* Agreement to work towards biosafety rules
* German universities abandon crop research
* GMO Labels May Be Put on Snack
* Transgenic tobacco for the detection of explosives
* BASF says seed sales with Monsanto to start in 2012
* Modified cattle feed may prevent mad cow disease
* Toiling for cleaner oil
* 8 Ways to Fix the Global Food Crisis
* Malthus, the false prophet
* IBM's Answer to the Food Crisis
* Tomato Genetically Modified To Be More Expensive
Participants at UN-backed meeting agree to work towards rules on biosafety
- United Nations (press release), May 17, 2008
More than 2,000 participants attending a week-long biosafety meeting that wrapped up yesterday have agreed to work towards legally binding rules for liability and redress for potential damage caused by the movements of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports.
The participants at the fourth meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, held in Bonn, Germany, and said to be the largest ever gathering on the issue, have reached a deal on both a timetable and a framework for negotiating the rules and procedures.
The contents of the legally binding instrument for liability and redress for the GMOs, also known as living modified organisms (LMOs), will now be discussed at the next meeting of the parties to the Protocol, itself a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity. That meeting is scheduled to take place in October 2010 in Nagoya, Japan.
Ahmed Djoghlaf, Executive Secretary to the Convention, welcomed the agreement, calling it "great news for the biodiversity family."
While GMOs or LMOs have the potential to increase agricultural yields and to grow in habitats otherwise unfavourable to crops, there are also widespread concerns that they might pose major threats to local ecosystems and therefore biodiversity.
Guest ed. note: Britain's farm-scale field trials were widely interpreted as proving that increased weed control associated with GM crops decreased/damaged biodiversity--among weeds. This rationale could be extended to cover insect-resistant crops, which reduce biodiversity--among crop-destroying insects. Those concerned about this rationale, and the issue of liability and redress for damage to biodiversity, can read the 'synthesis report' discussed in the article above at http://www.cbd.int/doc/meetings/cop/cop-09/official/cop-09-20-add1-en.pdf (pdf, 24 pp.) While the document specifically states that human-induced changes in biodiversity shall not automatically be considered "adverse or negative", there's no indication that changes might be considered *positive*. What is more, the document defines "damage" in completely non-human terms; the only damages that count are those to species and habitats, without regard to whether humans benefit, or suffer, from a change in biodiversity.
German universities bow to public pressure over GM crops
Plug is pulled on maize research.
- Quirin Schiermeier, Nature, May 14, 2008
Scientists have decried the decision by two German universities to pull the plug on field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops, calling it a "disgraceful" interference with scientists' freedom to research.
"I am not happy at all with this decision," says Stefan Hormuth, president of the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Hesse. "Unfortunately, we were no longer able to deal with the massive opposition from politicians and the general public. The university has a reputation in the region that we cannot risk losing."
Last month, the university announced that it would stop its planned cultivation of insect-resistant GM maize in nearby Gross-Gerau after activists occupied the 1,500-square-metre field. Another local field trial of GM maize, in Rauischholzhausen, was also stopped because of massive protests from the public and local politicians. Both trials had been approved by the national consumer protection and food safety body (BVL) and were to be conducted on behalf of Germany's authority for agriculture variety and seed affairs.
Earlier in April, the rector and external advisory board of Nürtingen-Geislingen University in Baden-Württemberg "urgently recommended" that a faculty member stop his field trials on insect-resistant and fungal-resistant GM maize. The experiments, which were also approved by the BVL, had been going on since 1996. "We have always been very critical of this kind of research," says economist Werner Ziegler, the university's rector. "Lately things got out of control. There were e-mail attacks, vandalism, intimidation and personal threats. People started calling us 'Monsanto University'."
The final straw, Ziegler says, was when the local population brought food and blankets to activists occupying the university's Oberboihingen test site. Local media and supporters hailed the illegal action as a brave act of civil inconvenience.
