Today in AgBioView *
* Ethiopia Biodiversity Law Threatens Food Aid Shipments
* Biotech Wheat to Drive US Wheat Yield Challenge
* GM: Tested Safe - Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw
* Drought Resistance Explained
* Researchers Complete Draft Genome Sequence for Cassava
* Ireland: Fischer Boel Comments Expose Green Party'S Backward Stance on GM
* Australia: Call for Inquiry into GM Feed Study Funding
* The Fight Over the Future of Food
* Food: Is Monsanto the Answer or the Problem?
* Reducing Uncertainty in Regulatory Decision-Making for Transgenic Crops
* A Wonder Food to be Taken With A Pinch of Salt
Ethiopia Biodiversity Law Threatens Food Aid Shipments
- Peter Heinlein, VOA News November 3, 2009
Ethiopia is reviewing a newly-passed law that could restrict imports of food aid at a time when millions of its people are suffering from severe malnutrition. VOA's Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports on the unintended consequences of a regulation designed to protect Ethiopia's biodiversity.
Ethiopia's parliament passed the Proclamation on Bio Safety with little notice on the final day before its summer recess in July. There was no debate, and no dissenting votes.
The proclamation gives the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority power to block the import of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. The idea was to protect the country's diverse life forms against genetically engineered seeds and grains that some scientists believe may pose health hazards.
But EPA regulators soon realized the proclamation also covers the vast majority of the food aid Ethiopia receives. With the country in the third year of a drought, authorities have just issued an appeal for more aid to feed 6.2 million severely malnourished people.
Member of Parliament Bulcha Demeksa says lawmakers approved the Bio Safety Proclamation without realizing its consequences. "I do not think the parliament understood it. Because everybody knows that food from Australia and Canada, all of them are produced with genetic engineering, and to say we do not want food from these countries is not tenable, it is not intelligent," Demeksa said.
The United States is by far the largest food-aid donor to Ethiopia. At the moment, the U.S. Agency for International Development has 300,000 metric tons of commodities such as wheat, corn-soy blend and vegetable oil on the way to meet the country's urgent needs.
USAID Country Director Thomas Staal says he has received assurances from Agriculture Ministry officials that the law will not be an obstacle to getting aid to needy Ethiopians. "We've gotten assurances from them that it's not going to stop our food aid, it's already en route, some of it, and we're working with them trying to provide them input into what we're bringing in, and they're looking at their rules, and there's going to be a number of directives that will sort of roll out this law and those directives are still under discussion," Staal said.
In a telephone interview, Ababu Anage, head of the Ecosystems Department of the Environmental Protection Authority defended the law as necessary to protect human and animal health. But he said enforcement of the new law is still a subject of negotiation.
"We are not saying we will not [permit] any GMOs to this country. We need the GMOs, but we should give emphasis on the bio safety aspect of it," Anage said.
USAID's Thomas Staal says he has emphasized to Ethiopian officials that all American food aid meets U.S. health standards. "So we do not think it causes any problem with the environment here, and not to people's health or safety. We do not bring in food that we do not eat ourselves in America. And second, we would not bring in any food here that would be unhealthful to the Ethiopian people," said Staal.
Last year, the United States donated close to $700 million worth of food aid to Ethiopia, or 80 percent of the total the Horn of Africa country received. But many see the aid as inefficient. A U. S. Government Accountability Office report suggested more than 40 percent of the cost of the aid goes for transportation and other overhead costs.
In a speech to parliament last month, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi criticized what he called the 'food aid industry'. He accused 'industry actors' of deliberately inflating the number of Ethiopians in need of aid, and suggested their motive is more about profit than about saving lives.
Biotech Wheat to Drive US Wheat Yield Challenge
- Mike Abram, Farmers Weekly (UK), November 12, 2009 <http://www.fwi.co.uk>http://www.fwi.co.uk
Genetically modified wheat will be at the heart of a drive in the USA to increase yields by 20% by 2018, says Daren Coppock, chief executive officer of the National Association of Wheat Growers.
Wheat areas in the country had come under pressure from soya beans and maize because of the relative poor returns from the crop, he explained at the British Crop Production Council congress.
Typically soya beans and maize gave a net profit of $250-$300/acre compared with $100/acre for wheat. Yield gains in those two crops, partly through the utilisation of genetic modification, had been much higher than in wheat, he said.
