* The EU is Still Fudging The Issues on GM Food
* Why Make Tough Laws on GMOs and Then Break Them?
* Indonesia: Time for Another Green Revolution
* Should Asian Countries Adopt GM Crops Despite Trade Regulations?
* Monsanto Company’s View On Patent Reform – Protect Innovation
* Transforming Agricultural Education for a Changing World
The EU is Still Fudging The Issues on GM Food
The sorry saga of the European Union's apparent anti-technology stance continues to drag on, highlighted once more by (non)developments on the issue of GM crops. In this case the Council has avoided one decision – by being unable to arrive at a qualified majority either in favour or against approval of two new varieties of pest-resistant maize – and voted negatively in another by failing to uphold a Commission recommendation that the bans in Austria and Hungary be declared illegal.
The strong influence of environmentalists is clear in these irrational decisions, but the blame for this impasse extends much further than that. First, a disastrous misreading of the trans-Atlantic cultural divide led to the inclusion of Monsanto's Roundup Ready soy in unsegregated commodity shipments. Greenpeace was quick to highlight the fact and in this case found a concerned public (sensitised by BSE and other food safety issues) only too ready to accept the scare stories put out. After initial acceptance, food retailers stampeded to remove all traces of GM soy (and later maize) from their products. Technology companies are still living with the consequences: the bar for new introductions has been raised very high indeed as far as food retailers are concerned.
Following the initial furore, politicians sought to reassure a concerned public by introducing even more stringent regulation to cover new GM events, leading to an effective five year moratorium on approvals as the new framework was put in place. But far from being reassuring, the tougher regulations simply reinforced the message that these crops were different and potentially more risky. Moreover, the costs involved in compiling clearance dossiers and managing them through the system (€10 million or more) ensure that commercialisation of genetic modification remains the preserve of the large multinationals which environmental campaigners tend not to like.
Although tough, the GM regulations are workable if applied objectively. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), charged with carrying out the risk assessments, regularly gives positive opinions on dossiers submitted (this is by no means a question of rubber-stamping: dossiers which are likely to fail will not be submitted, or else will be withdrawn by the company). But at the end of the process, the objectivity unravels as the politicians get involved.
The Council of Ministers – representatives of each Member State – is given the decision-making power, but in practice the votes on dossiers are (for some countries) not taken on the basis of the evidence and EFSA recommendation, but instead on a political stance. Countries such as Austria and Greece have a perfect record of voting against approvals, whatever the evidence. On the other hand, the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and UK are among a bloc which tends to vote positively, in line with the scientific recommendation.
The balance is such that neither group can provide the qualified majority for a decision to be made. After two tries, the decision reverts to the Commission which, until recently, could be relied upon to back the EFSA recommendation. However, Environment Commissioner Dimas last year asked EFSA to think again about the two maize varieties (from Pioneer and Syngenta) which have just been put to the Council again. Not surprisingly, the scientists doing the risk assessment confirmed their first recommendation that the two GM events should be approved. It seems inconceivable that anything can prevent a positive decision by the Commission second time around. If so, all pretence of objectivity would disappear, and the environmental lobbyists would have won a hollow victory if the extent of their influence was thus made plain.
The reason for the extra fuss this time is that the maize varieties are to be approved for cultivation rather than simply to be imported. Politicians are happy to ignore the reality that the majority of European meat production relies on the import of GM soy, but are more sensitive about allowing farmers the choice to plant new GM seed varieties themselves.
But in the case of the national bans in Austria and Hungary, the stakes are raised even higher. The national governments regard it as their right to keep their countries GM-free, and are quite happy to use spurious safety arguments to support their cause. More worryingly, even more Member States seem to be prepared to support them in this, although this may be due more to a desire to keep the balance of power in favour of the nation state rather than the EU.
Whatever the background, the EU is becoming a less and less friendly place in which to innovate and commercialise new technology. It's time that policy was made rationally for the benefit of European citizens rather than on the say-so of green politicians and lobbyists.
