* The Global Food Crisis - The End of Plenty
* Unnatural Progress
* European Elections: The Anti-Science Sentiment Infecting Politics
* Danforth Plant Science Center Begins Leadership Transition - Beachy Stepping Down
* Germany: Green Genetic Engineering Essential
* OECD's The Bioeconomy to 2030: Background Documents
* Renewed Hope for Genetically Engineered Crops in India
* Edible history of humanity
* War and peas
* Filipino Scientists Developing Virus-Resistant Sweet Potato
* Ethics of Biotechnology in Agriculture to Alleviate Hunger
* Die Hard DNAistas!
* ABIC 2009: Agricultural Biotechnology for Better Living and a Clean Environment
The Global Food Crisis - The End of Plenty
- Joel K. Bourne Jr, National Geographic, June 2009. Full text http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/06/cheap-food/bourne-text
Some incredible (but also some depressing) photos at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/06/cheap-food/stanmeyer-photography
It is the simplest, most natural of acts, akin to breathing and walking upright. We sit down at the dinner table, pick up a fork, and take a juicy bite, oblivious to the double helping of global ramifications on our plate. Our beef comes from Iowa, fed by Nebraska corn. Our grapes come from Chile, our bananas from Honduras, our olive oil from Sicily, our apple juice—not from Washington State but all the way from China. Modern society has relieved us of the burden of growing, harvesting, even preparing our daily bread, in exchange for the burden of simply paying for it. Only when prices rise do we take notice. And the consequences of our inattention are profound.
Last year the skyrocketing cost of food was a wake-up call for the planet. Between 2005 and the summer of 2008, the price of wheat and corn tripled, and the price of rice climbed fivefold, spurring food riots in nearly two dozen countries and pushing 75 million more people into poverty. But unlike previous shocks driven by short-term food shortages, this price spike came in a year when the world's farmers reaped a record grain crop. This time, the high prices were a symptom of a larger problem tugging at the strands of our worldwide food web, one that's not going away anytime soon. Simply put: For most of the past decade, the world has been consuming more food than it has been producing. After years of drawing down stockpiles, in 2007 the world saw global carryover stocks fall to 61 days of global consumption, the second lowest on record.
"Agricultural productivity growth is only one to two percent a year," warned Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., at the height of the crisis. "This is too low to meet population growth and increased demand."
High prices are the ultimate signal that demand is outstripping supply, that there is simply not enough food to go around. Such agflation hits the poorest billion people on the planet the hardest, since they typically spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food. Even though prices have fallen with the imploding world economy, they are still near record highs, and the underlying problems of low stockpiles, rising population, and flattening yield growth remain. Climate change—with its hotter growing seasons and increasing water scarcity—is projected to reduce future harvests in much of the world, raising the specter of what some scientists are now calling a perpetual food crisis.
So what is a hot, crowded, and hungry world to do?
That's the question von Braun and his colleagues at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research are wrestling with right now. This is the group of world-renowned agricultural research centers that helped more than double the world's average yields of corn, rice, and wheat between the mid-1950s and the mid-1990s, an achievement so staggering it was dubbed the green revolution. Yet with world population spiraling toward nine billion by mid-century, these experts now say we need a repeat performance, doubling current food production by 2030.
How we did it before? http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/06/cheap-food/green-revolution-illustration
In other words, we need another green revolution. And we need it in half the time.
- Thomas G. Dolan, Barron's, June 1, 2009
'Using science to help the world feed itself'
There's an unimpressive bush sitting In a pot in a greenhouse on the roof of a Monsanto laboratory building in Creve Coeur, Mo. It stands about two feet high; it's quite leafy; it bears little ears of something that looks vaguely like corn. It is teosinte, a precursor of corn, a wild Mexican plant with a minimal yield of food.
The teosinte is sidelined, like an ancient ballplayer on the bench watching while vigorous youths play the game. In that greenhouse and others in the same building are some of the most modern corn plants in the world.
The teosinte was never a star. From it primitive farmers evolved the actual corn plant, which fed native Americans before the Europeans came and now feeds people and animals by the billion.
Nature's Unnatural Bounty
Corn is an unnatural plant. It was the invention of many humans, who cultivated and bred it for thousands of years. Breeding corn was a matter of conserving seeds from successful plants. Under this kind of care, the corn plant evolved, growing taller and stronger, with more ears and more kernels per ear.
The rise of scientific farming and genetics accelerated the evolution of corn, especially in the U.S., where hybrid corn seeds were developed in the 1930s. It has accelerated again since the invention of genetic engineering, by which scientists have introduced a few new traits into corn plants to make them more fruitful.
Monsanto corn seeds on the market today are resistant to the company's powerful herbicide Roundup, so they can grow with less competition from weeds. They also carry their own defense against corn borers and root worms.
