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April 27, 2009


Merkel Calls for Calmer Debate, Permits Potato Trail; Pakistan Wants GM; Well Kept Secret; Contrarian Agrarian; AgriGenomics World Congress


* Germany to Permit Trials with GMO Potato
* Merkel Calls for Calmer Debate on GMO Cops
* Pakistan to Focus on Genetic Crops to Increase Output
* Making the Most of Agricultural Technology
* New Journal: GM Crops
* Biotech Advances Could Help Achieve Sustainability Goals
* Parrott: Ag Biotech in sustainability is “unfortunately a very well kept secret”
* Ag: Africa's "Engine for Growth" - Plant science & biotech hold the key
* Production Increases Must Come From Many Countries
* World Food Crisis (Part III: New Technologies Tailored to Location)
* James McWilliams, the Contrarian Agrarian on Our Food Future
* Ad: AgriGenomics World Congress 2009

Germany to Permit Trials with GMO Potato

- Reuters, April 27, 20091

Germany's Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner said on Monday she will permit test cultivation of a potato containing genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).

Open air trails of the GMO potato Amflora, developed by German chemicals group BASF presented no threat to public health or the environment, she said. Aigner had this month said she would carry out a new review of an application for open-air trial cultivation of Amflora, which was test-cultivated on 150 hectares in 2008.

Earlier this month Aigner banned cultivation and sale of the GMO maize type MON 810 produced by U.S. seed giant Monsanto despite its approval by the European Union. There had been speculation that Aigner would stop the field trials of GMO potatoes. Aigner said on Monday she would only permit test plantings of Amflora of 20 hectares instead of 40 hectares sought and the plantings must have extra protective fencing. BASF warned last week a decision to stop trials could damage Germany as a location for scientific research.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel had said on Friday that many millions of euros had been invested in developing the Amflora potato in the hope that field trials could be made. "This fact cannot simply be ignored because currently sentiment is hostile," Merkel had said on Friday, calling for a calmer debate on GMO crops.

Germany's GMO maize ban has been controversial inside Germany's ruling government coalition as there are fears it could damage scientific development in the country. Germany's Research Minister Annette Schavan on has called a round table meeting into the future of GMO crops. "We must take the fear of new technology seriously but the debate cannot be left to fear only," Schavan said earlier this month.

Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, has also started legal action against the German ban, stressing the EU has approved it as safe for commercial cultivation and sale.


Merkel Calls for Calmer Debate on GMO Cops

- Andreas Moeser and Michael Hogan, Retuters, Apr 24, 2009 http://uk.reuters.com

Hamburg - German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday warned against too much immediate hostility to crops containing genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). There must be an open political discussion about the risks and concerns about biotechnology, but the political level should not immediately give way to objections, she said at an event in Berlin.

German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner this month banned cultivation and sale of GMO maize of type MON 810 produced by U.S. seed giant Monanto. Aigner also said on Thursday she would make a new review of an application for open air trial cultivation of the GMO potato Amflora developed by German group BASF. The application is being made for tests only, not for commercial plantings.

Merkel said on Friday many millions of euros had been invested in developing such crops as the Amflora potato in the hope that field trials could be made. "This fact cannot simply be ignored because currently sentiment is hostile," Merkel said.

Merkel stressed the ban on the MON 810 GMO maize was an individual decision. She said her own conservative CDU party should remain open to biotechnology which in future could become a key feature of agriculture.

Gemany's GMO maize ban has also been controversial inside Germany's ruling government coalition as there are fears it could damage Germany as a location for scientific development. Germany's Research Minister Annette Schavan on Tuesday called a round table meeting into the future of GMO crops. "We must take the fear of new technology seriously but the debate cannot be left to fear only," Schavan said on Tuesday.


Pakistan to Focus on Genetic Crops to Increase Output

- Daily Times (Pakistan), April 25, 2009

Pakistan would have to focus on genetically modified and hybrid crops to tap true potential of agricultural productivity in the country in the shortest possible time.

This was the upshot of speeches made at a seminar on Challenges and Opportunities in Agbiotec in Pakistan. Provincial Minister for Agriculture Ahmad Ali Aulakh, LCCI President Mian Muzaffar Ali, Vice President Irfan Iqbal Sheikh and former LCCI Vice President Shahzad Ali Malik threw light on the issues being faced by the agricultural sector in Pakistan.