The future of nanotechnology and other emerging technologies
If the availability of the biggest advance in agricultural technology for a generation or more has been blocked for a decade, what hope is there for other science-based innovation? In particular, might the story be the same for nanotechnology?
In the same way that the techniques of recombinant-DNA technology have many applications, so the term nanotechnology covers a wide field. Solid structures with nano-scale features (the next generation of micro-processors, perhaps) raise few issues, but nano-particles and self-assembling structures ("nano-bots") have come in for their share of criticism. In some cases, proponents of the technology have themselves to blame, by hyping the supposed applications into the realms of science fiction.
The point is that we should always have our eyes open to the potential risks associated with the applications of particular technologies. But, on the other hand, the apparent target of zero risk is a false goal. Nothing in life is without risk, including things which are essential to life. The current trend to precaution tries to assess the risks, but makes no attempt to set them against benefits. An example which is often quoted is that potatoes, if introduced today as a novel food, would probably not be approved because of their relatively high level of alkaloids.
So, unfortunately mistakes were made in introducing crop biotechnology but, for the sake of European consumers and their prosperity, we have to hope that a more rational approach to risks and benefits prevails for nanotechnology and other innovations.
Why Make Tough Laws on GMOs and Then Break Them?
EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries, expressed its profound disappointment at Member States’ failure, today, to defend the GM authorisation procedure, science and Europe’s farmers by voting against the European Commission’s proposal that Hungary and Austria lift their illegal bans on GM crops.
“Today’s vote is a political side-step that goes against the wishes of Europe’s farmers who are increasingly demanding the choice to grow biotech crops1. Meanwhile, millions of farmers elsewhere around the world continue to grow them across millions of hectares”, says Nathalie Moll, Executive Director of Green Biotechnology Europe at EuropaBio.
“It is incomprehensible that some Member States choose to ignore the overwhelming scientific evidence as to the safety of these GM products2 and the commercial reality of their safe growth and consumption for more than a decade around the world. The outcome of today’s political vote is even more worrying given that GM crops are a key tool for increasing food production, to offset the potential of food price rises, while simultaneously reducing the impact of agriculture on the environment. Why make tough laws in Europe on GMOs, only to ignore them?” added Moll.
Both Hungary and Austria are bordered by countries where GM maize is grown, countries that respect the choice of their farmers, EU law and Europe’s independent scientific assessments showing these products to be safe. “It is a great injustice that Hungarian and Austrian farmers will continue to be denied this choice and limited to only looking across their borders to their more fortunate neighbours,” concluded Moll.
(1) See compilation of surveys in EuropaBio press release from 12 February:
(2) EFSA Opinion on Hungarian safeguard clause for MON810 maize (2 July 2008):
EFSA Opinion on the Austrian safeguard clause for MON810 and T25 maize (4 December 2008):
AFBF: Biotech Industry Tags 'GE-Free' Labels As Misleading
- High Plains Journal, March 6, 2009 http://www.hpj.com
The biotechnology industry remains firmly opposed to the labeling of food products as "biotech-free" or "genetically engineered-free." Such labels wrongly plant the idea with consumers that biotech food products are inferior or pose a health threat, Bill Olson, director of federal government affairs for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, told Farm Bureau members at an issues conference at the American Farm Bureau Federation's 90th annual meeting.
"A non-GE label leads consumers to believe there is a difference between GE products and those produced by traditional methods. There is no difference," Olson emphasized. All biotech food products on the market have gone through a rigorous regulatory process that ensures they are safe for humans, animals and the environment.
The Food and Drug Administration requires that nutrition information appear on most foods, and any claims on food products must be truthful and not misleading. Special labels are not required for biotech products. Labels identifying food as biotech- or GE-free are allowed, which frustrates BIO because the group believes such labels are misleading.
