to be able to range freely. They want "slow" food rather than fast food. And they don't want "Frankenfoods" - crops developed through genetically engineering.

What might such an idealized food system actually look like? Take a trip to Africa. The small farmers who populate the continent's impoverished countryside are living out something close to this post-materialist fantasy. Two-thirds of all Africans depend on farming or animal grazing for their food and income, and nearly all of their operations are small-scale.

Eighty percent of the labor on these farms is done by women and children, in part because it provides so little income for working-age men. There is no power machinery (only two tractors for every thousand agricultural workers) and only 4 percent of crops are irrigated. More than two thirds of all cropland is still planted with traditional crop varieties rather than with scientifically improved varieties. The animals - mostly cattle and goats - forage for their own food.

Agribusiness firms are nowhere to be seen, and chemical fertilizer applications per hectare are less than one-tenth the industrial world average. Insecticides and herbicides are not affordable, so crops suffer pest damage, and the weeding is done by children who would be better off in school. Nobody grows genetically engineered crops because governments in Africa - following Europe's lead - have not approved such crops for use.

Nearly all of Africa's farms are thus de facto "organic." Poor and non-productive, but organic.

Africa's traditional rural food systems are definitely "slow." To serve maize meal (called nsima) to her family, an African woman must first spend a season planting, weeding, harvesting and storing her corn, then she must strip it, winnow it, soak it, lay it out to dry, carry it to a grinder or pound it by hand, dry it again, and finally - after walking to gather enough fuel wood - cook it over a fire.

Cereal crop yields in Africa are only one-third as high as in developing Asia, and only one-tenth as high as the United States. Average income from this kind of farming amounts to only a dollar a day, which is why nearly 80 percent of all those officially classified as poor in Africa are farmers, and why one third of all farmers are chronically malnourished.

Without modern agricultural science, food production in Africa has fallen ominously behind population growth. Total agricultural production per capita today has fallen 19 percent below the level of 1970. Increasingly, Africans must depend on imported food aid.

Africa's urgent need for agricultural modernization is being rudely ignored. When elite urbanites in rich countries began turning away from science-based farming in the 1980s, external assistance for agriculture in poor countries was cut sharply. As late as 1980 the U.S. Agency for International Development was still devoting 25 percent of its official development assistance to the modernization of farming, but today it is just 1 percent. Nearly 30 percent of World Bank lending once went to agricultural modernization, but now it is just 8 percent.

In Europe, meanwhile, some official donors and nongovernmental agencies are working to block farm modernization in Africa. Despite Africa's worsening soil nutrient deficits, European donors like to promote costly organic farming techniques as the alternative to chemical fertilizer use. This is not how European farmers escaped poverty. Only 4 percent of cropland in Europe is currently being farmed organically (and less than 1 percent in America), but European NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace tell Africa's poor this is the path they should follow.

European governments and NGOs also promote regulatory systems that block the use of genetically engineered crops, including crops capable of resisting insects without pesticide sprays. Europe's own science academies have found no new risks to human health or the environment from any of the genetically engineered crops placed on the market so far, but since overfed Europe can do without this technology, underfed Africa is told to do the same.

In this fashion, and perhaps without realizing it, wealthy countries are imposing the richest of tastes on the poorest of people. The rich are, in effect, telling Africa's farmers they should just as well remain poor.

Robert Paarlberg is a professor of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and the author of "Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa."


Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa

- Robert Paarlberg, Foreword by Norman Borlaug and Jimmy Carter, Harvard University Press, Mar. 2008, 256 pp, ISBN 13: 978-0-674-02973-6


Heading upcountry in Africa to visit small farms is absolutely exhilarating given the dramatic beauty of big skies, red soil, and arid vistas, but eventually the two-lane tarmac narrows to rutted dirt, and the journey must continue on foot. The farmers you eventually meet are mostly women, hardworking but visibly poor. They have no improved seeds, no chemical fertilizers, no irrigation, and with their meager crops they earn less than a dollar a day. Many are malnourished.

