Golden Age for GM Crops; Genes In A Twist; Beyond Romanticism; Bt Brinjal: A Lost Cause?; Food Crisis Forces Changes
* A Golden Age for GM Crops?
* Omega-3 Soybean Oil Closer to Commercial Reality
* Genes In A Twist
* Bt Brinjal: A Lost Cause?
* Bt Cotton in India: A Status Report
* Beyond Romanticism
* Race on for GM Crops to Solve Shortages, says Monsanto
* Coalition Agreement: Plant Biotechnology to Receive More Support
* Drought-Tolerant Crops Can End Africa's Food Insecurity
* Africa: Food Crisis Forces Changes on GM Crops
A Golden Age for GM Crops?
- Editorial, New Scientist, Oct 28, 2009
The war over genetically modified foods is entering a new phase. At last, the GM industry has produced what it promised at the outset: a product designed to have real benefits for consumers. It's an oil from soybean modified to produce omega-3 fatty acids essential for health and proven to reduce the risk of heart disease. It can be added unobtrusively to ordinary food products, potentially bringing health benefits to millions.
The oil contains a dietary precursor of EPA, an omega-3 fatty acid that is vital for heart health. One study calculated that in 2005, 84,000 Americans died of heart disease that might have been avoided had they had a sufficient amount of this fatty acid in their diets. That makes omega-3 deficiency the sixth most common cause of preventable death in the US.
The new crop could also relieve some pressure on the world's fish stocks. Demand for omega-3 fatty acids is rising, and at present, the principal way to obtain them is from fish.
Created by Monsanto, the soybean is a far cry from just about everything that the industry has thrown at us so far: modified crops benefiting no one but seed companies and farmers. With these, the perception - perhaps rightly - was that Monsanto and its peers were foisting a technology on us with few benefits for consumers but unknown risks for human health and the environment.
Monsanto's oil ought to nullify that line of attack. Can Friends of the Earth and its allies justify campaigning against a product that could save lives and help reduce over fishing? Of course, they could try the argument that GM technology per se is risky, but that position looks increasingly untenable too. GM crops have been grown on a large scale for more than a decade, and by and large, the predicted environmental catastrophes haven't materialised, nor has anyone suffered health problems through eating GM food.
Can environmental groups justify campaigning against a product that could save thousands of lives?
First-generation GM crops may even have brought unexpected benefits. A recent report from UK consultancy PG Economics charting the global impact of GM crops from 1996 to 2007 found that over that period, pesticide spraying dropped by 8.8 per cent. And because fields don't have to be tilled before planting GM crops, energy savings in 2007 alone amounted to the equivalent of removing 6.3 million cars from the road. These findings are disputed by environmental groups and need to be independently confirmed, but if they hold up it will be time for the technology's critics to reconsider.
Monsanto's oil could represent a defining moment in the debate over genetic modification. Providing cheap access to a proven superfood and relieving pressure on fish stocks are worthy objectives. Only a Luddite would disagree.
Omega-3 Soybean Oil Closer to Commercial Reality for Monsanto and Solae
- Gary Drimmer, Nov. 1, 2009 : www.seedquest.com; Full report at http://www.glgroup.com/News/Omega-3-Soybean-Oil-Closer-To-Commercial-Reality-For-Monsanto-and-Solae-44523.html
The GRAS certification of Monsanto's new omega-3 Soybean Oil is a major step not only for Monanto and their partner on this product, Solae LLC, but a it could also help pave the way to the acceptance of GMO crops around the world. The product still needs to be developed and marketed correctly as it is SDA and not EPA or DHA.
An unusual marriage may be giving birth to a beautiful genetically modified child. Monsanto and Solae LLC have just received GRAS (generally recognized as safe) from the FDA. Solae is majority owned by DuPont with a minority shareholding by Bunge Ltd. Bunge also has a joint venture with Pioneer Seed which is owned by DuPont to market new genetically modified soybean oil traits, which this year has the first commercial low-lin GMO soybean oil in the market which does not require the process that produces trans fats in soybean oil.
GRAS certification is a major benchmark which will hopefully lead to more healthy non-fish omega-3 products in the market. Demand for omaga-3 has been growing faster then supply as the health benefits of omega-3 in infants and adults thanks to the multitude of health benefits that have been recognized. Fish oil is the largest and best source of omega-3, but has the potential of containing mercury that fish capture in their oil, as well as not being friendly for vegetarians. Fish oil is also used a major feed ingredient in aquaculture and animal feeds. Major suppliers of omega-3 from fish oil are Ocean Nutrition, Lipid Nutrition, DSM, Croda, Epax, Cognis, and GC Rieber. Fish oil is high in both of the two most beneficial omega-3 forms, DHA and EPA.
The big question now will be price and finding food companies willing to add more nutritional benefits to their products. Nestle and Unilever are two companies that have been looking to differentiate themselves through food with more health benefits. While all the letters can get confusing, it would be great to have a way to get the EDA and DHA we need without having to take a large fish oil pill each day!
Genes In A Twist
- Editorial, Business Standard (India) Oct 30, 2009
New Delhi - It can be no one’s case that the greatest of caution should not be used while evaluating the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops or that we be blinded to the impact of these crops on reducing bio-diversity. But there has to be a limit to everything.
Nine years after the gene-altered brinjal was first developed, and after over five years of the country’s biotech regulator scrutinising test reports of field trials, Bt-brinjal is still far from being commercialised. Bt-brinjal, which carries the insect-killer gene, cry1Ac, borrowed from a common soil bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis,Bt) has been cleared by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex body for approving GM products.
