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October 30, 2008


Bt Cotton Reduced Farmer Suicides In India?; Return to Victory Gardens?; Aussie Banana; 'We Blew It' says Bill Clinton; Italian Minister Opposes GM Ban


* Has Bt Cotton Reduced Farmer Suicides In India?
* Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India, Reviewing the Evidence
* A Return to Victory Gardens?
* Queensland Scientists Create GM Banana Plant
* Genetically Engineered Tomato Could Fight Cancer
* Future of Plant Sciences Explored In New Primer
* 'We Blew It' on Global Food, says Bill Clinton
* Italian Minister Opposes GM Ban
* The GM Soy Debate: Creating common sense on GM soy!


Has Bt Cotton Reduced Farmer Suicides In India?


It sure looks like it, and it makes sense. Farmers growing Bt cotton have seen their net revenues double, which wouldn't seem to inspire despondency. And now, data in a new research paper looking at Bt cotton and farmer suicide suggest an inverse relationship -- that Bt cotton may reduce farmer suicides.

The paper, "Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India Reviewing the Evidence", is published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) (pdf, 64 pp.).

In their conclusion, the authors find "there is no evidence in available data of a 'resurgence' of farmer suicide in India in the last five years", that farmers represent "less than a fifth of total suicides in India", and that "the reported share of farmer suicides has in fact been decreasing."

"Overall, our analysis shows that, without a doubt, Bt cotton is not a necessary or sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides", they added.

In the paper are found four graphs presenting trend lines for the adoption of Bt crops, and the number of farmer suicides, in four regions of India. Three of the four show suicides decreasing as the cultivation Bt cotton increases.


Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides: IFPRI Reviews the Evidence

Although officially recognized for having increased production and farmers' income, Bt cotton remains controversial in India. Among other allegations, it is accused of being the main reason for a resurgence of farmer suicides in India. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) provides a comprehensive review of evidence on Bt cotton and farmer suicides in India. The review is used to evaluate a set of hypotheses on whether or not there has been a resurgence of farmer suicides since 2002, and the potential relationship suicide may have with the use of Bt cotton.

"Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides: Reviewing the Evidence" by G. P Gruere, P. Mehta-Bhatt and D. Sengupta first shows that there is no evidence in available data of a "resurgence" of farmer suicides in India in the last five years. Second, the research finds that Bt cotton technology has been very effective overall in India. Third, the analysis clearly shows that Bt cotton is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides.

The paper is available at http://www.ifpri.org/pubs/dp/ifpridp00808.asp


Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India, Reviewing the Evidence

- Guillaume P. Gručre, Purvi Mehta-Bhatt, Debdatta Sengupta; International Food Policy Research Institute IFPRI Discussion Paper 00808

ABSTRACT - Suicides in general, including farmers' suicides, are a sad and complex phenomenon. Hence, their underlying causes need to be addressed within an equally complex societal framework. Here, we provide a specific case study on the potential link between technological choices and farmer suicides in India. Although officially recognized for having increased production and farmers' income, Bt cotton, genetically-modified, insect-resistant cotton, remains highly controversial in India. Among other allegations, it is accused of being the main reason for a resurgence of farmer suicides in India.

In this paper, we provide a comprehensive review of evidence on Bt cotton and farmer suicides, taking into account information from published official and unofficial reports, peer-reviewed journal articles, published studies, media news clips, magazine articles, and radio broadcasts from India, Asia, and international sources from 2002 to 2007. The review is used to evaluate a set of hypotheses on whether or not there has been a resurgence of farmer suicides, and the potential relationship suicide may have with the use of Bt cotton.