Nearly two-thirds of Africans are employed in agriculture, yet on a per-capita basis they produce roughly 20 percent less than they did in 1970. Although modern agricultural science was the key to reducing rural poverty in Asia, modern farm science - including biotechnology - has recently been kept out of Africa.

In Starved for Science Robert Paarlberg explains why poor African farmers are denied access to productive technologies, particularly genetically engineered seeds with improved resistance to insects and drought. He traces this obstacle to the current opposition to farm science in prosperous countries. Having embraced agricultural science to become well-fed themselves, those in wealthy countries are now instructing Africans - on the most dubious grounds - not to do the same.

In a book sure to generate intense debate, Paarlberg details how this cultural turn against agricultural science among affluent societies is now being exported, inappropriately, to Africa. Those who are opposed to the use of agricultural technologies are telling African farmers that, in effect, it would be just as well for them to remain poor.


Victorian GM moratorium ends today

- ABC News (Australia), Feb. 29, 2008


Two types of genetically-modified canola can be grown on Victorian farms from today.

Government regulators have given the two varieties the relevant environmental and health approvals, with a report finding the move will benefit Victoria by $115 million over the next eight years.

Victorian Agriculture Minister Joe Helper says farmers now have a choice of which type of canola they grow, putting them on a level playing field with farmers from other countries.

Mr Helper says the relevant health and environmental approvals have been given.

The Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) is welcoming the move.

VFF grains vice-president Andrew Weidemann says grain growers will be more competitive with their overseas counterparts.

"Growers now will have the opportunity to chose a new technology that prior to the announcement by the Government, they weren't able to do,' he said.

"They will now be competing on a level footing with other growers across the world."

But Biological Farmers of Australia spokesman Scott Kinnear says GM crops are not safe and will be unregulated and uncontrolled.

"They haven't been tested on animals extensively, they haven't been tested on humans at all anywhere in the world," he said.

"There is no health monitoring going on in terms of consequences of eating GM food."

Mr Kinnear says there are serious risks to the health and safety of people who eat GM foods.

"We have seen increases in allergies and diseases around the world coinciding with the introduction of GM foods," he said.

"There is no research by any government regulatory agency around the world investigating whether there there is a link between the consumption of GM foods and health and safety and that is a scandal that needs to be overturned."

Mr Kinnear says consumers do not like GM products and neither do Australia's grain buyers in Europe, Japan and the Middle East.

"We should be listening to these sensitivities, value-adding our product as non-GM, and certainly sitting back and watching the GM Titanic as it hits the iceberg, which inevitably it will do," he said.

But Mr Weidemann says Australia still uses some products and pesticides that are banned in other countries and the GM go-ahead will move the sector forward.

"It's not going to be too long before those countries actually say to us, 'why are you using these old farming methods and why aren't you moving on and moving forward and using the new farming methods that are available to all these other farming nations' - so it is a green light day for Victorian agriculture."


Limagrain Moves GM Tests To The US Due French Ban

- Sybille de La Hamaide, Reuters via PlanetArk, Feb. 29, 2008


PARIS - Europe's largest seed cooperative Limagrain said on Thursday it had moved its research tests into genetically modified (GM) crops to the United States, put off by France's hostility to GMs and the destruction of test fields.

Chairman Pierre Pagesse said Biogemma, Limagrain's grain and oilseed research unit, would carry around 1,000 tests on GM crops this year in Illinois, in the US corn belt.

Limagrain has a 70 percent stake in the world's fourth-largest seed maker Vilmorin.

"We have decided to transfer our tests to the United States this year," Pagesse told Reuters in an interview at the Paris farm show.

"It is with a heavy heart," he added. "For the first time we will move outside France and even outside the European Union to carry out our tests and this due to the current situation in our country," Pagesse said.

While GM crops are common in the United States, France and other European countries are dubious about using the new genetic technology in agriculture.