GM: Tested Safe
- Renuka Phadnis, Bangalore Mirror, October 20, 2009
'Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, while strongly disagreeing with the notion that India has plenty of food or the crisis is a result of poor management of food crops, moots 'responsible introduction' of GM crops to increase productivity'
Biocon Chairman and Managing Director Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw has said the country needs to double its food production in the next 25 years, that too from diminishing resources, for cultivation. In an interview to Bangalore Mirror, she also refutes the theory that the food crisis is a result of poor management of crops. Excerpts:
GM foods are said to yield more and that they are pest-resistant. However, the problem in India is we have more than enough food but no good management of the food crops. It is due to bad management and not lack of food that the poor struggle to buy vegetables.
The notion that we have enough food to go around in this country is not based on facts. Even today, over 200 million of our citizens (almost one-fifth of our population), mostly women and children, are undernourished. There are several studies which show that, just to maintain the current levels of nutrition for our growing population, we need to double our food production in the next 25 years; and that too from diminishing resources for cultivation, like land and water.
Low Food Production
The last economic survey shows the foodgrain production in this country grew by a mere 1.2 per cent per annum between the periods 1990 to 2007, while our population, during the same period, clocked an average annual growth of over 1.8 per cent. The per capita availability of foodgrains and pulses has significantly declined in the recent years. There are several independent studies as well as recent media reports which projects a looming food crisis.
The notion that we have plenty of food, and that the problem is only of management of food crops is borne out of a complete ignorance of ground realities. We need to produce more food to meet the present and future needs of our country and for that we need to increase the productivity of crops. Responsible introduction of GM crops can be one of the potent ways of increasing productivity of crops as has been amply demonstrated in the case of Bt cotton in this country. The productivity of cotton in this country has doubled since the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002.
There is no need for GM foods in India. They are unethical and unsafe. No one knows the full, long-term effects, of GM foods on the people. How do you know the impact of GM foods when the effects will be felt after a generation?
I strongly disagree with this statement. As mentioned earlier, there is a pressing need to responsibly introduce GM crops in Indian agriculture. I would venture to say that it would be highly unethical to keep the millions of farmers and poor people in this country in perpetual penury and misery, by wilfully denying them the fruits of modern science. It would be highly unethical to whip up unfounded fears through organised misinformation campaigns to block technologies that have the potential to bring succour to millions of needy in this country.
No Safety Issues
All GM crops and the food derived from them have been adequately tested for their safety before they are released for commercial use. There are a number of independent peer-reviewed studies which attest to their bio-safety and environmental safety. Further, GM crops bring significant economic benefits to the farmer and the consumer. The fact remains that in the last 10 years, over a billion hectares have been cultivated with GM crops in over 23 countries and there have not been any issues of safety, barring a few unverified reports of sheep deaths in India. The coverage of GM crops around the world continues to increase; farmers around the world cannot be so foolish as to increasingly embrace a technology year after year, if there is any indication that it is unsafe.
Whipping up the fear of the unknown is a standard ruse to stifle the legitimate introduction of such technologies. What is interesting to note is such arguments are most often posed when there is something that would benefit the poor and the needy the most.
Why is not someone asking what will be the long term effect of mobile phones on the health of the future generations? In fact, the safety, both long and short-term, has been tested much more stringently for GM crops, than for other technologies.
* Assuming that proponents want to eat it, growing it is also a problem. Growing GM crops contaminates other crops.
- First of all, I do not believe that GM crops can cause harm (like lead or mercury in food items, or arsenic in water, etc.). In fact all GM crops that are in cultivation today have been proven to be as safe as non-GM crops that they co-exist with, today. 'Contamination' is not an appropriate word to use in this context. Do we speak of hybrid varieties 'contaminating' neighbouring crops? After all, GM crops are in layman's speak, nothing but accelerated natural evolution which is also what hybridisation technology is all about.
Give Farmers Opportunity
* All farmers growing traditional varieties of crops will have to grow only GM crops leading to a monopoly of the latter.
- Of course, if GM crops bring them more tangible benefits, farmers will increasingly adopt them in preference to traditional varieties. Why should one deny our farmers the choice that benefits them the most? The proper way to avoid a monopoly and the consequent restriction of trade practices would be to have policies and systems in place to encourage more responsible firms and institutions to invest in the development and commercialisation of such technologies and give the farmers an opportunity to choose the best.
