* The Food Chain: Less Water, More Biotech
* Seeds of a Perfect Storm: GM Crops and the Global Food Security Crisis
* France Hopes to Break GMO Deadlock by December
* Role of Agricultural Biotechnology in Sustainable Food Production
* Politics of Hunger: How Illusion and Greed Fan the Food Crisis
* Responding to the Global Food Crisis: Three Perspectives
* Hawaii County Bans Biotech Coffees
The Food Chain: Less Water, More Biotech
- Andrew Pollack, New York Times, Oct 23, 2008
Grand Island, Neb. - To satisfy the world's growing demand for food, scientists are trying to pull off a genetic trick that nature itself has had trouble accomplishing in millions of years of evolution. They want to create varieties of corn, wheat and other crops that can thrive with little water.
As the world's population expands and global warming alters weather patterns, water shortages are expected to hold back efforts to grow more food. People drink only a quart or two of water every day, but the food they eat in a typical day, including plants and meat, requires 2,000 to 3,000 quarts to produce.
For companies that manage to get ''more crop per drop,'' the payoff could be huge, and scientists at many of the biggest agricultural companies are busy tweaking plant genes in search of the winning formula.
Monsanto, the biggest crop biotechnology company, says its first drought-tolerant corn will reach farmers in only four years and will provide a 10 percent increase in yields in states like Nebraska and Kansas that tend to get less rainfall than eastern parts of the Corn Belt.
At a recent farm show here called Husker Harvest Days, a few thousand farmers were guided past a small plot on which Monsanto had grown its drought-tolerant corn next to a similar variety without the ''drought gene.'' A transparent tent had shielded the plants from any rain through the hot Nebraska summer.
The results were, to be sure, less than miraculous. Both the drought-tolerant and the comparison plants were turning brown and shriveling, and they were about three feet shorter than the lush green irrigated corn growing nearby. But the drought-tolerant plants, which also contained a second gene to protect their roots from a pest, were a little greener and a few inches taller than the comparison plants, and their cobs were missing fewer kernels.
Monsanto said the improvement was significant. And the Nebraska and Kansas farmers who toured Monsanto's plot, many of them facing water-use restrictions and soaring pumping costs for irrigation, said any improvement would be welcome.
''We pump water like there's no end, and that's not going to last forever,'' said Tom Schuele, a farmer in Cedar Rapids, Neb. Monsanto's competitors, including DuPont's Pioneer Hi-Bred unit and Syngenta, say they also plan to introduce water-efficient corn in a few years. And companies are working on plants that can stand up to heat, cold, salty soils and other tough environments.
A small California company called Arcadia Biosciences is trying to develop crops that need only half as much nitrogen fertilizer as a conventional plant. Fertilizer is crucial to modern food production, but the large quantities used today damage the environment. And because fertilizer is made from natural gas, its costs have soared along with other energy costs.
Public sector scientists are also on the hunt. Researchers at the University of California and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines are developing rice that can survive flooding, which causes major crop losses for poor farmers in the lowlands of India and other countries. While rice is typically grown in standing water, the plants will die if submerged for more than a few days.
Many of these advanced crops are being developed using genetic engineering. The technology, already used to make crops that can resist weeds and insects, has spurred worldwide controversy. But in an era in which people are marching in the streets of many countries to demand more food at lower prices, low-water crops might win over areas that now shun biotech crops, such as most of Africa.
''Drought tolerance to me is the most critical entry point,'' said Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard who has advised African governments on biotechnology. ''This is kind of reopening the window for genetic modification.''
Critics accuse the biotechnology industry and its backers of exploiting the recent global food crisis to push a technology that has been oversold and that could have unanticipated health and environmental effects.
Indeed, many past predictions of how biotechnology would create novel crops have not come to fruition. And some experts say Monsanto and its peers have not published enough information to prove they can make drought-tolerant crops.
''I want to see more, I guess, from the Monsanto work before I'd be convinced they've got it,'' said John S. Boyer, an emeritus professor at the University of Delaware.
Safety questions must also be answered. Changing the water needs of a plant requires a more fundamental alteration of its metabolism than adding a gene to make the plant resistant to insects. ''The potential for unintended side effects is greater, so the testing has to be greater,'' said David A. Lightfoot, a professor of genetics and genomics at Southern Illinois University.
How much could be gained by use of these new crops is not yet clear. A report in 2007 by the International Water Management Institute, which is part of a network of agricultural research centers, concluded that genetic improvements would have only a ''moderate'' impact over the next 15 to 20 years in making crops more efficient in using water. "Greater, easier and less contentious gains,'' it said, could come from better managing water supplies, rather than trying to develop crops that can flourish with less water.
But many experts say the situation is grave enough that all approaches must be tried simultaneously. Poor growing conditions can reduce crop yields by 70 percent or more below their potential. American farmers, for instance, average about 150 bushels of corn an acre. But David K. Hula of Charles City, Va., won a competition last year by achieving nearly 386 bushels an acre, a measure of what modern crop varieties can achieve under optimal conditions.
In many areas, lack of water is the biggest limiting factor, and supplies of water for irrigation could be reduced further in coming years in order to supply more water to growing cities and proliferating factories.
Global warming is also expected to lead to drier conditions and more frequent droughts in some parts of the world. Scientists at Stanford, for instance, have projected that corn yields in southern Africa could drop 25 percent by 2030 because of warmer, drier weather.
Breeding water-efficient crops would seem to be straightforward: Just grow crops under dry conditions and choose the ones that do best for the next round of breeding.