Monsanto's genetic engineers have also added similar characteristics to soybeans, cotton and canola. Other companies, notably DuPont, are equally active and inventive. Coming soon: plants that need less water and are resistant to drought; newly engineered strains of vegetables and sugar cane.
Further in the future, botanical bioengineers aim to improve the resistance of crops to disease and more pests. They expect to create higher-yielding strains of wheat and rice, crops that deliver more nutrients and vitamins, trees that more efficiently capture carbon dioxide, corn that produces more ethanol, soybeans that produce more biodiesel.
An Endless Race
Total world grain production has been failing to keep up with demand. Reserve stocks were reduced in six of the last nine years, by a total of 120 million metric tons. As a percentage of total consumption, stocks of corn, wheat and rice are lower than at any other time since the shortages and inflation of the 1970s.
To handle rising demand for food and rising population, world grain production will have to double from now to 2050. Some say this is nearly impossible, noting that it would require cultivation of hundreds of millions of new acres of farmland if there were no increase in yield. But they miss the opportunities among the challenges.
The major opportunity is that much agricultural land is not enriched by capital. The history of agriculture is still manifest in poor countries. There is little or no fertilizer, little or no farm machinery, little or no education about farm management, little or no irrigation, little or no access to the best seeds -- and a great deal of hunger.
More than 800 million people in the world are chronically hungry. In a world full of shocking statistics about poverty, one of the most shocking is that half of those hungry people are farmers.
"They farm with biblical tools and lousy seed," says Hugh Grant, CEO of Monsanto. His company makes a good business out of a mission to provide farmers everywhere with the best possible seed.
In the U.S., where corn yields have doubled since 1970, doubling again doesn't seem like science fiction as much as it does in the backward places of the world. But in such places there is so much more opportunity and so much less confidence. Only 25% of arable land in Africa is cultivated. The whole continent accounts for only 2% of the world's consumption of fertilizer.
Michael Doane, leader of Monsanto's sustainability team, cites the example of Malawi, a small, poor country in south-central Africa. Corn yields there average 10% of the average U.S. yield. "Just by moving away from open-pollinated corn varieties to hybrids, and by using fertilizers, they've increased their yields almost fourfold in just a very short time."
Such farmers of course need financial aid to obtain fertilizer and better seed, especially because hybrids lose their productivity in later generations. A farmer cannot simply save seeds from his crop and continue to get the benefit of a hybrid's vigor.
Monsanto and other companies also aggressively defend their patent rights, preventing farmers from using second-generation seed. Some misguided activists think the companies are committing economic piracy, but they fail to consider the source of the productivity that makes the seeds desirable. It's not the seeds themselves but the capital investment that created the seeds -- nearly a billion dollars of investment per year at Monsanto alone.
Farewell to Subsistence
Credit and logistics are essential, but once they are provided, local farmers can enter the global cash economy. This kind of aid turns compassion into investment. Says Doane: "If a food-aid program delivers a ton of U.S. grain to a village in Malawi, it costs about $700. If they grow a ton of grain in the village, they can do it for $70." The money earned in the local market can buy more seed and more fertilizer. It pays for local farmers and everyone in the local economy.
See how far people have taken the teosinte -- further and faster, century by century. This kind of progress, driven by investment and technology, makes it possible for billions of people to live on Earth, and can make a better life for them.
The teosinte should remind Monsanto's scientists, and the rest of us, that change is one of the essential characteristics of human existence. Humans should serve evolution as much as evolving plants serve humans.
European Elections: The Anti-Science Sentiment Infecting Politics
- Posted by Frank Swain and Martin Robbins, June 1, 2009
Full blog at http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2009/jun/01/european-elections-science-stem-cells-gm
Science has a role to play in guiding virtually every aspect of policy, and yet a survey of the main political parties' attitudes to key scientific issues reveals a startling lack of clarity
On Thursday, millions of us will go to the polls to decide how Britain is represented in the European Parliament, but few will have the faintest idea where the candidates stand on issues that affect the food we eat, the air we breathe, the energy in our homes and the chemicals in our environment.
Science is at the heart of our modern world, and it deserves to be at the heart of political discussion too.
To make informed choices on the challenges facing us we need evidence backed up by robust science, but we rarely stop to question how well our representatives support or understand science issues in Europe. When we do, the answers can be disturbing.
This apathy to science is not a new problem. Writing in New Scientist 20 years ago, Debora Mackenzie described plans for science in European election manifestos as "disappointing". Today, it hardly rates a mention: the Conservatives' European election manifesto mentions the word once; it doesn't appear in Labour's manifesto at all.
