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July 16, 2008


Costs gobble up farmers' gains; Bt rice in China; Herbicide alternative sparks blaze


* US Farmers to Face Significantly Higher Costs
* Food concerns prompt China to prioritize GM rice
* GM crop reapers detect GM maize on small farm
* Reporting on the GM Debate
* Europe: Safety, ethics outweigh innovation on novel foods
* Conference: China International Seed Summit
* Scientist's blowtorch weedkiller backfires


University of Illinois Extension Study: Farmers to Face Significantly Higher Production Costs in 2009

- GrainNet, July 15, 2008


Urbana - Significantly higher production costs in 2009 are facing Illinois corn and soybean farmers, according to a University of Illinois Extension study.

"These cost increases will lead to higher breakeven prices for both corn and soybeans," said Gary D. Schnitkey, U of I Extension farm financial management specialist.

"Higher costs will cause farmers to more closely examine how much to adjust cash rent bids. Higher costs also may influence marketing and crop insurance decisions."

Schnitkey's report, "Dramatic Increases in Corn and Soybean Costs in 2009," is available on U of I Extension's farmdoc website.

The cost increases were projected for central Illinois farms having high-productivity farmland.

"Input prices, particularly for fertilizers, are uncertain and could be different than those we used in the study," he said.

"It is safe, however, to estimate large production cost increases for both corn and soybeans in 2009."

For corn, non-land production costs for 2009 are projected at $529 per acre, a $141 per acre increase from 2008 levels of $388 per acre.

Between 2003 and 2007, non-land production costs averaged $286 per acre.

Production costs for 2009 are projected to be $243 per acre higher than the 2003-07 average, an increase of 85 percent.

For soybeans, non-land production costs for 2009 are projected at $321 per acre, up by $82 over 2008 costs of $239 per acre.

Between 2003 and 2007, non-land costs for soybeans averaged $180 per acre.

Productions costs for 2009 are projected to be $4141 higher than 2003-07 levels, an increase of 78 percent.

"Fertilizer is the input with the large cost increase," said Schnitkey.

"For corn, fertilizer costs in 2009 are projected at $215 per acre, an increase of $97 per acre over the 2008 projected level of $118 per acre.

"For soybeans, fertilizer costs in 2009 are projected at $98 per acre, a $53 increase over the 2008 level of $45 per acre."

He noted that projected 2009 fertilizer prices are significantly above fertilizer prices in recent years.

"Besides fertilizer, seed costs are projected to increase," he noted.

Also up in the 2009 projections are insurance and power costs.

Based on yield expectations of 191 bushels per acre, the 2009 breakeven price for corn is $3.82 per bushel.

The soybean breakeven price is $9.65 per bushel.

"These breakeven prices are significantly higher than historic commodity prices," Schnitkey said.

"Corn, for example, averaged close to $2.40 per bushel between the mid-1970s to the middle 2000s.

"Large income losses would occur if commodity prices returned to historical averages."


Food concerns prompt China to prioritize GM rice

- Bill Smith, Deutsche Presse Agentur via Monsters and Critics, July 15, 2008


Beijing - China's leaders decided in early July to go all-out to develop genetically modified organisms (GMOs), prompted by rising prices and concerns that the nation of 1.3 billion people may become more reliant on expensive exports.

Premier Wen Jiabao led a meeting of the cabinet which said the development of GMOs was of 'great strategic significance to strengthening innovation in agricultural technology, lifting the level of plant cultivation, promoting higher efficiency and yield, and raising the nation's international competitiveness in agriculture.'

'All relevant departments should fully realize the significance and urgency of this important project, further perfect the programme and actively implement it,' the government said in a report on the meeting.

Agricultural scientists at China's Zhejiang University announced in March that they had developed a way to create 'selectively terminable' GM rice, a breakthrough which they hope will lead to the industrialization of GM rice seeds.

The scientists said the pest- and disease-resistant GM rice plants can easily be killed through genetically conditioned high sensitivity to a specific herbicide, eliminating concerns about them becoming wild or cross-pollinating with normal rice plants.

The Zhejiang project's lead scientist, Shen Zhicheng, said genetic modification was the best way to increase food production and played down fears that experimental plants could be secretly used for mass production or mixed with unmodified varieties.

'It is certain to increase the yield of grain crops and is an effective way of solving price issues,' Shen said of his team's GMO work.