The university's experiments were led by Andreas Schier, who studies fungal toxins in maize. Although legally the university could not have forced him to stop the field trials, he says he eventually gave in because the pressure on him had become too great. "Scientifically, there was no reason whatsoever to discontinue the experiments," Schier says. "But scientific arguments don't count in a climate of mass hysteria."
Schier claims that Ziegler and members of the advisory board threatened to publicly distance themselves from him and his research if he were to continue. "I couldn't stand the pressure any more," he says.
The incidents reveal a new level of public hostility to plant genetic engineering in Germany, says Heinz Saedler, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research in Cologne, which this year is not cultivating GM crops either. "It is a very sad thing that some universities here haven't got the backbone to withstand illegal activism and public pressure," he says. "I honestly don't have much hope left for the future of academic research on GM crops in Germany."
"If it is indeed true that universities in Germany hinder faculty members from doing field research on GM crops for fear of being vandalized by anti-GM activists, then this is disgraceful," says Vivian Moses, a visiting professor of biotechnology at King's College London.
Vandalism and the destruction of GM crops have been common in Germany and elsewhere in Europe since field trials began 20 years ago. As a result, academic research in the field is becoming scarcer. Germany hosts around a third of the European field trials this year, on an area of just 30 hectares. Europe's GM crop-cultivation research is almost negligible compared with that in the United States, Brazil and Canada.
"Work in the field is no longer appreciated because there is a perception that commercially it doesn't lead anywhere, at least in the short term," says Moses. "We need to face up to reality: is the global food crisis upon us, and must we take action, or will Europe continue to act as an ostrich, doing its best to ignore modern agricultural technology?"
Guest ed. note: With 'accomplishments' like this, European opponents of biotechnology in agriculture have consistently strenghtened US leadership in the field, and helped ensure that further developments will remain the province of private enterprise, rather than public institutions. The remarkable thing is that European governments pay tens of millions of Euros annually to groups which press this agenda internationally.
GMO Labels May Be Put on Snack
- Kim Rahn, The Korea Times, May 15, 2008
Snack and edible oil makers may have to disclose whether they use raw materials containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their products.
The government is considering forcing processed food manufacturers using GM ingredients to put labels showing the use of GMOs, according to the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs, Thursday. GMO refers to plants and animals that have had their genetic material deliberately altered.
So far, the government has exempted food makers from labeling processed foods.
The ministry plans to decide on whether to expand the labeling after collecting experts' opinions.
Four food companies recently began importing GM corn to use in making starch, which is a core ingredient of many foods such as bread, noodles, cookies and soft drinks. Customers' groups claim the government should expand the GMO labeling system to protect the public's right to know and right to choose non-GM foods.
But some experts say that it will not be easy for the government to confirm whether non-GM food manufacturers really use natural products.
Aresa has achieved to get permission from the Serbian authorities to plant transgenic tobacco for the detection of explosives
- Aresa A/S (press release), May 16, 2008
Copenhagen - Aresa has achieved to get permission from the Serbian authorities to plant transgenic tobacco for the detection of explosives
It is the second time in two attempts that Aresa has achieved to get permission to plant transgenic plants in Serbia. This time the permission is related to the recently transformed RedDetect® version in the tobacco plant.
I am very delighted that we receive the permission now, as it means we can continue our plans of sowing our genetically modified tobacco for the detection of explosives from land mines in Serbia this summer, says Steen Thaarup, CEO of Aresa, and continues:
We have now achieved two of the four objectives we set up for 2008, and we still expect to be able to report a successful color change in tobacco after growth in soil with explosives by the end of 2008.
The first objective achieved in Q1 was the successful transfer of the RedDetect® technology into tobacco, and the second is this permission from Serbia.
It is still part of the objectives to establish a winter test area in a subtropical or tropical area to have a longer growth period for the tobacco plants enabling more results in 2008.
BASF says seed sales with Monsanto to start in 2012
- STLToday.com, May 14, 2008
Washington - BASF SE, the world's largest chemical maker, said drought-tolerant corn seeds it is developing with Monsanto Co. will reach farmers in 2012 for planting the next year.