However, under pressure from the anti-biotech lobby, the environment ministry wants a fresh public debate on Bt-brinjal before finally approving it. This is despite the fact that the results presented by Bt-brinjal’s developer, Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco), have been corroborated by the trials conducted by public sector agricultural research institutes as well as by a couple of state agricultural universities. These results have also been peer-reviewed by at least two expert panels, including the one appointed by the Supreme Court. Their reports were taken into account by the GEAC before granting the final approval.
These bio-safety trials, including toxicity, allergy and nutritional studies, carried out on animals like rabbits, rats, chickens, carps, goats and cows, and environmental evaluation through studies on pollen escape are said to have confirmed that Bt-brinjal is safe to grow and consume. It is true that there is a court case pending on the matter, but this does not automatically forbid the environment ministry from honouring the GEAC’s verdict — unless the court specifically bars it from doing so.
A couple of other points also need to be made, apart from the fact that inordinate delays only act as a disincentive when it comes to further research. It is not just Mahyco’s Bt-brinjal that is at stake here. Other GM products being evolved in the public and private sector include the transgenic seeds of bhindi (okra), tomato, potato, rice and several other key food crops.
The producers of these gene-tailored seeds are awaiting the final outcome of Bt-brinjal before putting up their products to the GEAC for formal approval. It needs to be kept in mind that Indian agriculture badly needs a fresh green revolution to help increase yields as well as help face the threats posed by pests, diseases, drought, salinity and climate change. Had the dwarf wheat varieties of the 1960s (which were also gene-altered, though with conventional breeding techniques) faced the kind of resistance the Bt-brinjal is up against, the country would never have witnessed the green revolution.
And the lesson from Bt-cotton is that, if the authorised launch is delayed beyond reasonable limits, farmers will start cultivating illegal seeds. Since illegal seeds were of indifferent quality and were not accompanied by proper instructions, this caused crop failures and immense economic losses to farmers. Availability of the officially approved and authentic Bt-cotton hybrids, on the other hand, proved a boon for the farmers. In which case, what are we waiting for?
Bt Brinjal: A Lost Cause?
- Harish Damodaran, The Hindu Business Line (India), Oct 30, 2009
Unlike in Bt cotton, there is no organised lobby of growers to push the case for commercialisation of Bt brinjal, says HARISH DAMODARAN.
In March 2002, when Bt cotton was approved for commercial cultivation, there was scant opposition to the Government’s decision. The few murmurs of protest from assorted NGOs and self-proclaimed farmers’ bodies were drowned by the actions of the ryots themselves. Their clamouring for the transgenic cotton seeds was indeed reminiscent of the early Green Revolution days, when the country’s premier agricultural universities reported frequent thefts and raids by farmers jostling for the new ‘magic’ wheat varieties.
Since its introduction in 2002, the area under Bt cotton in India has expanded from a mere 50,000 hectares to some 8.3 million hectares (mh), out of the total 9.6 mh sown to the crop this year. That represents a rate of technology diffusion surpassed perhaps only by the mobile phone — and, as was the case with the latter, something adopted voluntarily and not shoved down anyone’s throat.
Bt cotton’s success is also borne out by the fact that between 2002 and now, the country’s cotton lint output has more than doubled to over 30 million bales, with average yields rising from 300 to 550 kg a hectare. The real test came this year, when the combination of a prolonged dry spell followed by heavy rainfall in September (coinciding with the period of flowering and early square formation) was ideal for infestation by the dreaded American bollworm larvae.
“Bt cotton has clearly withstood that test, with hardly any bollworm damage reported this time. Yield losses, if at all, would be due to moisture stress and other factors unrelated to bollworm,” notes Dr K. R. Kranthi, Director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR), at Nagpur.
Against this background of success, what is all the recent fuss over Bt brinjal about? For one, both these genetically modified (GM) crops basically incorporate the same foreign cry1Ac gene sourced from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt. This gene codes for a protein toxic to insect pests belonging to the lepidoptera order, which include the cotton bollworm and the fruit and shoot borer (FSB) in brinjal. The mode of action is similar in both cases. When the bollworm or FSB larvae feed on plants containing the cry1Ac gene, they also ingest the protein synthesised by it.
This protein then binds itself to the mid-gut of the larvae, disrupting their metabolic activity causing eventual death. The Bt proteins are toxic only to lepidopteran insects, simply because other organisms — human beings included — lack the specific receptors in their guts to bind these proteins.
Food crop logic
So why this caution in granting clearance to Bt brinjal? To put it differently: How have the various environment and so-called farmers’ organisations — with capacity to mobilise a few hundred people at most — managed to strike a chord vis-a-vis Bt brinjal, which they couldn’t for Bt cotton? If one were to conduct a straw poll among office-goers or go by the views expressed in letters-to-the-editor columns, the majority middle-class opinion would probably not favour giving the go-ahead to Bt brinjal. The dominant concern expressed is that brinjal, unlike cotton, is a food crop.
On deeper reflection, it is a specious argument. Cotton fibre, no doubt, is not eaten. But the oil from cotton-seed as well as the de-oiled cake remaining after its extraction are both eaten. While the oil may not be ‘harmful’ (as it does not contain protein material), the same cannot be said about the cake, which is a widely consumed animal feed.