* The yield of GM crops is good for the first couple of years. Then, the yield starts dropping. It is businesses that want GM foods.
- This is not a correct observation. Farmers will not embrace this technology if this is so. No business can survive unless there is a market demand from consumers. A company selling GM crops or GM foods cannot survive unless the customers, the farmers and the consumers in society, have a demand for their products.
Reducing Pesticide Use
* People cannot buy Bt brinjal as it is high priced.
- Bt brinjal has not entered the market yet, and therefore we do now know how it will be priced. In any case, the price point will have to compete with non-GM brinjal. If not, the demand for unmodified brinjal will drive the cultivation. Remember when you talk about economics, farmers will only produce Bt brinjal if they can sell the product with better realisation. The aim of GM crops is to enhance productivity and reduce pesticide use so that the cultivation is more eco-friendly and the food is healthier for consumption. Why do environmental activists have an issue with this approach? Don't we want a cleaner planet? Don't we want to reduce pollution caused by pesticides? Don't we want the carcinogenic effects of pesticide sprayed foods to be mitigated? Don't these activists subscribe to environmental sustainability?
* It is the job of the BT companies, not of Greenpeace, to prove that these foods are safe. Can you tell us one scientist who will say GM foods are safe? Is there a single study that says GM food is safe?
- BT companies along with the government institutions concerned have shown these products are safe. If Greenpeace doubts these results, they should give specific and scientifically valid reasons. Scientists developing GM crops are all committed to "safe science". I do believe every scientist can hold his hands on his heart and vouch for the safety of GM crops. I believe Mr Hashmi needs to bring the issue of GM crops onto a scientific plane and not resort to false propaganda based on "the fear of the unknown". We cannot have an irrational debate on this subject. (Jean Hashmi heads the 'new media' division in Greenpeace)
* 'Terminator seeds' are not the only issue with GM crops - these seeds are only a Trojan horse. The problem is that the farmer using these seeds will have to buy fertilisers and pesticides from the same vendor, leading him into a debt trap and dependency.
- This is a fallacious argument. It is time that we reject these romantic notions about our farmers that they are gullible and cannot make judgments about their own lives, just because they are poor. Let us be a little more generous in granting them the wisdom, that they actually possess. Today several companies, especially Indian biotech companies, have developed Bt cotton which is bringing prosperity to Indian farmers like never before without any of the "debt trap" and "dependency" aspersions cast by Mr Hashmi.
* About Greenpeace activists beaten up by farmers in the past - what is the source of the data?
- The late Shankarikoppa, of north Karnataka during a meeting at UAS, Dharwad, where Mahyco-Monsanto was conducting GM cotton trials, reported activists were chased away by farmers. This was also reported in the press.
* You have not spoken to Greenpeace. You have not joined any forum of Greenpeace. Any comments?
- On principle, I will not join any forum promoted by Greenpe ace which is about false propaganda. I have supported many initiatives by Greenpeace on anti-smoking, anti-pollution, recycled paper etc. I refuse to join any forum which resorts to fear-mongering.
Form On Safe Science
* Hashmi says he is willing to come on to a public platform with you for a discussion. Would you be willing to join?
- Mr Hashmi needs to engage in scientific discussions with agri-biotech industries, the Department of Biotechnology and research scientists who are pursuing their research on a platform of "safe science". Since I am not in the agri-biotech space, I cannot provide the depth of scientific data that is required to address Mr Hashmi's unfounded fears.
* Hashmi said, 'Greenpeace is not opposed selectively to GM foods/drugs. It is opposed to everything with genetic engineering, including medicines'. Your comments.
- I hope Mr Hashmi is aware genetic engineering has saved millions of lives. Without these genetically-engineering drugs, we would have to contend with alarming death rates across disease. Diabetes, cancer, infectious diseases and a host of auto-immune diseases like Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis are all beholden to genetically-engineered drugs for saving millions of lives across the world. I think Mr Hashmi needs to think before he comments. Even H1N1 vaccines are based on genetic engineering.
