* Is Demonizing Monsanto Blocking Real Progress?
* Vilsack Pledges Better Push On Biotech Crops
* India: (Local) Desi Bt Cotton Seeds Here, Ready for Distribution
* GM Wheat Will Improve Productivity Growth: Scientist
* Letters to the Editor: Re 'IMU calls for objection to pro-GM Vatican study'
* Better living through GM oilseeds is practically in our grasp
* Yielding to Ideology Over Science: Why don't environmentalists celebrate modern farming on Earth Day?
* Letters to the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations
* World Food Crisis (Part II: The Bad News -- and the Case of Africa)
Is Demonizing Monsanto Blocking Real Progress?
- Christian Schwägerl, Spiegel (Germany), April 22, 2009 http://www.spiegel.de
Germans are celebrating the fact that the government has banned genetically modified corn. But the country's almost blanket opposition to genetic modification ignores the fact that it might just help scientists find a solution for feeding a swelling global population.
All's well again in the world of Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) party, an outspoken opponent of genetic engineering and genetically modified (GM) plants. German Agriculture Minister and CSU member Ilse Aigner has slapped a ban on MON 810, a type of GM corn seed produced and marketed by the American agricultural corporation Monsanto, and opponents of the technology are celebrating the victory. Germany's governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the CSU's sister party, opposed the ban at first but eventually supported it. Now the CDU hopes that its support will lead more Bavarians to return the favor by voting for the CSU in the upcoming German and EU parliamentary elections.
The inhabitants of rural Bavarian towns, whose fields have become battlegrounds for people for and against genetic engineering, can now breathe a sigh of relief. But the real problems are just beginning -- only in other places.
Outside Bavaria, the world is approaching a scenario first described by the British economist Thomas Malthus in 1798 -- agricultural production can't keep pace with population growth.
Since 2000, the demand for food has been growing faster than the supply. Nearly one billion people are considered undernourished. Refugees from Africa flee over-fished lakes and expanding deserts and arrive in Italy and Spain by the thousands.
In global terms, cultivable land and agricultural productivity have hardly increased. Agriculture is flagging, while the world's current population of 6.8 billion is predicted to reach 9 billion by mid-century. Fields that would normally yield food are now being used to produce biofuel. And it won't be long before the rest of the world will want to consume as much meat and dairy as people in Europe and America do today. But producing one kilogram of beef requires many more kilograms of animal feed.
All this is taking place on a planet whose atmosphere will only grow warmer and more severely affected by extreme weather. Land use is partially at fault for these changes, as they are spurred on, for example, by methane emissions from cattle and carbon dioxide released by burning forests. At the same time, erosion, salinization and desertification are all reducing the amount of cultivable land.
Taboo Topic of Discussion
Some believe that genetic engineering can help solve this problem. But, in Germany, anyone who even asks this question is automatically considered suspect.
Still, it's only thanks to a scientific breakthrough that Malthus' prediction of catastrophic overpopulation has not yet proven true. In the mid-19th century, German chemist Justus von Liebig recognized that adding minerals to soil could massively increase crop yields. He then went on to invent chemical fertilization, which made it possible to feed more and more people.
The current set of circumstances raises a number of questions: Who is making sure that agricultural scientists today can follow in the footsteps of Justus von Liebig? What is Germany -- with its antipathy to genetic engineering -- contributing toward ensuring a food supply for the world's future population? And what are Monsanto's opponents doing to fight back as the corporation tries to monopolize the seed market?
The answers are sobering. Agricultural research funded by the German government is running dry, especially when it comes to studies aimed at finding solutions to global food problems that don't involve genetic engineering. "There's no master plan at the federal level as to how Germany can fulfill its global responsibilities," says Thomas Jungbluth, dean of the Department of Agricultural Sciences at Hohenheim University, one of Germany's largest centers for agricultural research. In recent years, there have been reductions in many professor positions and institutes across the country.
"We're currently destroying our basic tools for these tasks," warns Volker Hoffmann, who is also a professor at Hohenheim University and speaks of an "existential crisis for agricultural research at German universities." For too long, Hoffmann says, politicians at both the national and state level have seen the academic field as "unsexy" and old-fashioned.
At the same time, developing countries suffering from food shortages are looking with high hopes to countries like Germany that are rich, strong in the sciences and have a respected tradition of agricultural research.
Students come to Hohenheim from all over the world, but then they find themselves in a country that gets panicky about every grain of genetically modified pollen -- without engaging in discussion about other ways to develop agricultural technology that could feed 9 billion people in a changing climate.
Germany's four government-funded research institutes and their many branches -- all of which are overseen by Agriculture Minister Aigner -- do have a research plan that lists "seven main goals and 88 primary tasks" for the several hundred scientists they employ. But lacking among them is a concerted effort to find the best concepts for feeding the world.
When riots over ballooning food prices broke out last year across the world, the federal cabinet made a decision to strengthen Germany's agricultural research activities. The government will now spend up to €40 million ($52 million) over five years, but only as one-time funds and primarily for projects unrelated to fighting the causes of the crisis.
