* UN recommends starving the poor
* Open Letter to World Bank
* Rush to restrict trade in basic foods
* China: Increasing Food Prices
* Hong Kong: Food Inflation
* Egypt: Biotech Corn Approval
* Nigeria: African Leaders Should Promote Modified Crops
* Costs Of Switching To Organic Methods
* HT crops can improve water quality
* Papaya's Genome Unmasked
* Swiss 'dignity' law threatens plant biology
The U.N.'s latest study has told us to starve the poor
- Douglas Southgate, Critical Opinion, Apr. 19, 2008
At a time when food prices are beyond what many can afford, it is unconscionable to consider policies that would make food scarcer and drive prices even higher. Yet that is exactly what is advocated in a U.N.-backed report published this week.
The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) published its confused and inconsistent recommendations for more sustainable agriculture on April 15. Repeated throughout the report is the message that, despite increases in food production, the benefits of modern agriculture "have come at an increasingly intolerable price, paid by small-scale farmers, workers, rural communities and the environment."
But the average inflation-adjusted price of agricultural products, indexed to wages, fell by about 75 percent between 1950 and 1990, benefiting the poorest the most.
Yet the IAASTD portrays the intensification of agriculture during and since the Green Revolution in the mid-60s as a failure, claiming that "increases in intensive, export-orientated agriculture had serious social and environmental implications."
In fact, it is the very governments that the IAASTD wants to "empower" that are responsible for such economic and environmental damage.
In spite of the current spike in food prices, mankind has done reasonably well combating hunger in recent decades. As the population boomed, food production consistently rose faster than demand, and the number of undernourished people has fallen steadily since the late 1960s, from 35 percent of the total population of the developing world to 17 percent.
Much of this progress came from the dramatic yield growth that the Green Revolution brought to Asia after the mid-1960s. High-yield seeds, fertilizers, other chemical inputs and irrigation systems meant that hundreds of millions of people were saved from starvation.
And we grow more food on less land. This has allowed us to conserve forests and wild habitats that would otherwise have been turned into fields. Economist Indur Goklany calculates that, if technology and agricultural yields had been frozen at their 1961 levels, we would need to farm more than twice the amount of land we do today to obtain the same amount of food.
It is disingenuous to claim that agricultural technology and free trade have only benefited corporations and ruling cliques. In many cases, small farmers gained the most from the Asian Green Revolution, adopting better seed varieties and techniques just as quickly as larger growers.
Poor farmers have benefited the most from agricultural technologies such as machinery and chemicals, which have reduced back-breaking manual labor. Small producers have become more competitive and food has become cheaper.
The IAASTD, however, argues that "business as usual" in agriculture cannot continue. But what policies "to alleviate poverty and improve food security" does it recommend instead? Agro-ecological approaches and organic farming. But phasing out chemical fertilizers would massively decrease yields, driving up prices still further. It would also increase the amount of land needed to support the world's food demands, resulting in a huge loss of forest and other pristine land.
The report further claims that "the poorest developing countries are net losers under most trade liberalization scenarios," -- but fails to recognize that most of the world's poor have never had access to free markets.
High import tariffs on agricultural goods -- averaging 33.6 percent between Sub-Saharan countries -- mean that consumers are paying more than the market price of food. Government meddling in food markets has also made agriculture unprofitable for many producers, preventing them from selling on global markets. In Africa, for example, government intervention in the form of heavy taxes, quotas and marketing boards saw per capita food production fall 35 percent between 1960 and 1985.
If the vast majority of the world's 850 million hungry people are to be adequately nourished, their earnings will have to rise and food will have to become cheaper. For many of these people, the best solution is to raise agricultural productivity. For this to happen, governments need to remove the economic barriers that currently make it more expensive for people to buy food and for farmers to buy fertilizers, seeds and machinery. Free trade in food would see producers responding efficiently to rising demand and would allow food to reach those in need quickly.