Given that the milk we drink would have originated from buffaloes fed on Bt cotton-seed cake, we may very well have been ingesting this ‘poison’ since 2002! If nothing serious has happened still, the reason is simple. Our intestines cannot produce the receptor proteins (cadherin and aminopeptidase-N) to activate and bind the Bt toxins. Forget humans, even non-lepidopteran pests such as aphids, jassids, mealy bugs and beetles do not possess the specific gut receptors — which is why Bt cotton/brinjal can be ‘safely consumed’ by all these non-target organisms.
Moreover, in brinjal’s case, cooking studies show that the Bt protein degenerates — to the point of being undetectable — on roasting, steaming or even shallow-frying. In other words, you can safely enjoy the bagara baingan or baingan ka bharta from Bt brinjal.
Besides the safety angle, there is also the general fear over GM crops leading to creation of multinational seed monopolies. By that logic though, one should never use PCs, considering Microsoft’s and Intel’s virtual monopoly over the operating systems and microprocessors on which they run. There are surely better ways to deal with such problems than blocking technology outright.
The Indian experience with Bt cotton is quite revealing here. Initially, a 450-gm packet of Bt hybrid seeds, based on Monsanto’s proprietary gene construct, was being sold for Rs 1,600. But over time, the prices fell to Rs 650-750 — courtesy mainly proactive State Governments that forced Monsanto to accept a lower technology fee.
A less crude approach would have involved promoting competition through public-funded research. Rather than facilitating this, the activists instead trained their guns on the technology itself, thereby ironically helping perpetuate Monsanto’s monopoly. CICR’s Bt cotton varieties got released only this kharif season, seven years after the launch of Monsanto’s products. The release of Delhi University’s highly promising GM hybrid mustard has, likewise, been held up because of overzealous bureaucratic bio-safety regulations.
As far as Bt brinjal is concerned, the benefits from it to the farmer are obvious. Brinjal is a 150-180 day crop that starts giving fruit after 60 days, yielding roughly 15 pickings over its lifetime. To control FSB, farmers typically spray pesticides twice before each picking, adding up to 30-odd sprays.
What’s more, the pesticides are effective only against the larvae that are not inside the shoots or fruits of the plant. Once they bore into the shoots or fruits, the larvae plug the entrance holes with excreta and escape any insecticide sprays. Bt brinjal, by contrast, offers ‘in-built’ protection against FSB, significantly reducing the number of sprays along with increasing overall marketable yields.
For all the scientific arguments favouring it, however, the prevailing political environment does not look congenial for Bt brinjal’s release. In Bt cotton, the impetus for commercialisation ultimately came from the farmers, whereas brinjal has no such organised growers’ lobby.
Brinjal is cultivated in less than 0.6 mh, compared with cotton’s nearly 10 mh. Also, unlike say rubber in Kerala, the 9.6-million-tonne annual brinjal production is spread thin across many States. These dispersed farmers would probably be no match for the likes of Greenpeace and Vandana Shiva, who are better placed to influence both middle-class opinion and government policy in this particular instance.
Bt Cotton in India: A Status Report
The Asia-Pacific Consortium of Agricultural Biotechnology (APCoAB), a program of the Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI), has been working to facilitate exchange of information and promote informed opinion across the region on issues of common interest related to agricultural biotechnology. In 2006, APCoAB published first status report on Bt Cotton in India when 40 Bt hybrids were being cultivated on an area of 1.26 million hectares. Besides tracing the development of Bt hybrids and their adoption by Indian farmers, the report highlighted issues that needed to be addressed to effectively harness the benefits that Bt technology promised.
During the past three years, Indian cotton scenario has changed dramatically, largely due to the adoption of Bt cotton. The number of Bt hybrids released for commercial cultivation till date has crossed 600 with more than 35 seed companies and public sector institutions currently engaged in their development. In addition, the first true breeding variety has also been released by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), a public sector institution. This provides an opportunity to the farmers to save their own seed without losing the efficacy of Bt gene. The area under Bt cotton reached 7.6 million hectares in 2008-09 constituting nearly 81% of the total cotton area in India. As a result, the production also reached 4.9 million tonnes. All these are indicators of the extraordinary impact and acceptance of Bt technology in cotton by the Indian farmers. This is quite comparable to the success of dwarf varieties of wheat and rice during the Green Revolution period. Several studies have established considerable economic benefits of Bt cotton cultivation to the farmers of all strata. Another significant development relates to creation of enabling environment by the Government of India. The Ministry of Environment and Department of Biotechnology simplified the regulatory procedures leading to expeditious commercial release, especially of events with well established biosafety record.
In view of all these new developments, it was felt appropriate to bring out an updated edition of our earlier status report on Bt cotton highlighting contemporary issues related to both technology development and its commercialization.
It is our expectation that this revised edition of Bt Cotton in India – A Status Report will be widely circulated and read in the Asia-Pacific region by all stakeholders. The experiences narrated in this report should also help other growing nations in evolving suitable systems of research, testing and commercialization of transgenic crops aiming at sustainability, productivity, food security and poverty alleviation, while safeguarding the environment.