(Hat Tip: Shanthu Shantharam)
Drought Resistance Explained
'Structural study at EMBL reveals how plants respond to water shortages'
Grenoble, 8 November 2009 - Much as adrenaline coursing through our veins drives our body's reactions to stress, the plant hormone abscisic acid (ABA) is behind plants' responses to stressful situations such as drought, but how it does so has been a mystery for years. Scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Grenoble, France, and the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (CSIC) in Valencia, Spain discovered that the key lies in the structure of a protein called PYR1 and how it interacts with the hormone. Their study, published online today in Nature, could open up new approaches to increasing crops' resistance to water shortage.
Under normal conditions, proteins called PP2Cs inhibit the ABA pathway, but when a plant is subjected to drought, the concentration of ABA in its cells increases. This removes the brake from the pathway, allowing the signal for drought response to be carried through the plant's cells. This turns specific genes on or off, triggering mechanisms for increasing water uptake and storage, and decreasing water loss. But ABA does not interact directly with PP2Cs, so how does it cause them to be inhibited? Recent studies had indicated that the members of a family of 14 proteins might each act as middle-men, but how those proteins detected ABA and inhibited PP2Cs remained a mystery - until now.
A group of scientists headed by José Antonio Márquez from EMBL Grenoble and Pedro Luis Rodriguez from CSIC looked at one member of this family, a protein called PYR1. When they used X-ray crystallography to determine its 3-dimensional structure, the scientists found that the protein looks like a hand. In the absence of ABA, the hand remains open, but when ABA is present it nestles in the palm of the PYR1 hand, which closes over the hormone as if holding a ball, thereby enabling a PP2C molecule to sit on top of the folded fingers. As these features seem to be conserved across most members of this protein family, these findings confirm the family as the main ABA receptors. Moreover, they elucidate how the whole process of stress response starts: by binding to PYR1, ABA causes it to hijack PP2C molecules, which are therefore not available to block the stress response.
"If you treat plants with ABA before a drought occurs, they take all their water-saving measures before the drought actually hits, so they are more prepared, and more likely to survive that water shortage - they become more tolerant to drought", Rodriguez explains. "The problem so far", Márquez adds, "has been that ABA is very difficult - and expensive - to produce. But thanks to this structural biology approach, we now know what ABA interacts with and how, and this can help to find other molecules with the same effect but which can be feasibly produced and applied."
To determine the structure of PYR1, the scientists made use of the infrastructure of the Partnership for Structural Biology, including EMBL Grenoble's high-throughput crystallisation facilities and the beamlines at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, located in the same campus as EMBL Grenoble.
Researchers Complete Draft Genome Sequence for Cassava
A team of academic, government and industry researchers has completed a first draft of the cassava (Manihot esculenta) genome. The project is an important first step in accelerating the pace of research on this subsistence crop and addressing some of the many limitations that face cassava farmers around the world.
Cassava is a root crop that serves as the primary food source for more than 750 million people each day. Although it has many properties that make it an important food across much of Africa and Asia, it also has many limitations. Cassava has poor nutritional content and is susceptible to many pathogens, particularly in Africa, where one third of the continental harvest is lost each year to viral diseases. One of these, Cassava Brown Streak Disease, or CBSD, is currently the major threat to food security in some parts of Eastern Africa.
In response to the urgency of this threat, and building upon the newly available cassava genome sequence, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a $1.3 million grant to University of Arizona researchers who will lead an international consortium to develop a genome variation database that will provide breeding tools to aid farmers in improving cassava, with a special focus on increased resistance to the CBSD virus.
Steve Rounsley, associate professor in the School of Plant Sciences at the UA and a member of the BIO5 Institute, will coordinate the project that includes partners at the Institute for Genome Sciences, University of Maryland, Baltimore, the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI), and 454 Life Sciences, a Roche Company.
The impetus for the genome sequence began in 2003 with the formation of The Global Cassava Partnership (GCP-21), co-chaired by Dr. Claude Fauquet, director of the International Laboratory for Tropical Agriculture Biology (ILTAB) at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (DDPSC) in St. Louis, and Dr. Joe Tohme of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia. This, in turn, led to a 2006 proposal by Fauquet, Tohme and 12 other international scientists to DOE JGI's Community Sequencing Program, which was selected for a pilot project.
The full genome project gathered momentum in early 2009 when 454 Life Sciences and DOE JGI each pledged the resources to use 454's Genome Sequencer FLX platform with long-read GS FLX Titanium chemistry to rapidly generate the DNA sequence data needed for the project. "This is a perfect example of how quickly things can happen when everyone is aligned behind an important cause. Most of the data for the genome were generated within 8 weeks of getting DOE JGI and 454 Life Sciences on board," said the UA's Rounsley, who led the collaboration.