Introduction - We first show that there is no evidence in available data of a "resurgence" of farmer suicides in India in the last five years. Second, we find that Bt cotton technology has been very effective overall in India. However, the context in which Bt cotton was introduced has generated disappointing results in some particular districts and seasons. Third, our analysis clearly shows that Bt cotton is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides. In contrast, many other factors have likely played a prominent role. Nevertheless, in specific regions and years, where Bt cotton may have indirectly contributed to farmer indebtedness, leading to suicides, its failure was mainly the result of the context or environment in which it was planted. We close the paper by proposing a conceptual framework for empirical applications linking the different agricultural and institutional factors that could have contributed to farmer suicides in recent years in certain districts of Central and Southern India. Keywords: cotton, genetically modified crops, farmer suicides, India

In the last five years, India has rapidly increased its production of cotton, becoming a major exporter, and it has exceeded the production of the United States in 2007/08 to become the second-largest producer of cotton. Among other factors, the introduction and rapid adoption of Bt cotton likely played a significant role in the increase in production in India thanks to its observed contribution to a period of high cotton productivity growth. Yet, despite its visible commercial success, Bt cotton remains largely controversial in India. Among the many allegations against it, some groups accuse it of being the main reason for a resurgence of farmer suicides in cotton-producing districts of Central and Southern India, particularly in certain dry districts of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

In this paper, we review the evidence on the alleged resurgence of farmer suicides in India and the potential relationship between the adoption of Bt cotton and suicides among Indian farmers. Using secondary data from multiple sources, we evaluate two sets of contradicting hypotheses on the phenomenon of farmer suicides and Bt cotton in India. The first supports the existence of a visible increase in farmer suicides concurrent with the adoption of Bt cotton and affirms that this technology contributed to the rise in farmer suicides. The second set rejects both the presence of a surge in farmer suicides in recent years and any direct or reciprocal role of Bt cotton introduction in farmer suicides, while noting that Bt cotton may have played a role in specific cases and seasons. These cases were mainly the result of institutional, climatic, and economic constraints, among many other factors. By compiling and synthesizing available data from official sources, research reports, and economic and policy analyses we are able to clearly reject the first set of hypotheses and support the second.

We first show that despite the recent media hype around farmer suicides, fueled by civil society organizations and reaching the highest political spheres in India and elsewhere, there is no evidence in available data of a "resurgence" of farmer suicide in India in the last five years. Yes, farmer suicide is an important and tragic phenomenon, but it still only represents three-quarters of the total number of suicides due to pesticide ingestion in India and less than a fifth of total suicides in India. Moreover, even if there has been an increasing trend in total suicides, the reported share of farmer suicides has in fact been decreasing. Of course, all these conclusions are based on available estimates, which may be underestimated, but without better data, one cannot deny that claim.

Second, we provide a comprehensive review of available evidence on the effects of Bt cotton in India and find that Bt cotton technology has been very effective overall. However, the context in which Bt cotton was introduced has generated disappointing results in some particular and limited cases. Using macro data on productivity and a synthetic review of results from micro-level studies, we show that on average Bt cotton has had a significant positive effect on cotton productivity in India, raising farmers' income via an increase in yields and a reduction in pesticide use, despite increasing overall production costs. But we also find that Bt cotton's results during the first three seasons varied across studies and locations. It did not always perform well in particular areas and seasons, mainly because of climatic conditions, low cotton prices, inadequate farming practices fueled by misinformation about the new technology, and the widespread use of initial Bt varieties that were not adequate for all locations and farming practices. We also find that the institutional context played a significant role where the outcome with Bt cotton was not positive, including lack of or weak extension systems, lack of information on the different types of seeds, and the presence of unofficial and spurious seeds sometimes being sold as official Bt.

Third, we review reports and evidence on a possible relationship between suicides and the observed effects of Bt cotton. Overall, our analysis shows that, without a doubt, Bt cotton is not a necessary or sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides. Therefore, it should not be blamed for the resurgence of farmer suicides in the field. In contrast, other factors have almost certainly played an indispensable role in these cases, especially the insufficient or risky credit systems with no formal or informal support and the wide availability of toxic pesticides. Still, by using more disaggregated data on suicides and on the reported effects of Bt cotton in Andhra Pradesh and Maharasthra, two states with farmer suicide hotspots in certain seasons, we have shown that although Bt cotton may have been linked to specific cases of suicides (as reported), its marginal contribution among other factors is likely due to the general context in which it was introduced.