The seeds, which began field trials this year, will limit yield reduction that can be as much as 30 percent in the U.S. and Europe, Hans Kast, president of plant science, said in a presentation Tuesday. The companies are developing genetic improvements that will have a market value of more than $2 billion by 2020, excluding underlying seed value, he said.
The German chemical maker last year partnered with Creve Coeur-based Monsanto, the world's largest seed producer, to develop higher-yielding, stress-tolerant corn, soybeans, canola and cotton. The market for genetically modified crops may jump tenfold, to $50 billion by 2025, as a growing global population consumes higher-protein foods that require more grains from limited land, Kast said.
Drought-tolerance is "an issue for the farmer," Kast said. "It is only biotechnology that can deliver a quick solution."
BASF currently generates almost no sales or profit from genetically modified seeds.
The company will pursue a strategy of licensing its plant biotechnology to seed producers such as Monsanto, and it has no ambitions to acquire such companies, Stefan Marcinowski, BASF director of agriculture, said Tuesday in an interview.
Guest ed. note: It's dead certain that Euro-funded opponents of biotech will work hard to ensure that only US farmers get the benefit of this technology.
Modified cattle feed may prevent mad cow disease
U of A scientists hope to give immunity to BSE
Sheila Pratt, The Edmonton Journal, May 18, 2008
In the not-so-distant future, Dr. Nat Kav hopes to be in a greenhouse tending a special crop of plants that could inoculate cattle against mad cow disease.
Kav, an associate professor in the University of Alberta agriculture department, says the idea is to give cattle protection against bovine spongiform encepthalopathy by growing antibodies to the disease in plants they eat.
Kav and U of A biochemistry Prof. Michael James are working with Swiss researchers as part of the international effort to understand BSE, a relatively new disease.
Five years ago this weekend, the discovery of a case of BSE on a northern Alberta farm set off a crisis that cost beef producers millions of dollars when the U.S. closed the border to Alberta beef.
Cattle's immune systems do not detect the abnormal protein that causes the disease, so the animals do not produce antibodies to attack the folded protein that eats holes in the brain.
World renowned Swiss scientist Adriano Aguzzi managed to create antibodies to BSE using mice, and Kav and James obtained some of these for this project, Kav explained.
Kav is working on transferring them into plants, while James is looking at the structure of the antibodies to see how they prevent the prion from suddenly becoming misshapen.
Their work on this little understood disease is ground-breaking.
"Growing the antibodies in plants is not a problem," says Kav. That kind of transgenic plant (transplanting genetic material from one organism to another) is not difficult.
"The question is whether the antibodies will prevent the protein from shifting shape."
In the long run, if the antibody is successful in fighting the rogue prion, the same process could be used to fight Alzheimer's, a related human brain disease, says Kav. "Though I'm dreaming a bit here, " he adds.
In the wake of Canada's BSE crisis, the province set up the Alberta Prion Institute to encourage research into the disease and the federal govement established Prionnet, a new funding agency.
The Alberta Prion Institute is also looking at chronic wasting disease, a BSE-related disease in wild deer populations, says the institute's scientific director Steve Moore.
This spring, Alberta again culled deer in four areas with outbreaks of CWD in the animals near the eastern border. About 1,850 deer were killed last year and at least 1,000 deer will be killed this round.
While BSE is spread through contaminated cattle feed, scientists are still trying to figure out how CWD is spread, whether through urine, feces or touch, says Moore. And whether CWD could transfer to cattle.
Also, it's well known that BSE has been transmitted to humans as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in Britain, though there are no cases in Canada.
It's not known if CWD can be transmitted to humans, says Moore. Though there have been no recorded cases, that also needs to be studied, says Moore.
Toiling for cleaner oil
- Nidhi Nath Srinivas, The Economic Times, May 18, 2008
Cows do it. Elephants do it. Termites do it best. They munch on a plant or piece of wood, break the tough plant cell walls, and burn the sugar for energy. That's cellulosic biofuel.
But what appears elementary chemistry in the animal gut is crazily difficult - and expensive - to repeat in a factory. How to convert plant cellulose into alcohol is the next big challenge. However, with the kind of money and science being poured in, we could be just a year away from commercial sales. Since we can't digest cellulose, production of cellulose does not compete with the production of food.