All three main parties give commitment to research only a fleeting mention – either as part of Britain's move to a "knowledge-based economy", or one of a raft of measures employed to safeguard the environment. Party positions on subjects such as nanotechnology, stem cell research, genetic modification, agriculture, nuclear research and spaceflight remain unclear, even though the European Research Council is responsible for billions of euros of spending in these and other areas.
Decisions made in Europe will have a tremendous impact on the UK's scientific industry, our research institutions and our healthcare, so isn't it about time we started asking questions about our MEPs' attitudes toward science?
In 2008, vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin drew criticism for her absurd beliefs – from Creationism to climate denialism – but few seem to realise how far that same anti-science sentiment has crept into our own politics. We submitted nine questions to the main parties on various aspects of science, including attitudes toward climate change, stem cell research, and energy dependency. Their answers were far more revealing than we expected.
In 2006 the EU's mammoth REACH framework came into force, compelling industry to submit health and safety data on all of the tens of thousands of chemicals manufactured in or imported to the EU – around 90% of which we know little or nothing about. However, Tim Worstall, speaking for Ukip (the UK Independence Party), called this framework "a grossly expensive farce", adding "it should of course be repealed".
Indeed, Ukip's attitude to science in general concerned us, and one wonders how many people would still be happy to register protest votes with the party if they were aware that some of its key members believed the concept of manmade climate change to be a conspiracy.
The less said about the Christian Party (which wants to change the Welsh flag because it believes the dragon is a Satanic symbol the better. The Green Party built its reputation on progressive social policies, but we were surprised by its anti-science stance. It told us that the party is proposing an EU-wide ban on research involving embryonic stem cells, citing the vague possibility of "unforeseen outcomes harmful both to individuals and to society".
As for GM food, the party seeks to ban the importation of any genetically modified organisms into the EU, apparently uninterested in seeing if research produces evidence of benefits contrary to their beliefs, and unaware of the disastrous consequences this would have on British science.
One scientist working with science communication group Evidence Matters, said: "Sharing resources is at the heart of scientific collaborations and by preventing this the Green Party could potentially irreparably harm the collaborative opportunities open to UK and EU scientists. [Its] position betrays a fundamental lack of awareness of the details of modern biological research and displays no understanding of the importance of sharing resources between scientists across countries and continents."
It is encouraging to find that there appears to be a solid consensus between the major parties where we need it most. All agree on the importance of climate change and have comprehensive policies on how to tackle it, from investment in renewables to improved energy efficiency in homes, transport and industry. Likewise they could detail their plans to improve energy security in the face of the EU's infamous dependence on external sources.
The Liberal Democrats could even boast that they helped reduce animal experimentation while still supporting the need to test new chemicals, thanks to an insistence on data sharing.
However, many parties struggled to find their own position on less mainstream subjects. The European elections need to be about more than immigration and "new rules from Brussels". Science has a role to play in guiding virtually every aspect of government policy. Because of this, it is vital that our elected officials can demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of science policy.
But unless we, as voters, demand clear thinking on these issues from our candidates, science will continue to be the ghost at the European elections.
Frank Swain is a freelance writer and blogger. He runs SciencePunk.com. Martin Robbins is a blogger at layscience.net and works in R&D
Danforth Plant Science Center Begins Leadership Transition
ST. LOUIS, MO, June 1, 2009 – The Board of Directors of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center has approved a leadership plan designed to continue to build upon the growth of the last decade. A search committee, headed by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos, is beginning an international search to find a successor to Roger N. Beachy, PhD., the center’s founding president, who will join the board as vice chair once a successor is in place. Beachy will continue his laboratory and his local, national and international leadership roles as well as be available to help with the transition. Beachy has led the Danforth Center as it has grown in its first decade from an ambitious idea to become the world’s largest independent research institute for plant sciences.
The plan developed by directors and approved in May 2009 is designed to insure continuity of the organization as it moves into its second decade. As recently announced to the faculty and staff of the center the target for the change is July 2010. Should the committee not identify a replacement by the July date, Beachy will remain in his role until a qualified candidate is on board.
“This succession plan provides the Danforth Plant Science Center an opportunity to build as successfully in the next decade as in has in the last,” said William H. Danforth, MD, chairman of the Danforth Center. “We have been fortunate that our first president is one of the world’s most able and respected plant scientists, who also understands fully both American and international agriculture as well as the nexus between science, innovation and business. Under Roger’s watch, the Danforth Center has exceeded expectations as measured by traditional milestones in the quality of its science and in its international reputation. Roger, in addition to recruiting an internationally-recognized faculty has built strong relationships with the scientific community, as well as private and government funders. His leadership has been dynamic, visionary and dedicated to human betterment. We are grateful for his determination to work to ensure that his legacy will continue to be enhanced. The succession model we have adopted has been successfully used by other complex organizations including Washington University and MIT,” he added.