The Provincial Minister, while stressing the need for establishment of institutes both at provincial and federal levels for creating awareness among the farming community about Genetically Modified (GM) technology, said that sustainability and improvement in crops yield are the major challenges to meet upcoming threats of increasing population and depleting water resources.

He said Biotechnology has shown considerable potential to raise agricultural productivity by addressing problems not solved through conventional research. Among other application of biotechnology, development of genetically modified organasims is the promising tool to facilitate plant breeding in development of crops to insect and tolerant to herbicide.

The Minister said that GM crops have contributed to sustainable development in several significant ways including: Contributing to food security and more affordable food, conserving biodiversity, alleviation of poverty and hunger, mitigating climate change and reducing greenhouses gases, contributing to the cost-effective production of biofuels and above all by contributing to sustainable economic benefits.

In addition to aiding in issues of food security, genetically modified crops have an important role to play in lessening the environmental impact and improving the sustainability of food production. Insect-resistant rice, for example, has the potential to benefit about 1 billion people.

LCCI President Mian Muzaffar Ali said that Pakistan’s agriculture sector was losing heavily due to insufficient utilization of biotechnology as the magic progress of worldwide- agriculture sector is only due to Genetically Modified crops. He said that agriculture sector in Pakistan has a huge potential. It continues to be the single largest and dominant driving force for growth as well as the main source of livelihood for 66 percent of Pakistan’s population. But it has always faced two major problems: first, productions per acre are lower than many countries. Secondly, around 40 percent of production is wasted in the form of post-harvest losses due to insufficient utilization of biotechnology.

Shahzad Ali Malik speaking on the occasion said that in India BT Cotton Hybird was approved for commercial cultivation in 2003 and by 2008 in 5 years time India more than doubled its cotton production from 16 million bales in 2003 to 34 million bales last year. While Pakistan has reversed its production to 11.5 million bales after touching the peak of 14.5 million bales in 2004-5.

He said that survival of Textile Industry will come with revolution in cotton production – through BT Cotton hybrid and not through BT cotton only.

He paid tributes to the government of Punjab for breaking the deadlock of last 10 to 12 years in introduction of BT Cotton by signing agreement with Chinese Academy of Agriculture Sciences (CAAS). He said that BT cotton hybrid technology would not only revolutionise cotton production in the country but would also revitalize sick textile industry.

He said that the government of Pakistan had allowed Monsanto to import BT cotton hybrid from India for six to seven years till the development of local hybrid. The national seed companies should be allowed the same facility for creating a level playing field.


Making the Most of Agricultural Technology

- The Scientific Alliance, St John's Innovation Centre, Cambridge, UK; April 24, 2009 http://www.scientific-alliance.org

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, set up to use the couple's personal wealth for the benefit of the world's poor, takes a hard-headed, business-oriented approach to screening projects put forward for funding. Unlike the majority of development charities, the Gates Foundation is not afraid to include cutting edge technologies to address pressing problems. This is not to say that there is not a place for small-scale improvements to current farming practices. Better cultivation techniques and improved irrigation have a role to play, but so does a search for more radical solutions to malnourishment and the lack of food security.

This approach starts from the principle that healthy, well-fed people are able to move on from subsistence farming and lift themselves out of poverty. Regular crop surpluses and the scope to grow cash crops not only makes the lives of whole families better, but enable children to go to school, which greatly improves their prospects as adults.

With this as an overall objective, nothing is then ruled out. There is no philosophical reliance on indigenous knowledge and keeping small farmers on the land for generations to come. If a more radical solution has the potential to improve people's lives, then there is no reason not to explore it. The net result would not necessarily be good for everyone in the short term. There would be losers as well as winners as the pattern of farming changed and young people moved to the cities.

But these are the sort of social upheavals which European countries have gone through in the past. From the comfort of our lives in today's advanced societies, how many of us would really argue that populations would be better off working the land for the basic necessities of life? Then we have to consider why the development sector effectively wants to condemn the world's current population of poor farmers to a similar future.