Ethanol from corn was a no-brainer because you can easily convert starch into sugar and then alcohol. With cane juice, you are a step closer. But cellulose is a tough molecule to crack.
It takes five steps. First, chop a plant and mix with water to make a slush. Second, extract cellulose from this slush. Three, add some enzymes and convert the cellulose molecules into sugars. Four, remove lignin from the sugar. Lignin is what helps plant cells transport water and also makes wood burn longer. Five, ferment the sugar into alcohol and distill it into fuel.
From what I understand, it is "cellulose deconstruction" or how efficiently you break down the cellulose into sugars using enzymes; and how well you use yeast and other micro-organisms to ferment those sugars into ethanol differentiates one lab tech from another. If you can reduce the lignin through "cellulose architecture", even better. Nature has provided termites, cow, sheep, elephants with special enzymes or enzyme-making bacteria that break down cellulose without a fuss at room temperature. But it isn't easy in a lab.
So money is pouring into enzyme technology. Because they're hard to make from scratch, scientists generally extract them from micro-organisms that produce them naturally. But the trick is producing the enzymes cheaply enough at an industrial scale and speed. Right now enzymes that destroy plant cell wall tissue cost 30 to 50 cents per gallon of ethanol compared to 3 cents per gallon for corn. The US Department of Energy hopes to reduce this cost to $1.07 per gallon by 2012 to be effective.
Some industrial biotech boffins are trying to build the ultimate microbe in the lab, one that could combine the two key steps of the process. Others are using "directed evolution" and genetic engineering to improve the enzyme-producing micro-organisms currently in use. Still others are searching new and better bugs and yeasts through "pathway engineering". It's bio-construction versus bio-tinkering versus bio-prospecting in the industrial biotechnology market, all with the single goal of creating the perfect enzyme and yeast cocktail.
Meanwhile, cash continues to pour in. DuPont and biotech firm Danisco's Genencor division this week committed to spending $140 million to launch a joint venture to develop and sell cellulosic ethanol technology. The joint venture expects to enable production of commercial volumes of cellulosic ethanol in four years.
They are just the latest of a growing number of large companies that are investing in cellulosic ethanol. Others include General Motors; German car maker Daimler, which is teaming with Archer Daniels Midland and Germany-based Bayer CropScience, to research the use of jatropha as a feedstock for biodiesel production. Most chemical or oil companies you will find have tied up with agricultural commodity trading companies such as ADM, Cargill, EDF&Man, ConAgra, Louis Dreyfus, Tate & Lyle for complete backward integration.
So what's in it for India? Plenty. Praj Industries is one of those at forefront of global advanced biofuel research. The company is checking out crop residues, local grass, corn stover, bagasse or left over straw from cane and sweet sorghum, and distiller's grain from corn that is fed to animals. It's bullish on Indian grass varieties as they have less lignin, need less inputs and are easy to grow.
Praj believes algae offer even more promise. Algae double in three days, can use salty water, don't have lignin, can grow organically, and produce 500t per hectare biomass. Algae don't just create energy from the sun. They do it more effectively than anything else save photovoltaic panels. And, as you may have guessed, they're a lot cheaper than photovoltaic panels.
In fact, if you feed algae sugar instead of sunlight, they really flourish. Algae contain 45% oil, which can be extracted in the bed itself and taken to a biodiesel factory. Praj will start growing algae using photobioreactors in a couple of months.
The bigger takeaway from Praj's R&D is the potential for advanced biofuels in India. By using molasses, India has insulated itself from any blame in the food-vs-fuel debate. But with crude oil at $125/barrel, we could all do with more biofuel.
India grows about 200 mn tonnes grains annually. That means 600 mn tonnes stalks, straw, dried leaves. Part of it is fed to animals, but mostly it is burnt as fuel or left to rot in the fields. If 10% is collected by ethanol factories, the gains could be tremendous. Plus extra farmer income. More importantly, we won't need 400 mn tonnes of thirsty sugarcane.