"The labeling debate last year focused on biotech and cloned animals--two distinct things," Olson said. None of the bills introduced in Congress or state legislatures in 2008 became law, and while the new Congress and incoming administration have other priorities, Olson expects the issue to resurface.
He said the biotech industry is optimistic that as consumers more fully grasp the benefits of biotechnology, such as producing drought- and cold-tolerant crops and minimizing the environmental impact of farming, they will embrace the technology. Ultimately, it will come down to what must be done to feed, clothe and fuel a booming global population. The number of people in the world is increasing, but the amount of crop and grazing land is not.
"The food labeling debate will continue, but we believe science is on our side and American agriculture must continue to meet the needs of an ever-expanding population," Olson said. "Food security will come through scientific and technological advances."
He also noted that studies have shown that while consumers may say they prefer food to be labeled according to whether it was produced with biotechnology or not, that does not translate into action at the retail level.
Indonesia: Time for Another Green Revolution
- Dennis Widjaja, The Jakarta Globe, March 6, 2009 http://www.thejakartaglobe.com via checkbiotech.org
With the world caught in the throes of the global financial meltdown and economic growth continuing to contract, a problem that remains overlooked worldwide, as it has for the past several decades, is hunger. While we can see layoffs and track unemployment and inflation rates fairly easily, rarely are we exposed to the detrimental problem of hunger firsthand, which has led to misperceptions about what it really is.
Over the years people have often associated the notion of hunger with images of famine and the bony children and bloated stomachs left in its wake. However, the truth of the matter is that both hunger and famine are terms that cover a wide spectrum that is at all points characterized by one thing — malnutrition. Simply because someone has food to eat, it should not be implied that they cannot be hungry. Furthermore, hunger is not simply about “how much” is eaten, but more importantly “what” is eaten.
In Indonesia food like kerak nasi , which is the scraps of rice left over after milling, is consumed by many poor people and does not carry enough nutrition. Hence, hunger is still an issue and must be addressed. This is especially true today as food prices rise and supply growth stagnates, which means steps have to be taken to secure future food supplies. One area that might be able to help achieve this is the field of plant genetics. Indonesia in particular is a country that carries a huge potential for this thanks to a wealth of different climates and diverse crop-planting techniques.
In the 1960s much of the developing world was facing a food supply crisis, due to a burgeoning population faced with failing crops and low-yielding varieties. The world, however, woke up to the problem and solved it through what became known as the Green Revolution.
The success was due in large part to the establishment of plant research institutes in Mexico and the Philippines that developed high-yielding varieties of crops. For example, a semi-dwarfing variant of rice was developed that boosted yields by using greater amounts of fertilizers. But unlike previous yields the crops were far less susceptible to “lodging,” which occurs when rice stalks collapse under their own weight.
Breakthroughs like that pushed world food supplies to more or less secure levels. Long enough for the world to become complacent about food production and focus on other issues such as industrialization, environmental conservation and energy sector concerns.
However, over the last few years a combination of events have led to fragile supply levels. A booming population, climate change, conversion of agricultural resources to environmental pursuits and, most important, a slowing global economy have revealed cracks in the system. As food prices began to ease upward alarm bells went off at the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Between early 2006 and mid-2008, the price of rice rose by 217 percent, maize by 128 percent and wheat by 136 percent. For many low-income households, this resulted in a 50 percent to 60 percent increase in spending for adequate amounts of food, while over the same period, income levels only rose by about 30 percent in the developing world. Fortunately, by the end of 2008 harvests were increasing and prices eventually fell to more acceptable levels.
That said, Typhoon Nargis hit Burma in 2008, killing nearly 150,000 people and severely damaging rice crops in one of Asia’s oldest rice bowls, the Irrawaddy Delta, while at the same time parts of Africa suffered crippling droughts. The two events again served as a reminder to the FAO of how fragile the state of our food security is, and that steps must be taken to avoid a full-blown global food disaster
In its latest report on food security, the FAO addressed the importance of fostering growth in the food production sector, as 47 countries are in a worrying food security state due to natural disasters and rising populations. Also, almost 923 million people are considered “hungry” mainly because of unaffordable food prices in their regions. The reality is that these numbers could easily increase, and it will be too late to take action by the time the problem hits us in the face.