Download at http://www.apaari.org/publications/apaari-success-stories/bt-cotton-in-india-a-status-report-2nd-edition.html
- Paul Collier, Harvard International Review, Vol. 31(2) Summer 2009; http://hir.harvard.edu/index.php?page=article&id=1914&p=2
'Peasant Agriculture is Incompatible with Economic Development; Africa Needs GM Crops'
In the Western imagination Africa now stands for the antithesis of our own modern economy: its authenticity contrasting with our own contrivance. More specifically, the dominant image of Africa is that of the peasant farmer. In contrast to the large, commercial organization in which most of us find employment, the African peasant is self-employed. In contrast to the global market into which we find ourselves integrated, the African peasant produces for subsistence. In place of our restless mobility characterized by frequent changes of job and home, the African peasant is rooted to the ancestral soil. In contrast to our industrialized destruction of the global environment, the African peasant preserves as custodian the natural world. In contrast to our atomistic isolation, the African peasant is bound to a local community by ties of kinship and reciprocity.
As the global crisis has made starkly apparent, the deficiencies of our own economy, so these contrary qualities of the African peasant economy look increasingly appealing. Indeed, the counter-culture in our own society: the new emphasis upon the consumption of local produce, on organic food, and on farmers’ markets, is a pallid version of a lifestyle of which that of the African peasant is the hallmark.
This is not how I see rural Africa: I see not a paradise but a prison. Peasant agriculture offers only a narrow range of economic activities with little scope for sustaining decent livelihoods. In other societies people have escaped poverty by moving out of agriculture. The same is true in Africa: young people want to leave the land; educated people want to work in the cities. Above all, people want jobs: peasants are unavoidably thrust into the role of risk-taking entrepreneurship, a role for which most people are unsuited.
Globally, where people have the choice between the defined structure and safety of wage employment and the open-ended responsibilities of the entrepreneur, overwhelmingly they choose wage employment. Entrepreneurs are important, but in a well-functioning economy they are a small minority. The reality of peasant life is one of drudgery, precarious insecurity, and frustration of talent.
Millions of young Africans live out the reality of the most apt epitaph on rural life, Grey’s Elegy: “many a flower is born to bloom unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” Free to choose, they would abandon the peasant lifestyle. People remain peasants not out of preference for a lifestyle but because in Africa the normal process of economic development by which industry creates productive urban wage employment, has yet to start: their choice is between scratching an inadequate living as a peasant farmer, or the squalor of urban marginality.
Of course, concerned individuals around the world recognize that African peasants are desperately poor, not just in terms of income, but also in health and education. Yet our remedies for the overwhelming poverty of African peasant farmers are palliative not structural. We seek to raise farm incomes by increasing crop yields, to improve health standards through rural clinics, and to improve education through village schools. Our aim is to reconcile peasant farming with greater prosperity.
I am not hostile to these efforts: we should do whatever we can to ameliorate the conditions under which African peasants struggle to lead satisfying lives. But we should recognize these approaches for what they are: they are highly unlikely to be transformative. We know what brings about a transformation of opportunities and it is not this.
The Perils of Peasantry
The poverty of African peasants is not accidental: it is intrinsic to the peasant mode of economic organization. The very features that make the peasant mode of production appear attractive to jaded members of an industrialized society also make it unproductive. Large scale organization of specialized production, and integration into markets, are fundamental to the generation of income at a level that we now regard as necessary for a decent quality of life. We have been blinded to this evident fact by our own romantic attachment to the preservation of a society which is the antithesis of the modern.
The preservation of the peasant mode of organization has always been incompatible with economic development, but in Africa the issue is even starker than in other developing regions. Africa has the fastest population growth rate in the world, so that if the extra workforce is to be employed in peasant agriculture the average size of plot will continue to decline. Paradoxically, it is in Asia rather than Africa that peasant life may become viable because there the urban economy is now generating sufficient jobs for the rural population to be declining. This permits the average size of plot to increase, enabling peasant living standards to rise.
The failure of Africa’s urban economy and the consequent continued rise in rural populations will tend to reduce labour productivity and so African agriculture will continue to struggle simply to hold rural incomes constant, let alone for them to rise in line with incomes elsewhere in the developing world.Not only will peasant agriculture be stressed by rising population, it will be stressed by a deteriorating climate. Global warming is already adversely affecting African agriculture: in the large semi-arid areas of the continent average temperatures are rising and average rainfall is declining so that cultivation will become more difficult. Around this gradual long-term trend, climatic variation is becoming more pronounced. Crop yields can be severely reduced by brief episodes of flooding, drought, and intense heat. As a result of climate change it is, for example, possible that in Southern Africa the staple crop of maize may become unviable. This deterioration contrasts with climatic change in the Northern Hemisphere where most agricultural production is already concentrated. As temperatures rise, huge territories of Canada and Central Asia will become better-suited to agriculture. As a consequence, Africa will become both absolutely and relatively less suited to agriculture.
The Promise of GMOs
African agriculture needs to adapt in order to become more productive and for this it needs new technologies and new modes of organization. To cope with climate change new crop varieties need to be developed. This will not happen within peasant agriculture: the sector is chronically ill-suited to innovation. New varieties require the antithesis of the peasant economy: they need big science. Indeed, to the horror of European environmentalists, they need genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Genetically modified crops were promptly banned in Europe in 1996: the powerful lobby for agricultural protectionism astutely whipped up a combination of anti-Americanism (the research was done by US corporations) and health scares, portraying GMOs as “Frankenfoods.”
Despite five decades of independence, Africa is still intellectually in thrall to Europe, and so virtually all African governments also banned GMOs. Because GMOs have been banned in Africa, there has been very little genetic modification (GM) research on the crops that are Africa-specific. As with much research, the lead time to the development of viable crops is long, around fifteen years. Ironically, the resulting lack of appropriate GM crops is used as an argument against the introduction of GM.