Algae are even better because they are cost-effective, high-yielding and not fussy. That means encashing all those difficult bits of land that won't grow anything else.
In a perfect world we should be scouting for an alternative to the internal combustion engine rather than struggling with alternative fuels for it. Meanwhile, my vote goes to algae oil. They say the left-over green stuff is great for the skin and protein supplements.
Guest ed. note: The current steep climb in food prices around the globe is often blamed on 'turning food into fuel'. Supposedly, if food--corn and soybeans--were not used for fuel, the problem with food prices would not exist, or at least, be less severe. Cellulosic biomass is said to avoid the 'food vs. fuel' debate, but that's largely a diversion. If switchgrass were grown for fuel, rather than corn or soy, that takes acres out of food production, and reduces the amount of food available. The fundamental question for all these 'alternative fuel' technologies is how many acres are devoted what sort of use, and that includes everything from sprawling algae farms to paving the desert with photovoltaic cells. For now, none of these 'alternative fuel' technologies work very well. If the cost of food can be blamed on the current use of inefficient fuel technologies, the blame should rest on those who most avidly promote them--primarily, those who believe in human-induced catastrophic global warming.
8 Ways to Fix the Global Food Crisis
'Ideas range from improving aid programs to taking a break on biofuels'
- Marianne Lavelle and Kent Garber, U. S. News and World Report, May 19, 2008
The world food crisis has two faces. Here in the United States, shoppers stare in disbelief at the rising price of milk, meat, and eggs. But elsewhere on the globe, anguish spills into the streets, as in Somalia last week when tens of thousands of rioters converged on the capital to protest for food.
The strain on U.S. consumers, grappling with the sharpest increase in grocery prices in years, is small compared with the starvation that toppled Haiti's government, ignited riots around the world, and is deepening the tragedy of Myanmar's cyclone survivors. And yet the connection between the developed and developing worlds will be crucial to solving what one United Nations official has called a "silent tsunami" of food prices that has plunged 100 million people deeper into poverty. To stem the misery, relief officials are calling both for emergency aid and for changes in policy worldwide.
Solutions will not be easy to sort out, since the dramatic food price escalation has numerous causes. Skyrocketing oil prices have strained every stage of food production, from fertilizer to tractors to transport. At the same time, demand for grain has never been higher, not only to feed the rising affluence of populous China and India but also to fuel cars and trucks as the world turns to ethanol and biodiesel. Supply, meanwhile, is being squeezed by a years-long drought in Australia, a major grain exporter, and experts worry that climate change may be a factor. In all, there could not be a worse time for investors to pour money into agricultural commodities, but they have, in reaction to the weakening U.S. dollar accelerated by Federal Reserve interest rate cuts. Around the world, panicked governments have responded to high commodity prices by slapping restrictions on exports - thus only worsening the food shortage.
Addressing this unparalleled confluence of events will require extraordinary leadership. U.S. farmers, who labored through years of anemic prices, now question how the use of their corn for ethanol could possibly be blamed for the shortage of a different grain - rice - in far-off Central Asia. Past approaches to foreign aid and trade have been politically expedient but have not helped poor countries become self-sufficient. And the U.N., already coping with a 55 percent rise in food aid costs, now confronts a new crisis, as it ships food to Myanmar.
That disaster makes only more urgent the need for world leaders to act. The ideas they weigh will not ease the global food strife quickly, but they can lay the groundwork for a planet with enough resources for its growing and increasingly connected inhabitants. Among them:
Take a Pause on Biofuels
Produce Higher Yields
The average African farmer uses one tenth as much fertilizer as her westernized counterpart. She - most are female - applies little or no pesticide or fungicide to her crops, and her soil has been so overtilled that her annual yields are woefully puny.