In his role as Vice Chair of the board, Beachy will, in addition to continuing his regional, national and international leadership roles and several research projects, be of inestimable benefit to the board and to his successor as others master the complexities of overseeing the multiple activities of the Danforth Center.
“During these early years of the Danforth Center I have had the privilege of working alongside world-class colleagues in an organization with a great board, compelling vision and inspiring values which has been energizing and rewarding. I have been honored to work with so many talented, dedicated individuals and organizations since the Center’s inception. Their involvement has been a very large part of our success. I look forward to joining the board and continuing to pursue the science and its applications in the Center and on a world-wide basis,” Beachy said.
Germany: Green Genetic Engineering Essential
- Michael Gardner, University World News, May 31, 2009 http://www.universityworldnews.com/
The German Research Foundation has released a joint memorandum with the German Agricultural Society calling for a change in current policy on research into genetic engineering. The two organisations complain that research in this field is being hampered more and more by "misguided political decisions", referring to the current ban on growing genetically modified crops, but also by the illegal destruction of field tests.
Together with the society, the foundation, Germany's chief research funding organisation, argues that scientists working in higher education and other public-funded research as well as in medium-sized enterprises are increasingly being forced to either restrict research projects in green genetic engineering or even abandon them entirely. They fear that this could lead to Germany losing an important research field altogether in the long run.
Speaking at the presentation of the memorandum in Berlin, DFG President Matthias Kleiner stressed the need for basic research in green genetic engineering and the importance of field trials, but also pointed to the special responsibility of science in assessing the opportunities and risks of green genetic engineering.
"This high level of responsibility is something that our scientists are fully aware of, and they take it very seriously," he said. But Kleiner also argued that such a sense of responsibility had to be matched by an equivalent amount of freedom, with responsibility and freedom being "inextricably linked in basic research".
"We must learn the lessons of Lampedusa and face the challenge of global nutrition, even here in abundant Germany," warned DLG President Carl Albrecht Bartmer, referring to the growing number of refugees on this Italian island as a symbol of population growth and food shortages. "Germany and Europe, privileged by their know-how, land and climate, but above all by a highly qualified and innovative agriculture and food industry, bear a special responsibility here."
Arendt Oetker, President of the Donors' Association for the Promotion of Science and Humanities in Germany, emphasised the importance of a high-tech strategy for Germany. The Donors' Association provides administrative support for a wide range of foundations contributing to higher education and research in Germany, but also runs a number of programmes promoting academic fields itself.
Strategies to improve Germany's competitiveness were crucial to the country's prosperity, Oetker argued. But hampering the practical application of green genetic engineering and politicians stirring up fears were detrimental to demands for innovation. "Especially now, in times of the most severe economic crisis in 80 years, we stand emphatically against this position," Oetker said.
OECD's The Bioeconomy to 2030: Background Documents:
The concept of a bioeconomy covers a broad range of economic activities, each benefiting from new discoveries, and the related products and services arising out of the biosciences. The futures project, assessed how pervasive biotechnological applications are likely to become, the prospects for further development over the next two to three decades, the potential impact on the economy and society, and the policy agenda needed to promote and diffuse this new wave of innovations in a way that is consistent with broader socioeconomic goals.
The Bioeconomy to 2030 project's final report is now available (link).
• “Agricultural Biotechnology to 2030,” by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
• “Small and Medium Enterprises in Agricultural Biotechnology,” by Steven C.
• “Intellectual Property Rights in Agricultural and Agro-food Biotechnologies to
2030,” by Michel Trommetter.
• “An Overview of Regulatory Tools and Frameworks for Modern Biotechnology:
A Focus on Agro-Food,” by Mark Cantley.
• “Biotechnology: Ethical and social debates,” by Nicolas Rigaud.
(See above link to download these and other documents---CSP)
Renewed Hope for Genetically Engineered Crops in India
- C Kameswara Rao, AgBioView, June 1, 2009. www.agbioworld.org (Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Presently, Bt cotton containing the Cry 1 Ac gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis is the only commercialized genetically engineered (GE) crop in India. The cultivation of Bt cotton in India has increased from 0.5 mill ha in 2002 to 7.6 mill ha in 2008 (isaaa.org), which strongly indicates that the Indian farmers have ignored the activist noises and accepted the technology for its benefits.
During 2002 to 2008, Indian Bt cotton scenario changed rapidly in terms of the number of Bt farmers, approved hybrids (three to about 150), transgenic events (one to five) and seed companies (one to over 30). During this period, farmer profits increased between 50 to 110 per cent, yield increased between 30 to 60 per cent and the pesticide use reduced by over 50 per cent, benefitting about five million resource poor farmers. The country has greatly enhanced its cotton production and export.