Creating Your Own Monsters
To actually get at the causes would require a systematic departure from current agricultural research, similar to the green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Farming practices would have to be changed so as to release fewer greenhouse gases and to use less water, which would help protect reservoirs of available drinking water. Likewise, it would be essential to prevent agriculture from expanding into the world's last untouched natural regions, such as rainforests or savannahs. New plant species that are resistant to drought, salinization and pests would have to be found and put into use. At the same time, the hundreds of millions of small farmers who make up the backbone of agricultural production must find a way to make a living instead of seeing their fields fall into the hands of corporations.
But, instead, Germany's narrow-sighted policies have led to a situation in which, in the future, only companies like Monsanto -- which filed a lawsuit against the German government Tuesday claiming that its ban on MON 810 is arbitrary and contravenes EU rules -- will have the strength and expertise needed to develop high performance plant species that can cope with the world's requirements.
And who else could carry out the task? The only possible counterbalances to Monsanto are the botanists and agricultural researchers at government-funded universities and institutes, together with medium-scale plant breeders. If they could develop better species and technologies than Monsanto, they could then secure the patents for the common good and offer them to the general public free of charge.
Still, in order to have a chance of succeeding, they would need to have society behind them and be given some leeway when it comes to deciding whether genetic modification or another breeding method is the best solution for a particular problem.
A modern Liebig wouldn't count on a single cure-all. Instead, he or she would look for more complex solutions -- that is, perhaps, to try to combine the conservational principles of organic farming with the methods of genetic engineering. The much-loved blanket demonization of genetic engineering blocks this path just as much as Monsanto's control over the markets and the patenting of genes.
Vilsack Pledges Better Push On Biotech Crops
- Philip Brasher Des Moines Register (Blog). April 21, 2009
If there was any question about how the Obama administration would get behind agricultural biotechnology, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is removing any doubt. In fact, he says he’s going to do a better job than the Bush administration. Just back from the G8 summit in Italy, Vilsack pledged today to bring a “more comprehensive and integrated” approach to promoting ag biotech overseas.
That will be good news to biotech companies such as Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto but it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Vilsack was a vocal backer of the biotech industry as governor, and President Barack Obama has been a supporter as well.
Speaking to a group of ag journalists today, Vilsack cited a recent inspector general’s report that said USDA had not done enough to “facilitate trade opportunities” for biotech products. However, the report noted that some USDA officials have been opposed to getting involved in promoting the products of private companies. Much of the international opposition to genetically engineered seeds is centered in the European Union but that has led to resistance among countries in Africa and elsewhere that export food to Europe.
The declaration issued at the end of the G8 farm ministers’ summit called for increased “investments in agricultural science, research, technology, education, extension services and innovation.”
India: (Local) Desi Bt Cotton Seeds Here, Ready for Distribution in Four States
- Indian Express (India) , april 20, 2009
Nagpur - After ten long years of research punctuated with technical delays, the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) in Nagpur is ready with 20,000 packets of desi Bt cotton seeds for distribution to farmers starting next month.
The Bikaneri Narma (BN Bt), as it is called, is a variety and not a hybrid which was the only option available to farmers till date. As reported first by The Indian Express in September 2005, this variety will enable farmers to replicate seeds for the next sowing. The seeds will be available for Rs 200 per 2 kg bag as against Rs 750 per 450 gm bag of hybrids currently sold by national and multinational companies like Mahyco, Rasi, Ankur and Nuziveedu.
Since a variety needs very little fertiliser and pesticide, the farmer can save nearly 4,000 per acre in the first year (Rs 1,000 on seeds, Rs 2,000 on pesticides and Rs 1,000 on fertilisers) and about Rs 4,500 per acre every subsequent year since he won’t have to buy seeds. One seed of the desi Bt can produce up to 200-300 seeds. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex body which clears GM crops, had okayed the Indian strain on May 2 last year.
“This year we are giving it only to Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat since Bikaneri Narma is beneficial in drought-tolerant, non-irrigated areas and is also resistant to sucking pests like jassids and aphids,” said CICR Director Keshav Kranthi. “The CICR will supply the bags to state seed companies which will then distribute them to farmers,” he said.
Maharashtra will get 13,000 packets, followed by Madhya Pradesh (up to 3,000), Andhra Pradesh (up to 1,000) and Gujarat (500). The CICR will retain about 3,000 packets for multiplication. The states will also be given foundation seeds for multiplication next year. Indian cotton scientists were able to introduce the Bt gene Cry 1 AC in the Rajasthan variety Bikaneri Narma three years ago with their own standardised protocol (method) called primary transgenic. Their initial attempt to use Monsanto’s somatic embryogenesis method on Indian varieties had failed.
Biotechnologically, cotton is acknowledged to be a very tough crop. Even the Monsanto method was successful on only two American varieties, Coker 312 and Coker 310. Similar efforts had failed in China too. Besides the CICR, only China has succeeded in developing its own protocol called Pollen 2 Pathway.
“We will also bring our Bt hybrid NHH 44 possibly this or surely by next year. It is currently awaiting GEAC approval,” Kranthi said. The hybrids, which require more fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation than a variety, perform better in irrigated patches than varieties. That’s why hybrids are also needed.
GM Wheat Will Improve Productivity Growth: Scientist
- The Hindu (India), April 22, 2009 http://www.hindu.com
India needs to consider all options, including genetically modified (GM) technology, to increase wheat productivity which has been stagnant at an average 2.7 tonnes per hectare for the past six years, renowned agriculture scientist Thomas A Lumpkin has said.