This attitude is encapsulated in the report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, published in 2008. Set up as an authoritative, multi-stakeholder study, it became dominated by the received wisdom of NGOs and development agencies, and effectively dismissed the tools available to developed country farmers as inappropriate to the needs of the developing world. No wonder that the representatives of the private sector agricultural supply industry withdrew from participation before the report was published.

But published it was, and the dismissal of agricultural biotechnology as a development tool is now regularly trotted out as the authoritative consensus view of 400 scientists and development experts. Not only is it difficult to see how this can be a balanced view if the owners of the technology have effectively been excluded, but it is also a pity that no-one seems to have asked poor farmers in Africa, Asia or Latin America whether they would like to see the best available technologies used to improve crops which will help them produce bigger and more valuable harvests.

Fortunately, the Gates Foundation is not so blinkered. It has, for example, very publicly funded a project whose aim is to breed a "super cassava" using genetic modification technology (Biocassava plus). Cassava is the fall-back staple food of many in sub-Saharan Africa, but has a low nutritional value and requires considerable preparation to make it safe to eat, as it contains significant levels of cyanide. The goal is to increase the protein, vitamin and mineral content, reduce or eliminate cyanide and increase disease resistance. Field trials of a variety with high levels of beta-carotene have been approved in Nigeria.

But genetic modification is only one of the tools used, where it is appropriate. More recently, the Foundation has made grants of $48 million to two bodies - the World Cocoa Foundation and the German development organisation GTZ - to improve the incomes of cocoa and cashew farmers in Africa. These are integrated, multi-faceted programmes which aim to improve farmer knowledge, crop yields and quality and access to market.

Will such initiatives work? Doubtless some will be more successful than others, but full marks are due to the Gates Foundation and their partners for making genuine efforts to improve the lot of the poor through its agriculture initiative and for being open-minded to the possibilities offered by modern technology.

A worthy winner, for the wrong reasons
The FT has recently announced the winner of its Climate Change Challenge, which "sought to find and publicise the most innovative and scalable solution to the effects of climate change." A solar-powered cardboard cooker called the Kyoto Box has won the $75,000 prize.

This is a simple, cheap and ingenious device which can be used to boil water by harnessing heat from the sun. This Sun's rays enter an inner box through an acrylic panel, and heat is trapped via a combination of insulation, black paint and foil, sufficient to boil 10 litres of water in two hours when placed on top of the panel. And all for a likely cost of $5. The judging panel included the Financial Times. Sir Richard Branson and Dr Rajendra Pachauri.

John Bohmer, the cooker's inventor, thinks that its use will reduce a family's carbon dioxide emissions by about two tonnes a year, by eliminating the use of firewood. The other suggested benefit is disease reduction because water can be boiled before drinking. Strangely, the report fails to mention the most significant benefit of all: a likely big improvement in health because of reduced use of indoor wood stoves. The smoke from these fires is a major cause of respiratory disease, particularly among women and children.

If the Kyoto Box could be used for the majority of cooking, respiratory disease would be reduced and the daily search for firewood could be eliminated. These are two big gains, and make the prize winner a worthy one. But to see it as making a significant contribution to reduction of carbon emissions is misleading. While the rural poor might use less firewood, their countries' governments will be investing in centralised power generation, the additional emissions from which will dwarf any savings.

An effective electricity grid - supplemented by local generation sources in many cases - is a prerequisite for a decent life for city dwellers and the development of viable industries. Whatever is done to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions associated with rural living, this will become increasingly irrelevant as the economy develops. Productive agriculture is only the first stage of development, and we should not be aiming to stop the process when subsistence farmers have enough to eat every year. Poor farmers already have a tiny carbon footprint compared to rich Europeans. But they also have much poorer health, and if the Kyoto Box can improve this, then it certainly deserves a prize.


New Journal: GM Crops


Editor-in-Chief: Dr. Naglaa A. Abdallah, Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt

In July of 2009 we will launch GM Crops, the first international peer-reviewed journal of its kind to focus exclusively on genetically modified crops.

We believe that this is an excellent time to start the journal because of the increasing focus on GM crops and improved agronomic traits. Genetic engineering techniques and applications have developed rapidly since the introduction of the first genetically modified plants in the 1980s. There has been a rapid increase in GM crop R&D by academia, government and industry around the world. GM crops are useful to consumers, farmers and the environment, and are growing in popularity worldwide.