Before issuing unrealistic recommendations on agriculture, the IAASTD report's authors should have considered where people's priorities lie. While rich Westerners may be able to spend money on feel-good, but pointless, gestures like organic food and "fair trade," most people need cheaper food, and fast. Bureaucracies don't create food -- people do: Governments can improve food security mainly by getting out of the way of free-trading farmers.
Douglas Southgate is professor of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics at Ohio State University and author of 'The World Food Economy' (Blackwell Publishing, 2007).
Open Letter to ROBERT B. ZOELLICK, President, World Bank
[Apr. 24, 2008]
Recently there has been considerable media attention to the report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The media accounts often indicate the World Bank initiated and funded the project and that it was supported by a number of prestigious international organizations such as the UN, FAO and UNESCO as well as the World Bank. Having carefully gone through the posted documentation, I and many others have found the documents to be troubling and likely over the long term to worsen the present global food crisis. What I have not seen is any statement of support or opposition from the World Bank or other organizations. From the media coverage, one might rightly or wrongly, conclude that the IAASTD's policy prescriptions will become the framework for future actions of the listed organizations. Please tell me that I am wrong (and I apologize in advance for even writing) that you have made your views publicly known on these matters and that I have somehow failed to find them. To many of us with experience in international agriculture, the report would seem to be an embarrassment and silence would not lessen the embarrassment for any organization that the media identifies with the final report.
Even more troubling would be a failure to comment on the attack paragraph against World Bank's World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development that I found on IAASTD's website - <http://www.agassessment-watch.org/>http://www.agassessment-watch.org/>http://www.agassessment-watch.org/. Not only is the IAASTD ungraciously biting the hand that fed them - being a member of some of these groups requires totally lacking a sense of shame - but they are trashing a superb and very useful piece of work and the many outstanding individuals who contributed to it. I can not imagine an organization such as yours breaking faith with those who have so long labored in research and in the field to help feed the less privileged and then contributed their experience to a document that seeks to provide understanding for continuing the work of increasing and improving world food production. Once again, please, and I am pleading, tell me that I am wrong and that a defense was made and it is my fault for not having seen it.
I am sure that you have seen the offending IAASTD paragraph but let me copy it here:
The World Bank's World Development Report 2008 - Focus on agriculture "On October 19th the World Bank officially released the final version of its "World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development" with a focus on agriculture. In clear contrast to the present drafts of the IAASTD this report promotes top-down approaches, increased world trade in agricultural goods and "modernisiation" of agriculture at the expense of small and subsistence farmers. The present draft contains a highly ideological praise of genetic engineering (Chapter 7 Innovating through science and technology). At this point the World Bank seems deeply concerned about a quite different view to be presented in a report, which has higher credibility and is based upon more inclusiveness and scientific evidence. The final text of the WDR and some background is available on the World Banks website. [http://tinyurl.com/2298md]
Allow me to add my comments to the paragraph and the report:
1) They are right that the World Bank should be "deeply concerned" about their report but for reasons different than those that they assume. As a start, the World Bank needs to issue a repudiation of the above statement with a defense of their fine document and of the many authentic experts who contributed to it. Please note the reference to "highly ideological praise of genetic engineering" and to their own "higher credibility ... based upon more inclusiveness and scientific evidence." This is insulting to say the least as if the World Development Report 2008 was not based on scientific evidence and somehow the real non-ideological experts (read the NGOs) were somehow systematically excluded and that the report lacks scientific merit. Should the Bank fail to respond to these allegations, in my judgment the World Bank's credibility will be at stake as well as their failure to defend the World Development Report 2008's authors. Please tell me that I am wrong.