More than 61 million sequencing reads were generated and assembled into a draft genome that contains an estimated 95 percent of cassava genes. It is one of the first large genome projects to primarily use 454 Life Sciences' long-read sequencing platform, which enabled both improved quality of the draft, and its rapid generation.
"We are pleased to contribute our sequencing technology to this important global initiative," explained Michael Egholm, Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Research and Development at 454 Life Sciences. "This project, along with other recently completed complex plant genome projects, demonstrates that 454 Sequencing systems are rapidly becoming the standard for de novo sequencing and assembly."
The availability of the genome sequence enables the newly-funded project to study how cassava varieties differ from each other. "The contributions of 454 Life Sciences and DOE JGI in making the cassava genome a reality have opened a new chapter in cassava research worldwide. We're excited about the opportunity for cassava breeders to access new tools for improving a staple African crop," said Katherine Kahn, program officer with the Agricultural Development initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Researchers will use next-generation technologies to sample many varieties of cassava and develop a large database of markers that can be used to identify genes involved in many important traits. The team will collaborate with researchers in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in applying these genetic markers toward identifying resistance to Cassava Brown Streak Disease. All of the information and tools the project develops will be freely available worldwide.
Traditional cassava improvement is slow and difficult. The availability of large numbers of markers will help make breeding schemes more efficient. For instance, traits that may only show up in mature plants can be identified in seedlings with a cheap DNA test. Since cassava is used for industrial starch production, and has potential as a biofuel source, there are commercial applications of these breeding tools. However, the most important applications will be those that improve the lives of those who depend upon cassava for their daily calorie intake.
"With the first cassava genome in hand, we can cheaply and quickly sequence other varieties that will give us thousands of little signposts - mile markers if you like - that will help us identify key genes for increasing the plant's resistance to the virus," Rounsley said.
"By 2050, 90 percent of humankind will live in developing countries where agriculture is the most important economic activity. Crops grown by small farmers are central to international food security, health, economic growth, energy needs, poverty reduction and social stability," Fauquet said. "The information contained in the cassava genome will provide tremendous opportunities to improve this important crop, bringing it into the mainstream of plant research thereby reducing the time and cost of delivering improved cultivars to farmers who need it most."
This grant is part of the foundation's Agricultural Development initiative, which is working with a wide range of partners to provide millions of small farmers in the developing world with tools and opportunities to boost their yields, increase their incomes and build better lives for themselves and their families. The foundation is working to strengthen the entire agricultural value chain - from seeds and soil to farm management and market access-so that progress against hunger and poverty is sustainable over the long term.
The annotated draft genome sequence is available at DOE JGI's Phytozome Web site, <http://www.phytozome.net/cassava>http://www.phytozome.net/cassava
Ireland: Fischer Boel Comments Expose Green Party'S Backward Stance on GM - Creed
Fine Gael Agriculture Spokesperson Michael Creed TD has said the recentcomments of Mariann Fischer Boel calling for decisions on GM crops tobe based on scientific evaluation exposes how Green Party thinking onthe issue is motivated by short-sighted political expediency.
"Commissioner Fischer Boel may not have been singling out Irelandspecifically in her recent comments but you couldn't find a betterexample of a Government which is 'chickening out' of the GM debate thanthe Fianna Fáil / Green coalition.
"When it comes to global warming, climate change and carbon emissionsthe Green Party are all about the science. But despite GMOs receivingclearance from the European Food Safety Authority month after monththey ignore the independent scientific evidence and remain squeamish.
"It's clear that political considerations are at the heart of thebackward GM-free commitment in the Programme for Government.Unfortunately Fianna Fáil hasn't the backbone to argue with the Greenson this and have caved into an approach which is myopic at best. Theimpact on farmers' feed costs and the revenues foregone from lostforeign direct investment and R&d opportunities in the field ofbio-technology have practical, economic consequences which shouldoutweigh the Green's political expediency. So much for theknowledge-based, smart economy the Government likes to talk about.
"The Green's continued propagation of GM myths to appeal to their ownsupport base and Fianna Fáil's spinelessness in dealing with them willcost farmers dearly this winter and is costing Ireland's reputation inthe long run."