GM crops are needed to tackle the food needs of a growing population. Crops with improved agronomic characteristics can provide protection against many of the biotic stresses caused by weeds, pests, and diseases currently experienced in developing countries. Also, GM crop R&D is focused on the development of more complex traits, such as drought resistance and the development of foods with enhanced nutritional value which may provide a low-cost way of dealing with widespread malnutrition problems.

Because GM crops can address key challenges in the food and agricultural sector, it is expected that the number of GM crops ready for commercial release in many countries will expand considerably over the next few years. Genetic modification is a tool integrated into a wider research agenda, where public and private science can balance each other. Scientists in both the public and private sectors regard the GM process as a major new set of tools to improve crop traits, while industry regards it as an opportunity for increased profits. Genetically modified crop varieties allegedly provide farmers with various agronomic benefits, but serious environmental, health and ethical concerns also are being raised.


Biotech Advances Could Help Achieve Sustainability Goals

- Lynn Welch, Wisconsin Technology Network, April 27, 2009 http://wistechnology.com

Science acting in concert with ethics could help generate a better crop of second generation of genetically modified crops, according to Paul B. Thompson, who argues that biotechnology has made some considerable contributions to the growing discussion about sustainability.

“It’s useful to think of sustainability as a moral ideal because it shows that we really need science and ethics to think it through,” Thompson said. “If we can flush through it, we can anticipate some of the problems we saw in first generation of biotech crops and design delivery methods in line with broader ethical goals.”

A self-described theologian wannabe, Thompson spoke Thursday as part of the eighth annual Bioethics Forum at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Centeron the Promega Corp. campus in Fitchburg. He is Michigan State University’s W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics and a member of the Agricultural Economics and Resource Development Departments. The event drew a diverse crowd from monks and academics to entrepreneurs and clergy.

Madison chaplain Anne Edwardson called Thompson’s observation that large dairy farms are in part the result of cheap oil and farm subsidies creating inexpensive grain insightful. "It comes back to sustainability and public policy,” Edwardson said.

This year’s forum focused on the issues of sustainability and how ethical debates surrounding this sometimes broad topic are playing out in the scientific community. Thompson, who has published on environmental ethics in biotechnology, summarized how science and ethics are intertwined, and have been throughout the years.

Take, for example, the case of integrated biosensors, a technology that can detect, record and transmit various substances in commercial products or animals. It could be used in bagged produce to detect contaminants like e coli, or in animals to warn of disease requiring antibiotics eliminating some of today’s most pressing food system issues. “If you could come up with technology that eliminates some of the costs of our current system, that’s a good thing,” Thompson explained.

Thompson framed sustainability as discussions that consider issues of resource sufficiency, functional integrity and as a social movement. From a resource sufficiency standpoint sustainability is a complex accounting process. The desirability of goods produced is weighed with negative byproducts of production, resources used and the ability to regenerate these resources. Scientists developed herbicides, for example, to control erosion by eliminating farmers’ need to till, Thompson said, producing a good outcome.

The functional integrity idea, which gauges whether a system can sustain itself, has scientists debating whether current systems are working well. It has spawned technologies such as microbes that break down a plant’s wall.

When sustainability is though of as a social movement, there is a question of justice and fairness built in the debate. Relationships and power systems that determine resource allocation are called into question.
“For farmers, all the emphasis on science has entrenched power movements,” he said.


Dr. Wayne Parrott of the University of Georgia: Role of ag biotech in sustainability is “unfortunately a very well kept secret”


Dr. Wayne Parrott is a Professor in the Department of Crop & Soil Sciences at the University of Georgia in Athens. He teaches plant genetics courses at the University as well as a course that focuses on agricultural sustainability. He also runs a laboratory research program which uses biotechnology to improve crops. He will be a presenter on the “Environment, Economy and Society: Plant Biotechnology’s Role in Advancing Sustainable Development” panel Thursday, May 21, 2009 at the BIO Convention.

Tell us about your work.
My work centers on developing methods to genetically engineer crops and then to use these crops effectively.

