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March 25, 2009


Happy Birthday, Dr. Borlaug; Safeguarding the Environment; Addressing Malnutrition in Africa; What Does GMO Really Mean?


* A Fitting Tribute? Really Feed The World
* GM Can Safeguard the Environment
* Burkina Cotton Farmers Expanding GM, Organic Cultivation
* Glickman: More Must Be Done to Address Malnutrition in Africa
* What Does GMO Really Mean?
* Tired of Being Left Out In the Cold
* $10 Million to Rice and Wheat Research Training: Beachell-Borlaug Program

A Fitting Tribute? Really Feed The World

- Rox Laird, Des Moines Register, March 25, 2009 http://www.desmoinesregister.com

Norman Borlaug has inspired a global agricultural transformation through his plant research and advocacy, but there is reason to draw inspiration from the example of his life as well. Last week, Borlaug attended a workshop in Mexico organized in his name to discuss a potentially devastating wheat disease. Today, he's scheduled to be back home in Texas with family to celebrate his 95th birthday.

So it goes with a man who grew up on a farm near Cresco and has become perhaps the single most recognized figure in food and agriculture in the world. Though he has easily earned a quiet retirement, Borlaug continues to work. Despite recent health struggles, the passion that has driven him over nine and a half decades has not flagged.

It would be hard to know what sort of birthday gift to give such a man, other than good health so that he could continue his work for a few more decades. He's already received nearly every imaginable honor, including the Nobel Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, he's been endlessly feted by the World Food Prize Foundation that he inspired and he is the subject of at least two biographies.

The best way to honor Borlaug, however, would be to achieve his goal of ending hunger. His efforts began with field research in Mexico in the late 1940s, which produced sturdy new wheat varieties that, when used with modern farming techniques, helped transform near famine to crop surpluses in Latin America and Asia. When receiving the Nobel in 1970, he said the Green Revolution was not complete, and that is why Borlaug has worked tirelessly in the 40 years since winning the prize that many would consider a career capstone.

In some respects, the term "Green Revolution," coined by a U.S. Agency for International Development official, is not quite right. It suggests victory. But the genetic science and agricultural practices that made dramatically improved yields possible still have not been universally accepted, and in some quarters they are reviled as "Frankenfoods" that require intensive mechanization, irrigation and chemicals. Wherever food and agriculture are discussed, these issues are fiercely debated, with advocates choosing sides depending on their prejudices about environmental sustainability, genetics and rural development.

Borlaug has long taken a pragmatic approach in this debate, seeing the need to feed the hungry as the most critical issue. That is hard to argue with. Still, the goal should be to continue what Borlaug started in concert with sustainable farming practices that will preserve the land for future generations. That is one birthday gift Norman Borlaug would cherish.


Borlaug birthday rap at


Borlaug archives at



GM Can Safeguard the Environment

- William Surman, Farmers Guardian (UK), March 25, 2009 http://www.farmersguardian.com/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=25204

Worldwide use of pest-resistant genetically modified crops (GM) has reduced pesticide use by nearly 300 million kg - equivalent to the EU's entire yearly usage of sprays.

Speaking to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture yesterday (Tuesday, March 24), agricultural economist Graham Brookes said after 11 years of widespread use, GM crops had done more to help protect the environment than any other single technology. He said the EU’s tacit non-GM policy prevented EU citizens from benefiting from huge environmental gains.

In 2006 the use of GM crops saved 14.8 million kg of carbon emissions through less pesticide use and fewer field passes. That is equivalent to taking 6.6 million cars off the roads for one year, he said. Mr Brookes added 13.5 million farmers planted GM crops last year generating more than 5 billion in wealth. Ninety per cent of the farmers that grow GM crops are resource poor in the developing world. GM has given them an increase in yields and income.

I am not aware of any technology that has had such a profound impact on agriculture and the environment in such a short time, he said. Mr Brookes’ comments came a week after the Government’s chief scientist Prof Beddington described the perfect storm where a growing population, scarcity of water and falling energy sources would create a crisis with dire consequences.

Prof Beddington said better plant technology had to be part of the solution. Chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council Julian Little said biotechnology would have to be accepted in Europe to allow scientists enough time to develop solutions.