2) There needs to be more transparency by those who most vociferously demand it of others. The WDR was based upon the work of agricultural scientists of proven capability and international reputation for their work. Who are for example the over 300 (or nearly 400 as often stated) scientists who participated? What are their credentials? How many of them have signed onto the draft that is now being widely touted and how many have dropped out in disgust? I went through the various lists of directors, participants etc. and I saw a number of names of NGO activists who are known for their ideological advocacy and not their agricultural expertise. I could name names and advocacy groups but it is best at this time not to do so. From the media reports, one might surmise that the only ones who withdrew or dissented from the report were non-scientist representatives of multinational biotech corporations who left in a childish snit because they could not get their way. I have personally heard from scientists who were participants but refused to sign the document. Since the over 300 (or nearly 400 as often stated) scientists were along with the organizations allegedly supporting it, were being used to legitimize the resulting document, the public needs to know how many scientists refused to sign and what is their expertise and experience compared to those who signed. For example, does being an NGO activist in Europe or North America qualify one as an "expert"? The public needs to know who did not sign and why they failed to do so. If there was a difference of opinion, we need both or all sides and not just that of the proponents.
3) Many of us involved in international agriculture would certainly be interested in learning what practical and policy actions the World Bank and other institutions will be taking as a result of this report. Are committees being established to assess and evaluate the IAASTD report and its implication for World Bank and other organizations policies. Is there to be reports issued by study groups providing guidelines for implementing the policy recommendations of IAASTD or for rejecting them? If such groups exist, is there a time frame for their response? How will those who are involved in international agriculture know how it will affect their work? After all, the IAASTD boosters are proclaiming the revolutionary character of their recommendations which essentially advocate the dismantling of what they call "industrial agriculture" and undoing much of what the World Bank has been doing over the last half century. Some of us may consider the report more reactionary than revolutionary but it does represent a substantial change in policy and programs. It is not too much of a stretch to conclude that the IAASTD report essentially holds the World Bank and others who have promoted "unsustainable industrial agriculture" as being responsible for the current food crisis. Since the IAASTD now claims sponsorship by a vast array of international organizations, some of whom are very important in agriculture, we need to know how involved they were in developing the final report and have they made any commitments on implementing its recommendations. Are the news accounts of implied endorsement by these organizations including the World Bank correct? If not, the media does need to be corrected.
I have many more questions but it is best that I stop here for now. First and foremost, please let me know if I am mistaken in not seeing an appropriate response by the World Bank. I will apologize publicly and profusely. Should you or a member of your staff be able to respond to my inquiry, please let me know if you wish your response to be confidential. I will be posting the "open letter" and will post any reply unless requested not to do so. In that case, I will post that I received a confidential reply.
Thomas R. DeGregori Professor of Economics
Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D. Professor of Economics University of Houston Department of Economics
Web homepage http://www.uh.edu/~trdegreg
Rush to restrict trade in basic foods
- Alan Beattie, The Financial Times (London), Apr. 1, 2008
Governments across the developing world are scrambling to boost farm imports and restrict exports in an attempt to forestall rising food prices and social unrest.
Saudi Arabia cut import taxes across a range of food products on Tuesday, slashing its wheat tariff from 25 per cent to zero and reducing tariffs on poultry, dairy produce and vegetable oils.
On Monday, India scrapped tariffs on edible oil and maize and banned exports of all rice except the high-value basmati variety, while Vietnam, the world's third biggest rice exporter, said it would cut rice exports by 11 per cent this year.
The moves mark a rapid shift away from protecting farmers, who are generally the beneficiaries of food import tariffs, towards cushioning consumers from food shortages and rising prices.
But economists warned that such actions risked provoking an upward spiral in global food prices, which have already been pushed higher by rising demand from emerging markets like China and India and pressure on land from the growing production of bio-fuels.
"There are so many speculators in the market that when something happens to affect supply, there is an immediate reaction," said Paul Braks, commodities analyst at Rabobank, one of the largest agribusiness lenders.
"Markets are very tight, and when you see net exporters imposing these export restrictions to stabilise domestic food prices, it makes the market nervous."
Mr Braks said volatility in food prices had been exacerbated by problems in financial markets. "The credit crunch has pushed a lot of investors into commodities as a safe haven," he said. "If they get their fingers burned, they are likely to withdraw."