It does not quite work that way, however. After several generations, the crops are indeed more resistant to drought. But there is a downside in that they often turn out to have lower yields when there is plenty of rain.
So scientists are harnessing the same genetic techniques that have yielded insights into human health to decipher how plants control water use and adapt to stress. ''We've probably made more progress in the last 15 years than we have in the last 5,000 years,'' said Ray A. Bressan, a professor at Purdue.
In particular, he said, studies have overturned the conventional wisdom that water use is so complex that no single gene could have a big impact on it. ''Single genes are having effects in the field that we never thought would be possible,'' he said.
That has opened the door for genetic engineering, which allows scientists to add a gene from another species to a plant, or even an extra copy of one of the plant's own genes.
Critics say that biotech seeds, which are patented and tend to be costly, might not be suitable for poor farmers in developing countries. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a group working for improved farm productivity on that continent, has said that for now it would avoid genetic engineering because greater gains for small farmers can be made at lower cost using conventional breeding.
Indeed, there has been progress developing drought-tolerant crops using conventional breeding, despite the obstacles. Syngenta, a big Swiss seed and agricultural chemical company, says it will introduce drought-tolerant corn developed by conventional breeding in 2011, followed by a genetically engineered version in 2014.
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, the institute that sparked the output improvements of the Green Revolution decades ago, has bred drought-tolerant corn that is already being grown in Africa. Marianne Banziger, director of the global corn program for the center, said the yields are 20 to 50 percent higher than local varieties during droughts, with no loss of yield in wetter years.
Still, her institute, with financing from foundations, is working with Monsanto to develop genetically engineered corn that would be even more water-efficient.
Monsanto has said it would not charge royalties for using its technology in the African corn, to keep the seed affordable. It says that corn customized for Africa could be ready by 2017, only five years after it starts selling drought-tolerant corn to American farmers.
Various other approaches are being tried to make less thirsty crops. Performance Plants, a Canadian company, adds a gene that causes the plant to start preserving its water more quickly as a drought begins. In one field test, the yield of its genetically engineered canola barely fell when irrigation was cut in half. The yield of a comparison crop fell 14 percent.
Monsanto is going in the opposite direction -- trying to keep the plant producing seed when a drought starts, even when its natural response would be to slow down in order to preserve water. "You don't want a cactus," said Jacqueline Heard, who directs Monsanto's program for drought-tolerant crops. ''You want something that keeps a plant very active.''
Monsanto will not say exactly what genes it is using, or in which species they originated. But one approach involves transcription factors, which are like master regulators, able to turn on dozens of other genes to orchestrate a plant's response to lack of water.
But with so many downstream genes activated, there could be other effects on the plants besides less need for water. At a recent biotechnology conference, a university researcher showed a photograph of a cotton plant with an inserted gene for a transcription factor. The plant was missing most of its leaves.
No single approach is likely to suffice for all types of dry conditions. "Probably no one has found the magic gene yet," said Jian-Kang Zhu, a professor of plant biology at the University of California, Riverside. ''Probably there is no magic gene.''
Seeds of a Perfect Storm: Genetically Modified Crops and the Global Food Security Crisis
- Nina Fedoroff, Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State and to the Administrator of USAID
Inaugural Lecture in the Jefferson Fellows Distinguished Lecture Series; Washington, DC; October 17, 2008. Excerpt below. Full lecture at http://www.state.gov/g/oes/rls/rm/111147.htm#start
Tom Friedman has attracted a great deal of attention over the past few years with his declaration that the world is flat. By this he means that the Internet revolution and globalization has put all peoples of the world on an equal economic footing. A comforting message. But despite the extraordinary increase in our ability to communicate and access information, even Friedman is beginning to concede that things aren't quite so simple. He now concedes that the world is also rather warm and a bit crowded. In his new book, Friedman addresses many of the world's current woes: climate change, energy, economic development, and preservation of biodiversity. Curiously missing in his call for a Green Revolution is what we generally mean by a Green Revolution: increasing the food supply. What will it take to grow food for the 9 or so billion people expected to populate the Earth by mid-century - and meet the growing demand for steaks and hamburgers as people become increasingly affluent.
Well, I can't miss the chance to address that oversight. I'll start by telling you how we got here, how we planted the seeds of the stormy food security crisis of 2008. Then I'll tell you how we've learned to improve food crops over the eons, then over the past century. And I will tell you how many countries have gotten themselves into the paradoxical position of rejecting the most promising and environmentally conservative means of ensuring global food security ever to have been developed.
But somewhere between the first Green Revolution and the biotechnology revolution I'll tell you about in a moment, the developed world seems to have declared the battle for food security won and moved on to other concerns. Investment in agricultural research has steadily declined over the past three decades, even as the human population has continued to grow. The successes of the first Green Revolution have supported rapid economic development in many countries. These advances out of poverty have stimulated demand for more meat, expanding the acreage used to grow animal feed. Oil is getting expensive, driving up the cost of fertilizer: it takes energy to crack apart the nitrogen molecules in the air and convert them to the forms that plants can use. And now that the world has decided that plants must fuel not just animals and people, but cars as well, it is perhaps not altogether surprising that food prices suddenly spiked.