He said latest research suggested five years ago 17 per cent of the EU was in a water sensitive area and in 20 years that area would more than double. Research on drought resistant crops was important now to solve problems tomorrow.

Globally more than 2 trillion meals made from genetically modified crops had been eaten and there had not been a single documented problem. The time for waiting was over, he said. But while the benefits of the technology were clear to farmers and scientists, Lord Haskins, the former Government adviser on rural affairs, said the war was yet to be won with European consumers.

“It is still unclear how we win the argument with consumers. More work needs to be done to demonstrate the benefits to individual members of the public,” he said


Burkina Cotton Farmers Expanding GM, Organic Cultivation

- Katrina Manson, Reuters, March 25, 2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/feedarticle/8421604

Burkina Faso, West Africa's biggest cotton grower, is fighting the damaging effects of falling prices by championing organic and genetically modified cotton, industry sectors often seen at loggerheads. Both forms of "white gold" reduce the need for costly imported inputs and reduce or eliminate the need for farm workers to walk among poisonous pesticides, though they are backed by vastly different political and environmental lobbies.

The country's organic cotton already leads the region, threading its way into $10 "organic hiphugger" pants sold by American lingerie chain Victoria's Secret, its biggest buyer, as well as into Swiss swimming costumes and French police uniforms. "There are people who've never grown conventional cotton before who are now producing organic cotton," said Athanase Yara, coordinator of the organic cotton programme at the National Union of Cotton Producers of Burkina Faso. "With organic cotton even a pregnant woman can go into the farms, and the women don't have to take on debt because they make all the inputs -- fertiliser and pesticides -- themselves."

Inputs account for more than half the cost of production of conventional cotton, and a fall in benchmark cotton prices as set in New York by almost 50 percent to 44 cents per lb in the past 12 months makes conventional growing less viable. Elderly mother-of-six Juliana Dabire is among the women who make up 30 percent of the country's 8,000 organic cotton growers and who receive double the money per kg for their produce as conventional cotton farmers.

Dabire, who more usually farms maize, millet and peanuts, makes her fertiliser by hand from dung mixed with leftover cotton stems and water, and pesticides from local seeds "I can pay school fees and I even bought bicycles for my two older sons thanks to organic cotton," she said under the shade of a mango tree in her home village of Gora, 235 km southeast of the cotton capital Bobo-Dioulasso.

Burkina is the world's 10th biggest producer of organic cotton, but still it accounts for less than 1 percent of the country's cotton crop, and not even half of this year's crop has been sold as the global financial crisis puts off buyers.

Swiss aid group Helvetas, which supports the project, says at most it could rise to 4-5 percent of national production. "In Burkina it (organic cotton) is a niche," Galina Sotirova, country representative for the World Bank, told Reuters. "When more than 60 percent of your population depends on cotton, the objective is to get productivity high and to gain as much income as possible from exports of cotton," she said.

"There are big hopes that genetically modified cotton is going to help -- and it is already increasing productivity."

Local researchers working on genetically modified cotton, developed jointly by U.S. company Monsanto and national scientists, have found the strain requires only one or two pesticide treatments a year instead of the normal six to eight, and boosts production by 30 percent.

It may account for as much as a third of the cotton sown in the coming 2009/10 campaign.

"I prefer GM cotton -- the money goes further and your children don't have to walk among dangerous pesticides," Francois Traore, head of the country's producer union and the national industry association, told Reuters. His family members work his own two farms covering 200 hectares. "The only people who say they don't want it aren't in cotton," he said.


Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Calls for Development Czar: Glickman says more must be done to address malnutrition in Africa

- Matt Herrick, America - Telling America's Story, March 24, 2009

Full story at http://www.america.gov/st/foraid-english/2009/March/20090318094012mmkcirreh0.5831873.html?CP.rss=true

Washington — Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has called for appointment of a development czar to oversee U.S. foreign aid and challenged the Obama administration to spend more to alleviate hunger worldwide, especially in Africa.

Glickman, in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee March 24, said the amount of funding needed to feed the malnourished in Africa is “a drop in the bucket” compared to government funds devoted to stanching the current economic crisis. He challenged the U.S. government — the world’s leader in food assistance — to allocate at least $340 million in 2010 and more thereafter toward infrastructure, agricultural research and education in poor countries.