At the same time, we identify hypothetical links between indebtedness and net negative returns from agriculture, particularly related to the adoption of highly costly agriculture in the risky, rain-fed conditions found in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. The absence of irrigation systems in drought-prone areas (especially in Maharashtra), combined with specialization in high-cost crops, low market and support prices, and the absence or failure of the credit system, is a clear recipe for failure. It is possible, therefore, that under the conditions in which it was introduced, Bt cotton, an expensive technology that has been poorly explained, often misused, and initially available in only a few varieties, played a role in the overall indebtedness of certain farmers in some of the suicide-prone areas of these two states, particularly in its initial years. But none of these possible links has been explicitly demonstrated with a sufficiently robust analysis. At this stage, with qualitative or anecdotal evidence, we can only identify multiple hypothetical sources of indebtedness that may have contributed to farmer distress and ultimately farmer suicide, but we cannot prove their relationship in a robust manner.

One implication of this study is the critical need to distinguish the effect of Bt cotton as a technology with the context in which it was introduced. Revealed preferences based on farmer adoption rates and official or unofficial data all point toward the overall success it has had in controlling pest damage and therefore raising average yields in India. In fact, some have argued that farmers' demand played a role in approval of the technology; when the government requested that all fields of unapproved Bt cotton be burned in 2001, some farmers demonstrated against this decision, asking for clear access to the pest-resistant technology. In addition, the increasing adoption rate in two suicide-prone states, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, indicates that farmers overall are seeing this technology as one of the solutions to their problem and not a cause of the problem.

In contrast, marketing constraints and institutional issues may have played a significant role. The initial high price of Bt cotton seeds and the limited number of initial varieties available due to the lack of competition are becoming less problematic, with more varieties approved and a second, non-Monsanto trait commercially available since 2006. At the same time, our analysis suggests the need for a better extension system, more controlled seed marketing system, anti-fraud enforcement, and better information dissemination among farmers in all regions, before the introduction of any costly new technologies like Bt cotton. Information should not come from seed dealers, whose job it is to promote and sell their technologies without explaining their proper use. At the same time, farmers should be encouraged to diversify their farming and nonfarming activities to spread the risk they may incur, instead of spending everything on one single crop.

The second implication is that, as farmer suicides are not new or specific to recent cases or to the introduction of Bt cotton, they point toward the failure of the socioeconomic environment and institutional settings in rural dry areas of India. The absence of a safety net or any other insurance support, the ineffective irrigation systems, the presence of abusive banking systems, the wide availability of highly toxic pesticides, and the potential rewards for suicide likely all contributed to farmer suicides. This has nothing to do with cotton or the use of new technology and would suggest many potential policy changes. In several states such as Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, some policy changes have already been proposed (Indo-Asian News 2007). Others have been implemented by the Government of India, with significant budgets but arguably inappropriately designed programs that either reward farmer suicides or offer loan waivers to only a minor portion of the distressed farming population. Rather than spending more on large programs directed toward farmer suicides because of hype in the media, a rational approach would be to use better-targeted state or district programs for distressed farmers. Also, much more federal and state investment could help prevent the 80 percent or more other cases of suicides.


A Return to Victory Gardens?

-- Allan Skogen, Growers for Biotechnology, Oct. 28, 2008 http://growersforbiotechnology.org

Michael Pollan, a journalism professor from the University of California - Berkeley, recently wrote a long article for the New York Times magazine, which called for the next President of the United States to revamp America's food policy.

While he did point out some viable concerns about energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, his proposed solutions are not based in reality and ignore the tremendous improvements in agriculture over the past decade or so.

To Mr. Pollan, corn and soybeans are the root of all the problems. In the quest to produce more corn and soybeans to feed animals, he says, we are using up too much energy and herding farmers into commodities instead of healthful fruits and vegetables. High oil prices will increase the cost of growing these crops to the point that people will not be able to afford food, he believes.