'I hope the country will increase its determination to use the new technology,' he told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

'If there is not enough rice to eat, it is right to try every method to solve the problem by pushing technology,' Shen said.

The third-largest country by land area possesses only 7 per cent of the world's cultivated land from which to feed one-fifth of the global population.

It already allows farmers to grow GM peppers, tomatoes and papaya, and it imports large quantities of GM soybeans, mainly from the United States.

In the non-food sector, most of China's cotton seed is genetically modified.

Concerns mounted over the possibility of GM rice creeping into food markets after environmental group Greenpeace blew the whistle on illegal sales of GM rice developed by scientists in the central province of Hubei in 2005.

Greenpeace later said it found GM rice being sold by wholesalers in the southern city of Guangzhou, close to Hong Kong.

On a visit to China last year, Markos Kyprianou, the European Commissioner for Health, highlighted unauthorized use of the GMO known as Bt63 in Chinese exports.

The EU introduced an emergency measure in April requiring Chinese food exports containing rice to be laboratory-certified as free of Bt63, citing a 'failure on the part of Chinese authorities to provide... control samples and a protocol of detection method.'

But Xue Dayuan, a senior researcher at the Nanjing Institution of Environmental Science, said the government had improved its controls.

'GM crops are seldom planted in China, so we have no conditions for an 'escape,'' Xue said.

'Now they are in an experimental period in limited areas, and not industrialized,' he said.

Shen said agriculture ministry officials inspected his project regularly.

'Our research farm is properly isolated and we dare not let this experimental rice escape, otherwise we will have to take huge responsibility,' he said.

Hybrid rice, which the government has actively developed since the 1950s, has already brought China's rice yields close to those of Japan and is likely to continue as an important element of agricultural technology.

'My view is that we should develop GM rice and hybrid rice simultaneously,' Shen said.

The government aims to keep annual grain production over 500 million tons to 2010 and raise it to about 540 million tons by 2020.

Agricultural official Chen Yao recently said this year's target for rice production was 185.7 million tons, up by 0.1 per cent from 2007.

Food prices have risen by around 20 per cent this year, helping to fuel inflation of about 8 per cent in the consumer price index.

Rising international grain and oil prices were a major factor behind the inflation, government economist Yin Jianfeng told state media in June.

Biofuel also made brief inroads into grain production for food, bringing more inflationary pressure, before the government stepped in.

'In the past some corn was used to make biofuel, (but) it did not reach the scale where it affected food prices, like in Brazil and America,' Xue said.


Guest ed. note: If this 'selectively terminable' rice is susceptible to Bentazon, a popular herbicide for weed control in rice, growers of Bt rice will have to use a different, and possibly less effective, weed control product or strategy. If the trade-off in choosing between effective control of insect pests, and effective control of weeds proves too costly, this GM product--paradoxically--could be the first to yield benefits mainly for growers of conventional crops. See generally, "New Strategy To Prevent Genetically Altered Rice From Uncontrolled Spreading", Science Daily, March 21, 2008, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080318203316.htm


GM crop reapers detect illegal GM maize on the farm of a small farmer

- Le Monde, July 11, 2008 (summary)


Small farmer Jean-Louis Cuquel has been summoned to appear in court at Montauban on July 10 following a writ served by Confédération Paysanne, Greenpeace and organic body Nature et Progrès. The reason: these groups found Monsanto's GM maize MON810, banned since February, growing in one of his fields.

The Voluntary Reapers, farmers from Confédération Paysanne and members of other associations opposed to GMOs are conducting an ongoing investigation in different regions to attempt to identify GM crops.

The methods are well developed, as evidenced by the guide, "How to detect transgenic plants in fields" released by the GM Info group. Investigators take samples of the suspect maize, crush it into a juice and mix it with an inexpensive reactive substance. If the cardboard reacts, the test is positive. The mixture is then sent to labs to do further analysis according to standardized methods.

But Mr Cuquel, aged 40, is not a big farmer who stands to make a fortune from hundreds of hectares of maize. He built his own house over 12 years and lives there with his wife and child. He has only 20 hectares and finds it difficult to compete with cheap imports from Spain, Italy and Morocco. For the past 5 years he has had to work as a hospital porter, tending his land during the evenings, weekends and holidays

The GM maize? He says that he used to spray [insecticide] products by helicopter. With the GM maize he doesn't have to do that any longer. He says it's healthier and gives a better yield. But MON810, approved in 2007, was banned in 2008. "They sold the seed in quantity, on pallets, so I had some left over last year," he says. "At 180 euros per load, I could not afford to throw them away."