France decided in December to suspend the cultivation of the sole GM crop grown in the European Union, a maize developed by US biotech giant Monsanto, and notified the European Commission earlier this month that it was extending the ban.

Pagesse said the expatriation of the GM tests to the United States, was also prompted by the repetitive attacks carried out by anti-GM activists on Biogemma's test fields.


The decision, although not irreversible, will inevitably affect the working of Limagrain, which owns 55 percent of Biogemma and totally relies on the company for its GM research, he said.

"I know that to move the intellectual part of the group is to move the group's epicentre in time," he said, stressing that the company had probably waited too long to make the move.

Limagrain would keep doing non-GM tests in France but all biotech research, carried out through Biogemma, would be done in the United States, which in the end could penalise Europe as seeds may not be adapted to European soil and pests, he said.

"The company keeps its knowledge but it's the French peasants who are going to lose out," he said.

Pagesse argued there was a contradiction between the French ban on the growing of GM maize and massively importing genetically modified animal feed.

"Either it is bad and we should hurry banning imports or we consider that it's good for consumers, including through animal feed, then we should let French farmers use the technologies that we think are better adapted," he said.

A government-appointed committee of scientists, farmers, politicians and non-governmental organisations said in January "serious doubts" remained over whether the MON 810 was safe.

The main worry mentioned in the report, which triggered the government's decision on the ban, concerned dissemination to other crops and biodiversity, not human health.


New GM potatoes to be planted by Czech farmers soon

- Petr Havel, Centrum Aktuálne, Mar. 3, 2008


Prague - Potato is the 4th most important food crop in the world - after rice, wheat and corn - and has been a staple for millions of poor people in the developing world with almost nothing else on the table. That is one of the reasons why the year 2008 was declared the International Year of the Potato by the United Nations.

But potatoes have also become a subject of heated debates over its genetically modified versions.

Czech farmers could be reaping a new specie of the genetically modified (GM) potatoes with superior starch more befitting the human organism next year.

Experts agree that this would broaden the possibilities of Czech potato producers.

However, in spite of positive results of obligatory field tests, the specie called Amflora is now blocked from being introduced to the market by European Commissioner for the Environment Stavros Dimas.

GM corn on the rise in Europe, Czechs among leaders

According to Marie Cerovská from the Czech Ministry of Agriculture, the European Commission (EC) has approved the introduction of Amflora potatoes to the market as feeding material and food component already last year.

One-man blockade

Nonetheless, the document could have been signed by Stavros Dimas for about six months now.

"Unfortunately, Commissioner Dimas doesn't accept scientific arguments, his beliefs aren't based on empirical knowledge, he just keeps repeating tendentious phrases all over again," complained Jaroslav Drobník, a professor from Department of Genetics and Microbiology of Charles University in Prague.

Czechs welcome new GM crop: corn GA 21 test afoot

According to C(er(ovská, the usage of Amflora potatoes was advised by the European Food Security Agency linked to the EU, that´s why Dimas cannot postpone his approval forever.

However, when he finally lets the potatoes to be introduced to the market, a paradoxical situation is likely to emerge.

The EC has recommended the Amflora specie to be planted in EU countries, but this decision wasn't approved by the Council of ministers at its February session.

This may result in Amflora specie being approved for consumption, but not for planting.

"Cheap argument"

The idea of Amflora potatoes to be used in food and other industries is criticized by the Greenpeace and other environmentalists' organizations.

They believe those that consume modified potatoes can become resistant to some antibiotics.

According to Drobník, this is "cheap argument, refuted a long time ago, for example by EFSA".

Also, there are general principles not linked to particular case of modified potatoes.

"Every microbiologist knows that gene being transferred from plants to germs has never been manifested. In addition, all experts know that in every gram of soil, there are hundreds of thousands of bacilli resistant to kanamycin, neomycin and similar aminoglycoside antibiotics. Hence, it's pointless to fear antibiotic resistance," exaplined Drobník.

*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel+at+wildblue.net