About 10,000 years ago, people collected a few mutations that converted teosinte into the precursor of the modern corn plant, with soft seeds carried on this telescoped side shoot we call an ear. The truly dramatic expansion of the ear took place largely during the 20th century, when it was discovered that seeds from a cross between two highly inbred, rather small and weak plants gave much more vigorous plants with much bigger ears in the first generation. This is called hybrid vigor and is the basis of our current extraordinarily productive hybrid corn varieties. These were introduced in the U. S. during the 1930s, facing a good deal of the kinds of resistance that current biotech crops are now facing. Today hybrid corn is widely grown around the world, but not in many parts of Africa. We've done the same with wheat (parenthetically, wheat is a hybrid between 3 different species) and rice.
So now I've told you that there are environmental benefits to using GM crops, as well as benefits to people from reduced pesticide use. But are GM foods safe to eat? What makes them either more or less safe than food crops produced by radiation or chemical mutagenesis - or even by traditional breeding? Let's start at the simplest level: what's being added by these procedures I described and are these things safe? What's added is a gene or a bit of DNA. Do plants contain DNA? Yes. DNA is the stuff that genes and chromosomes are made of and they're what makes a plant a plant and a human being a human being. You've been eating the DNA of plants and animals all your life, cooked and raw - although I have to tell you I've been asked more than once whether plants have DNA. The amount of DNA that's added is about a billionth or so of what's already there. You break down DNA starting in your mouth and by the time digestion's done, it's pretty much broken down into its nourishing constituents.
Now most genes encode - that is, contain the instructions for - assembling a protein. Proteins are the nourishing things you eat in meat, milk and eggs - these are really rich in proteins. But the plants you eat contain proteins, too, although the parts of plants we tend to use - the seeds of wheat and rice, the kernels of corn - are rather rich in starches and sugars - and sometimes oils, too. That's why we grow them. Now most of the thousands of proteins you eat are perfectly harmless, but a few, like one of the proteins in peanuts, cause allergic responses in some people. And there are a few proteins that are toxic to people and animals. So before a protein-coding gene is added to a plant to make a GM crop plant, the protein must be subjected to tests for toxicity and allergenicity. Now this has never been done before in the history of agriculture - testing for whether a new protein in the food supply is either toxic or allergenic! We had to find out the hard way. Peanuts are a relatively recent addition to the American diet and kiwi fruits and even more recent addition - the incidence of allergies to both is quite high. No allergic responses have been detected to GM crops. So the answer to this question is a simple YES. In fact, because of the extensive prior testing, I submit to you that GM crops are the safest we've ever introduced into the food chain.
Besides food safety, perhaps the most frequently expressed concern about GM crops is whether they're safe for the environment. That seems to mean different things to different people. I think that I've already addressed one aspect of this question: controlling pests with insect resistant plants is better for the environment from the perspective that pesticides are non-specific and kill all kinds of insects, while insect-resistant crops affect only those insects that attack the crops. Less pesticide is better for the environment - more insects, more birds and so forth. Less cultivation in the case of herbicide tolerant plants reduces CO2 emissions and soil erosion. But often what people have in mind when they question the safety of GM crops is whether the genes that are added to them will somehow escape and create superweeds or perhaps invasive species. Well, here I think one needs to use a bit of common sense. For the most part, crop plants are plants that people have crippled in their ability to survive in the wild and adding one gene that codes for a well-characterized protein to a familiar crop gives you the sum of the two: your familiar crop plant with one extra gene. If the plant wasn't invasive or weedy to begin with, adding one gene will not make it weedy. People also talk about something called gene "flow" - the escape of genes. Genes move only through pollen or seeds - they don't move on their own. And they only move to close relatives - other varieties in nearby fields. So this is mostly a management problem for farmers and it isn't a new one. So--a farmer has to know not to plant his sweet corn too close to his fodder corn, or he'll have fodder kernels among the sweet. Spreading genes from crop plants into wild plants happens only if there are closely related weeds nearby, it's happened since people domesticated plants, and it is generally not a problem, since the traits that people value in food crops don't help plants to survive in the wild. People have worried about this a lot, but studies so far say it actually doesn't happen much in the field, even when it can be done in the laboratory. So the answer is YES.
But will GM crops reduce biodiversity? Human agriculture itself is, other than building roads and cities, the most destructive thing we do to biodiversity, stripping the land and planting one crop. As the food needs of the human population continue to grow, the very most important thing that we can do is to increase our agricultural productivity on the land we already farm in order to preserve what wildlands we have left, particularly tropical forests which are extraordinarily rich in biodiversity. So the answer is NO and in fact, GM crops can help us preserve biodiversity by reducing our use of toxic chemicals in agriculture and perhaps in time, increase the efficiency with which plants use nitrogen fertilizers and solar energy.
The world is indeed moving ahead with the introduction of GM crops. India has witnessed the extremely rapid adoption of Bt cotton and is expecting a further 5% increase in its cotton crop over last year because of it. India is moving to commercialize Bt eggplant and Bt rice in advanced stages of testing in China, India and the Philippines. China has recently announced a 3.5 billion dollar investment in agricultural biotechnology research.
The bad news is that well-meaning people around the world still believe that GM crops are dangerous, their beliefs fueled by misinformation - even disinformation - on the Internet, from public interest groups and the communications media. Although some European countries, particularly Spain, are growing GM crops, much of Europe, Japan, and most of Africa remain adamantly opposed to crops improved using molecular techniques. These persistent perceptions that GM crops are dangerous and unhealthful have resulted in restrictive and costly regulation of such crops - even banning of both their use and even to their import as food aid.
Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of such attitudes occurred in 2002. With almost 3 million people at risk of starvation as the result of drought, President Mwanawasa of Zambia refused to accept shipments of corn from the U.S. because he could not be sure that it was GM-free. I wish I could tell you that this was an aberration, an idiosyncrasy of one leader. But it is not.