Just like in the 1960s, another Green Revolution is required and the plant science field, which has made great strides by identifying genes relevant to the evolution of plants we depend on for food, is ripe for the picking. In corn and rice, scientists have identified domestication and varietal genes that control traits such as grain size, shape and weight, as well as architectural characteristics that make crop plants feasible for food production. The incorporation of genes controlling grain characteristics may increase the yield and nutritional value of rice, while traits like seed shattering can be improved to optimize grain harvesting.
By incorporating these genes in the improvement of plants, we can potentially increase crop production to ensure our food security.
Methods like the controversial transgenic organism approach and molecular breeding could also serve as feasible options for utilizing these genes.
Indonesia could feature prominently as a major participant in this next Green Revolution. By having rice as a major staple, combined with the diversity of its land, the archipelago has become home to a bank of rice varieties that have adapted to differing altitudes, soils, climates and farming techniques.
This is a biological endowment that needs to be utilized, and a collaboration between the government and the private sector can, and should, attempt to analyze the genetics of these traits and use this information to breed new rice varieties.
As a rice growing and rice-eating nation, it is our duty to fully utilize this underutilized potential to aid in the fight against hunger. The food security crisis that occurred in 2007-2008 should serve as a call to action, and we owe it to our children that when the next crisis arrives at our doorstep, we have left them something to fight it with.
Dennis Widjaja is a graduate of Columbia University in biotechnology and a researcher at New York University’s Center for Genomics and System Biology.
Should Asian Countries Adopt GM Crops Despite Trade Regulations?
'A Policy Simulation in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines'
- Guillaume Gručre, Porgram for Biosafety Systems, International Food Policy Research Institute. Full paper with tables at http://www.ifpri.org/pbs/pdf/pbsbrief13.pdf
This brief summarizes a study evaluating the potential economic effects of introducing genetically modified (GM) food crops in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines in the presence of trade regulations.
GM food crops and international trade: a policy dilemma
The fear of export losses has reportedly played a role in discouraging Asian countries to test and/or approve new GM food crops despite their productivity potential. Facing a tradeoff between productivity growth and export objectives, these countries are confronted with three possible alternatives: 1) to allow the production of GM food crops with the risk of losing potential exports, 2) to reject the commercialization of any GM food crop, or 3) to produce both GM and non-GM crops separately at a marketing cost. The purpose of the study summarized in this brief is to provide an economic assessment of these three possible strategies, by considering four populous and growing countries of Asia: India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
An economic simulation based on productivity assumptions formulated by local scientists
The study concentrates on major food or feed crops that are largely traded (rice, wheat, maize, and soybeans), and also includes cotton. The productivity assumptions are based on focus-group meetings held with scientists in each of the countries. For each crop, a set of biotic or abiotic stress-resistance traits is selected. The expected productivity effects of each GM crop/trait combination is then derived in each country, and associated with plausible assumptions regarding their potential adoption rates in 2015.
The authors use an economic model of international trade to simulate the effects of GM crop adoption under different scenarios. This model accounts for the specificity of the GM/non-GM commodity markets and the import policies of GM food in Europe, Australia, New-Zealand, Japan, and South Korea. In the short run, it is assumed that these countries ban all imports of the crop from the GM-adopting nation. In the medium to long run, it is assumed that the labeling policies in these countries act as trade filters, allowing GM products such as animal feed, but not finished food products that are targeted by the labeling regulations. In both cases, specific scenarios are generated, allowing pure non-GM products as exports to the sensitive countries.
Results: perceived commercial risks, productivity gains, and the role of segregation
Overall, the results show that the adoption of GM crops can be translated into significant economic gains in all the focus countries in the presence or absence of trade restrictions in sensitive countries (Table 1).