History repeatedly has shown that better farming techniques can help alleviate shortages. But development programs of the 1960s and 1970s flopped at boosting African production, and interest cooled in the 1980s during the Reagan years. Now a group of philanthropists led by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has, along with the World Bank, begun investing hundreds of millions of dollars in developing countries, particularly Africa. Their focus: training and empowering poor farmers and native researchers. Vouchers help local farmers buy fertilizer, which has risen in price along with its petroleum feedstock. "In Kenya, a bag of fertilizer may cost 2,000 shillings, and the voucher provides 1,500," says Gary Toenniessen of the Rockefeller Foundation. In Malawi in 2006 and 2007, he says, vouchers for fertilizer helped increase production 50 percent.
The Gates Foundation recently announced $306 million in grants to boost agricultural yields in the developing world, with nearly $165 million to replenish depleted soils in Africa. Says Rajiv Shah, director for agricultural development at the Gates Foundation: "There is so much [untapped] potential, and that could go a long way toward helping address the price issue around the world."
These efforts are not without controversy: Critics charge that western philanthropists are violating African "food sovereignty" and promoting American agribusiness - Monsanto, DuPont, and the like - at the expense of peasant farmers knowledgeable about local practices. But local practices have yielded scarcity. A farmer in India grows three to four times as much food on the same amount of land as a farmer in Africa; a farmer in China, roughly seven times as much.
Grow Better Crops
Can genetically modified plants cure the food crisis? Proponents say that environmentalists and Europeans should quit their opposition to this technology if they want to accelerate global food production. Producing more hardy varieties than those found in nature, by inserting genes into crops in the laboratory, would be a benefit to all, they say. But it's not that simple. There's another factor that may trump enviros' worry about health risks and damage to native species that grow near the altered crops. Expensive gm crops simply haven't had much impact in boosting global food supply.
It makes sense to consider improved crops because conventional breeding has produced so much success. More productive strains of rice and wheat accounted for 21 percent of the growth in crop yields in developing countries from 1961 to 1980 and an astonishing 50 percent increase in yield from 1981 to 2000. "We need another breakthrough," says Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel Prize for launching this so-called green revolution.
Genetically modified plants, which first hit the market in the mid-1990s, are widely used today for corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton. Just two engineered traits are sold: resistance to glyphosate, a herbicide used to kill weeds around crops, and the insect-killing powers of BT, a microorganism that produces chemicals toxic to bugs, not humans. gm crops have been embraced in the United States and in Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and Canada. But those crops have so far had little appeal in the developing world, where most farmers can't afford the herbicides or the high-priced gm seeds.
The only gm crops used in the developing world so far are BT cotton and canola, popular in India and China. Pesticide use has dropped 42 percent in India in 2005 as a result of BT cotton, but controversy has erupted as to whether the cotton is as productive as non-BT strains.
The benefits to date for farmers using gm seeds have not been larger crops - yields of gm soybeans run about 10 percent less than non-gm beans - but savings on chemicals and labor.
In April, a multinational review on the future of food production found that gm foods haven't been around long enough for researchers to know how they will affect human health and the environment. Genes from gm crops can drift into nonengineered crops, which threatens organic farmers and could destroy native plant strains. Mexico approved limited use of gm corn earlier this year but only after buffer zones were established to protect native corn.
Traditional plant breeding has been eclipsed by the hype surrounding gm crops. But even traditional breeders say there is much they can do to improve yields. This includes so-called transgenic methods, which tackle fungus and insects, and marker-assisted breeding, in which genes associated with desirable traits are tagged to speed up the breeding process.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center has been working with local scientists to develop drought-resistant strains of corn, including open-pollinated varieties that can be replanted from saved seeds. More than 50 of these strains and hybrids have been created, with yields 20 to 50 percent higher than regular strains in a drought.
Malthus, the false prophet
The pessimistic parson and early political economist remains as wrong as ever
- The Economist, May 15, 2008
AMID an astonishing surge in food prices, which has sparked riots and unrest in many countries and is making even the relatively affluent citizens of America and Europe feel the pinch, faith in the ability of global markets to fill nearly 7 billion bellies is dwindling. Given the fear that a new era of chronic shortages may have begun, it is perhaps understandable that the name of Thomas Malthus is in the air. Yet if his views were indeed now correct, that would defy the experience of the past two centuries.