Australia: Call for Inquiry into GM Feed Study Funding
- Collin Beetles, Farm Weekly, November 12, 2009
Edstar- Genetics principal Dr Ian Edwards has called for a Parliamentary inquiry into the decision to fund a controversial animal feeding study on Genetically Modified (GM) canola. The $92,000 study was approved by the former State Labor Government more than two years ago.
It is being conducted by leading Australian scientist Dr Judy Carman at the Institute of Health and Environmental Research (IHER) in Adelaide. However, Agriculture and Food Minister Terry Redman has recently expressed concern that his Government was being kept in the dark and had minimal knowledge or details of the study's whereabouts.
Mr Redman says it was a serious issue of public accountability. His office has written to Dr Carman to obtain details of the study, but is so far dissatisfied with the response. Dr Carman's animal feeding study is now unlikely to be used as part of the GM Crops Free Areas Act 2003 review, which is likely to produce a decision when Parliament re-sits next January.
Dr Edwards was a member of Labor's GMO Reference Group, and was extremely critical of the $92,000 feeding study when it was first approved. "Frankly this research should never have been approved in the first place," he said. "But given that $92,000 worth of WA taxpayers' money has been spent, I think there should be an inquiry as to what the outcome is and I think we deserve that reply. "It was the Labor party who oversaw the approval of the money being spent and the Labor Cabinet, and they are the ones I see who would need to be held accountable, not our current Minister."
Dr Edwards said he was concerned Mr Redman had not been provided with any documentation on the study's progress or its protocols. "Quite honestly I think we have a right, as WA taxpayers and growers, to demand that there be a response from Dr Carman about where these Government funds are, and the WA taxpayer money that has been sent into oblivion," he said.
The Fight Over the Future of Food
- Claudia Parsons, Russell Blinch and Svetlana Kovalyova, Reuters, Nov 9, 2009
At first glance, Giuseppe Oglio's farm near Milan looks like it's suffering from neglect. Weeds run rampant amid the rice fields and clover grows unchecked around his millet crop. Oglio, a third generation farmer eschews modern farming techniques -- chemicals, fertilizers, heavy machinery -- in favor of a purely natural approach. It is not just ecological, he says, but profitable, and he believes his system can be replicated in starving regions of the globe.
Nearly 5,000 miles (8,000 km) away, in laboratories in St. Louis, Missouri, hundreds of scientists at the world's biggest seed company, Monsanto, also want to feed the world, only their tools of choice are laser beams and petri dishes. Monsanto, a leader in agricultural biotechnology, spends about $2 million a day on scientific research that aims to improve on Mother Nature, and is positioning itself as a key player in the fight against hunger.
The Italian farmer and the U.S. multinational represent the two extremes in an increasingly acrimonious debate over the future of food. Everybody wants to end hunger, but just how to do so is a divisive question that pits environmentalists against anti-poverty campaigners, big business against consumers and rich countries against poor.
The food fight takes place at a time when experts on both sides agree on one thing -- the number of empty bellies around the world will only grow unless there is major intervention now. A combination of the food crisis and the global economic downturn has catapulted the number of hungry people in the world to more than 1 billion. The United Nations says world food output must grow by 70 percent over the next four decades to feed a projected extra 2.3 billion people by 2050.
International leaders are gathering in Rome next week for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's World Summit on Food Security and will hear competing arguments over how best to tackle the problem. One of the fiercest disputes will be over the relative importance of science versus social and economic reforms to empower small farmers to grow more with existing technology.
Learning From The Past
The last time the world faced such dire predictions of famine was before the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when countries like India and China transformed their agricultural systems to become self-sufficient in food. They did so by harnessing plant-breeding technology to raise yields on rice, wheat and other staple crops.
Through massive state investment in hybrid rice, China, the world's most populous country, raised its yields from two tonnes per hectare in the 1960s to more than 10 tonnes per hectare by 2004. Chinese scientists seek further gains -- 13.5 tonnes per hectare by 2015, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which cites China's rice program as one of the true success stories in agricultural development in a study out this week (Nov. 12) called "Millions Fed."
To be sure, the Green Revolution had its downsides -- environmental damage, to name one. In India, for example, water tables are drying up and the soil has been degraded by pesticide and fertilisers. The movement also contributed to the rise of big commercial farms at the expense of small holders, fueling resentment from its early days at what critics see as the "corporatisation" of food.