As Professor Robert Paarlberg explains in his new book titled "Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa," Europe's anti-GMO beliefs are in some sense forced on Africa through a variety of mechanisms, ranging from the funding of anti-GM NGOs, such as Greenpeace to threats of trade embargoes. For example, Paarlberg relates that in 2002, with drought in Zambia creating a dire need for international food aid, Agriflora, a private company in Lusaka, Zambia that produces vegetables for export to the UK received phone calls from UK supermarkets that their exports of organic baby corn would be in jeopardy if food aid shipments containing GM maize were allowed into Zambia. Agriflora and other export-oriented growers asked President Mwanawasa to reject the food aid. He did. His advisors later confirmed that exports were a concern, citing "a potential risk of GM maize affecting the export of baby corn and honey in particular and organic foods in general to the European Union if planted." (Paarlberg, p 136). This is a dramatic story, but not a unique one. Today, there is still only one country in Sub-Saharan Africa that grows GM crops on a commercial scale.
So how important are these molecular techniques we call GM to achieving food security in the world? They are an important part of future food security, but only a part of it. There are large parts of the world that in which agriculture has not yet benefitted from science, much less the most up-to-date molecular science. Many of the world's poorest people are rural, small-holder farmers, still farming the same way their ancestors did a hundred years ago, virtually untouched by modern agriculture.
Land-holdings are small and, as you can see from these pictures of Rwanda, farmers plant many different crops on each small plot - some bananas, some coffee trees, some corn and other vegetables. Farmers take what they grow to open air markets and what isn't sold and used right away, rots. There is virtually no food processing industry and no cold storage.
Today we hear talk of a second Green Revolution, but expanding the food supply today in the poorest, most crowded, and insecure nations is no easy task. The next slide is my only wordy slide and it lists the many challenges that must be met in less developed countries to increase food security and to make it agriculture a viable source of income.
There's plenty of room for increasing productivity - the benefits of good seed, including hybrid corn seed, and fertilizer have not been realized in many countries. After Malawi experienced a famine in 2005, its president decided to defy the international donor community and subsidize seeds and fertilizer. The results were stunning: within two years, Malawi went from being a food aid recipient to a food exporter. How will this momentum be maintained as fertilizer costs go up with energy costs? Is this a model for other countries? Hugh Grant, CEO of Monsanto, points out that it costs $400/ton to ship corn to Malawi from the US and it costs $35/ton to grow it there. Next year, even with escalating fertilizer prices, the difference may be even greater. But the good news is that the Josette Shearin announced at the recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York that the World Food Program will begin buy a billion dollars of the food it procures locally, rather than shipping it in from foreign countries. This will provide a welcome stimulus for farmers in less developed countries.
Establishing a sustainable modern local agricultural economy in the poor countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia demands many improvements, from roads to storage and food processing facilities, to food safety monitoring, to the reduction of regulatory and trade barriers. It can be done and there is growing recognition that all these elements have to be addressed -- simultaneously. Looking to a future that may bring a drier climate -- or perhaps just a more unpredictable one -- our most important resources are people and knowledge.
Just as medical research allows us to understand and control diseases, so research on plants, plant stresses such as heat and drought, and plant pests and pathogens are absolutely essential to our ability to achieve food security on our small and crowded planet. Today -- and increasingly in the coming decades -- it will be modern molecular science that offers the knowledge and the tools to grow more food with less water and less damage to our environment. Our most advanced agricultural biotechnology companies are anticipating doubling of yields per acre in our major staple and feed crops, corns and soybeans in the coming years. This will be reached through an increasingly sophisticated use of molecular modification - what the world calls GM - and genome-based plant breeding.
If the developing world is to benefit from these advances, it is important to moderate the widespread prejudice against them in the developed world. I am encouraged that China and India, both of which have their fair measures of anti-GM controversy, are steadily moving forward in using molecular modifications to improve crops. Perhaps a combination of increasing food prices and growing recognition that modern GM crops are no more dangerous than their more conventionally derived precursors will permit other countries to move forward. The unacceptable alternative is an ever-widening food security gap between the developed and the developing nations.
I end with a quote from Dr. Florence Wambugu, a Kenyan plant pathologist who has devoted her life to bringing modern methods of crop improvement to Africa, starting with the development of virus resistant sweet potatoes. She says simply: "You people in the developed world are certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods, but can we please eat first."
France Hopes to Break GMO Deadlock by December
- EurActiv, October 21, 2008 http://www.euractiv.com/en/environment/france-hopes-break-gmo-deadlock-december/article-176513
EU envrionment ministers continued to disagree on whether member states should be allowed to establish GMO-free zones for sensitive areas, although they did concur on the need for better long-term environmental risk assessment of GMOs.
After the Council's inability to either approve or reject GMOs for over a decade, the European Commission is now free to authorise them based on a special regulatory procedureexternal .
But both the procedure and the role of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have been targets for criticism, and the Commission has decided to introduce practical changes to EFSA's GMO-approval process.
Several member states have also repeatedly invoked an EU safeguard clause enabling them to suspend the marketing or growth on their territory of GM crops that have EU-wide authorisation. But the EU executive has never substantiated their applications and has always ordered them to lift the national bans.
The French EU Presidency has created an ad-hoc working group and tabled a series of proposals to overcome these problems.
Following a number of informal discussions earlier this summer, the EU-27 environment ministers debated the bloc's GMO authorisation procedure in a Council meeting on 20 October.