Malthus first set out his ideas in 1798 in "An Essay on the Principle of Population". This expounded a tragic twin trajectory for the growth of human populations and the increase of food supply. Whereas the natural tendency was for populations to grow without end, food supply would run up against the limit of finite land. As a result, the "positive checks" of higher mortality caused by famine, disease and war were necessary to bring the number of people back in line with the capacity to feed them.
In a second edition published in 1803, Malthus softened his original harsh message by introducing the idea of moral restraint. Such a "preventive check", operating through the birth rather than the death rate, could provide a way to counter the otherwise inexorable logic of too many mouths chasing too little food. If couples married late and had fewer children, population growth could be sufficiently arrested for agriculture to cope.
It was the misfortune of Malthus - but the good luck of generations born after him - that he wrote at an historical turning point. His ideas, especially his later ones, were arguably an accurate description of pre-industrial societies, which teetered on a precarious balance between empty and full stomachs. But the industrial revolution, which had already begun in Britain, was transforming the long-term outlook for economic growth. Economies were starting to expand faster than their populations, bringing about a sustained improvement in living standards.
Far from food running out, as Malthus had feared, it became abundant as trade expanded and low-cost agricultural producers like Argentina and Australia joined the world economy. Reforms based on sound political economy played a vital role, too. In particular, the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 paved the way for British workers to gain from cheap food imports.
Malthus got his demographic as well as his economic predictions wrong. His assumption that populations would carry on growing in times of plenty turned out to be false. Starting in Europe, one country after another underwent a "demographic transformation" as economic development brought greater prosperity. Both birth and death rates dropped and population growth eventually started to slow.
The Malthusian heresy re-emerged in the early 1970s, the last time food prices shot up. Then, at least, there appeared to be some cause for demographic alarm. Global-population growth had picked up sharply after the second world war because it took time for high birth rates in developing countries to follow down the plunge in infant-mortality rates brought about by modern medicine. But once again the worries about overpopulation proved mistaken as the "green revolution" and further advances in agricultural efficiency boosted food supply.
If the world's population growth was a false concern four decades ago, when it peaked at 2% a year, it is even less so now that it has slowed to 1.2%. But even though crude demography is not to blame, changing lifestyles arising from rapid economic growth especially in Asia are a new worry. As the Chinese have become more affluent, they have started to consume more meat, raising the underlying demand for basic food since cattle need more grain to feed than humans. Neo-Malthusians question whether the world can provide 6.7 billion people (rising to 9.2 billion by 2050) with a Western-style diet.
Once again the gloom is overdone. There may no longer be virgin lands to be settled and cultivated, as in the 19th century, but there is no reason to believe that agricultural productivity has hit a buffer. Indeed, one of the main barriers to another "green revolution" is unwarranted popular worries about genetically modified foods, which is holding back farm output not just in Europe, but in the developing countries that could use them to boost their exports. Political folly increases in a geometrical ratio
As so often, governments are making matters worse. Food-export bans are proliferating. Although these may produce temporary relief for any one country, the more they spread the tighter global markets become. Another wrongheaded policy has been America's subsidy to domestic ethanol production in a bid to reduce dependence on imported oil. This misconceived attempt to grow more fuel rather than to curb demand is expected to gobble up a third of this year's maize (corn) crop.
Although neo-Malthusianism naturally has much to say about food scarcity, the doctrine emerges more generally as the idea of absolute limits on resources and energy, such as the notion of "peak oil". Following the earlier scares of the 1970s, oil companies defied the pessimists by finding extra fields, not least since higher prices had spurred new exploration. But even if oil wells were to run dry, economies can still adapt by finding and exploiting other energy sources.
A new form of Malthusian limit has more recently emerged through the need to constrain greenhouse-gas emissions in order to tackle global warming. But this too can be overcome by shifting to a low-carbon economy. As with agriculture, the main difficulty in making the necessary adjustment comes from poor policies, such as governments' reluctance to impose a carbon tax. There may be curbs on traditional forms of growth, but there is no limit to human ingenuity. That is why Malthus remains as wrong today as he was two centuries ago.