In an email interview, Lumpkin, who is the Director General of Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), has warned that India may be a net importer of wheat by 2020, if the yields of the grain remain stagnant.
"India needs to consider all options to reinvigorate productivity growth, with important roles for novel germplasm, agronomy, and enabling policies. To help create a breakthrough in germplasm, wheat would benefit from more intense private sector involvement "Novel techniques like GM and hybridisation provide major options and incentives for that," he said.
Noted agriculture scientist also said a gene, that would enhance the bioavailability of zinc in wheat, could have a significant impact, given the widespread zinc deficiency among Indians. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre was associated with India's Green Revolution. Norman Borlaug, who brought Mexican wheat to India in 1966-67, was a researcher at the institute. Lumpkin said India, the world's second-largest wheat producer, is currently self-sufficient with 26 million hectares dedicated to the crop.
He added: "Over the next five years, it is likely that India will be self-sufficient in wheat production, barring extreme climate events (heat, drought) or rust epidemics." However, he added that it was "irresponsible" not to think about how India would confront growing demands for food and feed crops and the needs to protect the environment and conserve resources, while confronting climate change, beyond a mere five-year horizon.
Considering the increasing water scarcity in South Asia, it is likely that irrigation water will be used more and more for high value crops, and wheat will be grown in more extensive systems, reducing output further, he warned.
Asked in what ways GM wheat will be beneficial for India since the country has not reported large scale damage due to pest attack, Lumpkin said, "Weeds like phalaris minor pose constraints to wheat production in India. The glyphosphate- based herbicide known as 'Roundup' kills all weeds.
"A genetically modified form of wheat that tolerates 'Roundup' will allow the use of glyphosate in wheat plots." Wheat variety 'PBW 343', which is cultivated on 7 million hectares across Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, is susceptible to Ug99, the latest major stem rust.
Letters to the Editor: Re 'IMU calls for objection to pro-GM Vatican study'
The Irish Catholic, April 9, 2009 pg. 18 http://www.irishcatholic.ie
I am member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and I am organizing, on behalf of the Academy, the study week "Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development". I feel some responsibility for responding to the accusations raised in your article from March 26.
For someone reading the information available on the PAS study week with an unbiased mind, it should be obvious that this study week is truly in the interest of the poor. If the author complains that "only pro-GMO speakers have been invited" he may as well have recognized that "industry" has not been invited either. And if Fr. Sean McDonagh is angry about "that GM crops make massive profits for biotech corporations (which is not yet true considering the investment) -- and that there is silence on this crucial matter from all those who are speaking" (I am not sure when he heard them speaking), he is invited to read the abstracts again, and especially my introduction to the meeting.
The topic of this study week is to analyse, what went wrong leading to a situation in which the technology can be used nearly exclusively to the commercial benefit of large companies (there are considerable "spin-off" benefits for the poor as well), and what has to be changed to enable efficient use of the technology by the public sector institutions and small scale private enterprizes to reap the potential of this technology to the benefit of the poor.
It is obvious already before the start of the study week that present GMO-regulation is the major cause for this "monopoly position" as Fr. Sean McDonagh phrases it and that's why discussions about regulations play a major role. It obviously also escaped the attention of your author as well of Fr. Sean McDonagh that "genetic engineers" are a smaller fraction of those invited. The majority are ethicists, lawyers, regulators, development economists, and biologists.
I would be gratefull if you could bring this information to the attention of your readers.
With kind regards,
Prof. Dr.Dr.Dr. Ingo Potrykus
Chairman Humanitarian Golden Rice Board & Network
In the article by M. Gargan published yesterday "IMU calls for objection to pro-GM Vatican study", Fr. Sean McDonagh complains with a rethorical statement: "How this technology which is owned by corporations can help the poor is beyond me". No wonder the question is beyond him. In his desire to deal with every possible subject he forgets the famous quote by Alexander Pope: "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing".
As an academic researcher professionally involved since more than 20 years in molecular genetics and since 15 years in plant biology, I can assure that this technology has an enormous potential, especially for the most neglected farmers. Most of the times it is a technology 'in the seed' and does not require additional input than the seed itself. There are several application of biotechnology which have been or are being developed in the public sector and which could provide substantial benefit to the third word (I could provide details about these with a regular column on your newspaper). The main reason because these applications did not yet reached the farmers is exactly the subject of the study week: a regulation which is excessive, very costly, not science-based and therefore not only useless, but damaging the interests of people, especially the poorest. Any open mind can easily understand it by reading the preparatory booklet on the vatican website:
Piero Morandini, researcher in Plant Biotechnology, Univ. of Milan (Italy)
Better living through GM oilseeds is practically in our grasp
- Ivan Lerner, ICIS Chemical Business, April 23, 2009. Full piece at http://www.icis.com/Articles/2009/04/23/9209907/better-living-through-gm-oilseeds-is-practically-in-our.html
'Public acceptance of GM crops has been improving'
WHILE GENETICALLY manipulated (GM) oilseed crops have been produced to contain herbicide tolerance or insect resistance, their "greatest potential," says the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), lies in their potential to improve on their nutritional and industrial properties.