Indeed, the laboratory Ad. Gene at Thury-Harcourt (Calvados) contracted by the groups, found that samples collected in the field have "DNA derived from GMOs" in excess of 5%. For opponents of transgenic crops, the offence is not in doubt. "We are not targeting the farmer, said Michel Dupont, of Confédération Paysanne, but the economic system which led to this illegal cultivation.

"The discovery of this cultivation of MON 810 means nothing is being done to enforce the moratorium," said José Bové, spokesman of the Voluntary Reapers. "If nothing is done, this is the politics of 'fait accompli': contamination will become widespread, and all standards will be gradually relaxed."


Reporting on the GM Debate

- Nerissa Hannink, The University of Melbourne Voice, July - August 2008


Ultimately, the most critical issue for sustainable farming is whether we can grow enough food to sustain the human population

"I see my role as applying a scientific scalpel to vexatious issues," says Dr Elizabeth Finkel. As a former biochemist and now award-winning journalist, Dr Finkel is well placed to guide the public through the vast amount of information on the contentious topic of GM food.

For many people journalists are their primary source for the major issues, so as a proxy for the concerned public, she has been invited to reveal the process behind her work at a Faculty of Land and Food Resources Dean's lecture on the 6 August.

Dr Finkel's piece Organic foods exposed - published in the popular science magazine COSMOS - won the 2007 Bell Awards' categories for Best feature writer and Best analytical writer.

To address this issue, Dr Finkel posed two questions:

What is the healthiest way to produce our food - for us and for the environment? And what is the most sustainable way to produce our food - organics or technological solutions like GM?

"My conclusion, is that the mass migration to organic food has not been on the back of scientific evidence, but based on the ideology that 'natural is best'," says Dr Finkel.

Her search through the literature revealed that data on organic food is predominantly from non-refereed or very low-ranking journals, and is often used in distorted ways.

"I found it important to steer away from highly polarised people from both sides of the debate. My technique is to peel away the layers of the onion by being guided by the science. To write this article, it took three months of reading articles in high-ranking peer-reviewed journals and interviewing the academics themselves.

"One of the most useful journal articles I came across was a comprehensive review of some 400 scientific papers on the health impacts of organic foods, published by Faidon Magkos and colleagues in 2006 in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, which concluded there was no evidence that eating organic food was healthier.

"The bottom line is that there is tremendous variation in the nutritional make-up of fruit and vegetables regardless of whether they were grown by organic or conventional means."

In her article Dr Finkel notes that it is so difficult to support the claim that organic food is healthier that the Britain's Advertising Standards Authority has directed the British Soils Association - an organic foods advocacy group - to desist from making it.

"The next step in my search was to ask: If the end-product isn't healthier for us, is the actual process of growing food organically better for us and for the environment? Organic farmers are bound to an ideology that demands they use only natural techniques. In some cases, such purism gets in the way of practices that are better for the environment and more sustainable for farmers."

She uses the example of organic farmers using litres of BT spray (BT is a 'natural' pesticide made by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis), yet they often demonise the genetically modified (GM) cotton crops that carry an inbuilt supply of BT, and which therefore require less spraying, sparing farmers - and the environment - from the risks of pesticide overuse.

Dr Finkel agrees that there are historical reasons for concern with conventional farming, including the widespread use of the pesticide DDT and fertiliser run-off which led to algal blooms and soil erosion.

"But these days, modern farming techniques have evolved after decades of pressure from the environmental movement and decades of work by a generation of scientists inspired by environmental awareness. In fact, conventional farming is starting to look a lot like organic farming."

Ultimately, the most critical issue for sustainable farming is whether we can grow enough food to sustain the human population.

"I sought the views of many agricultural scientists. According to Norman Ernest Borlaug, the American plant geneticist who won a Nobel Peace Prize: 'This shouldn't even be a debate. Even if you could use all the organic material you have - the animal manures, the human waste, and the plant residues - and get them back on the soil, you couldn't feed more than four billion people'".

So when asked how to move this issue forward, Dr Finkel says, "I have had an amazing response to this article; people earnestly want answers to the question of sustainable farming.

"We need a combination of scientists and regulators involved in future discussions to articulate the benefits of GM crops and show how we deal with the risks.