Africa needs all the assistance with crop adaptation that it can muster. GM is not a panacea, but it offers the prospect of developing varieties that can not only cope with climate change but are resistant to the fungi and pests that currently destroy so much of harvested crops in storage. Any non-governmental organizational (NGO) movement that was truly supportive of African opportunities would be pro-GM. The widespread opposition of the Northern development NGOs to GM reflects their real priorities: Africa is to be preserved, not developed.
In addition to big science, African agriculture needs big organizations. Although there are few scale economies in crop growing, there are important scale economies in all the ancillary activities: innovation, investment, finance, marketing, processing, and logistics. Commercial organizations exist because they are better able to solve such problems than are solo operators. Brazil has developed its agriculture using this approach and its companies are now interested in moving into Africa. But the idea of commercializing African agriculture remains taboo.
The development agencies that are hugely influential in African policy-making because of their large funding are in turn influenced by the attitudes of the Western NGOs. Although the clients of the development agencies are African, their paymasters are American and most especially European. A few years ago the World Bank estimated that around 80 percent of its incremental resources would come from Europe.
Europe, even more than the United States, is romantically attached to the peasant lifestyle that its own societies have abandoned. As a result the development agencies have been silent on the issue of GM, and have virtually ignored commercial agriculture. But most especially, they have failed to focus on the predominant implication of the poor prospects of African agriculture: the region needs to industrialize.
For millions of ordinary people industrialization has been a process not of bondage but of liberation from the drudgery of peasant life. Indeed, within Africa this is the predominant aspiration. Industry can expand to take up additional workers simply by augmenting its capital stock: capital can be expanded whereas land cannot. Further, industry is not dependent upon climate.
As India and China, the other major low-income regions, have rushed towards prosperity, Africa’s diverging income has given it the prospect of being competitive in global industry. This is, indeed, the common aspiration within Africa, but it is the donor agencies that have set the agenda in recent years, and their agenda has been skewed towards social services and rural development: industry has taken a back seat.
The neglect of public spending for industrialization is important because Africa’s low wages are not, by themselves, enough to make industry globally competitive. Breaking into industry is difficult: markets are global and established producers in Asia benefit from the scale economies that come from clustering firms together in large cities. Approximately, each time a city doubles in economic size the productivity of its inhabitants rises by 4-8 percent. African firms are handicapped in global markets by the small economic size of African cities: a problem of the chicken and the egg. One reason for the small size of Africa’s cities is the extreme political fragmentation of the region into 54 nations, each with a restricted national market. Few cities have a sufficiently large hinterland to grow truly large.
The solutions to a problem are not necessarily closely related to its cause. Africa’s difficulty in being a latecomer trying to break into global markets for industry is due to Asia having got in first, but reversing Asian development is evidently neither feasible nor desirable. Similarly, while Africa’s political fragmentation has greatly compounded the problem of the inadequate scale of its cities, genuinely greater political integration is at best a long term aspiration: Africa’s presidents are not about to make themselves redundant by merging their tiny fiefdoms. Nor is greater protection of the tiny African markets going to promote viable industrialization. Industry is increasingly global for a good reason: specialization raises productivity.
For Africa to industrialize, the developed world will need to adopt two complementary approaches. First, to break into global markets, Africa indeed needs protection in foreign markets. Rich countries need to provide temporary protection to new African entrants into industry from established Asian producers. This would provide African producers with a competitive advantage to offset the chicken-and-egg problem: once African clusters of firms grow to a competitive size, privileged access to our markets could be discontinued.
Second, we must focus our aid programs away from the social-rural agenda that has been predominant in recent years to one of targeted infrastructure for industrialization. African ports and power stations need to be brought up to international standards in order for firms in export zones to be able to insert themselves into global markets. In Asia, such zones have created many millions of jobs, and they could be transformative for the opportunities faced by ordinary Africans.
Astonishingly, this vision of urban industrial employment is opposed by many NGOs. Wedded to the romanticism of peasant life, they condemn wage employment in export industries with the vocabulary of “sweatshops.” Indeed, low-skill industrial jobs are mundane and routine by the standard of youthful aspirations in developed countries.
But the climb out of absolute poverty is not a tea party. Most US citizens owe their current prosperity to the work of previous generations immigrants who struggled through low-skill, mundane employment. Today it is possible to shorten that phase: China is rushing through it far more rapidly than the equivalent period of industrialization in America or Europe, but it is not possible to eliminate it.
The granting of privileged market access to Africa and the reorientation of aid to industrial infrastructure depend upon decisions by our governments, but NGOs are sufficiently influential to block these decisions. To give a trivial but concrete example of this influence, I draw from experience. When evaluating the program of a major continental European aid agency, I urged programs more closely related to support for industrial opportunities instead of agriculture, health, and education programs. However, the response was that the country’s NGOs were not interested in such industrialization programs and thus they could not be prioritized. But blocking industrialization does not produce a kinder economic development; rather, it condemns Africa to further decades of stagnation.
It is time to get real. The organic peasant life is a luxury that appeals to those jaded by the downside of affluence. Ordinary Africans recognize peasant agriculture for what it is, and the most ambitious seek to leave. We have more influence over African opportunities than we realize: our legislators and our development agencies take their priorities not from African preferences but from ours. Our trade policies and our priorities for aid could reshape those opportunities.