We work on several projects related to soybeans. The one we have been working on the longest is insect resistance, trying to combine both biotech and traditional approaches to come up with insect resistance that is effective, durable and economical. We have started working on nematode resistance. Nematodes are very difficult to control with traditional methods. We are also trying to develop a specialty soybean for use by certain industries such as the poultry or the aquaculture industry.

Additional work is aimed at getting alfalfa to grow on a broader range of soils, and trying to make switchgrass more amenable as a source of cellulosic bioethanol.

You will be on the panel “Plant Biotechnology’s Role in Advancing Sustainable Development.” What is plant biotechnology’s role in advancing sustainable development?
The role that agricultural biotechnology has played in advancing sustainability is unfortunately a very well kept secret.

One of the exciting things about the advent of the biotech crops in the past 10 years is that they have really changed farming practices. Things that were environmentally unfriendly and unsustainable such as plowing are going out the window. If you don’t have to plow as much, you don’t have to burn as much fossil fuel, you don’t produce as many greenhouse gases; your soil won’t erode with rainfall which means you don’t clog up canals, streams and rivers with sediment.

Agriculture biotechnology also means we have been able to eliminate older chemical herbicides classes and replace them with more environmental friendly types. In terms of insecticides we have been able to really cut down on the number of insecticides used, which means we are able to increase the availability of beneficial insects and desirable organisms in the crop fields.

Biotech will be very important in the future as well. In the year 2000 there was about 5 and a half acres that could be used to feed every person on the planet. By the year 2020, when there is projected to be 7 billion people, there will be only 4 and a half acres available to feed every person alive.

In other words, in order to feed the world’s population in the year 2020 we will have to increase production per acre by 40 percent relative to what it was in the year 2000. And we have to do it without cutting down forests and expanding into environmentally sensitive areas, without using more resources such as fuel and water, and while reducing the use of insecticides and fertilizer.

A year ago reports began to appear of the global food crisis. Where are we now?
We are still waiting with bated breath for the next harvest to fail. What brought the last global food crisis on was that there were droughts in a couple of key areas of the world. The droughts demonstrated that in this day-and-age, all that it takes is for one part of the world to have a bad growing season and the rest of the world then faces a food shortage.

The goal of agricultural biotech is to stabilize yield. We have generations of crops coming up that are more drought-tolerant, and stress tolerant in general, so if there is a bad growing season somewhere in the world, the impact on the world food situation should not be as drastic as it was last year.

What would surprise most people about agricultural biotechnology?
There are a lot of groups that position themselves as environmentalists and that oppose genetically modified crops. But, the people who oppose genetically modified crops and those developing genetically modified crops have the same goals in mind, which include: achieving sustainability, promoting the long-term environmental benefits of reducing the use of resources such as fossil fuels and water, securing economic prosperity for agricultural communities, and reducing our environmental footprint. We just differ on the way to achieve these goals. We have 13 years of data from about 25 countries in the world that demonstrate that ag biotech crops are much more environmentally friendly compared to what was done in the past and support the continued use and development of genetically modified crops.


Agriculture: Africa's "Engine for Growth" - Plant science & biotechnology hold the key

- October 12-14, 2009 Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, Herts, UK


This international meeting is designed to bring together approximately 75 motivated/innovative Africa scientists with another 75 leading researchers and their teams from other countries working on basic science and areas related to the improvement of African agriculture. This international arena will allow dynamic interactions to discuss cutting edge research issues and promote science, education and policy issues related to Africa. This meeting is designed to address key issues by examining existing plant science knowledge, possible applications and development of new technologies, together with their use for improving crop performance in Africa. The need to enhance education in novel areas of plant research and biotechnology that might provide suitable solutions for Africa will also be addressed.

Our key aim is to assist the participation of African scientists in this dynamic interaction. We therefore encourage African researchers with an interest to offer papers/posters. We will use these as a basis for selection and we aim to offer a contribution of their funding to all selected African participants.’


Production Increases Must Come From Many Countries

- Martha Blum, Agri News Online, april 26, 2009

As the world population continues to grow, American agriculture will not be able to feed and fuel the world by itself. It will require the efforts of farmers around the globe.