He says that if we'd start growing grass, cattle would graze and fertilize our fields, so the fields could be rotated to other crops without the use of fertilizers. He even suggests that insects and weeds would disappear, eliminating the need for insecticides and herbicides. Makes you wonder why those products were even invented in the first place if the practices of the good old days were so effective.

Farmers grow corn and soybeans because there is a tremendous global demand. If there were demand for Belgian endive, we'd grow that. The reality, however, is that corn and soybeans are essential ingredients in thousands of products, which is why demand is high.

They also make meat production more efficient. All cows begin their life drinking mother's milk and eating grass. They graze until the finishing stage of their life when they are fattened on high quality grains. Thanks to high energy corn and soy, it takes only about 18 months to produce a beef steer. Grass-fed beef takes much longer. This means more cattle on hoof, all of them emitting methane gas, eroding soil and producing waste.

Mr. Pollen's column is so idealistic as to defy a reasoned response. (Seriously, a return to World War II victory gardens?) However, his failure to acknowledge the improvements brought about by technology must be addressed. An analysis by the Keystone Center shows that in the last 20 years, corn yield per acre has increased 30 percent while energy needed to produce a unit of corn has decreased by 30 percent and fertilizer use has remained flat.

We can thank technology for that. Because herbicide tolerant crops have improved weed control, we have been able to convert to conservation tillage. We don't have to plow and disk the fields to get rid of weeds before planting, so we make fewer passes with tractors and heavy equipment. This has reduced topsoil loss by 50 percent in the last 20 years.

We also use less herbicide and make fewer herbicide applications. And, because crops have built-in insect protection, we reduce or eliminate chemical insecticides that take energy to produce and apply. The biotech and plant breeding pipeline promises even more efficiency through drought tolerant crops, crops that maximize the use of fertilizer and varieties that produce much higher yields.

It is highly likely that technology can help farmers double yields in the next 20 or 30 years, while reducing inputs accordingly. This will be critical to sustainably providing food, feed, fiber and fuel for a global population expected to increase by 50 percent during the same period.

It would be a serious mistake for the next president to support policies that sidetrack technology and diminish our ability to maximize yields.


Queensland Scientists Create GM Banana Plant

- Jayne Margetts, ABC NEWS Oct 28, 2008

The Australian Banana Growers Council is opposed to the commercialisation of GM varieties. Scientists in Queensland have successfully grown the country's first genetically modified banana plant. The plant is resistant to the deadly panama disease, or fusarium wilt, which is prevalent in South East Asia and has threatened plantations in the Northern Territory.

There are now concerns it may spread into Queensland and northern New South Wales. Tony Heidrich from the Australian Banana Growers Council describes the scale of the panama disease threat. "Well in a word, I suppose, diabolical," he said. "It would quickly decimate all of the plantations in the area where the outbreak occurred."

Professor James Dale describes how and his colleagues at the Queensland University of Technology developed the genetically modified banana plant. "We took both cavendish and lady finger and we inserted a single gene for this resistance into the banana genome. The gene inhibits the cell from dying when it's attacked," Professor Dale said. "Fusarium wilt is one of the most devastating diseases of bananas worldwide and it's increasing in threat worldwide," he added. "There isn't really any control for that disease except resistance. "Once the soil becomes infested with the fungus it's virtually impossible to get rid of."

Nutrients boost
The scientists are using the same technology to try to boost the fruit's nutrient content. It is hoped that technique can be used in developing countries where banana is a staple food.

Florence Wambugu from the Africa Harvest Foundation has welcomed the research. "It is of key importance because malnutrition and lack of vitamin A and zinc is a major problem in Africa. About 5 million people under five years are nutrient deficient," she said. "So this project is very well targeted and it will have a major impact."