The antitech activists have now sensed the loss of their protracted battle against Bt cotton, and shifted the focus to Bt brinjal (aubergine, egg plant) and other GE vegetable crops. Bt brinjal containing the same Bt gene Cry 1 Ac as in cotton is developed against the shoot and fruit borer of brinjal that causes enormous losses both to the farmer and the consumer. Bt brinjal is awaiting the approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for commercial release. If Bt brinjal is successful and finds favour with the farmers and the consumers, several other Bt crops now in advanced stages of development would be commercialized and the major battle to prevent GE food crops from becoming an important component in the Indian agriculture would be lost.
The activist groups have filed two ‘Writ Petitions’ (WP) in the Supreme Court of India (SCI), demanding a moratorium against the development of GE crops. The activists intend to halt the regulatory process, so that this will preclude commercial release, not just for the period of moratorium if sanctioned by the SCI but several years after it was lifted later. They also insist on implementation of regulatory tests, designed by one of their science faces, which was said to take some 20 years to complete, so that the process of GE crop development in India would be halted for over a quarter of a century. In either case it would be a death knell for GE crops in India which is certainly against the interests of the country.
The stand of the activists smacks of double standards, as they have not been visibly against biotechnology in pharmaceutical or other industries which constitute an influential segment.
Fortunately, the SCI has adopted a balanced view and earlier permitted field trials of certain GE crops. Now, during the hearing of the WPs on April 29, 2009, the Bench observed that ‘GM seeds could possibly be a means to eradicate hunger and poverty. Poverty is probably more dangerous than the side effects of GM seeds’.
On the submission by the Petitioners, the SCI Bench suggested an intense working of the existing regulatory regime and asked the Government to consider setting up of a National Centre for Assessment of GMOs. The Government rightly replied that ‘there are already several laboratories set up in various Universities (and research institutions) which are doing research work on GM’. Over a dozen public sector and other institutions are involved in biosafety evaluation of GE crops, supervised by the Review Committee for Genetic Manipulation (RCGM) before the GEAC takes the final decisions on the open field trials and commercialization. It is impossible for any single centre to handle the entire biosafety regulatory process as it requires diverse areas of expertise.
The Petitioners seem to have also suggested constituting an expert committee on lines of a 1997 Committee for the regulation of hazardous wastes constituted on the orders of the SCI, but this is superfluous and wholly irrelevant to GE crops.
Activists also constitute political pressure groups as politicians consider them as vote banks. Obviously disappointed with the results of their anti-GM campaigns, which have not so far yielded the desired results, the activists sought the support of the political parties, taking advantage of the recent general elections. As reported widely in the Indian Press on April 30, 2009, except for the Congress party, the leading member of the outgoing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government, all the other parties fell in and expressed anti-GE sentiments in their election manifestoes. The political parties might have considered it expedient to accede to the activist demands in return for electoral support. In an extremely volatile electoral situation where no party was confident of its poll prospects, the chances of coming to power and to be bound to a pre-poll promise were bleak.
The statements of the political parties do not sound total opposition, but that GE crops would not be allowed ‘without full scientific data on long term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers’, as the Bharathiya Janatha Party, the lead member of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) proclaimed. This implies the lack of scientific data on the safety of GE crops in development, which is not true and reflects the ignorance or deliberate indifference of these parties to the biosafety regulatory process in India which is among the very stringent regimes in the world. Then how long is a ‘long term’? Even now biosafety evaluation takes a minimum of nine years, which is actually longer than necessary. The major objective of current procedures of biosafety evaluation is to ensure that GE products are safe to the consumers and the environment. How does one assess long term impact on consumers directly? Some parties demand labeling of GE foods, which is not a bad idea even if it is difficult to implement in a country dominated by scientific illiterates, which includes the activists, the politicians and the media.
The Communist parties are more retrogressive. The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist; CPI M-L) said that no GE crops should be introduced and field trials should be halted immediately. The Communist Party of India (CPI) wanted a moratorium on GE crops and favours organic farming, which would take the country backwards by some 50 years. Both the Communist Party of India (Marxist; CPM) and CPI would scrap the India-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture, if they come to power, which is a dream, when they lost their position as pressure groups which they enjoyed with the UPA Government, till the show down on the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement last year and now totally out of reckoning. The Indian Communist parties seem to forget how strongly China, the life spring of their ideology, is committed to GE in agriculture to a great advantage, which for no valid reason the leftists want India to lose.
The miniscule regional parties in Tamil Nadu joined the chorus of ‘no GE crops’, reflecting localized ignorance.