Kamal Nath, Indian trade minister, said food shortages were becoming one of the most pressing trade issues. "It is ... probably our number one problem," he said. "World food stocks have never been lower."
India, which became self-sufficient in food in the 1970s, has imported substantial quantities of wheat and other staple foods over two years in response to shortages and higher prices.
Mr Braks said that even highly productive exporters such as Ukraine were imposing export restrictions on wheat, though a good harvest in the autumn should see more grain being released on to the world market.
In the medium term, high prices should encourage more land to come into production, particularly in Ukraine and Russia. "World grain prices are likely to be high and volatile over the next two crop years, and then from 2010 the supply response should start to bring prices slowly down," he said.
Disputes over sharing the costs and benefits of higher food prices have shot up the political agenda in many developing countries as sharp reductions in purchasingpower, particularly for the urban poor, have put increasing pressure on governments.
Global rice prices have risen by a third since the turn of the year, and higher soyabean costs have sparked protests in countries such as Indonesia.
In Argentina, farmers have protested against attempts by the government of Cristina Fernández to redistribute the benefits of rising commodity prices by increasing export taxes on soyabeans and other crops. In the Philippines, government investigators have raided warehouses suspected of hoarding rice.
Guest ed. note: The anti-globalization "fair trade, not free trade" folks seem awfully quiet lately.
China, Peoples Republic of | Increasing Food Prices
- USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Apr. 24, 2008
On April 16, China's National Bureau of Statistics announced that the CPI for the first quarter of 2008 grew eight percent. This increase was partially a result of a 21 percent increase in food prices, which account for about one third of China's CPI. These increases are mostly attributed to cost-push inflation, increased consumption, and greater demand for food products throughout China. Short global agricultural commodity supplies, devastating winter storms, and animal diseases have also contributed to sharp increase in food prices over the last year in China. The central government has responded with various measures to decrease producer costs and maintain domestic supplies, leading to a generally increased level of government intervention in the market.
For the full report: http://www.fas.usda.gov/gainfiles/200804/146294362.pdf
Hong Kong | Hong Kong Food Inflation
- USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Apr. 24, 2008
Between February 2007 and February 2008, food prices increased 19.5 percent. The annual statistics, as stark as they are, mask the fact that most of the price increases have taken place in recent months. Retail food prices between January and February 2008 alone rose 6.4 percent, accounting for one-third of the annual increase. Despite this increase, the Hong Kong government has not implemented any programs to encourage local food production or to restrict food exports. Hong Kong is almost completely import-dependent for its food supplies. It supports insignificant farming and a very small food processing industry. Neither does it hold any food reserves. Food inflation in Hong Kong has been led by steep increases in meat prices. The year-on-year change in pork price for February 2008 was 56 percent. Hong Kong's inflation is also fuelled by a host of internal factors including strong domestic demand, a weakening currency that is tied to the U.S. dollar, and rising food prices in Mainland China, Hong Kong's largest supplier. Hong Kong is an affluent economy with an average of 10 percent of household expenditure spent on store-bought food and another 17 percent on eating out. Hong Kong does not receive any food aid.
For the full report: http://www.fas.usda.gov/gainfiles/200804/146294370.pdf
Egypt - Biotechnology - Corn Variety Approval - 2008
- Salah Mansour, USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Apr. 16, 2008
On March 24, 2008, the Minister of Agriculture approved decisions made by the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) and Seed Registration Committee to allow for commercialization of a genetically modified Bt corn variety. This marks the first genetically modified crop approved for domestic planting in Egypt. A local seed company, acting as an agent of a multi-national life science company, had originally submitted the request and accompanying dossier several years ago. During last year's growing season, the field trials were conducted and assessed. The local company plans to import seed both for propagation and production. The seed corn will be imported from South Africa. The local company plans to cultivate the BT corn in 10 governates throughout Egypt and has already started a campaign to market the seed to producers and extension agents.