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Democrat and chairman of the committee, said that one in seven people goes hungry every day in the world, a fact that constitutes “one of the great moral challenges the world faces today.” Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the panel, echoed Kerry’s support for an enhanced foreign assistance budget that tackles global agricultural development, which would improve crop yields.

Although the administration has not announced plans in any detail on agricultural development, Lugar read from a letter to him from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “Combating hunger is a top priority for this administration and for me, personally,” Clinton said in her letter. “During my confirmation testimony, I called for a move away from reacting to food crises in an ad hoc fashion, toward making food security a priority in our development programs.”

In their March 24 testimony, Glickman and his associates from the Chicago Initiative on Global Agricultural Development endorsed the Lugar-Casey bill and delivered an unflattering depiction of the U.S. government’s past commitment to agricultural development in Africa.

Official U.S. development assistance to African nations has declined by 85 percent in real dollars (dollars minus the effect of inflation) since 1988, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Robert Paarlberg, a professor at Wellesley College and Harvard University, summed up his view of the U.S. government’s historic commitment this way: In regard to food aid, particularly in the response to the worldwide food price spikes of 2008, the government gets a grade of B+ (superior, plus). But, he said, “the larger and the longer-term challenge is to address persistent malnutrition that afflicts nearly 1 billion people in the developing world.” In this area, Paarlberg gives the United States a grade of F (failing).

In terms of agricultural research and educational exchanges, Catherine Bertini, former head of the World Food Programme, said the United States “has fallen back dramatically” in recent years on its commitments. Once, said Bertini, the United States gave hundreds of scholarships to foreign students wanting to study agriculture and science at U.S. universities, but today, only 42 are available. At its height, agricultural extension workers — specialists from U.S. universities, government and the private sector — trained 15,000 individuals from other countries in one year in modern agricultural methods. The number trained today is just 1,000.

Kerry questioned the witnesses on promoting the use of nitrogen fertilizers and biotech seeds during a perceived organic produce movement.

“This is virtually impossible — to get to the yields we are talking about without taking seriously seed and fertilizer,” said Lugar, also a farmer, who called on leaders in the European Union to act as role models and drop their exclusion of genetically modified seeds.

As evidence of the world’s shifting use toward biotechnology, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, in its 2008 annual report, found that 13.3 million farmers in 25 countries planted 125 million hectares of biotech crops in 2008. Egypt, Burkina Faso and South Africa are the only African nations to cultivate biotech crops.


What Does GMO Really Mean?

- Pamela Ronald, March 20, 2009

For years, journalists, television producers and newspaper reporters that write about genetically engineered crops, have used the term “GMO” (genetically modified organism) to describe these new crop varieties. The marketing industry has taken to writing “GMO-free” on their products, as a way to increase sales to consumers fearful of the genetic engineering process.

The problem is that the term GMO is misused and misunderstood. Take, for example, a recent story on Voice of America about a new rice variety my laboratory and collaborators recently developed that is tolerant of flooding. The producer made a valiant effort to explain how we generated the new variety: “The new strain is genetically improved, but not genetically modified, so is not subject to tight controls on genetically modified foods.”

Does anyone know what is he talking about? I do, so please let me explain. Breeders have a 8000 year history of genetic modification (also called genetic improvement or conventional breeding)- that is, they have modified the genome of crop species in a number of ways. Such conventional breeding methods include hybridization (transfer of pollen from one plant variety to another to generate new seed with genes from both parents), mutagenesis (in which chemicals or irradiation are used to induce random mutations in DNA) and embryo rescue (where plant or animal embryos produced from interspecies gene transfer are placed in a tissue culture environment to complete development). Today, everything we eat has been genetically modified in some way.

Genetic engineering, in contrast, uses a direct method to introduce new genes into a crop. Because the transfer is not limited by the relatedness of the parental varieties, any gene, even a gene from another species can be introduced into a crop plant. A committee established by the National Academy of Sciences to look carefully at the GE process has concluded that the process of genetic engineering is not inherently hazardous. However, as with every other technology used for genetic modification, GE carries the potential for introducing unintended compositional changes. It depends on what gene is introduced or modified. For example, a new celery variety developed through conventional breeding that carried improved resistance to pests caused some farm workers to develop a rash on their hands when harvesting. In contrast, after 1billion acres of GE crops grown over 10 years, there has not been a single instance of harm to human health or the environment.