Until we shed the romantic notion that Africa can escape poverty while preserving its huge peasantry our policies will continue to be but a shadow of their potential.
*Paul Collier is Professor of Economics at Oxford and Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies. He is the author of The Bottom Billion which won the Lionel Gelber and Arthur Ross prizes for 2008. His latest book, "Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places," was published
Race on for GM Crops to Solve Shortages, says Monsanto
- Asa Wahlquist, The Australian, October 30, 2009
Agricultural technology company Monsanto hopes to double crop yields by 2030 as well as reduce the amount of fertilisers, chemicals and water used by a third, by combining conventional plant breeding with genetically modified lines.
Harvey Glick, Monsanto's senior director of scientific affairs, said gains made by conventional breeding have slowed down and argues the next step will be "the gene revolution", a combination of conventional plant breeding with biotechnology.
Global shortages of grain last year led to price hikes, food riots and more hunger. The UN has warned global food production will have to increase by 70 per cent by 2050. The world population is expected to reach 9billion by 2050, up from 6.8billion today.
The last great leap in food production was the "green revolution", which doubled cereal production between 1970 and 1995, while increasing the area by less than 5 per cent. The green revolution introduced high-yielding cereals into developing countries, along with modern agricultural techniques.
The father of the green revolution, Norman Borlaug, is credited with saving more than a billion people from starvation.
Dr Glick said that, for seven of the past eight years, "we have been consuming more of our (grain) stocks than we're producing, so we're in a very precarious situation". Dr Glick said the gene revolution "will produce the next significant increase in yield to help us deal with the challenge of producing enough food for the planet". He said conventional breeding would continue to develop high-yielding varieties of the major cereal plants, corn, rice and wheat and soybeans. "But then the second part of the yield equation is biotechnology, to help protect the yield that you have put in that seed using conventional breeding."
Dr Glick said crops genetically modified to give the plants pest resistance, or herbicide resistance, had already produced increases in yields. The CSIRO reports that in the only well-established GM crop in Australia, cotton, farmers now use about 20 per cent of the insecticide they previously used on conventional cotton. GM canola is being grown in commercial quantities for the first time this year.
Australian farmers were anxious to grow GM canola to compete with the world's biggest canola grower, Canada, where GM canola has shown a yield increase of between 6 and 10 per cent and a 40 per cent reduction in herbicide. Work is under way in the US on drought-tolerant corn, which could be on the market by 2012. He said almost 60 per cent of the 125 million hectares of biotech crops grown last year were in developing nations.
Monsanto has joined with the non-profit International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in a public-private partnership to deliver drought tolerant maize to smallholder sub-Saharan farmers. "We recognise there's a real need to improve the lives and capabilities of the poorest of the poor, but it is very difficult to do this," Dr Glick said. "That's why we're partnering with the AATF (African Agricultural Technology Foundation), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others who can help us get this technology into the hands of farmers who need it."
Coalition Agreement: Plant Biotechnology to Receive More Support
- Gabriele Völcker, GMO Safety, Genius GmbH, Darmstadt, Aachen http://www.gmo-safety.eu
The coalition agreement presented by the new German government on Saturday advocates responsible use of plant biotechnology in Germany. Key aspects of the agreement between the CDU, CSU and FDP are an endorsement of the cultivation of genetically modified Amflora starch potatoes, flexible, regionally determined minimum distances between fields with genetically modified crops and fields with conventional crops, and positive ‘GM-free’ labelling at European level. As far as the German cultivation ban on MON810 maize is concerned, the coalition intends to await the outcome of the ongoing court case.
Annette Schavan (CDU) is still Research Minister. In terms of research policy, the future government coalition intends to "develop further the accountable innovation potential of biotechnology and gene technology". The coalition sees "big opportunities for Germany as a research and industry location" in the fields of biotechnology and gene technology.
On the one hand, the agreement emphasises the fact that the coalition would like to achieve a stronger scientific orientation and more efficient EU approval procedures for GMOs in future. However, its intentions regarding the existing cultivation ban on MON810 maize remain unclear. Although leading scientific organisations and the Commission for Biological Safety in Germany consider the ban to be unjustified from a scientific point of view, all that the coalition partners managed to agree on initially in this case was to await the outcome of the ongoing court proceedings.
The agreement does not state a position on the issue of field trials with GM plants. A large number of biosafety research projects are conducted in the field in order to assess potential effects of GM plants under realistic conditions. However, in September, the Bavarian environment minister, Markus Söder (CSU), spoke out against field trials with genetically modified plants, claiming that the risks to the environment and population were simply too great.
The coalition partners want to change the Genetic Engineering Act to allow the federal states to set their own minimum separation distances between fields with genetically modified plants and fields with organic or conventional crops. The idea is to draw up a nationwide framework, although this is not defined in any more detail, so it is not yet clear whether such minimum distances will have to be based on scientific criteria in future.
The reaction of groups and associations to the agreements has been mixed. Germany’s organic food industry association (BÖLW) has severely criticised the agreements on plant biotechnology contained in the coalition agreement, saying it was "unbelievable" that a specific product produced by one company was mentioned in the agreement (the genetically modified Amflora potato). Greenpeace sees the agreement as evidence that the interests of corporations "clearly come before protection of the environment and people".
By contrast, the German Raiffeisen Association, an umbrella organisation that represents the interests of cooperatives in the German food and agriculture sector, welcomed the fact that the agreements promote the potential of plant biotechnology as an industry of the future. It claimed that this would make an important contribution to freedom of choice. What was needed now was to implement a legal framework in Germany and Europe that would prevent distortion of competition and would, in particular, make it feasible to work with European Community Law’s zero tolerance for GMOs not authorised in the EU.