The glaring dishonesty of the political parties lies in that they have been coalition partners in the earlier NDA Government or the outgoing UPA Government or both, and under the Principle of Collective Responsibility of the Cabinet or as supporting partners of the respective coalitions, they have been a party to promoting research and development of GE crops in the country for over a decade. For political gains they now sing a different tune.
By providence all the parties that declared an anti-GE stand lost in the elections (of course not for that reason) taking the wind out of their stated opposition to GE crops. In the reconstituted UPA Government Agriculture stays with the same Minister who supported modern agricultural biotechnology. The Ministers for Science and Technology, Environment and Forests, Health and Family Welfare, and Commerce and Industries, concerned with biotechnology in one or the other way, are all from the Congress party, giving hope for a continued promotion of GE crops. For one thing, soon the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) Bill will sail safe through the Parliament to become a Law, which will inspire public, political, professional and media confidence. The NBRA will also convince the SCI against imposing a moratorium on GE crops. But the activists would continue their tirade even after losing, so long as funding would be available.
A country’s science policy should be framed by its scientific fraternity and managed jointly by the relevant scientific institutions and the appropriate departments of the Government but not by vested interest that uses junk science to pursue inept politics, often with support from foreign agencies. The new Government should ensure this.
'An Edible History of Humanity'
New Book by Tom Standage (Hardcover), Walker & Company (May 12, 2009) ISBN-10: 0802715885. Amazon.com price $17.16
“This meaty little volume… ‘concentrates specifically on the intersections between food history and world history.’ But history isn’t Standage’s only concern. He takes the long view to illuminate and contextualize such contemporary issues as genetically modified foods, the complex relationship between food and poverty, the local food movement, the politicization of food and the environmental outcomes of modern methods of agriculture… Cogent, informative and insightful.”—Kirkus Reviews
War and peas
- The National, May 28. 2009 http://www.thenational.ae/article/20090529/REVIEW/705289989/1007
'A new book purports to explain 10,000 years of human history through mankind’s evolving relationship with food. Matthew Price looks sceptically on the commodity fetish that dominates history writing today.'
'An Edible History of Humanity - Tom Standage ; Walker & Company ; Dh60'
In defence of the vocation of history it is often said that we can only understand the present by reference to the past. But it is equally true that each present writes the past it prefers to read – and animates and reshapes it according to the ideas and beliefs of the present.
The sweeping “world histories” that emerged in the early part of the 20th century – bulging multi-volume works like Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History and Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization – attempted to chart the lifespan of humanity through the rise and fall of civilisations and, in particular, to chronicle and explain the evolution and triumph of the West.
Today the rise and fall of civilisations no longer seems a pressing matter, and the broad canvas on which historians once painted has mostly fallen from favour. If the publishing industry is any barometer, the oft-mocked thesis of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” – that “all of the really big questions had been settled” in favour of liberal capitalism – may be correct after all: every week, it seems, brings a new history of milk, or caffeine, or tobacco, or cotton. The secret to understanding history, it seems, no longer lies in the dialectic or class struggle, the idea of progress or the triumph of liberal democracy, but in our furniture (there’s even a history of the bookshelf), the clothes we wear, or the food we eat.
If the present writes the past to reflect its own preoccupations, then it should be no surprise that the age of conspicuous consumption prefers the history of commodities to that of ideas and movements. Today it would seem naive to believe that an idea could change the world, but it’s perfectly credible to assert that the potato did. Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity doesn’t limit itself to a single starchy tuber, however – it’s a world history for the food-obsessed, an update of Toynbee or Durant suited to an age when more people are more concerned with what they put in their mouths than at any time in human history.
Standage, the business editor of the Economist, who earlier produced a potable history of humanity called A History of the World in Six Glasses, here compresses 11,000 years of eating into a brisk 269-page tour d’horizon that adds up to a defence of its own conceit. If we are obsessed with food, according to Standage, we have every right to be: human history can – and must – be explained by the evolution of our relationship to food and its production. Human progress has marched hand-in-hand with developments in agriculture and food production; looking back, we can see that food itself has “acted as a catalyst of social transformation, societal organisation, geopolitical competition, industrial development, military conflict and economic expansion. From prehistory to the present, the stories of these transformations form a narrative that encompasses the whole of human history.”
This is a recipe for an all-night banquet of historical ideas, but Standage gives us a modest morsel that won’t you give you indigestion. His “ingredients of the past” can be summarised as follows. The advent of farming and agriculture transformed man from hunter-gatherer into sedentary farmer and made civilisation as we know it possible. Food surpluses and irrigation systems enabled political centralisation and social stratification. Trade in foodstuffs like spices connected civilisations – Arab, Christian, Asian – in a global trade network, which had profound historical consequences: the settlement of the Atlantic world, for example, was spurred by Europe’s attempt to circumvent the Arab spice monopoly in the 15th and 16th centuries.