The method that we used to develop flood tolerant rice is called precision breeding, which is a sort of hybrid between genetic engineering and conventional genetic modification. Precision breeding (also called marker assisted selection) uses DNA technology to detect the inheritance of a desired gene to a seedling resulting from a genetic cross between two parent varieties. The result is the precise introduction of one to several novel genes from closely related species. For example, our flood tolerant rice was developed from a cross of a low-yielding rice variety that carried a rare gene for tolerance with modern, locally adapted modern varieties. The resulting seedlings were screened using precision breeding to develop new varieties with the taste and yield favored by consumers with the flood tolerant trait. The rice is now being grown by farmers in Bangladesh and India, where 4 million tons of rice are lost each year to flooding, enough to feed 30 million people.

Many anti-GE activists reject GE but do accept precision breeding (even though both processes can introduce novel genes that have not previously been tested in modern varieties). Thus, varieties developed through precision breeding are subject only to standard seed certification and not to the strict regulatory approval process required for GE crops.

We need to look at the broader goals of sustainability and food security before ruling out a particular process of crop modification. Each new variety needs to be looked at on a case-by case basis.

To restart the dialog, lets start using the term “GE crops” rather than “GMO” so the consumer will have some idea of what the debate is all about.


Tired of Being Left Out In the Cold

- Allan Skogen. Truth About Trade and Technology, March 25, 2009 www.truthabouttrade.org

The poet T.S. Eliot knew what he was talking about when he called April “the cruelest month.”

We’re approaching the critical time of year when wheat farmers in the Upper Great Plains will first get an idea what the crop potential may be. If the weather lets us plant in mid-April, we’ll be in luck. If we can’t start until the middle of May--because we’ve suffered through a cruel April, due to cold wet soils--we’ll be in trouble. Our yields could drop by as much as 40 percent.

One month makes a huge difference in yield potential, and we’re completely at the mercy of Mother Nature. We can put seeds in the ground while there’s still snow in the ditches, but seeds will lay there for weeks without progress. While seeds will slowly sprout in soils as cool as 40 to 45 degrees, it’s not until the soil temps approach 60 degrees and wheat plants really begin to feel the warmth of spring that plants will rapidly grow and flourish.

What if modern science was to give us an edge?
We already have the know-how. Biotechnology has transformed agriculture for farmers who grow soybeans, corn, and cotton. Earlier this year, they passed a significant milestone: 2 billion acres of genetically modified crops planted around the world since commercialization began 13 years ago. For these farmers, GM crops are not a cutting-edge fantasy but the new reality of conventional agriculture.

Wheat farmers, however, are left out in the cold, both literally and figuratively. We not only need to shake off the chill of January, February, and March, but we also want to take full advantage of the Gene Revolution--something that we’ve been blocked from doing, thanks to a toxic mix of political confusion and scientific illiteracy.

Farmers who plant biotech crops have enjoyed large increases in yield. Some seed companies are even talking about new technologies doubling the yields of these crops over the next two decades.

Where’s wheat? Twenty years behind and counting. Years ago, several players in the wheat industry grew nervous about biotechnology, primarily spooked by misguided fears about consumer acceptance in foreign countries. Consequently, producers and consumers alike are paying a steep price. While the rest of the planet started to embrace biotechnology, wheat retreated. Now, while many years behind other major crops, the wheat industry is uniting and strategically moving forward toward enhancing wheat through biotechnology.

Cold-tolerant wheat, possibly obtained through genetic modification, would provide a big boost. Crops able survive in slightly colder temperatures--even by just a few degrees--would help us increase our output. That would lead to earlier harvests, better yields, lower food prices and greater global food supplies. Each point takes on more importance when you consider the global relevance of wheat as a staple food crop for billions.