The focus is shifting from benefits to farmers, to benefits to consumers in the form of better nutrition and ease of use. The primary oilseeds are soy, rape (including canola), peanut, palm and sunflower. According to USDA, in 2002, over 320m tonnes (both GM and non-) were produced globally with a value of about $60bn (€45.7bn). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations projects that roughly 408m tonnes of oilseeds will be produced globally in 2009.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), soy represented 37%, or $2.8bn of the GM crop market in 2008. Canola provided about $200m, or 3%. The global value of biotech crops reached $7.5bn last year, and is projected to grow to $8.3bn in 2009. The ISAAA is a not-for-profit organization that provides new agricultural biotechnologies to developing countries. Biotech crops were grown on over 125m hectares in 25 countries in 2008, a 9.4% increase in global acreage from 2007.
GM soy was the principle biotech crop in 2007, with 51% of the global genetically modified organism (GMO) area, 58.6m hectares, says ISAAA. Canola held 5% with 5.5m hectares. Meanwhile, 58.6% of the global soy crop was GM in 2007. That year, 216m tonnes of soybeans were produced.
When US-based Monsanto, the world's largest GM seed trait firm, develops new technologies for use in oilseeds, they fall into two primary categories - value-added benefits and agronomic benefits. Value-added benefits are attributes that directly benefit consumers and processors; agronomic benefits are those that directly benefit farmers.
"Traditionally, benefits in soybeans have been on the agronomic side," says Ben Kampelman, manager, public affairs, for Monsanto. Commercialized in 1996, Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans are used on more than 90% of US soybean acres. This year, the company is introducing the brand's next generation.
"The performance of biotechnology traits like Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans, as well as breeding advancements and better management practices, give us the confidence to commit to doubling average yields in the US, based on yields in 2000," says Kampelman. Currently, yields average roughly 40 bushels/acre. "By 2030, we expect average yields in the United States will be about 80 bushels per acre," he says.
GM GOOD 4U
Pioneer Hi-Bred, a business of US-based chemical giant DuPont, is launching high oleic soybeans this year, pending regulatory approval and ongoing field testing
"This is the first biotech soybean trait with direct consumer benefits," says Julie Kenney, public affairs representative for Pioneer. "High oleic soybeans will offer nutritional benefits to consumers and functional benefits to the food industry."
Scheduled for introduction in 2011 is Pioneer's Optimum GAT soybeans which enhance weed control options for soybean growers and provide improved crop performance. Monsanto, meanwhile, is developing soybeans with stearidonic acid (SDA) omega-3 fatty acids, as well as its own high oleic soybeans.
These new oilseeds will be built on the company's Vistive brand soybeans. "The oil from these beans doesn't need to be hydrogenated to improve stability," Kampelman says. "This helps companies like [US-based restaurant chain] KFC produce [fried] chicken with no trans fats." Monsanto has been working with Germany's BASF Plant Science on the production of healthy fatty acids in canola oil, including omega-3 fatty acid eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) as well as a mixture of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) for food, feed and dietary supplement applications.
"Plants do not produce these healthy fatty acids, but a number of other organisms like algae, fungi and mosses do," explains Andy Beadle, project manager at BASF Plant Science.
Genes from those organisms were identified, characterized and transferred into canola, and then the best combination was determined through thorough examination, he said. EPA and EPA/DHA in the canola oil have been identified and are currently being developed into commercial products. "For the very first time, plants [are] producing commercial levels of the healthy fatty acids," says Beadle. Commercial production is expected around the middle of next decade, notes the company.
In May 2008, US-based Dow AgroSciences and US-based Martek Biosciences agreed to jointly develop and commercialize a canola seed that produces the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA. "Nutritionists are now recommending that people increase their consumption of DHA, as most consumers don't get enough in their diets today," says Daniel Kittle, global research and development leader and vice president for Dow AgroSciences.
DHA omega-3 is a long-chain fatty acid that serves as the primary structural fatty acid found in the brain and the eyes, and supports brain, eye and cardiovascular health throughout life.
"Yet despite its importance, Americans have among the lowest dietary intakes of DHA omega-3 in the world," notes Kittle.
When commercialized, Dow AgroSciences and Martek's new healthy oil will be marketed to the food industry as part of Dow AgroSciences' "next generation" of food industry oils. The companies have not released a timetable, but anticipate that this project will be a multiyear effort.
Meanwhile, via its Nexera line of canola and sunflower seeds, Dow AgroSciences has created a series of oils it calls Omega-9s, with zero trans fat and high levels of monounsaturated (omega-9) fat. Since canola natually has zero trans fat and low saturated fat, the company's goal was to add a higher omega-9 content. The resulting product, says David Dzisiak, Dow AgroSciences' commercial leader for oils, can allow up to 50% longer fry life than partially hydrogenated soybean oil and other commonly used frying oils.
Yielding to Ideology Over Science: Why don't environmentalists celebrate modern farming on Earth Day?
- Ronald Bailey, Reason Online, April 21, 2009 http://www.reason.com/news/show/132997.html
One might think that environmentalists would celebrate the accomplishments of modern farming on Earth Day. After all, the biggest way humanity disturbs the natural world is in how we produce food. Agriculture uses up more land and water than any other human activity. To the extent that we want to preserve biodiversity and protect natural areas, boosting agricultural productivity is the most vital thing that we can do.