It turns out, of course, that the people who made history needed to eat while doing so, and Standage produces abundant examples to prove it. It was “sugar and potatoes”, he writes, that enabled the Industrial Revolution in Britain, providing “cheap sustenance for the workers in the new factories”. Armies were defeated and wars lost for lack of food supplies, millions murdered in famines under Stalin and Mao, and millions more sustained by the Green Revolution that transformed agriculture in the developing world.
But Standage is not out to prove that humans required food to have history: with his eye on the present and its contentious debates about the politics of food, his history serves as a kind of riposte both to goody-goody bien-mangeants like Michael Pollan and anti-GMO campaigners who scorn technological advances in food production. At a time when many people yearn for earlier alternatives to industrialised agriculture, Standage reminds us that advances in fertiliser production and the use of high-yield crops have brought unprecedented prosperity to much of the world.
To understand the debate over genetically modified foodstuffs, he argues, we must look back to the very beginnings of agriculture. If we understand “natural” to mean uninfluenced by human action, then food production has always been unnatural – the history of food is a history of human manipulation of food, a series of technological innovations no less important than the internal combustion engine.
Barley and wheat, millet and rice, maize and potatoes – the cereal crops that fed the first civilisations in the Near East, Asia, and the Americas – are “human creations, carefully crafted tools that are used to produce produce food in novel forms, and in far greater quantities than would occur naturally”. They are inventions, Standage writes, “deliberately cultivated technologies that only exist as result of human intervention”.
Farming, in fact, is a relatively recent innovation in human history, and Standage – who like his peers in the commodity history game cannot resist sweeping claims about his subject – notes that it has “done more to change the world, and has had a greater impact on the environment, than any other human activity”.
For 100,000 years, humans subsisted as hunter-gatherers. But some 11,000 years ago, we began to hunt and gather a little less, and to cultivate cereal crops for sustenance. The process was a gradual one. Hunter-gatherers still foraged for food, but became less mobile, spending much of the year at a single encampment.
The rise of farming had other, less desirable consequences. Hunter-gatherers had a less strenuous life than you think – only a few days out of the week were spent collecting food – and a kind of rough equality prevailed. Labour-intensive agriculture changed all that. Those who exploited and controlled food surpluses achieved power and rank; others led lives of grim toil.
Noting the environmental impact of this change – deforestation, social disruption, and “ the genetic modification of plants and animals to create monstrous mutants that do not exist in nature and often cannot survive without human intervention” – Standage writes that “agriculture would surely not be allowed if it were invented today”. He is right indeed, given the hue and cry about modern farming practices. And yet, he adds, “it is the basis of civilisation as we know it”.
It was not such a big leap from gathering wild grains to cultivating them. But early farmers did not know what they were up to; as Standage notes, via trial and error, these “ancient genetic engineers” domesticated wild plants, propagating desirable traits.
Maize, for example, which took root in Mesoamerica around 3500BC, derives from the much smaller teosint, a wild grass. Through a gradual, unwitting process, early farmers altered teosint’s genetic make-up, which made it less able to survive in the wild, and more reliant on human care. The resulting crop, however, was bigger, more edible, easy to grow, and thus became a vital staple of early civilisation.
In the Fertile Crescent and Far East, similar processes gave rise to wheat (8500BC) and rice (7500BC). Humans became dependent on their innovations, which in turn became dependent on human care. Rice, for example, lost its ability to survive in floods. (As Standage nicely puts it: “more convenient food, less resilient plant”.) Farming spread, taking language and customs with it. Today, he points out, some 90 per cent of the world’s population speaks a language originated in regions where two of the first cereal crops originated, the Fertile Crescent and China.
This is fascinating stuff, but it has its limits. To portray the vast complexity of human progress through our cultivation of edible goods is invariably reductive. It is de rigueur for the subtitles of commodity history books to claim that their subjects “changed the world”. The sceptical reader will realise that it’s not possible for every humble vegetable, seed, colour and hand tool to have altered the course of human history – unless, of course, they all did, which is probably rather closer to the truth.
When a single commodity, or a class of them, is pressed into service as an explanation for all of history’s twists and turns, monocausality runs rampant, and rhetorical excess is not far behind. Standage calls the 1909 synthesis of ammonia – a crucial component in the manufacturing of fertiliser – a “technological breakthrough that was to have arguably the greatest impact on mankind during the 20th century”, a claim that could be made more plausibly on behalf of the microchip, the aeroplane or the atom bomb, and probably a hundred other things.
Standage himself, in response to a 1998 survey to determine the most consequential invention of the millennium, wrote that “the most important invention is telecommunications technology: the telegraph, the telephone, and now things like the internet.” (That same year he published a history of those things, The Victorian Internet.)