But member states clashed on the issues of protecting sensitive and protected territories and establishing GMO-free zones. Some delegations underlined that the current legislative framework already allows for such protection measures if there is scientific evidence of risk.
Others would like to retain control of their national territories and see the subsidiarity principle better respected in this regard, allowing them to establish GMO-free zones for sensitive eco- and agro-systems.
According to the French Presidency, the ministers agreed on the need for better long-term environmental risk assessment. Several delegations also said the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) guiding principles should be revised. Its safety assessments would always take account of the latest research findings as scientific knowledge evolves.
As for including socio-economic considerations in the GMO authorisation process (such as cost-benefit analysis of the possible consequences of GMO seeds entry into the overall agricultural system), ministers described this as both an "important" and a "complex" issue. They underlined that if such criteria were to be considered, they would need to respect EU's obligations vis-à-vis the World Trade Organisation. Furthermore, some member states underlined that such measures would never replace scientific evaluation as the main authorisation criteria.
The ministers also underlined that there was no exact definition of socio-economic criteria linked to GMOs. Therefore, an EU-level methodology framework could be elaborated to identify and evaluate such criteria.
The Role of Agricultural Biotechnology in Sustainable Food Production
- The International Food Information Council, October 23, 2008 http://www.ific.org/research/biotechres.cfm
The IFIC has released the results of its latest "Food Biotechnology" survey which notes that "-- more and more people are thinking about the concept of sustainable food production and its role in feeding the world--awareness of sustainable food production jumped 11 percent from 2007 to 2008 (from 30 to 41 percent). Consumers rated 'growing more food to help feed the growing global population' as the most important factor for growing crops in a sustainable manner ---reducing the amount of pesticides needed to produce food [came] in second. 84 percent of consumers [reported] favorable or neutral impressions of using biotechnology with plants---"
As food prices soar and the need to feed more people with fewer resources becomes increasingly challenging, new International Food Information Council (IFIC) research shows more and more people are thinking about the concept of sustainable food production and its role in feeding the world. According to IFIC's 2008 Food Biotechnology survey, awareness of sustainable food production jumped 11 percent from 2007 to 2008 (from 30 to 41 percent). Consumers rated "growing more food to help feed the growing global population" as the most important factor for growing crops in a sustainable manner.
"Clearly, global food issues are on consumer's minds," said IFIC Senior Vice President, Danielle Schor. "This year's survey shows feeding the global population is a high priority and people are thinking of long lasting solutions."
This year marks the 13th annual IFIC Food Biotechnology survey and the second year it included questions about "sustainability." When asked to rank 5 factors related to growing crops in a sustainable way, the factor ranked number one was "increasing the production of food staples in the world, thereby reducing world hunger," with "reducing the amount of pesticides needed to produce food" coming in second.
Other areas in this national survey included:
Overall favorable impression of plant biotechnology remained little changed from past years, with 84 percent of consumers having favorable or neutral impressions of using biotechnology with plants. The majority of Americans would be likely to purchase foods from plants produced through biotechnology for specific benefits. Approximately three-fourths of consumers would be very or somewhat likely to buy a food product made with oils that had been modified by biotechnology to avoid trans fats or to provide more healthful fats, such as Omega-3 fatty acids.
Following last year's announcement from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that meat and milk from cloned animals are safe, nearly half of Americans (48 percent) said they were "somewhat" or "very" likely to buy these products-similar to the result of 46 percent in 2007. When asked how likely they would be to buy meat and milk from genetically engineered animals if the FDA determined they were safe, 65 percent said they would be likely to purchase these products, with the percentage of those "very likely" having increased significantly from 2006 (12 percent) to 2008 (17 percent). The survey was carried out prior to FDA's release last month of proposed guidelines on how to regulate genetically engineered animals.
Potential positive impacts of animal biotechnology continue to correlate with increased support among consumers. Almost two-thirds of consumers (62 percent) said they had a positive impression of animal biotechnology when informed that "animal biotechnology can improve the quality and safety of food." More than half (52 percent) reacted positively to the statement "animal biotechnology can reduce the environmental impact of animal waste."
Confidence in U.S. Food Supply
Despite continuing media attention and focus on food concerns, consumers' overall confidence in the U.S. food supply remains high. Sixty-eight percent of Americans indicated they were "very" or "somewhat" confident in the food supply compared to 69 percent last year. Of those who listed a specific food safety concern, disease and contamination topped the list at 50 percent, a significant increase since 2007 (38 percent). Food safety issues having the lowest concern were biotechnology and processed foods, with 1 percent each.
Satisfaction with current information on food labels remained high in 2008. Only 14 percent of consumers mentioned information they felt was missing, with less than 1 percent specifically mentioning biotechnology.
FDA requires special labeling only when the use of biotechnology introduces an allergen, or when it substantially changes the food's nutritional content. A solid majority of those polled (60 percent) "strongly" or "somewhat" support the FDA labeling requirements for food produced using biotechnology.
Summary from the Asian Food Biotechnology Consumer Attitudes Survey
The U.S. results can be compared with those of a similar survey released earlier this month by the Asian Food Information Centre http://www.afic.org) . The survey commissioned by AFIC in five Asian countries-China, India, Japan, Philippines, and South Korea-shows that crops produced through biotechnology do not generate a high level of concern. In addition, although most Asian consumers are not familiar with the concept of "sustainable food production," once the concept is explained, a majority believe sustainable food production is important and accept plant biotechnology if the technology contributes to a more sustainable way of producing foods. Asian consumers are also ready to accept nutritional benefits from biotechnology-derived foods. However, specific benefits are linked to the dietary habits in each country.