Minister Wants African Leaders to Promote Modified Crops
- Leadership (Abuja, Nigeria) via AllAfrica.com, Apr. 21, 2008
Minister of Science and Technology, Mrs Grace Ekpiwhre has called on African leaders to promote Genetically Modified (GM) crops to tame hunger on the continent.
Ekpiwhre told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) yesterday in Abuja that the continent's par capita food production had gradually declined over the last two decades. "Yields of staple crops fell by an average of 8 per cent on the continent compared to an increase of 27 per cent in Asia and 12 per cent in Latin America," she said.
She said that Nigeria's Ministry of Agriculture had raised alarm on the current agricultural growth rate which was grossly on the low side of 4.5 per cent par annum.
"The 4.5 per cent per annum is a mark far below the ever increasing food demands of more than 150 million people," she said.
She said that the consistent decline in food production had made it imperative for the continent to seek effective ways of fast-tracking food production processes.
"Biotechnology is one of those new ways. The potency of transgenic crop technology for increased productivity, nutrition, crop resistance to pests and drought is no more questionable," she said.
She disclosed that the ministry wanted to introduce genetically modified crops into Nigeria to support government's food security programme. Ekpiwhre stressed that the development of capabilities to generate and acquire technology for genetic modification of crops required the cooperation of stakeholders.
Director -general, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Prof. Bamidele Solomon, also said his agency was working on a modality for the domestication of GM crops.
"This is in order to increase crop harvests per unit area on farmers fields in Nigeria," he said.(NAN)
Costs, Considerations Of Switching To Natural Or Organic Agricultural Methods
- Science Daily, Apr. 24, 2008
When Kansas State University graduate student Ben Wileman was a practicing veterinarian in Belle Fourche, S.D., natural and organic labels were a big focus for the beef producers he saw.
"They tended to be terms that were thrown around a lot, but few people really seemed to know what they truly meant," Wileman said.
The definition of "organic" is defined by U.S. Department of Agriculture; "natural," however, can be defined differently depending on who's doing the labeling. But both terms mean one thing: higher costs for producers. That's why Wileman hopes that his research will be another tool to help those in the beef industry pondering whether to abandon conventional methods and go natural or organic.
Wileman, a doctoral student in diagnostic medicine and pathobiology at K-State, is examining the economics and logistics of conventionally raised beef versus organic and naturally raised beef. He is working with Dan Thomson, associate professor of clinical sciences at K-State. The research was presented in February at the Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas and will be presented again in July at the American Veterinary Medicine Association conference in New Orleans.
"The reason we're looking at this is because before anyone decides to go all-natural or all-organic, they need to be aware of what it's going to cost them and cost consumers," Wileman said. "We want producers to be knowledgeable about what to expect in terms of performance and economics."
Although the scientific facets of organic foods have been probed, Wileman said that little research has been done on the economic impact. Using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the K-State researchers considered feed costs and availability, the number of organic grain producers, the supply and demand for such grains going to beef cattle, and the performance impacts. They found that a producer would have to make about $120 more per head on naturally finished cattle to make the same profit as they would have on conventionally finished ones. For organically finished cattle, that increases to about $400 more per head.
The greatest contributing factor to the cost of going natural or organic is feed prices, Wileman said. In areas where there are relatively few certified-organic grain producers, transporting and certifying grain adds a major expense.
What's more, Wileman said, is that research done at K-State shows that beef producers are competing for a mere 2 percent of a consumer's income. He said another thing to keep in mind is research showing that most growth in organic and natural food items has come from the same shoppers buying more products, not from an increase in the numbers of like-minded consumers.
With this in mind, Wileman said there are a few things that the beef industry should consider when contemplating going organic or natural. Producers need to consider that they won't be able to feed their cattle in the same way and may consider forming cooperatives to meet their needs. Likewise, feedlots must be mindful of feed handling to prevent mixing organic grains with conventionally grown grains. Finally, packagers and restaurants need to know that they will have to absorb the increased costs of going natural or organic -- or be prepared to pass those costs on to their consumers.