Since 1960 global crop yields have more than doubled, with the benefit that the area of land devoted to producing food has not increased very much. If farmers were still producing food at 1960 levels of productivity, agriculture would have had to expand from 38 percent of the earth's land to 82 percent to feed the world's current population. This enormous increase in yields is the result of applying more artificial fertilizers, breeding higher yielding crops, a wider use of pesticides and herbicides, and expanding irrigation. More recently, advances in modern biotechnology have also contributed to boosting yields. However, last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a new report, Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops, by its senior scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman that tries to make the case that modern crop biotechnology should be largely abandoned because it has failed to increase agricultural yields.
Failure to Yield begins by noting that, in the United States, 90 percent of soybeans and 63 percent of the corn crop are biotech varieties. Genes have been inserted in these varieties (called transgenic or genetically engineered by the report) to confer pest and herbicide resistance on the crops. The UCS study distinguishes between intrinsic yield, the highest yield possible under ideal conditions, and operational yield, the yield obtainable in the field taking into account factors like pests and environmental stresses. The study then asserts, "No currently available transgenic varieties enhance the intrinsic yield of any crops."
In addition, Gurian-Sherman claims that biotech crops have only marginally increased operational yields for corn (largely through insect resistance traits) and not at all for soybeans in the United States.
First, keep in mind that farmers are not stupid, and especially not poor farmers in developing countries. The UCS report acknowledges that American farmers have widely adopted biotech crops in the past 13 years. Why? "The fact that the herbicide-tolerant soybeans have been so widely adopted suggests that factors such as lower energy costs and convenience of GE soybeans also influence farmer choices." Indeed. Surely saving fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases should be viewed by a UCS advocacy scientist as an environmental good. And what does Gurian-Sherman mean by "convenience"? Later, he admits that biotech herbicide resistant crops save costs and time for farmers. Herbicide resistance is also a key technology for expanding soil-saving no-till agriculture which, according to a report in 2003, saved 1 billion tons of topsoil from eroding annually. In addition, no-till farming significantly reduces the run-off of fertilizers into streams and rivers.
The UCS report correctly observes, "It is also important to keep in mind where increased food production is most needed—in developing countries, especially in Africa, rather than in the developed world." Which is exactly what is happening with biotech crops in poor countries. Currently, 13.3 million farmers around the world are planting biotech crops. Notably, 90 percent of the world's biotech farmers, that is, 12.3 million, are small and resource-poor farmers in developing countries like China, India, and South Africa. Gurian-Sherman is right that biotech contributions to yields in developed countries are relatively modest. Farmers here already have access and can afford modern agricultural technologies so improvements are going to be at the margins. Nevertheless, it is instructive to compare the rate of increase in corn yields between the biotech-friendly U.S. and biotech-hostile France and Italy over the past ten years. University of Georgia crop scientist Wayne Parrott notes, "In marked contrast to yield increases in the U.S., yields in France and Italy have leveled off."
The yield story is very different in poor countries. For example, a 2006 study found that biotech insect resistant cotton varieties boosted the yields for India's cotton farmers by 45 to 63 percent. Amusingly, some anti-biotech activists counter that these are not really yield increases, merely the prevention of crop losses. Of course, another way to look at it is that these are increases in operational yields. Whether due to yield increase or crop loss prevention, in 2008 this success led to nearly 70 percent of India's cotton fields being planted with biotech varieties. Similarly, biotech insect resistant corn varieties increased yields (or prevented losses) by 24 percent in the Philippines.
The UCS report also declares, "We must not simply produce more food at the expense of clean air, water, soil, and a stable climate, which future generations will also require." Biotech varieties are already helping farmers to achieve those environmental benefits.
Gurian-Sherman notes that crops typically use only 30 to 50 percent of nitrogen fertilizers they receive. Nitrogen fertilizer contributes to water pollution and is the primary source of anthropogenic nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Agriculture contributes up to 12 percent of man-made global warming emissions. So one would think that a new biotech variety of rice created by Arcadia Biosciences, which needs 50 to 60 percent less nitrogen fertilizer than conventional varieties, would be welcomed by the UCS. But it isn't. The really good news is that research into transferring this same set of fertilizer-thrifty genes into other crops is moving rapidly forward.
Another promising area of research involves using genetic engineering to transfer the C4 photosynthetic pathway into rice, which currently uses the less efficient C3 pathway. This could boost rice yields tremendously, perhaps as much 50 percent, while reducing water use. In addition, researchers are pursuing all manner of other ways to boost crop production including salt, heat, and drought tolerance, along with viral, fungal, and bacterial disease resistance. All of these biotech techniques could improve crop productivity and thus reduce agriculture's toll on land, water, and air resources.
"To the extent to which groups like UCS have advocated prohibitive and disproportional regulations, they are responsible for the lack of even greater achievements in operational yield and perhaps even in intrinsic yield," notes Parrott. "In fact UCS is on the record as opposing engineered stress tolerance in crops. Such a stance by UCS is untenable and contradictory—yield losses caused by adverse growing conditions defeats the purpose of having a higher intrinsic yield—that is why it is so important to increase operational yield, and increasing operational yield is done with resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses—i.e., adverse growing conditions."