IBM's Answer to the Food Crisis
Big Blue's World Community Grid and a University of Washington team are using PCs globally to develop better strains of rice
- Steve Hamm, Business Week, May 14, 2008
While the world food crisis demands both quick fixes and long-range solutions, time is of the essence. With food costs soaring, more than one billion people could find themselves at risk of starvation or severe malnutrition in the coming years. So a project announced May 15 by University of Washington researchers and IBM's (IBM) World Community Grid to speed development of better rice may be just what's needed.
By tapping a cluster of nearly 1 million PCs scattered around the world, the researchers hope to develop more nutritious, robust strains of rice sooner by completing complex genetic calculations in just one or two years. Those calculations might have taken 200 years if left to the school's computers. "We can make things happen much faster. We should be able to get new strains to farmers within five years," says Ram Samudrala, associate professor of computational biology at the University of Washington in Seattle. No Time Wasted
Samudrala heads a research project called Nutritious Rice for the World. The goal is to take genetic information about rice and use mathematical algorithms and three-dimensional computer modeling to discover exactly how the proteins within the rice interact with each other. Samudrala's team provides the information to organizations that crossbreed different strains of rice, creating hybrids that taste good, resist drought and pests, and are more nutritious. By using detailed computer models, researchers can avoid time-consuming and expensive trial and error.
The World Community Grid, launched by IBM in 2004 as part of its corporate social responsibility program, is essentially a dispersed supercomputer that relies on individuals to donate their spare computing power when they're not using their PCs. In addition to coordinating the effort, IBM supplies software that links the computers - be they Windows, Linux, or Macintosh - and schedules computational work.
People who volunteer to have their computers used this way download the software and leave their machines on when they're not being used. The networking software does the rest. When the PC sits idle, the software requests work from a central server. When the PC completes the computation, it sends back the results, and the software requests another assignment. Breakthroughs in Rice Genetics
The Grid now has such tremendous computational power that it's ranked as the No. 3 supercomputer in the world. Organizations that want to tap in have to prove themselves worthy. So far, there are seven projects underway, including research into AIDS, cancer, muscular dystrophy, and climate change in Africa. Joseph M. Jasinski, who runs the Healthcare and Life Sciences Institute at IBM Research, says Samudrala's team is tackling an important challenge, as rice genetics are a relatively new area of study. "Until you know what the genes are and what the proteins actually do, you don't know enough to make a difference," he says.
The rice project began shortly after The Beijing Genomics Institute in 2000 achieved the crucial breakthrough of mapping the entire rice genome. Samudrala received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study and "annotate" the results. He and his 30 researchers essentially create maps of how rice cells work. He bought 400 PCs and linked them in a cluster, but quickly ran into limitations in the computing power of those machines.
Samudrala learned of the World Community Grid because one of his research colleagues was working with IBM on another Grid project. At first, Samudrala was skeptical that a widely scattered collection of PCs could do the job for him, but he came around. Stan Litow, IBM's vice-president for corporate citizenship, praises people who volunteer their computers for the Grid, and urges others to get involved. "Some people write checks for social causes. Others contribute time. Here's something that doesn't cost you anything," he says.
Tomato Genetically Modified To Be More Expensive
- The Onion, May 17, 2008
PASADENA, CA - Geneticists at the California Institute of Technology announced Monday that they have developed a tomato with a 31 percent larger price tag than a typical specimen of the vine-ripened fruit. "By utilizing an exciting new breakthrough in gene-splicing technology, we've been able to manipulate this new tomato with recombinant DNA in such a manner as to make it nearly as pricey as a similarly sized tangelo," said Dr. Lee Nolan, who headed up the project. "Genetically modified crops such as this will be instrumental in helping average grocers keep pace with unaffordable organic stores such as Whole Foods." In addition to vastly surpassing similar produce in expense, the new tomato will reportedly wipe out four species of ladybugs.
* by Andrew Apel, guest editor, andrewapel*at*wildblue.net