The K-State researchers don't want to dissuade producers and others in the beef industry from going natural or organic, but they do want to offer information that can help them make that decision.
"There's not a problem with going natural or organic, but there will be production and economic issues that they will need to compensate for," Wileman said. "We want to be able to show what the implications of going organic or natural are before a producer or corporation makes that decision."
Because much of the scientific research on organic foods has centered on fruits and vegetables, Wileman said there is plenty of room to study the performance aspects of organic and natural beef production. For instance, he said that some research already has shown that natural diets can increase the prevalence of liver abscesses in cattle. Little is known about how these diets might affect other diseases like foot rot, he said.
"There are a lot more questions that need to be answered," he said.
Herbicide-tolerant crops can improve water quality
A USDA study suggests that planting herbicide-tolerant crop varieties and using contact herbicides can reduce herbicide loss and concentrations in runoff
- American Society of Agronomy (press release), Apr. 22, 2008
The residual herbicides commonly used in the production of corn and soybean are frequently detected in rivers, streams, and reservoirs at concentrations that exceed drinking water standards in areas where these crops are extensively grown. When these bodies of water are used as sources of drinking water this contamination can lead to increased treatment costs or a need to seek alternative sources of supply. Additionally, these herbicides can have negative effects on aquatic ecosystems at concentrations well below their drinking water standards. When genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant, corn and soybean became commercially available in the 1990s it became possible to replace some of the problematic residual herbicides with strongly sorbed, short half-life, contact herbicides that may be more environmentally benign. By 2004 almost 90% of the soybean grown in the US was genetically modified for tolerance to the contact herbicide glyphosate (Roundup), which is currently the most widely used herbicide in the world.
In a four-year study, researchers at the USDA-ARS's North Appalachian Experimental Watershed near Coshocton, OH compared relative losses of both herbicide types when applied at normal rates to seven small watersheds planted with Liberty-Linked corn or Roundup Ready soybean.
In their report, published in the March-April issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality, soil scientists Martin Shipitalo and Lloyd Owens, and agricultural engineer Rob Malone, noted that losses of contact herbicides in surface runoff were usually much less than those for the residual herbicides, as a percentage of the amount of herbicide applied. Averaged for all soybean crop years, glyphosate loss was about one-seventh that of metribuzin and one half that of alachlor, residual herbicides it can replace. Similarly, average loss of the contact herbicide glufosinate (Liberty) was one-fourth that of atrazine, a residual corn herbicide it can replace.
More importantly, according to project leader Martin Shipitalo, "The concentrations of the contact herbicides in the runoff never exceeded their established or proposed drinking water standards while the residual herbicides frequently exceeded their standards, particularly in the first few runoff events after application". Concentrations of atrazine in runoff were up to 240 times greater than its drinking water standard while alachlor concentrations were up to 700 times greater than its standard. Conversely, the maximum glyphosate concentration noted was nearly four times less than its standard. Glufosinate currently has no established standard, but was only detected at low concentrations and was below its detection limit 80 days after application.
In light of increased economic incentives to grow more corn and soybean for biofuel production, these results suggest to farmers and the regulatory community that herbicide losses and concentrations in runoff can be reduced by planting herbicide-tolerant varieties of these crops and replacing some of the residual herbicides with the contact herbicides compared in this study.
Papaya's Genome Unmasked by ARS Scientists, Colleagues
- Marcia Wood, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Apr. 23, 2008
Smooth, sweet papaya, one of America's most popular tropical fruits, has now surrendered some of its genetic secrets. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists and others in a University of Hawaii-led venture have uncovered the structure or sequence of the genes and other genetic material that make up papaya's genome.
An article in the journal Nature reports details of their accomplishment, which represents the first time the genome of a genetically engineered crop has been sequenced. That's according to Dennis Gonsalves, director of the ARS U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center at Hilo, Hawaii. He's also an author of the journal article.