Increasing crop yields to meet humanity's growing demand for healthful food while protecting the natural world will require deploying the full scientific armamentarium. This includes advances in crop breeding, improvements in cultivation practices, the safer deployment of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides—and, yes, genetic engineering. It is odd that while the UCS accepts the scientific consensus on man-made global warming, it refuses to accept the scientific consensus on the safety, usefulness, and environmental benefits of biotech crops.
"In the end, after helping prevent scientific advances with genetically modified crops," notes Parrott, "the UCS is not in a good position to be calling genetically modified crops a failure because their scientific advances have not been greater."
Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.
Letters to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and Rockfeller foundation
Dear Sir/ Madam,
I am a plant physiologist working at the University of Milan. I have been involved with molecular biology since the beginning of my university studies around 25 years ago and with plant biology and biotechnology since I moved to the University of Milan 15 years ago. I spent my life reading, researching and teaching these subjects.
It is with this background that I am writing to you after reading with great dismay the letter and the report (1) Greenpeace and Foodwatch addressed to you questioning the Golden rice project and the support your respective foundations give to it. In the letter they state that
“Even trivial technical data on how much carotenoid content remains in the rice after it has been stored and cooked have not been published. [--] However, such findings are highly relevant for assessing the technical quality of genetically modified rice.” And also that “In addition, possible risks have been largely ignored. Issues such as out-crossing and the creation of new health risks are hardly taken on by the project managers and to date no test results have been published. However, there are strong indications that genetically modified rice can spread uncontrolled when it crosses with wild strains of rice.”
Let me comment on the first statement. There is plenty of evidence that different tomato varieties contain varying amount of the different carotenoids. Classical mutants also show great changes in carotenoid composition (2). This can be easily appreciated for instance when the fruit colour changes from red to yellow, as it happens for instance with some varieties (3).
In this case it is clear that the red conferring compound (lycopene) has been quantitatively converted to other yellow carotenoids (e.g. beta carotene). Around 2,000 crop varieties produced by mutation breeding are distributed, cultivated and consumed with minimal or no oversight from regulatory authorities. The changes observed in the varieties mentioned above are the result of changes in gene structure or expression, usually far wider than those occurring in transgenes (4-6), that are reflected upon metabolite composition.
In other words they are truly genetically modified, even though this term is solely applied to plants obtained through the more precise and predictable technology of genetic engineering. The implication is that every objection raised against genetically engineered (GE) plants must also be applied to any other plant with new traits, irrespective of the method used to generate them. In many years of study and reflection I could not identify any risk specifically connected to GE plants and I am comforted in this by a statement undersigned by several thousands scientists (7). Rather, what is relevant in terms of risk is the specific trait being selected for and the plant bearing it. In other words is the product not the process that matters. It is obvious, in theory, that any novel variety with an altered composition could create new health risks.
Let me comment now on the second statement quoted above. Cultivated plants did not exist forever, but were created by humans along with agriculture. Wild species were ‘domesticated’ by continuous selection by primitive farmers. The traits selected were obviously beneficial to humans, such as loss of shattering (hampering spontaneous seed dispersal), reduction of toxin content, reduced seed dormancy, increased seed or fruit weight, fruit taste and nutrient content, just to name the most obvious ones. These novel traits fixed by human selection in crop plants were the result of spontaneous mutations, but which equally spontaneously would be wiped out by natural selection if not propagated by farmers. Cultivated plants are unfit for survival in natural environments. This has been investigated by scientists, but it is the very basic experience of every farmer at any latitude. Crops are rapidly taken over by weeds or destroyed by pathogens and pests. If crop plants were invasive and resilient as weeds, agriculture would not be a problem or a pain to many farmers.
There are several statements in Greenpeace’s report (1) or presentation document (8) that are grossly inaccurate and witness a flawed idea of farming. For instance: i) “--genetically modified rice can spread uncontrolled when it crosses with wild strains of rice” ii) “--there are plants outside of fields that are potential partners for crossing, such as strains of wild rice and weedy rice.” iii) “If this weed crosses with normal rice in the fields, it can lead to huge losses in the harvest.” iv) “--plants that grow from crossing GM rice and weedy rice varieties exhibit surprising characteristics – their rate of reproduction seems be higher due to changes in flowering and seeding patterns. This gives them an advantage over other plants and they can assert themselves more strongly in the environment than normal members of the same species.”
The report and the document play extensively on the meaning of the word environment. They interpret it as the environment at large, but truth is that weedy (also known as feral or red) rice is a problem only in agricultural environment, not in the wild, and yield losses are due to the fact that weedy rice competes with the crop, not to crossing (9).
Moreover, wild rice is a minor problem. Even if crossing occurs with weedy or wild rice, the resulting hybrid will not be more invasive than weedy rice, particularly outside of fields. Suggesting a scenario where “outcrossings with GM rice will significantly aggravate the spread of weedy rice” or that the hybrid will “exhibit surprising characteristics” or show “improved fitness (increased rate of reproduction)” disregards the fact that every GE rice must be examined on its own. In certain cases, e.g. herbicide resistant GE rice, the crossing may allow transfer of the resistance trait to weedy or wild rice, but this is, again, a problem in an agricultural setting, where herbicides are being used, not in the wild.