“That means it will include the development of agriculture in areas where there are underutilized resources like South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa,” said Neil Conklin, president of Farm Foundation, during a meeting hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

During the event, the group discussed its report, “Renewing American Leadership in the Fight against Global Hunger and Poverty: The Chicago Initiative on Global Agriculture Development.” The council developed the report to provide members of the 111th Congress information about the impact of rural poverty and food insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

“If we’re going to follow the strategic plans laid out in this report, one thing we’re going to have to do is be able to engage the support across the board of our population in the United States,” Conklin said. “And that includes those engaged in commercial agriculture in the United States.”

Conklin used his grandfather’s farm from the late 1920s that was located in Vermont as an example. At that time, his grandfather used horses and a team of oxen to complete farm chores. The dairy cows were milked by hand and there was a dirt road that connected the farms to the closest market.

“The key for my grandfather to become more successful was infrastructure like roads and electricity,” Conklin said. “It required not only government money but development in the private sector to build the systems we have today that connects producers to consumers.”

One of the biggest challenges today in the United States Conklin said, is that there are two competing visions for agriculture. “One is large-scale, science-driven farms that are connected to consumers through large national supply chains,” he explained. “The competing vision is small-scale agriculture that is connected to consumers through local efforts.”

Conklin expects the future lies in neither of these visions alone, but instead both of them together. Per Pinstrup-Andersen, H.E. Babcock professor of food, nutrition and public policy in the division of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, said that in just 20 minutes, 200 pre-school children had died.

“Most of them are in Africa and South Asia, in the rural areas and a large share died because the of crop failure that resulted in extreme poverty,” he said. “During that same 20 minutes, millions of farmers were misusing natural resources by climbing up hillsides, cutting down forests and extracting nutrients from the soil,” Pinstrup-Andersen said. “But they didn’t have a choice because science hasn’t reached them and they’re just trying to survive.”

Poverty causes degradation of natural resources and child death, Pinstrup-Andersen said. “Science can help us produce more food for future generations,” he said. “We are still adding around 70 million people to the world population every year.”

It is also important to utilize science to increase productivity by helping farmers produce more per unit of land and more per unit of water, or more crop per drop, Pinstrup-Andersen said. “From 70 to 80 percent of the world’s fresh water is used in agriculture and much of it is wasted,” he added.

Utilizing science can also help reduce farmers’ risk. “This is particularly important with climate change and changing weather patterns that are more severe or more unpredictable,” Pinstrup-Andersen said. “We need to be ready for drought, floods or strong winds.”

Gerald Steiner, executive vice president of sustainability and corporate affairs for Monsanto Co., emphasized the importance of developing locally adapted solutions for agriculture, especially for seed.

“The challenges that are faced in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are really the same challenges from an agricultural perspective that the rest of the world faces,” Steiner said. “We need to double food production by 2050.” This increase in food production is a daunting task, he admitted. “It needs to be done with the relatively same amount of land and water so that means we have to get more out of rain,” Steiner said. “The Green Revolution means getting more productivity out of each unit of input.”

Agriculture is an incremental business — where every year builds on the previous year. “We are making progress,” Steiner said. “Today we’re producing a bushel of corn in the United States for 30 percent less energy than 20 years ago.”

That’s why it is important for some consistency of investment and policy to occur for many years, according to Steiner, “because you take little steps every year and keep building on it.” Low-income countries that expand economic growth on the basis of agricultural development will import more agricultural commodities than countries that don’t grow on that basis, Pinstrup-Andersen said. “Helping developing countries invest more in the agricultural sector will help them, help us and it is the ethnically right thing to do,” he said.

When representatives of developing countries visit the United States to learn about how futures markets operate, David Lehman, director of commodity research and product development for the CME Group said, they are advised to start by developing the cash market.

“In terms of developing these markets, it really comes down to centralized price information about the commodities must be available to more producers and consumers,” Lehman said. “We are applying technologies to other countries,” he said. “Our electronic trading platform is distributed to 86 countries around the world and six of them are in Africa and many are in South Asia.”


World Food Crisis (Part III: New Technologies Tailored to Location)

- Thomas R. DeGregori. August 27, 2008 http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.1184/news_detail.asp

Over the past two days, I reviewed reasons for optimism and pessimism about food production. Today, let's take a closer look at how promising technological solutions to the current crisis must be tailored to the geographic regions that might benefit.