But millions of people were saved from starvation, and the movement's architect, Norman Borlaug, received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. With their populations soaring, however, India and China -- not to mention most of Africa -- still face challenges, especially as climate change exacerbates environmental problems that have already slowed growth in food production.
IFPRI, part of a global network of agricultural research centers, said last month lower yields due to climate change would cut "calorie availability" for the average consumer in a developing country in 2050 by 7 percent, compared with 2000.
Higher temperatures reduce crop yields while encouraging pests and plant diseases. For almost all crops, South Asia would experience the largest declines in yields. IFPRI said rice output in the region would be 14 percent lower than if there were no climate change.
"India sorely needs another Green Revolution," said Kushagra Nayan Bajaj, joint managing director of Bajaj Hinduthan (BJHN.BO), India's top sugar producer, which is importing raw sugar after a drought hit the domestic cane crop.
More at <http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSN09275722>http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSN09275722
Food: Is Monsanto the Answer or the Problem?
- Carey Gillam, Reuters, November 11, 2009
Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, had only months to live when he received a visit from an old friend, Rob Fraley, chief of technology for Monsanto Co.
Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work increasing food production in starving areas of the globe, welcomed Fraley to his Dallas home, where the two men sipped coffee and tea and discussed a subject dear to their hearts: the future of agriculture and the latest challenges of feeding the human race.
Fraley, who first met Borlaug 20 years earlier, when they served as founding board members for an agricultural group that works with developing nations, said he showed his friend photos of new types of corn that Monsanto was developing. Using biotechnology and genetic transfers, Monsanto, the world's largest seed company, hoped to create a corn variety that could grow well in dry conditions, even in drought-prone Africa, helping to alleviate hunger and poverty -- and fatten its bottom line.
"We were showing him some of the pictures of the drought-tolerant corn," Fraley recalled. "You could see his eyes were starting to well up, and I said, 'Norm, what's wrong?' He said, 'Rob, I've made it all the way through the Green Revolution. I don't think I'm going to make it through the gene revolution.'"
The topic of Fraley's final conversation with his friend that day underscored the unfolding of a modern era of global agriculture. In this new paradigm, traditional plant breeding is giving way to the high-tech tools of rich corporations like Monsanto, which are playing an increasingly powerful role in determining how and what the world eats. It is also generating controversy, as critics continue to question the safety of biotech crops, and fear increasing control of the global food supply by giant corporations.
Still, few dispute that something needs to be done. The United Nations has said that food production must double by 2050 to meet the demand of the world's growing population and that innovative strategies are needed to combat hunger and malnutrition that already afflict more than 1 billion people.
Amid this dire outlook, St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto -- along with its biggest corporate rivals, charitable foundations, public researchers and others -- is forming a loose coalition of interests instigating a second Green Revolution. "What we do builds on what he started," Fraley said of Borlaug, who died in September at the age of 95.
Founded in 1901 as a maker of saccharine, Monsanto has undergone several evolutions of its own. The company spends an estimated $2 million a day on agriculture research and development -- more than any other company. It employs about 400 scientists in four St. Louis-area research facilities, applying an array of new technologies to plant genetics, with a goal of doubling yields in major crops, such as corn and soybeans, between now and 2030.
"If we do that successfully, it won't just be good for Monsanto, it will be good for the world," Fraley said.
As it positions itself to be a leader in advancing a global fight against hunger, Monsanto has started working with nonprofit organizations in poor nations, donating research and genetics to help needy farmers.
The moves run parallel to Monsanto's commercial sales of high-priced seeds and agricultural chemicals to farmers in wealthy nations, which has made the company a darling of Wall Street and helped it post record net sales of $11.7 billion and net income of $2.1 billion for fiscal 2009.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and governments around the world are encouraging Monsanto -- as well as rivals DuPont, Dow Chemical, BASF and other corporate interests -- to work with academics, foundations and public institutions on how to increase food production globally.
Drought-tolerant crops, particularly corn, are high on the agenda amid concerns about a changing climate. Improved wheat is also a major goal.
Corn and wheat account for about 40 percent of the world's food and 25 percent of calories consumed in developing countries, and millions of people get more than half of their daily calories from corn and wheat alone, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.