Secondly, there has been and there is no criticism whatsoever by the same organizations over the introduction of herbicide resistant varieties, such as Clearfield rice (10), which pose exactly the same risk in agricultural terms that Greenpeace claims as the GE herbicide tolerant counterparts mentioned above and a definitely higher risk than golden rice. The reason for this double standard is that Clearfied rice is not GE. Indeed the herbicide resistance gene from the non-transgenic Clearfield rice rapidly appeared in weedy rice due to outcrossing (9). On the contrary, genetic engineering, using technologies that mitigate gene flow, is believed to allow a more efficient management of weed weedy rice and prevent resistance to herbicides (11). Third, carotenoid accumulation occurring in golden rice does not bring any foreseeable advantage either in the wild or in the field. The only advantage is to humans consuming it.
Indeed, Greenpeace’s document is unable to provide details about the ‘strong indications’ of the claimed uncontrolled spread. The only reference is to a Chinese research presented at the ‘International Biosafety Workshop’ in Beijing (September 2008) generalized to all GE varieties, without details about the researchers or about the content. A tenet of scientific enquiry is the humble submission of theories and results to the judgement of the competent scientific circles firstly and mainly through the process of anonymous peer review adopted by scientific journals and granting bodies. Criticising the golden rice project on the basis of unpublished research is the symptom of an ideological attitude.
The fact that Greenpeace singles out Golden rice as a target for their campaign implies not only that they ignore the basics of gene technology and breeding, but they have a complete lack of connection with the real world of agriculture and farming. Being forced to raise their own food might bring them back (always too late, I am afraid) to reality. Their attitude can only be described as a total disregard for human suffering. If they were really interested in the diets of poor people they would fund some research, but they seem to be interested only in preventing this safe technology to be delivered to poor farmers. Truth is that Greenpeace and their allies are in a corner after so many years spreading lies and raising fears about risks never proved. I hope this is their last attempt. Indeed, “the campaign against genetically modified rice is at the crossroads”.
For the reasons stated above I urge you not to withdraw any support to the Golden rice project, but rather to provide even more support to this and other research efforts involving plant biotechnology and breeding for developing countries.
I remain completely at your disposal should you require any clarification, any of the cited literature or other information on these matters. I could name several tens of esteemed colleagues from universities and public research centres worldwide in support of my position.
Please, accept my best regards together with gratitude for supporting the golden rice project so far.
Piero Morandini, Ph.D., Depart. of Biology, University of Milan (Italy)
1) http://www.foodwatch.de/english/golden_rice/index_ger.html 2) For examples of classical mutation or transgene affecting carotenoids, see: Long et al., (2007) Metabolite profiling of carotenoid and phenolic pathways in mutant and transgenic lines of tomato: Identification of a high antioxidant fruit line Phytochemistry 67:1750–1757. See also: Fraser et al., (2007) Metabolite profiling of plant carotenoids using the matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry. Plant J. 49:552-64. 3) For some yellow tomato varieties developed by S. Arrenger, a British breeder in Italy, see: http://www.riviste.provincia.tn.it/PPW/TerraTre.nsf/0/8DB89E22F35A0297C125749E004983B2/$FILE/10pomodori.pdf?OpenElement 4) Batista et al., (2008) Microarray analyses reveal that plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene insertion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105:3640-3645 http://www.botanischergarten.ch/Genomics/Batista-Microarray-Analysis-2008.pdf 5) Baudo et al., (2006) Transgenesis has less impact on the transcriptome of wheat grain than conventional breeding. Plant Biotechnology Journal, 4:369-380 http://www.botanischergarten.ch/Organic/Baudo-Impact-2006.pdf 6) Shewry et al., (2007) Are GM and conventionally bred cereals really different? Trends in Food Science & Technology 18:201-209 http://www.botanischergarten.ch/Wheat/Shewry-Are-GM-Convent-Cereals-different-007.pdf 7) AgBioWorld statement subscribed by 3400 academic and professionals including 25 Nobel prize winners: http://www.agbioworld.org/declaration/petition/petition.php 8) Foodwatch webpage: http://www.foodwatch.de/english/golden_rice/index_ger.html 9) Valverde BE, The damage by weedy rice – can feral rice remain undetected?, in Crop Ferality and Volunteerism, ed. by Gressel J. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, pp. 279–294 (2005). 10) http://agproducts.basf.us/products/Clearfield-Rice/Clearfield-Rice.asp 11) Gressel and Valverde (2009) A strategy to provide long-term control of weedy rice while mitigating herbicide resistance transgene flow, and its potential use for other crops with related weeds. Pest Manag Sci vol. 65 (in press).
World Food Crisis (Part II: The Bad News -- and the Case of Africa)
- Thomas R. DeGregori, American Council on Science and Health, Health Facts and Fears, August 26, 2008
Full commentary at http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.1183/news_detail.asp
In spite of the unimaginable global transformations described in my blog post yesterday, per capita food production and consumption in many parts of Africa has actually declined. Unless there is a massive infusion of aid (from the Gates Foundation and others) for seeds, fertilizer, and infrastructure, the situation could get worse, since in many regions of Africa, farmers are taking more nutrients out of the soil than they are returning. They are mining the soil and destroying its structure.
This is "organic agriculture" as practiced by the poor who can not afford synthetic fertilizer, improved seeds and pesticides.
It is sustainable in the sense described by C.S. Prakash: "Organic farming is sustainable. It sustains poverty and malnutrition."