"The precautionary principle is a good one, but that doesn't mean paralysis."


Guest ed. note: Read more on this at GMO Pundit a.k.a. David Tribe, http://gmopundit.blogspot.com/


MEPs: Safety, ethics outweigh innovation on novel foods

- EurActiv Network, July 15, 2008


The main focus of Commission proposals to revise the bloc's market approval process for novel foods is wrong as the plans put more emphasis on innovation and simplified market access than consumer protection, MEPs argued in a debate on 14 July.

The focus of the new regulation must be on safety and health of consumers, animals and the environment, states the Parliament's first draft reportPdf external on the proposed regulation, presented and debated in the House's Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee on 14 July 2008.

"All other objectives are of secondary importance," adds the report drafted by MEP Kartika Tamara Liotard (GUE/NGL, NL). Other objectives put forward by the EU executive in its proposal are namely securing the functioning of the internal market for food and supporting innovation in and competitiveness of the EU agri-food industry.

The draft report also argues that the authorisation of novel foods must be done in respect of the precautionary principle "at all times".

[for the complete article and background information, follow the link above.]


Guest ed. note: Maslow's hierarchy of needs might explain much of this situation. For a primer, see, "Abraham Maslow", C. George Boeree, web dated Jan. 2, 2007, http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/maslow.html


China International Seed Summit

- Shenyang.Liaoning Industrial Exhibition Center, September 10-12


Professional Expo

China is the second lagest seed market, and China Seed Expo 2008 is the first National level and professional seed trade exhibition, it is strongly supported by China Ministry of Agriculture, Liaoning Provincial Government and industrial associations, it is also the first international-standard trade event of its kind in China. The Expo will feature about 500 exhibiting booths in an area of 12,000 square meters, showcasing the latest development of seed products and technologies around the world.

Exhibition Profile

The exhibition includes: Seeds and Seedlings, Cereal Crops, Cotton, Oil Plants, Vegetables, Fruits, Pastures and Turfs, Flowers, Woods,, Agro-Chemicals, Seed Coatings, Pesticides, Fungicides, Chemicals, Technology, Machinery and Facilities,, Processing and Packing Machinery, Test Equipment, Analysis Instruments, Intellectual Properties, Breeding Methodology, Books and Documents, Medias, Consultations.

Seminar and Promotion Activities

In conjunction with the expo, there will be holding global seed industry summit and a series of seminars and conferences,inviting speakers like technical experts and industrial professionals, featuring issues on the property right control and the latest development and prospects of seed industry.

Guests and agenda: http://www.chinaseedexpo.com.cn/english/detail.php?article_id=334


Scientist's blowtorch weedkiller backfires

- The Telegraph (UK), July 14, 2008


A scientist using a mini-blowtorch to kill weeds accidentally incinerated his neighbours' front garden.

[Image link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/telegraph/multimedia/archive/00690/blowtorch-weedkille_690266c.jpg ]

Robert Gailey, 79, watched in horror as sparks from a gas-powered garden tool caused the lawn and shrubs of his neighbours, Stuart and Phyliss McLean, to catch light.

Mr Gailey had been using a Weed Wand, a £20 hand-held flaming device which burns weeds, to treat the driveway of his semi-detached home in Paisley, Renfrewshire.

Within seconds, the McLeans's manicured lawn and evergreen trees were aflame and Mr Gailey's wife, Mary, called the Fire Brigade.

Mr Gailey, who holds a 1st in science from Glasgow University, admitted his embarrassment over the blunder: "I had been using the Weed Wand to get rid of weeds on my driveway.

"A couple of sparks had come off and before I knew it they had started a blaze in the garden next door.

"I may be over 70 but I ran to get the hose from my back garden but unfortunately the flames had taken hold.

"Thankfully, no damage was done to any of the houses and the bill for the repair work has been agreed on between myself and the neighbours."

Last night, a Strathclyde Fire Brigade spokesman urged gardeners to take care when using potentially dangerous equipment.

He said: "People should be extremely careful when they use blowtorch devices such as these in their gardens."


Guest ed. note: Perhaps this scientist had learned that 'flame-weeding' using compressed propane gas was a certified-organic alternative to herbicides. See, e.g., "Flame Weeding", Colorado State University, web dated Nov. 6, 2007, http://www.specialtycrops.colostate.edu/techniques/flame_weed.htm

*Andrew Apel, guest editor