The history of outsiders' views of the tropics, particularly the humid tropics, has varied over time. Early contacts with forested areas in Africa and the Americas gave rise to myths of lush, dense tropical forces with massive undergrowth. This was reinforced by a number of Hollywood movies showing our heroes hacking their way through the dense "jungle." This of course was the view of outsiders who saw the rain forest from the rivers, with little sunlight seeming to poke through, and assumed this meant dense ground-level plant life rather than dense canopies above.

Other myths arose about, for example, it being possible in these regions to build a wooden fence and have the wooden poles start sprouting leaves within hours. Such myths were part and parcel of beliefs about the "lazy" natives who had little else to do but harvest the generous usufruct that the lush tropics provided. This latter belief was particularly prevalent about the Pacific Island "paradises" where the perfectly proportioned natives spent their time swimming in the lagoons, since the land effortlessly provided all that they needed except for what they caught in the ocean. This was yet another myth promoted by Hollywood.

What is required is investment in agriculture and infrastructure that allows for the evolutionary modification of current practices -- using higher-yielding agricultural practices that have been demonstrably successful elsewhere in raising peoples' income and nutrient levels and in facilitating economic development throughout the economy. In recent years, there has been a naive romantic cacophony from the ideological Northern NGOs (with no experience in agriculture) to promote local knowledge and bottom-up local practices. (These are some of the same NGOs that would use the slogan of "food miles" to ban or restrict food imports from Africa -- some friends they are to African farmers.) This is a prescription for continued low yields and increasing problems of famine, as climate change and population grow.

The Green Revolution Was Not Class Warfare
Let me add, from my experience in agriculture and in working with agriculture scientists of all kinds, that no competent agriculturalist makes any attempt to change agricultural practices in an area without first learning in as much detail as possible what the historic and current practices were and are. If expatriate, the agriculturalist will work with local scientists and with farmers to try to improve yields -- as was the case with the Green Revolution, which has made the vast majority of the population of Asia better fed than it has ever been. Often, it is the farmers who call in the scientists to help, as they may be losing their crop to insects or disease. This process was not top-down as often claimed. Rather it was both top-down and bottom-up, combining the best of both. (Anyone who learned about agriculture in developing countries anytime in the last fifty years would have cut their teeth on horror stories about the failures of top-down policies under colonialism but would not simply accept sometimes-unscientific local practices as-is.)

The alleged top-down model for agriculture could have never produced the extraordinary gains of the Green Revolution, particularly for the literally hundreds of millions of rice farmers. Farmers have to be and were involved in every step of the process except for the plant breeding at the research stations. Except for an emergency response to a disease or pest outbreak, farmers had to be shown the benefits of a new variety or the benefits of pesticides, fertilizer or new cultivation techniques. Demo plots are an essential feature of agricultural extension around the world, particularly in those countries participating in the Green Revolution.

For the decline in research spending there is blame enough go around and across the political spectrum. The NGOs may have led the opposition to modern agronomy but when the conservatives/neoliberals -- Thatcher/Reagan -- came to power looking for places in the budget to cut or agencies to privatize, agricultural research was an obvious target (see Robert Paarberg, Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa). As pressures from NGOs and others built for AID donors to take on new tasks on limited budgets, once again agricultural research became the obvious target of choice. This is true right down to the present, as President Bush just announced cuts in the U.S. contribution to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in the midst of the current food crisis (in which the need for increased agricultural research is widely recognized and accepted).

One of the continuing successes of the Green Revolution was the ability to provide new crop varieties with greater resistance to a particular insect or disease threat. As research budgets have been cut for the CGIAR institutions, their ability to respond to the bottom-up requests for improved varieties of stable crops has been severely hampered. Tomorrow, a look at African partnerships that could help fill the gap.

Thomas R. DeGregori, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at the University of Houston and an ACSH Trustee.