Among the crops considered, the results show GM rice is the most advantageous, more so than wheat (adopted only in Bangladesh and India), or the other crops. This is because the production and consumption of rice is of particular importance in the region.
For each crop examined, the results show that the benefits of adopting GM varieties do not vary significantly across the seven scenarios for any of the adopting countries. Several factors explain this seemingly unexpected outcome. First, these results imply that the gains associated with the adoption of GM food largely exceed any type of potential trade losses that exporting countries like India or China may incur with trade bans or trade filters. In these populous Asian countries, exports only represent a small fraction of production. Thus, the productivity gains experienced by a large population of farmers and an even greater population of consumers will largely exceed any potential trade loss.
Moreover, exports from these countries are not all going toward sensitive countries. For instance, India exports a significant quantity of rice, but not all goes to Europe or other GM-sensitive nations. Second, in net importing countries like Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Indonesia, trade regulations do not make much difference; adopting GM crops allows these countries to largely reduce their imports and become more self sufficient. The overall increase of production on the world market also contributes to a reduction of food prices to the benefit of all consumers. Furthermore, our results show that the segregation of non-GM crops can help reduce any potential trade loss for GM adopters, like India, that want to keep export opportunities in sensitive countries, even with a 5-percent segregation cost. This means that if there is real commercial risk involved with the adoption of a GM crop, exporting countries could consider the possibility of non-GM segregation for exports.
Finally, the opportunity cost of segregation, which can be defined as the foregone benefits of a country without segregation, is much larger for sensitive importing countries than for countries adopting new GM crops. In other words, avoiding segregation would be more costly for importing-sensitive countries, like European nations, than for adopting countries. This suggests that sensitive importers will have the incentive to invest in separate non-GM marketing channels, if exporting countries like India decide to adopt GM food crops.
Guillaume Gručre is a Research Fellow in IFPRI’s Environment and Production Technology Division. FOR MORE INFORMATION: Gručre, G., Bouët, A., and S. Mevel. 2007. Genetically Modified Food and International Trade: The Case of India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. IFPRI Discussion Paper 00740, Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute. Available at: http://www.ifpri.org/pubs/dp/ifpridp00740.asp
Monsanto Company’s View On Patent Reform – Protect Innovation
- David Snivel, Patently-O, Mar 4, 2009
David Snively is Monsanto's General Counsel. He read Google's calls for patent reform and penned the following response. Monsanto's business model relies heavily on its ability to protect its innovations through intellectual property and contract in the US and Globally. Monsanto has also been the defendant in numerous patent battles.
Dr. Alan Greenpan's keynote speech on "Markets and the Judiciary" noted that "critical to economic growth is a rule of law, particularly protection of the rights of individuals and property". His remark that for IP law, the constancy of the protection afforded under the Constitution of the United States and our fully-functioning legal system is the basis for the U.S. economy's sustaining lead – even in difficult economic times with broken markets. Our patent system is the envy of the globe and while capable of thoughtful adjustment should not be hijacked by international pirates or corporations seeking to dilute legitimate protection that breeds investment and jobs. This is why Monsanto Company, as a global leader for innovation and technology in agriculture, is joined by trade unions and countless other groups who strive to assure Greenspan's voice is not lost in the din from hedge funds, offshore interests or others seeking short term gain by weakening our great patent system.
I respectfully disagree with the recent blog post by Google's Head of Patents and General Counsel, commenting on the perceived risks from damage awards in patent cases. Monsanto has faced billion dollar damage claims as a wrongly sued patent defendant and also knows the true benefits from avoiding the encouragement of willful infringement based on a smaller party's calculated gain in the face of limited risk of a meaningful award of damages if infringement is established. With full knowledge of all these issues and our substantial alignment with Google and the information technology industry over the legitimate need to curtail patent trolls and a myriad of other concerns - we encourage thoughtful reform.