"SunUp," the red-fleshed papaya chosen for the investigation, was developed in research that Gonsalves began in 1985. Working at that time for Cornell University's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, Gonsalves collaborated with scientists from ARS, the University of Hawaii-Manoa, and Michigan-based Pharmacia Company to create the new papaya.
The scientists genetically engineered SunUp plants to activate a gene - harmless to humans - that enables the papaya to resist attack by papaya ringspot virus. Starting in 1992, papaya ringspot disease, caused by the virus, threatened to destroy Hawaii's papaya plantations.
SunUp was used as a parent of a yellow-fleshed, virus-resistant papaya called "Rainbow." Made available to growers in 1998, Rainbow became Hawaii's leading commercial papaya.
Further scrutiny of the newly available SunUp genomic data is expected to speed identification of papaya genes that control prized traits such as flavor, texture, aroma, nutritional value, or resistance to insects and other pests.
Former ARS scientists Henrik H. Albert and Paul C. Moore are among the other authors of the Nature article. Maqsudul Alam of the University of Hawaii-Manoa led the genome exploration.
Papayas are rich in vitamins A and C and are a good source of potassium, an essential mineral.
Swiss 'dignity' law is threat to plant biology
Government ethics-committee guidelines could halt techniques such as hybridization of roses.
- Alison Abbott, Nature News (doi:10.1038/452919a), Apr. 23, 2008
When it comes to the ethics of experimenting on living subjects, plant biologists have had cause for a certain smugness. But perhaps no longer in Switzerland.
The Swiss federal government's ethics committee on non-human biotechnology has mapped out guidelines to help granting agencies decide which research applications deeply offend the dignity of plants - and hence become unfundable.
Although most people might be bewildered that a discussion on how to define 'plant dignity' should be taking place at all, the stakes for Swiss plant scientists are high. The Gene Technology Law, which came into effect in 2004, stipulates that 'the dignity of creatures' should be considered in any research. The phrase has been widely criticized for its general woolliness, but it indisputably includes plants.
All plant biotechnology grant applications must now include a paragraph explaining the extent to which plant dignity is considered. "But scientists don't know what it means," says Beat Keller of the Institute of Plant Biology at the University of Zurich who is running the first field trial - of disease-resistant corn (maize) - to be approved under the new legislation.
"At the moment not even authorities who decide on grants know what the 'dignity of plants' really means," says Markus Schefer, a constitution lawyer at the University of Basel and a member of the ethics committee. "That's why we were asked to deliberate."
[photo caption: Living creatures trapped in undignified conditions? A tricky ethical question for Swiss plant biologists.]
The constitution says that the 'dignity of creatures' must be taken into account in the gene-technology arena, which is why the term has been adopted into the regulations. The government called on the advice of its ethics committee two years ago to help develop a definition for plants. "My first reaction was - what the heck are we doing considering the dignity of plants," says Schefer. "But this very broad provision exists, and we have to help to prevent a legal mire."
The committee has created a decision tree presenting the different issues that need to be taken into account for each case. But it has come up with few concrete examples of what type of experiment might be considered an unacceptable insult to plant dignity. The committee does not consider that genetic engineering of plants automatically falls into this category, but its majority view holds that it would if the genetic modification caused plants to 'lose their independence' - for example by interfering with their capacity to reproduce. The statement has confused plant geneticists, who point out the contrast with traditional plant-hybridization technologies, for example in roses, which require male sterility, and the commercial development of seedless fruits.
Keller sees the issue as providing another tool for opponents to argue against any form of plant biotechnology, which is already very difficult to conduct in Switzerland. Schefer says that things will start to become clearer when legal challenges to specific research projects come to court, and case law becomes established.
The definition of what constitutes dignity in animals is currently being tested in a Zurich court. Primate-research projects at the ETH Zurich technology institute, which involve separating young marmosets from their mothers, have been put on hold while the court decides if they conflict with the animals' dignity. A ruling is expected this year. Whichever way it falls, the decision is likely to end up in the federal constitutional court.
*by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel*at*wildblue.net