The Politics of Hunger: How Illusion and Greed Fan the Food Crisis
- Paul Collier, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2008; Council On Foreign Relations (Hat Tip: Jonathan Harrington). Excerpt below. Full piece at
"Politicians have it in their power to solve the food crisis, but they must be willing to end the biases against big commercial farms and genetically modified crops and do away with farm subsidies."
After many years of stability, world food prices have jumped 83 percent since 2005 -- prompting warnings of a food crisis throughout much of the world earlier this year. In the United States and Europe, the increase in food prices is already yesterday's news; consumers in the developed world now have more pressing concerns, such as the rising price of energy and the falling price of houses. But in the developing world, a food shock of this magnitude is a major political event. To the typical household in poor countries, food is the equivalent of energy in the United States, and people expect their government to do something when prices rise. Already, there have been food riots in some 30 countries; in Haiti, they brought down the prime minister. And for some consumers in the world's poorest countries, the true anguish of high food prices is only just beginning. If global food prices remain high, the consequences will be grim both ethically and politically.
Politicians and policymakers do, in fact, have it in their power to bring food prices down. But so far, their responses have been less than encouraging: beggar-thy-neighbor restrictions, pressure for yet larger farm subsidies, and a retreat into romanticism. In the first case, neighbors have been beggared by the imposition of export restrictions by the governments of food-exporting countries. This has had the immaculately dysfunctional consequence of further elevating world prices while reducing the incentives for the key producers to invest in the agricultural sector. In the second case, the subsidy hunters have, unsurprisingly, turned the crisis into an opportunity; for example, Michel Barnier, the French agricultural minister, took it as a chance to urge the European Commission to reverse its incipient subsidy-slashing reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy. And finally, the romantics have portrayed the food crisis as demonstrating the failure of scientific commercial agriculture, which they have long found distasteful. In its place they advocate the return to organic small-scale farming -- counting on abandoned technologies to feed a prospective world population of nine billion.
The real challenge is not the technical difficulty of returning the world to cheap food but the political difficulty of confronting the lobbying interests and illusions on which current policies rest. Feeding the world will involve three politically challenging steps. First, contrary to the romantics, the world needs more commercial agriculture, not less. The Brazilian model of high-productivity large farms could readily be extended to areas where land is underused. Second, and again contrary to the romantics, the world needs more science: the European ban and the consequential African ban on genetically modified (GM) crops are slowing the pace of agricultural productivity growth in the face of accelerating growth in demand. Ending such restrictions could be part of a deal, a mutual de-escalation of folly, that would achieve the third step: in return for Europe's lifting its self-damaging ban on GM products, the United States should lift its self-damaging subsidies supporting domestic biofuel.
THE FIRST GIANT OF ROMANTIC POPULISM
The first giant that must be slain is the middle- and upper-class love affair with peasant agriculture. With the near-total urbanization of these classes in both the United States and Europe, rural simplicity has acquired a strange allure. Peasant life is prized as organic in both its literal and its metaphoric sense. (Prince Charles is one of its leading apostles.) In its literal sense, organic agricultural production is now a premium product, a luxury brand. (Indeed, Prince Charles has his own such brand, Duchy Originals.) In its metaphoric sense, it represents the antithesis of the large, hierarchical, pressured organizations in which the middle classes now work. (Prince Charles has built a model peasant village, in traditional architectural style.) Peasants, like pandas, are to be preserved.
THE WAR ON SCIENCE
The second giant of romantic populism is the European fear of scientific agriculture. This has been manipulated by the agricultural lobby in Europe into yet another form of protectionism: the ban on GM crops. GM crops were introduced globally in 1996 and already are grown on around ten percent of the world's crop area, some 300 million acres. But due to the ban, virtually none of this is in Europe or Africa.
Robert Paarlberg, of Wellesley College, brilliantly anatomizes the politics of the ban in his new book, Starved for Science. After their creation, GM foods, already so disastrously named, were described as "Frankenfoods" -- sounding like a scientific experiment on consumers. Just as problematic was the fact that genetic modification had grown out of research conducted by American corporations and so provoked predictable and deep-seated hostility from the European left. Although Monsanto, the main innovator in GM-seed technology, has undertaken never to market a seed that is incapable of reproducing itself, skeptics propagated a widespread belief that farmers will be trapped into annual purchases of "terminator" seeds from a monopoly supplier. Thus were laid the political foundations for a winning coalition: onto the base of national agricultural protectionism was added the anti-Americanism of the left and the paranoia of health-conscious consumers who, in the wake of the mad cow disease outbreak in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, no longer trusted their governments' assurances. In the 12 years since the ban was introduced, in 1996, the scientific case for lifting it has become progressively more robust, but the political coalition against GM foods has only expanded.
The GM-crop ban has had three adverse effects. Most obviously, it has retarded productivity growth in European agriculture. Prior to 1996, grain yields in Europe tracked those in the United States. Since 1996, they have fallen behind by 1-2 percent a year. European grain production could be increased by around 15 percent were the ban lifted. Europe is a major cereal producer, so this is a large loss. More subtly, because Europe is out of the market for GM-crop technology, the pace of research has slowed. GM-crop research takes a very long time to come to fruition, and its core benefit, the permanent reduction in food prices, cannot fully be captured through patents. Hence, there is a strong case for supplementing private research with public money. European governments should be funding this research, but instead research is entirely reliant on the private sector. And since private money for research depends on the prospect of sales, the European ban has also reduced private research.