Last year Congress passed without public objection Public Law 110-403 the "Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act of 2008" which was designed to significantly enhance government law enforcement resources for combating certain kinds of intellectual property (IP) theft, e.g. criminal counterfeiting and infringement of computer software. The law helps protect investments in the research, development and marketing of certain kinds of innovative American products and services. The information technology industry was rightly bothered that its intellectual property rights were being trampled on by "pirates".
But, according to the financial sector and the information technology industry it seems that too many other people have too many patents that get in the way of too much "innovation" that is being marketed by an industry that doesn't own the rights to the "innovation". Some say that innovation can't stand still while somebody does a patent search to make sure that the "innovation" that is being marketed won't infringe any of those too many patents. So the complaint is "we are getting sued too much by these innovators who are stifling our innovation".
Unlike the solution for rampant copyright infringement the perverse solution for rampant patent infringement is to propose "reforms" that would both reduce incentive to invest in research, development and marketing of innovative American products and services and provided impediments for improving patent quality. Dr. Greenspan's Georgetown keynote aptly recalled the copyright situation when he quoted Stephen Breyer from the Harvard Law Review decades prior to becoming a Justice "the case for copyright…rests not upon the proven need, but rather upon the uncertainty as to what would happen if protection were removed. One may suspect the risk of harm is small, but the world without copyright is nonetheless [in the words of Hamlet] 'undiscover'd country' which 'puzzles the will,/And makes us rather bear those ills we have/Than fly to others that we know not of.'
The problems posed by the patent reform bill are many:
* It would change the calculation of damages that an infringer (pirate) would pay as compensation for trampling on patent rights, encouraging only more callous disregard of patent rights and piracy.
* It would change the venue provisions in a way that would impose a substantial burden and inconvenience on patent owners by limiting access to the judicial system, encouraging only more callous disregard of patent rights and piracy.
* "Technical" changes would weaken protection and encourage piracy via removing the estoppels provisions and expanding the prior art basis for engaging in inter partes re-examination, in effect providing a system of post grant review that will serve only to harass patent owners by effectively taking patents out or service for the duration of unlimited re-examinations, encouraging only more callous disregard of patent rights and piracy.
Transparency is critical to society today yet the patent reform bill would not require publication of all patent applications at 18 months reducing the public knowledge of prior art making it harder to avoid investment in patent-free technology and reducing the likelihood that quality patents will issue.
Thoughtful patent reform is needed. There are things to support in the House version of the patent reform bill. For example, the House bill while strangely modifying the damages calculation would authorize a study to see if such a modification is needed. Such studies are available and do not support the anecdotes that say damage awards are out of control.
Patent Reform that discourages investment in research and development and the job growth and economic stimulus that is spawned by thousands of small companies as well as large companies that rely on a robust and strong patent system is bad for America. Monsanto invests over $2M every day in research and is committed publicly to helping double food yield in corn, soy and cotton by 2030 while using 1/3 fewer natural resources and improving the lives of farmers globally. Accomplishing this task of sustainable agriculture requires a patent system and rule of law that Dr. Greenspan says has always been found in the Constitution of the United States.
Transforming Agricultural Education for a Changing World
- New book by NAS, 206 pages, 2009, $47.00 ISBN-10: 0-309-13217-7
During the next ten years, colleges of agriculture will be challenged to transform their role in higher education and their relationship to the evolving global food and agricultural enterprise. If successful, agriculture colleges will emerge as an important venue for scholars and stakeholders to address some of the most complex and urgent problems facing society.
Such a transformation could reestablish and sustain the historical position of the college of agriculture as a cornerstone institution in academe, but for that to occur, a rapid and concerted effort by our higher education system is needed to shape their academic focus around the reality of issues that define the world's systems of food and agriculture and to refashion the way in which they foster knowledge of those complex systems in their students. Although there is no single approach to transforming agricultural education, a commitment to change is imperative.