But perhaps the commodity histories – Standage’s among them – are really arguments about the present and how we got here; his comments on contemporary food controversies and the book’s excellent overview of the green revolution, in fact, make for a fine polemic on the politics of food today. His account of the past is most useful for its admirably pragmatic argument about how we should now view the food we eat. For all our technological advances, the problem of feeding the planet has not yet been solved: in short, Standage argues, the world still needs a “second green revolution”. “It is far too simplistic to suggest that the world faces a choice between organic fundamentalism on the one hand and blind faith in biotechnology on the other,” he concludes. “The future of food production, and of mankind, surely lies in the wide and fertile ground in between.”
Matthew Price, a regular contributor to The Review, last wrote on Alan Wolfe’s history of liberalism.
Filipino Scientists Developing Virus-Resistant Sweet Potato
http://businessmirror.com.ph/ MAY 31, 009 1
ORMOC CITY, Leyte—The Philippines hopes to have a genetically modified (GM) kamote (sweet potato) in the next five years. Scientists from the Visayas State University (VSU) and the University of the Philippines Los Baños, Institute of Plant Breeding (UPLB-IPB) are now working on the development of virus-resistant sweet potato (VRSP) through Agrobacterium-mediated transformation.
Sweet potato is a popular cash crop abundantly planted in more than 120,500 hectares in the Philippines. Of 15 known sweet-potato viruses worldwide, eight of these can be found in the country. The most widely spread and important among these, is the sweet potato feathery mottle virus (SPFMV), which is associated with leaf curl, a disease known as “Kamote Kulot” in Luzon.
“The virus-disease complex has been reported to reduce the yield of sweet potato by 40 percent to 60 percent in Leyte and 85 percent to 98 percent in Albay,” says Dr. Manuel Palomar, vice president and VRSP project leader of VSU.
Dr. Palomar said VRSP sweet potato can be developed through the transfer of coat protein gene of the SPFMV into local varieties of sweet potato through a phenomenon called “cross-protection.” Currently, we already have our gene of construct for the VRSP, and it is being validated. The transformation and tissue-culture components are under optimization and hopefully, we expect to have the field trials of the VRSP by 2011,” shares Lolita Dolores, a virologist and project leader from UPLB-IPB, at the recent Training-Workshop on Risk Assessment and Social Marketing of Public-Sector Biotech Product held at Sabin Resort Hotel, Ormoc City, Leyte.
Ethics of Biotechnology in Agriculture to Alleviate Hunger
- American Humanist Association May 26, 2009 http://www.americanhumanist.org/
New York, N.Y. - On Friday, May 22 and Saturday, May 23, the Appignani Bioethics Center, in collaboration with the University of Montreal, Bioethics Programs, held a conference titled Food, Famine and Future Technologies: Ethical Dilemmas in a Hungry World. The event featured a range of experts on science, ethics and policy who explored the ethical issues involved in applying biotechnology to agriculture as a method to reduce poverty and hunger.
This panel brought together some brilliant minds to share ideas, research, teachings and arguments related to such fundamental questions as, how do we feed and continue to feed the world?" said Dr. Ana Lita, director of the Appignani Bioethics Center. "Is biotechnology a viable way to reduce hunger and poverty? Can we afford not to take advantage of such innovations as genetically modified food even while there are still real concerns about the their safety?"
Panels explored genomics research in agriculture, developments of sustainable nutrition for growing populations, environmental safety and sustainability, lessons learned from genetically modified organisms for health and development, and how to benefit human health and the food supply using genomic crops, among other topics.
Panelists included a variety of noted scholars, representatives of international organizations, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and some NGOs who took a broad and cross-disciplinary approach to addressing such issues. For a full list of panelists and more information about the event please visit the Appignani Bioethics Center website: http://humanistbioethics.org/appignani-upcoming-events.html. Video of the event will be made available in the coming days.
Die Hard DNAistas!
ABIC 2009: Agricultural Biotechnology for Better Living and a Clean Environment
- September 23 – 25, 2009, Bangkok, Thailand
The aim of the session on Plant and Animal Biotechnology is to bring together agricultural scientists to share research experiences. The focus of the conference is to emphasize the aspects of science and community in assuring food security, feed availability and sustainable energy.
The highlight topics are - Achieving Large Scale Replacement of Petroleum by Cellulosic Biofuels without Impacting Food and Feed Production while Benefiting the Environment and Economies; Manipulating Cell Separation Processes for Crop Improvement; The Challenge of Enough Nutritious Food; GM Crop for Food, Feed and Energy; Gene Technology for Grain Legume Improvement; Plant-Made Vaccines to Prevent Diarrheal Disease