So far trials have been confined to a glasshouse. A field trial is expected to begin in north Queensland in December. Professor Dale is confident it will be successful. "The glasshouse test that we did is a very, very severe test, much more severe than we believe actually occurs in the field. "So we believe that the resistance we've generated in the glasshouse will certainly transfer through to the field," he said.


Genetically Engineered Tomato Could Fight Cancer

- Elizabeth Weise, USA Today, Oct 27, 2008 http://www.usatoday.com

British researchers have used genes from the snapdragon flower to increase tomatoes' cancer-fighting powers.

When the genes were added, the tomatoes ripened to an almost eggplant purple. They contain very high levels of antioxidant pigments called anthocyanins. Cancer-prone mice fed the altered tomatoes lived significantly longer than those that didn't get them.

The genetic engineering was minimal, says Cathie Martin, the plant geneticist who led the work. Tomatoes already make their own anthocyanins. The genes from the snapdragon flowers acted as a switch to turn that production on full blast, says Martin, who is based at the John Innes Centre, an independent plant research center in Norwich, England.

The tomatoes produce levels of anthocyanins about on par with blackberries, blueberries and currants, which recent research has touted as miracle fruits. But because of the high cost and infrequent availability of such berries, tomatoes might be a better source, says Martin.

The researchers fed 20 mice bred to be cancer-prone a diet that consisted of 10% powder from the genetically engineered tomatoes, with other groups getting no tomatoes and red tomatoes. The mice who got the tomato powder lived on average 30% longer than those that didn't.

The researchers acknowledge the findings are very preliminary. The tomatoes would have to go through years of regulatory processes to end up in supermarkets, says biotechnology project manager Greg Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Jeffrey Blumberg, director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., cautions that it would be a "big leap" to say that anthocyanins would definitely benefit people.


Future of Plant Sciences Explored In New Primer

- Jennifer Walsh, National Academy of Sciences http://dels.nas.edu/plant_genome/

The National Academies have released a new primer on the achievements and promise of plant genome sciences. Based on an expert consensus report from the National Research Council, the booklet explores the potential of the National Plant Genome Initiative -- a federal multiagency project that coordinates research in plant sciences to understand and ultimately harness plants' properties to help meet agriculture, nutrition, energy, and human health needs. For example, by knowing how plants cope with less water, rising temperatures, and other environmental stresses, scientists could develop crops that withstand changing climate conditions.

Sections of the booklet examine mutations and manipulation of food crops, the promise and challenges of biofuels, environmental stewardship, biomedical advances, and how scientists can maximize the use of plant sciences. Free electronic and hard copies of the booklet are available at http://nas.edu/plant_genome/

Achievements of the National Plant Genome Initiative and New Horizons in Plant Biology (2008) evaluates some of the key research programs in plant genomics and describes how these programs support fundamental biology research and drive technological advancement. Plant genome sciences are essential to understanding how plants function and how to develop desirable plant characteristics.


'We Blew It' on Global Food, says Bill Clinton

- Charles Hanley, Associated Press, Oct 23, 2008

United Nations - Former President Clinton told a U.N. gathering Thursday that the global food crisis shows "we all blew it, including me," by treating food crops "like color TVs" instead of as a vital commodity for the world's poor.

Addressing a high-level event marking Oct. 16's World Food Day, Clinton also saluted President Bush - "one thing he got right" - for pushing to change U.S. food aid policy. He scolded the bipartisan coalition in Congress that killed the idea of making some aid donations in cash rather than in food.

Clinton criticized decades of policymaking by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and others, encouraged by the U.S., that pressured Africans in particular into dropping government subsidies for fertilizer, improved seed and other farm inputs as a requirement to get aid. Africa's food self-sufficiency declined and food imports rose.

Now skyrocketing prices in the international grain trade - on average more than doubling between 2006 and early 2008 - have pushed many in poor countries deeper into poverty.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the gathering that prices on some food items are "500 percent higher than normal" in Haiti and Ethiopia, for example. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the number of undernourished people worldwide rose to 923 million last year.