However, the worst consequence of the European GM-crop ban is that it has terrified African governments into themselves banning GM crops, the only exception being South Africa. They fear that if they chose to grow GM crops, they would be permanently shut out of European markets. Now, because most of Africa has banned GM crops, there has been no market for discoveries pertinent to the crops that Africa grows, and so little research -- which in turn has led to the critique that GM crops are irrelevant for Africa.
Africa cannot afford this self-denial; it needs all the help it can possibly get from genetic modification. For the past four decades, African agricultural productivity per acre has stagnated; raising production has depended on expanding the area under cultivation. But with Africa's population still growing rapidly, this option is running out, especially in light of global warming. Climate forecasts suggest that in the coming years, most of Africa will get hotter, the semiarid parts will get drier, and rainfall variability on the continent will increase, leading to more droughts. It seems likely that in southern Africa, the staple food, maize, will at some point become nonviable. Whereas for other regions the challenge of climate change is primarily about mitigating carbon emissions, in Africa it is primarily about agricultural adaptation.
It has become commonplace to say that Africa needs a green revolution. Unfortunately, the reality is that the green revolution in the twentieth century was based on chemical fertilizers, and even when fertilizer was cheap, Africa did not adopt it. With the rise in fertilizer costs, as a byproduct of high-energy prices, any African green revolution will perforce not be chemical. To counter the effects of Africa's rising population and deteriorating climate, African agriculture needs a biological revolution. This is what GM crops offer, if only sufficient money is put into research. There has as yet been little work on the crops of key importance to the region, such as cassava and yams. GM-crop research is still in its infancy, still on the first generation: single-gene transfer. A gene that gives one crop an advantage is identified, isolated, and added to another crop. But even this stage offers the credible prospect of vital gains. In a new scientific review, Jennifer Thomson, of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Cape Town, considers the potential of GM technology for Africa. Maize, she reports, can be made more drought-resistant, buying Africa time in the struggle against climatic deterioration. Grain can be made radically more resistant to fungi, reducing the need for chemicals and cutting losses due to storage. For example, stem borer beetles cause storage losses in the range of 15-40 percent of the African maize crop; a new GM variety is resistant.
It is important to recognize that genetic modification, like commercialization, is not a magic fix for African agriculture: there is no such fix. But without it, the task of keeping Africa's food production abreast of its population growth looks daunting. Although Africa's coastal cities can be fed from global supplies, the vast African interior cannot be fed in this way other than in emergencies. Lifting the ban on GM crops, both in Africa and in Europe, is the policy that could hold down global food prices in the long term.
The final giant of romantic populism is the American fantasy that the United States can escape dependence on Arab oil by growing its own fuel -- making ethanol or other biofuels, largely from corn. There is a good case for growing fuel. But there is not a good case for generating it from American grain: the conversion of grain into ethanol uses almost as much energy as it produces. This has not stopped the American agricultural lobby from gouging out grotesquely inefficient subsidies from the government; as a result, around a third of American grain has rapidly been diverted into energy. This switch demonstrates both the superb responsiveness of the market to price signals and the shameful power of subsidy-hunting lobbying groups. If the United States wants to run off of agrofuel instead of oil, then Brazilian sugar cane is the answer; it is a far more efficient source of energy than American grain. The killer evidence of political capture is the response of the U.S. government to this potential lifeline: it has actually restricted imports of Brazilian ethanol to protect American production. The sane goal of reducing dependence on Arab oil has been sacrificed to the self-serving goal of pumping yet more tax dollars into American agriculture.
Inevitably, the huge loss of grain for food caused by its diversion into ethanol has had an impact on world grain prices. Just how large an impact is controversial. An initial claim by the Bush administration was that it had raised prices by only three percent, but a study by the World Bank suggests that the effect has been much larger. If the subsidy were lifted, there would probably be a swift impact on prices: not only would the supply of grain for food increase, but the change would shift speculative expectations. This is the policy that could bring prices down in the short term.
STRIKING A DEAL
The three policies -- expanding large commercial farms, ending the GM-crop ban, and doing away with the U.S. subsidies on ethanol -- fit together both economically and politically. Lifting the ethanol subsidies would probably puncture the present ballooning of prices. The expansion of commercial farms could, over the next decade, raise world output by a further few percentage points. Both measures would buy the time needed for GM crops to deliver on their potential (the time between starting research and the mass application of its results is around 15 years). Moreover, the expansion of commercial farming in Africa would encourage global GM-crop research on Africa-suited crops, and innovations would find a ready market not so sensitive to political interference. It would also facilitate the localized adaptation of new varieties. It is not by chance that the only African country in which GM crops have not been banned is South Africa, where the organization of agriculture is predominantly commercial.
Politically, the three policies are also complementary. Homegrown energy, keeping out "Frankenfoods," and preserving the peasant way of life are all classic populist programs: they sound instantly appealing but actually do harm. They must be countered by messages of equal potency.
One such message concerns the scope for international reciprocity. Although Americans are attracted to homegrown fuel, they are infuriated by the European ban on GM crops. They see the ban for what it is: a standard piece of anti-American protectionism. Europeans, for their part, cling to the illusory comfort of the ban on high-tech crops, but they are infuriated by the American subsidies on ethanol. They see the subsidies for what they are: a greedy deflection from the core task of reducing U.S. energy profligacy. Over the past half century, the United States and Europe have learned how to cooperate. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was fundamentally a deal between the United States and Europe that virtually eliminated tariffs on manufactured goods. NATO is a partnership in security. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is a partnership in economic governance. Compared to the difficulties of reaching agreement in these areas, the difficulties of reaching a deal on the mutual de-escalation of recent environmental follies is scarcely daunting: the United States would agree to scrap its ethanol subsidies in return for Europe's lifting the ban on GM crops. Each side can find this deal infuriating and yet attractive. It should be politically feasible to present this to voters as better than the status quo.