Drought-Tolerant Crops Can End Africa's Food Insecurity
- Dr. Daniel Mataruka New Vision (Kampala, Uganda), Oct 29, 2009
A crisis is looming over the small-scale farms of Africa. Experts agree that climate change is manifesting itself in the form of prolonged drought in many parts of Africa. This is having a devastating impact on millions of resource-poor, small-scale farmers. And yet, for the first time in history, we have solutions in hand that can help these farmers cope with the effects of drought.
We can prepare them for climate change by rapidly increasing the development and use of drought-tolerant crops in Africa. We know how to do this. We just need the political will to get it done. The choices we make now and in the coming years will determine how quickly these new crop varieties can be put into the hands of Africa's farmers, helping to boost yields and reduce poverty and hunger.
The prolonged drought affecting East Africa is making global headlines. Food Agriculture Organistaion estimates that, because of drought, Kenya's vital maize crop, which accounts for 80% of the country's annual cereal production, will drop by more than a quarter below its usual level. The World Food Programme estimates that across East Africa, more than 20 million people are on the brink of starvation and in dire need of food aid.
Research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research provides strong evidence that the emerging effects of climate change will only make this situation worse. If their predictions hold true, many of Africa's small-scale farmers will become increasingly vulnerable, and our efforts to ensure food security and prosperity for the nations of sub-Saharan Africa will be imperiled.
If the climate predictions are correct, Africa's toughest days are still ahead of her. We must prepare. Scientists and even political leaders recognise that drought tolerance is one of the most desirable traits to target in breeding better crops for Africa (and globally, for that matter). Thus, to help Africa's farmers meet the challenge of climate change, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation is leading a public-private partnership called "Water Efficient Maize for Africa," which aims to develop drought-tolerant maize using conventional breeding, marker-assisted breeding, and biotechnology.
These drought-tolerant varieties will help stabilise maize yields and assure small-scale farmers of harvests, especially during periods of moderate drought.
While maize is crucial to food security in East and Southern Africa, our efforts must extend beyond this crop. To cope with climate change, we will need an arsenal of new drought-tolerant food crops, including rice, sorghum, millet, cassava and other staples. These will be vital to food security not only in East and Southern Africa, but elsewhere as well, particularly in West Africa's Sahel region.
Sadly, African farmers have yet to benefit from such modern technologies, which have improved the productivity and lives of farmers in other regions. The problem is political, not scientific. Africa's technology gap exists largely because most countries do not have functional regulatory systems that are needed to assess, approve and deliver new agricultural products to farmers.
Without better policies and regulations that make good, higher-yielding seeds and inputs available, the reality is that Africa's most vulnerable farmers will continue to fall further behind farmers in other parts of the world. We stand on a precipice.
Wise decisions now will change the prospects for Africa's food situation in the long term. It is possible for Africa to be defined by prosperity and enjoy ample supplies of food for its people, despite global food crises, increased episodes of drought and the extremes of weather brought on by climate change. Action now requires increased collaboration, broader partnerships and continued support from development partners to secure food security for Africa.
The key stone to Africa's future food security and independence is political will and especially policies that enhance, rather than hinder, productivity and profitability of its small-scale farmers.
The writer is the executive director, African Agricultural Technology Foundation
Africa: Food Crisis Forces Changes on GM Crops
- Daniel Mataruka, AllAfrica.com, Oct 29, 2009 http://allafrica.com/
Can Africa have a green revolution? Most certainly so. If we are able to take advantage of the new technologies that are becoming available, using molecular biology tools, or using biotechnology tools and products, Africa should be able to achieve a green revolution.
So are you saying that there can only be a green revolution in Africa if the continent adopts these tools? It is easier to adopt these tools because we are able to incorporate resistance into a seed. For example, if it is pest control, instead of having to apply chemicals we can put into the seed tolerance or resistance to that given [pest]. One of the problems with African farmers is they are resource poor. They are not able to have resources to purchase fertilizers, pesticides, have irrigation systems in place.
If money was not a constraint we could achieve a green revolution through not necessarily biotechnology, but if we could put irrigation systems in place, if we could afford to purchase fertilizer, pesticides, we should be able to reach a green revolution as what happened in Asia. But being resource poor if we can now incorporate drought tolerance into the seed we then do not necessarily have to invest in massive irrigation infrastructure.
Do you sense the mood is changing in Africa toward greater acceptance of genetically modified crops? Yes, I think there is a movement toward more and more acceptance. Many countries are now beginning to have frameworks which are allowing researchers to start to test some of these genetically modified crops through confined field trials, even though they have not got to the stage of allowing commercialization. But five to 10 years ago it was unheard of in a lot of African countries that you would be allowed to test genetically modified crops.
Why the change now? It is probably because more and more African countries are having a reduction in per capita food production. The general African today in the resource poor environment consumes less than what the person consumed 10 years ago. And there is a food crisis.
How about the pledge by the G-8 this past July of US $20 billion for agriculture? Do you see any focus of future funds to support genetically modified food production in Africa? I think there is still a lot of controversy between the way the U.S. sees genetic modification and the way Europe sees it. When you are seeing more and more countries in Europe pulling out of using genetically modified crops and America, South America, India and China they are going ahead. Now within the G-8 there are different voices. But I would hope there would be more money going in that direction (supporting genetic modification) and for agriculture specifically. What I find surprising is GM seems to be very acceptable when it comes to medicine, while when it comes to agriculture they are pulling away from trying to support biotechnology.