Even more important is drought tolerance. Wheat grows in dry climates, and plants that make efficient use of water perform the best. The goal is more production per unit of available water. If biotech wheat is ever commercialized, drought tolerance could possibly become the first available trait because the science behind it is already proven and soon available in other crops.

Biotechnology also promises a solution to an emerging problem in Africa and parts of Asia, where a deadly fungus called stem rust pose a huge threat to small-acreage farmers and their staple crop. Some diseases depress yields. This new stem rust is different--it wipes out whole harvests. “It has immense destructive potential,” said Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, in a recent interview.

The last stem-rust epidemic occurred half a century ago. Scientists thought they had defeated it permanently through better breeding. But now the disease is back, in a virulent new form that could imperil the world’s food supply. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico has warned of “a pending disaster in global agriculture.”

Fungicide sprays offer marginal relief, but not a cure. We need to defeat this disease. Some new discoveries indicate that genes that convey resistance to this rust exist today however, we need all the scientific tools available to us – and that includes biotechnology to defeat this threat. Unfortunately, the answers to this problem lie not merely a season or two away, but years in the future. That’s why the work to annihilate it for another half-century or longer must begin immediately.

T.S. Eliot’s famous line about April appears in a poem called “The Waste Land.” If we don’t take advantage of biotechnology, wheat farmers will have to endure not only more cruel Aprils, but brutal years of mediocrity as fertile wheat lands are deprived of their potential while other crops flourish with the biotech advantage.

Al Skogen produces wheat, corn and soybeans, using minimum and no-till production practices, on a diverse grain family farm in east central North Dakota. Mr. Skogen is chairman of Growers for Biotechnology, participated in the 2008 Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable and is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.


$10 Million to Rice and Wheat Research Training: Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program


Monsanto Company today announced a $10 million grant to establish Monsanto's Beachell-Borlaug International Scholars Program, which will help identify and support young scientists interested in improving research and production in rice and wheat, two of the world's most important staple crops, through plant breeding techniques.

Monsanto is funding the program, which will be administered by Texas AgriLife Research, an agency of the [ Texas A&M University System, for the next five years. The program honors the accomplishments of Dr. Henry Beachell and Dr. Norman Borlaug, who pioneered plant breeding and research in rice and wheat, respectively.

Applications will be reviewed by an independent panel of global judges chaired by Program Director Dr. Ed Runge, who is also a professor and Billie B. Turner Chair in Production Agronomy (Emeritus) within the Soil and Crop Sciences Department, Texas A&m University at College Station.

"We are honored to administer this program and work with students around the world to bring new ideas and research techniques to rice and wheat breeding," Runge said. "Research in these two staple crops has fallen behind others, and it is my hope this program will help jumpstart additional investment in two of the world's most important grains. We encourage any eligible rice or wheat breeders around the world to apply for the award."

Announcement of the first year's winners is planned to correspond with the World Food Prize held in Des Moines, Iowa, on October 15, 2009. The announcement of the grant from Monsanto today marks the celebration of Dr. Borlaug's 95th birthday.

Plant breeding is both an art and science practiced for thousands of years in agriculture. A breeder works with a specific plant species to help encourage desired characteristics, like larger grain size, heartier stalks, or greater tolerance to environmental stress, among others, to improve the next generation of plants.

Rice and wheat are considered by many to be the most important staple crops in developing countries, providing necessary calories to feed billions of people every day. Many of the world's poorest people rely on the two grains as a key source of food. In 2008 farmers produced nearly 440 million metric tons of rice and more than 680 million metric tons of wheat. Yet, yields of rice and wheat have grown on a compound annual growth rate of approximately 0.8 percent over the past decade while the population has grown on a compound annual growth rate of approximately 1.25 percent during the same time period. Accelerating yield growth will help to reduce hunger by helping to produce more food on the same number of acres.

"As the world celebrates the birthday of Dr. Borlaug, Monsanto is pleased to mark the accomplishments of two great men in agriculture by establishing this scholars program," said Dr. Ted Crosbie, Vice President, Global Plant Breeding, Monsanto Company. "Drs. Beachell and Borlaug devoted their lives to ensuring farmers had access to the best rice and wheat varieties and to the advancement of science through education. This award seeks to continue their work to enable future generations of farmers to feed our growing population."