How might the romantic hostility toward commercial and scientific agriculture be countered politically? The answer is to educate the vast community of concern for the poorest countries on the bitter realities of the food crisis. In both the United States and Europe, millions of decent citizens are appalled by global hunger. Each time a famine makes it to television screens, the popular response is overwhelming, and there is a large overlap between the constituency that responds to such crises and the constituency attracted by the idea of preserving organic peasant lifestyles. The cohabitation of these concerns needs to be challenged. Many people will need to agonize over their priorities. Some will decide that the vision articulated by Prince Charles is the more important one: a historical lifestyle must be preserved regardless of the consequences. But however attractive that vision, these people must come face-to-face with the prospect of mass malnutrition and stunted children and realize that the vital matter for public policy is to increase food supplies. Commercial agriculture may be irredeemably unromantic, but if it fills the stomachs of the poor, then it should be encouraged.
American environmentalists will also need to do some painful rethinking. The people most attracted to achieving energy self-sufficiency through the production of ethanol are potentially the constituency that could save the United States from its ruinous energy policies. The United States indeed needs to reduce its dependence on imported oil, but growing corn for biofuel is not the answer. Americans are quite simply too profligate when it comes to their use of energy; Europeans, themselves pretty profligate, use only half the energy per capita and yet sustain a high-income lifestyle. The U.S. tax system needs to be shifted from burdening work to discouraging energy consumption.
The mark of a good politician is the ability to guide citizens away from populism. Unless countered, populism will block the policies needed to address the food crisis. For the citizens of the United States and Europe, the continuation of high food prices will be an inconvenience, but not sufficiently so to slay the three giants on which the current strain of romantic populism rests. Properly informed, many citizens will rethink their priorities, but politicians will need to deliver these messages and forge new alliances. If food prices are not brought down fast and then kept down, slum children will go hungry, and their future lives will be impaired. Shattering a few romantic illusions is a small price to pay.
PAUL COLLIER is Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University and the author of The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.
Responding to the Global Food Crisis: Three Perspectives
- Joachim von Braun, Josette Sheeran, and Namanga Ngongi IFPRI 2007-2008 Annual Report Essays
September 2008. Download at http://www.ifpri.org/pubs/books/ar2007/ar2007_essay.asp
"The world may be entering the third phase of this crisis...a nutritional crisis, which requires critical action for groups such as children under two years old, who will suffer deprivation for life."
- Josette Sheeran, Executive Director, World Food Programme (WFP)
"With good agronomic practices and wise use of fertilizers and irrigation, the large-scale adoption of improved varieties should double or triple current yields [in Africa]."
- Namanga Ngongi, President, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa
"There is no doubt that the crisis in food and agriculture poses tremendous risks and hardships for poor people [but] it also has the potential to stimulate changes that will improve the functioning of the global food system for years to come."
- Joachim von Braun, Director General, IFPRI
The dramatic rise and volatility of food prices over the last year have shaken the global food system. Governments and the international development community generally have responded to various aspects of the food crisis, but questions remain about whether the right actions are being pursued, how best to respond, and what the future holds.
The three essays here by Namanga Ngongi, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Programme, and Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, respond to these critical questions. They point to the dangers and pitfalls of misguided policies, but also to the very real opportunities for responding in a way that prevents future crises and assures food security now and in the long term.
Hawaii County Bans Biotech Coffee
- Ronald Bailey, Reason Online, October 16, 2008,
The professional anti-biotech alarmists over at the Center for Food Safety are crowing in a press release (not yet available online) that the Hawaii County Council has banned growing biotech coffee and taro. According to the press release:
The new ordinance, which makes it unlawful to grow genetically engineered (GE) coffee or taro anywhere on the Island of Hawaii, was strongly supported by coffee and taro farmers, and passed by a 9-0 vote of the Council on October 9th.
"Coffee growers testified that the planting of genetically engineered coffee would contaminate and damage markets for their premium Kona coffee, costing them their livelihoods. Many cited past episodes where biotech rice and corn have contaminated conventional varieties, resulting in marketplace rejection, dramatically lower prices, and large losses to farmers.
Coffee farmers argued that they would lose their "specialty coffee" status and/or organic certification if biotech coffee were ever planted on Hawaii Island. The Kona coffee industry brings more than $25 million into the state each year."
Beside fears of "contamination," some residents apparently brought up possible health concerns:
"There were compelling testimonies from mothers of children who have complex allergies. Allergic reactions are one potential health threat of biotech crops, and taro is known world-wide as one the most hypo-allergenic foods on earth."
Never mind that there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that any of the current varieties of biotech crops cause allergic reactions in people.
The coffee and taro growers should look at what happened to their neighbors who grow biotech papayas. In the 1990s, papaya growing in Hawaii was nearly extinct due to the ringspot virus. Fortunately, researchers developed a biotech variety that resists the virus, thus reviving the industry.
Other researchers have now developed a biotech variety of coffee that is resistant to insects such as the coffee leaf miner. Perhaps those nice Kona coffee growers will change their minds about biotech should the leaf miner ever make it to Hawaii.
Readers comments at http://www.reason.com/blog/show/129499.html