Tell us a about the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project you’re working on.
The Water Efficient Maize for Africa project is made up of a partnership of CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center), one of the leading maize breeding institutes in the world; Monsanto, a leader in agricultural sciences; and five African governments who are going to directly benefit from the products which will be derived. AATF plays a leading coordinating role in this whole project.
What we are expecting to see is two types of hybrids – hybrids that will have been bred using conventional plant breeding methods, and also hybrids that are going to be transgenic - having genes that confer drought tolerance under moderate stress. We expect yields in excess of 10 to 15 percent with the conventionally bred materials, and [yields] of and of up to 25 to 30 percent with the hybrids which have got the transgenically bred hybrids.
Which African countries plan to use the transgenic, or genetically modified, hybrids? South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. These countries are going to test for the performance of the both the conventional materials and the transgenic materials.
Would you say that these countries are the leaders in Africa when it comes to more progressive thinking on genetically modified crops? There are other countries. Zimbabwe – it started testing for transformed plant materials several years ago. It was one of the first, probably the second after South Africa. South Africa has already commercialized the planting of genetically modified crops: cotton, soya bean and maize. Burkina Faso has already commercialized the growing of cotton, but [the country] is not part of this project. Egypt has also commercialized the growing of genetically modified crops, specifically maize, but it is also not part of this project. So I would not say these countries are the trend setters. They are countries which can and are willing to be part of this project, but that is also demonstrating changing sentiments among a wide range of African countries.
How about Nigeria? Nigeria is now the first country in Africa to be growing genetically modified cowpea. We are growing the cowpea under confined field trials. These materials [plants] have been transformed with the gene for resistance to the pod borer, and that gene is going to be transferred into the locally preferred materials in Nigeria. So the farmer is having that resistance bred into the seed where they do not need to apply as much pesticide on their cowpea crop as they did before. What used to happen is some of these farmers would use pesticides meant for cotton on a food crop like cowpea. When you use herbicides you kill unintended pests and insects so we believe this is going to be very environmentally friendly. It is going to specifically target the pod borer.
What kind of work are you doing with rice? We are looking at nitrogen use efficiency and salt tolerance. Nitrogen use in rice in Africa we have two eco systems where where we have got what you call lowland rice, which is grown on areas which are not very high above sea level and the soil in those environs tend to be saline. They they tend to have a lot of salt in them. So we are looking at developing salt-tolerant lines for those environs while as you go upland beccause of the resource poor nature of the farmes they do not have enogh money to buy the fertilize. So we are breeding for those environments plants which with an ability to efficiently use nitrogen so an application of not so much fertilizer the farmer is able to harvest quite signifantly increased yields because the plant has an efficient way of using the nitrogen.
What do African governments need to do to support this work? I think African governments need to create an enabling environment. To support this work they need to manage the regulatory environment. Once these materials have been developed and tested and found suitable they need to create an environment, which will allow co mmercialization of these hybrids so the farmers can take advantage of them.
And the farmers, have they been supportive? The products we are developing right now are at the very elementary stages of development. African Agricultural Technology is an organization that started just a few years ago. The nature of plant breeding is such that when you start a plant-breeding program it is like an eight-to-10-year program. We are not specifically going out and trying to excite farmers before we have this product available. Because you go to farmer and you say, ‘We have water-efficient maize for Africa,’ and the farmer says, ‘Give me the seed,’ and we say, ‘Oh, we will only be able to give you the seed in 2015.’ So we do not want to create that expectation and fail to deliver.
So the people who are excited at the moment are us who know the potential of what this thing is all about, the people who are giving the technologies and the scientists within the national program who have an understanding of their environment and what their farmers want.
One of the interesting things about Africa is a lot of these scientists in these African national programs are men and women who were brought up in villages so they know what their families want. They subsidize their families in the rural areas because these people are unable to produce enough to feed themselves. So when they want money sent to them to supplement their food requirements until the next harvest it is these researchers who send money back home.
What is the over-arching objective of your organization? To see a prosperous African farmer who is food secure. And our intent is to negotiate access to proprietary technologies and have them delivered to these farmers who otherwise would never have access to such technologies. And we would want to deliver them to these people at an affordable rate.
Did you grow up on a farm? My parents had a village. My father worked in the city, my mother lived in the village. During the school term we would b e in the city and every holiday we would go to the village and work with my mother in the fields.
What do you remember most from that? The pain associated with weeding.
Maybe you’ll come up with something to destroy weeds forever. Part of these technologies is looking at trying to build into the seed an ability to resist some of these constraints. Hence the use of herbicide-tolerant maize, for example, which has recently been commercialized in places like South Africa. It confers resistance to, say, a given herbicide to the crop of interest. So when you spray this herbicide it will kill every other plant but your plant of interest is left intact. It is similar to the cowpea where we are breeding in resistance to the pod borer so the farmer doesn’t necessarily have to go and spray. The plant has built-in resistance against that pest.
Daniel Mataruka is director of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) in Nairobi. The non-profit organization aims to improve the lives and agricultural output of resource-poor farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Mataruka spoke with AllAfrica.com’s Cindy Shiner about some of the foundation’s projects and prospects for genetically modified (GM) crops on the continent.