However much better conditions are today than in decades past, 9.7 million children are dying each year, most of them from preventable diseases, and that is unacceptable. Having 860 million people in poverty and hunger is equally unacceptable. To reduce or eliminate hunger; provide more diverse diets of meat, milk, eggs, fruit, vegetables, etc.; and accommodate an expected population of around 9 billion in 2040 (after which population should level off if not decline), it will be necessary to about double the 2000 level of food production -- a task comparable to the 1960-2000 growth in food production.
Challenges to Increasing Food Production
Grains provide about two thirds of the daily caloric needs of the world's population. Land under cultivation to grain peaked around 1980 and has declined since then, while total land for all forms of cultivation has remained relatively constant since the mid-1990s. Once again, increases in yields will have to be the driving force of this growth. This is going to be difficult for the following reasons:
4) The greatest promise for improved food and agriculture production can be found in transgenic technology using rDNA. Unfortunately, a systematic global anti-science, anti-technology campaign of misinformation by groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth has successfully frightened European and other consumers and thereby has greatly complicated the potential advances using rDNA transgenics (GMOs) and delayed the introduction of vitamin A-enhanced rice. In peer-reviewed articles in leading publications in India and elsewhere, it is estimated that if every other rice meal children in India was vitamin A-enhanced, it would save 40,000 of the 70,000 children's lives lost each year in India because of vitamin A deficiency. The NGO-led regulatory delays in India of about six years will result in 240,000 children losing their lives.
Per one report: "According to our calculations, the current annual disease burden of [vitamin A deficiency (VAD)] in India amounts to a loss of 2.3 million DALYs [disability-adjusted life years], of which 2.0 million are lost due to child mortality alone. In terms of incidence numbers, >70,000 Indian children under the age of six die each year due to VAD. In this context, widespread consumption of Golden Rice 2 with a high beta-carotene content could reduce the burden of VAD by 59%, whereas under pessimistic assumptions the burden would be reduced by 9%. In both scenarios, thousands of lives could be saved. As the severity of VAD is negatively correlated with income, the positive effects of Golden Rice 2 are most pronounced in the lowest income groups." (Stein, Alexander J; H.P.S. Sachdev and Matin Qaim. Potential impact and cost-effectiveness of Golden Rice, Nature Biotechnology 24,1200-1201,2006)
The Luddites have made the introduction of transgenic food crops more difficult -- yet they then use the lack of more production of transgenic food crops as an argument against them. Thus far, we have not held the activists accountable for the huge cost in human life that is the result of their anti-science, anti-technology campaigns. Let me state categorically that there is no controversy in science over the legitimacy of biotechnology, just as there is no controversy in science over whether evolution is a fact of life on earth.
5) The idiotic antics of the anti-GMO NGOs were turning me less optimistic, but I had been convinced by the steady growth in transgenic agriculture in maize, soybeans, and cotton in both developed and developing countries that we would eventually win on this issue (even with the needless delay resulting in a significant cost in human life). I have been further heartened by the outstanding work being done in China, India, and elsewhere on a variety of other transgenic crops. But the current mania for turning food crops into fuel crops (other than for fuel for the human body) has finally turned me pessimistic for the first time in my adult life.
In principle, I am not against forms of alternative energy including biofuels. Instead of subsidizing ethanol and other biofuels from food crops, governments ought to be funding research into producing fuel from algae, switch grass or other grasses, or plants like jatroba, which offer the possibility of producing fuel economically and reducing greenhouse gas emissions without adversely affecting food production. The need for rapid advances in controlling greenhouse gas emissions requires a vastly better understanding of both the costs and benefits of alternative biofuel sources.
The anti-transgenic crusades made me concerned as to whether we could continue the progress of the last decades, and the food-to-fuel mania has me now worried that we may in fact even reverse that progress. Previously, we could discuss the future of food production in terms of what was done in the past, seeking to continue and improve upon what was done right, correct what was done wrong, and find new ways of making things even better. Now we have to be concerned about keeping things from getting worse.
Over the long term it is highly likely that there will be increased investment for expanding commodity production in minerals. There would then be a likely concomitant reduction in price. Conversely, the prospects for significantly increasing agriculture production and decreasing the real price of food are not even remotely as favorable. Ironically, one raw commodity experiencing a significant increase in output has been cotton (the price of which was artificially low because of U.S. subsidies) because of the major increases in production in India, China, and elsewhere as a result of the introduction of transgenic cotton. There is a message here, but unfortunately, the NGO propaganda machine has so distorted it that it has not made it to the general public and to policy makers in developed countries.
Biotechnology is also needed to address the emergence of new fungal, bacterial, viral, or pest threats to agriculture such as Ug99 for wheat, striga (also known as witchweed) for maize, and black sigatoka for bananas. Overall, there is a consensus that there needs to be far more resources dedicated to agricultural research at all levels globally, regionally, nationally, and locally. The mantra of "carbon footprint" causing global warming has given rise to Green advocacy of buying food locally (some of the adherents of this view are called "locavores") and the use of the slogan "food miles" to oppose the importation of food from Africa and other areas of the South. In Africa, this puts in jeopardy close to 2 million jobs and threatens one of the few successes in African agriculture.
Read on at http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.1183/news_detail.asp
Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at the University of Houston and an ACSH Trustee.