"Food is not a commodity like others," Clinton said. "We should go back to a policy of maximum food self-sufficiency. It is crazy for us to think we can develop countries around the world without increasing their ability to feed themselves."

He noted that food aid from wealthy nations could itself be a tool for bolstering agriculture in poor countries. Canada, for example, requires that 50 percent of its aid go as cash - not as Canadian grain - to buy crops grown locally in Africa and other recipient countries.

U.S. law, however, requires that almost all U.S. aid be American-grown food, which benefits U.S. farmers but undercuts local food crops. Bush proposed earlier this year that 25 percent of future U.S. aid be given in cash. "A bipartisan coalition (in Congress) defeated him," Clinton said. "He was right and both parties that defeated him were wrong."

Clinton also criticized the heavy U.S. reliance on corn to produce ethanol, which increased demand for the crop and helped drive up grain prices worldwide. "If we're going to do biofuels, we ought to look at the more efficient kind," he said, referring, for example, to the jatropha shrub, a nonfood source that grows on land not suitable for grain.

The U.N. General Assembly president, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann of Nicaragua, agreed, speaking of the "madness of converting crops into fuel" for cars. D'Escoto also expressed disappointment that of $22 billion pledged by wealthy nations to help poor nations' agriculture in this year of food crisis, only $2.2 billion has been made available.

In opening the meeting, Ban expressed dismay at the potential impact of the global financial crisis on world hunger. "While the international community is focused on turmoil in the global economy, I am extremely concerned that not enough is being done to help those who are suffering most: the poorest of the poor," he said.


Italian Minister Opposes GM Ban


Citing 'the European principle of co-existence', Welfare and Health Minister Maurizio Sacconi says it is now time for Italy to lift its ban on GM crops.

Antonella Ciancio of Reuters says that Italy does not grow GM crops and opposes use of GM products because of concerns that they might contain hidden risks to health or the natural environment. http://www.forbes.com/afxnewslimited/feeds/afx/2008/10/20/afx5578934.html

"I think it's time to lift this de facto moratorium which has been in place for many years," Sacconi told reporters on the sidelines of an international food forum. "[Italy] should apply the European principle of co-existence of different production technologies, without any bias against or in favor [of GMOs]", he added.

In practice, "co-existence" in Europe generally means preventing co-existence, by imposing separation distances and bureaucratic requirements that are either impossible to fulfill, or guide crop vandals to their destinations, and usually, all of the above.

Perhaps that is why Sacconi is referring to the principle of co-existence. According to a 2003 "fact sheet" published by EuropaBio, the principle "means choice ... not prohibition".

In non-agricultural matters, Europe's principle of coexistence is said to be the sort of tolerance which allows Christians and Jews to live in the same communities, "not just .. aside us, but among us".

The GM Soy Debate: Creating common sense on GM soy!


The current debate on Genetically Modified (GM) soy is polarised and unsatisfactory. Without compromising on the relevance of the pro or contra discussion on GM, the GM soy Debate starts from the observation that GM soy is already a major agricultural crop. As such, it should be produced as sustainably as possible. The lack of a shared knowledge database and an open dialectic have so far stood in the way of a constructive discussion on how to achieve this.

In the GM soy Debate, we aim deliver consensus-based recommendations on the sustainability risks and benefits of GM soy and how to manage these. This can help individual companies, policy makers and multi-stakeholder initiatives in their decision-making on this complex topic.

We invite all producers, stakeholders, policy makers and scientists to participate in the GM soy debate. Become a member of the GM soy Debate Web Community today and/or join the Stakeholder Conference!

If you are a GM expert, scientist or other stakeholder willing to engage in a constructive and sensible dialogue: register to join the GM soy Debate Web Community, to participate in the online discussion and to receive the newsletter.

This is a unique opportunity to engage in a constructive debate on GM soy. The outcomes may be used by decision-makers around the world to make soy production more sustainable. Moreover, the debate can serve as an example to change the way we discuss genetic modification. (Thanks, Andy Apel!)