James McWilliams, the Contrarian Agrarian on Our Food Future

- Rod Dreher, Dallas Morning News, April 24, 2009. Full interview at

James McWilliams is an emerging voice for agricultural reform whose skepticism of the increasingly important food movement and its goals makes him a decidedly contrarian agrarian. This summer, he’ll offer what he considers a more realistic vision in his forthcoming book Just Food. The Texas State University historian, 40, is considered a young scholar of such promise that he won the Dallas Institute’s 2009 Hiett Prize in the Humanities. He recently chatted with Rod Dreher from his San Marcos office. Here is an excerpt:

You consider yourself an agrarian. What does it mean to be an agrarian in the 21st century, when very few Americans live on a farm?
To be an agrarian is not necessarily to grow food, but to be informed, or at least curious, about how food goes from farm to fork. Honest curiosity leads to honest explorations into how we might become more socially and environmentally conscious consumers. Trust me, there are no easy answers to the conundrum of pioneering sustainable agriculture for a globalizing world, much less consuming according to these goals. Even suggesting answers lands one in a crucible of controversial hellfire.

You forcefully attack some of the core beliefs of your fellow travelers in the movement. For example, many organic farming devotees are strongly against mucking around with the genetic code of fruits and vegetables. You think genetically modified food could actually be a boon to the environment. Explain.

We’ve been “mucking around” with vegetables for 10,000 years. If we didn’t selectively alter the genetic makeup of wild plants we’d have no such thing as agriculture. That said, there is certainly a difference between crossing genes within species and, as is the case with GM crops, crossing genes between species, in order to achieve a desirable trait. Over 2 billion acres of land have been planted worldwide with GM crops since 1997. While there are, as with any technology, a number of potential problems that could occur, we’ve yet to see any of them systematically appear.

Given this cautious endorsement, I should note that the major problem with GM technology is that it’s monopolized by a handful of corporations who use it to grow three monocultural crops: corn, soy and cotton. What I’d like to see is the technology broadly dispersed, made more affordable and adopted to foster the goal of environmental sustainability. It’s currently possible to produce blight-resistant rice, drought-resistant cassava, high-yielding sorghum and grass that, when fed to cows, eliminates the emission of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. None of these products are on the market, however, because the corporate players don’t see a big enough market to justify production and the NGOs and nonprofits are ideologically opposed to plant biotechnology. All I can say is that it’s a good thing we don’t treat GM pharmaceuticals the same way, as a lot of insulin and vaccines are produced through GM technology.

What’s the food future likely to bring?
There’s an instinctive and quite understandable tendency to look at the problems of industrialized food and seek solutions in the agricultural past. The assumption, however, that our forebears hold all the answers is a bit romantic. We have to keep in mind that the world’s population has more than quadrupled since 1900, so the pre-industrial food systems that we often mythologize were nowhere near as burdened to achieve high yields. Beyond that, I’ve never been terribly convinced that pre-industrial food was so safe or ecologically correct.

The future of food production must achieve a balance between high yields and high sustainability. The only way I see this happening is if we stop polarizing our discussions of food into big industrial and small organic, and start seeking common ground over compromises that split differences. We’ll have to eat much less meat, many more whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes; tolerate the judicious use of chemicals in the production of our food; keep an open mind to the potential benefits of biotechnology; and worry less about the distance our food traveled than the overall energy it took to produce it.
James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University and an associate fellow in agrarian studies at Yale University.


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AgriGenomics World Congress 2009

2nd-3rd July 2009, London, United Kingdom http://www.agrigenomics.eu

Select Biosciences is proud to announce their second AgriGenomics World Congress. This year's event will take place at the Centre Point Tower in London.

Alongside an exhibition of selected scientific posters and service providers, Select Biosciences is organizing a two day event gathering some of the most influential players in the field from Europe, America and across the globe.

The agenda will include world leading research from renowned speakers and Keynote speakers will include:

* Brian Staskawicz, Chair of Plant and Microbial Biology, University of California, Berkeley
* Martin B Dickman, Professor and Director, Institute for Plant Genomics and Biotechnology
* Johnathan Napier, Research Leader, Rothamsted Research
* Richard Flavell, FRS, CBE, Chief Scientific Officer, Ceres

The full two day agenda includes the following sessions:

· Enhancing & Understanding Plant Resistance to Disease

· Genomics for Stress Tolerance

· Growth Optimization for Food and Biofuels

· Systems – Based Approaches and Genomic Mapping

If you would like more information then please visit AgriGenomics.eu, or contact Sam Marsden at s.marsden@selectbiosciences.com