"We want to encourage the private sector to help shape research. These are important issues for all Americans and the world," said Roger Beachy, President Barack Obama's newly appointed director of the U.S. National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Critics say the nonprofit work is a way for Monsanto to get even the world's poorest farmers hooked on pricey patented seed technology. But Monsanto and biotech supporters say it is the only way to grow enough food to feed a world population expected to hit 9.4 billion by 2050.
"Global ag production must grow by 70 percent by 2050, and it will have to come out of increased yields because there is only a minimal amount of new land that can be put into production without environmental problems," said Mary Boote, executive director of an industry group called the Truth About Trade and Technology. "Biotechnology has to be one of the tools we use."
Maize for Africa
Monsanto's humanitarian work in Mexico, Africa, India and elsewhere is still in the early stages. One of its largest projects is participation in the development of a type of maize -- a major food source for 300 million Africans -- that grows better in drought-prone areas of the continent.
"Drought is at the top of the list as a challenge for farmers there," said Natalie DiNicola, director of global development partnerships for Monsanto.
Monsanto is working with African researchers in a partnership launched in March 2008 with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard Buffett Foundation. The company is donating some of its genetic "markers" and other breeding resources. Five African nations -- Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania -- are testing sites.
The work comes at a time of "tremendous need" for African farmers, who sometimes suffer complete crop failures due to drought, said Daniel Mataruka, executive director of the Kenya-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation. "The strategy of the whole project is to ensure there is yield stability-- that there is some kind of yield," Mataruka said.
Along with helping poor farmers obtain better seeds, the project is also educating and assisting them in proper use of fertilizers and land management. While Monsanto's short-term goal is "global good," the company hopes that eventually the farmers it helps will become commercial customers.
"There is an absolute need to help these farmers -- make them more food-secure and help them climb out of poverty," said DiNicola. "We would hope that projects like this one and others are going to lift them out of poverty enough that someday the market is working and they can become customers for us."
The company's work on drought-tolerant crops for African farmers dovetails with research for a commercial drought-tolerant corn that Monsanto hopes to have on the market by 2012. Racing rival DuPont, which also is developing a drought-tolerant corn, Monsanto is experimenting with a number of gene combinations to stimulate greater photosynthesis, improve root structures, and enhance other characteristics so the transgenic corn can yield more kernels with less water.
More at <http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSN10423605>http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSN10423605
Reducing Uncertainty in Regulatory Decision-Making for Transgenic Crops - More Ecological Research or Shrewder Environmental Risk Assessment
- Raybould, A. 2010. GM Crops. 1(1): 1-7
Ecological research and environmental risk assessment are similar in that they address interesting problems by formulating and testing hypotheses. They differ in the types of problem that are interesting, the characteristics of good hypotheses to solve those problems, and the methods for rigorous testing of hypotheses.
It is important to recognise the differences between environmental risk assessment and basic ecological research because confusing them can lead to ineffective risk assessment and missed opportunities to advance ecological theory. Uncertainty in regulatory decision-making about transgenic crops may be reduced more effectively by clarifying the purpose and structure of environmental risk assessments than by further research on the ecology of the crops.
GM Crops - the new journal. View Table of contents at <http://www.landesbioscience.com/journals/gmcrops/toc/volume/1/issue/1/>http://www.landesbioscience.com/journals/gmcrops/toc/volume/1/issue/1/
A Wonder Food to be Taken With A Pinch of Salt
- Charles Clover The Sunday Times (UK), Nov 8, 2009
Great news for farmers, consumers and our overfished seas, or so we are told. The biotechnology industry in America claims it has invented something that could finally live up to the promises of 20 years ago and benefit consumers and the environment as well as farmers. It is a soya bean genetically modified to produce the omega-3 fatty acids that reduce the risk of heart disease and confer a wide range of other health benefits.
The main source of omega-3 fatty acids has hitherto been fish oil. So Monsanto's GM soya bean, which has just received a notice of safety from the US Food and Drug Administration, could, it is claimed, relieve pressure on the world's fish stocks as well as improving the health of millions. In the process it could make people who loathe GM technology, such as the Prince of Wales, have to eat their organic Fairtrade cotton hats.
Or could it? When I first read these remarkable claims in New Scientist last week, I found myself plunged back into familiar territory, a kind of big sky country where nothing is ever undersold and where nothing is what it seems.
Don't get me wrong, I have never been entirely at home with those who believe genetic manipulation goes against the will of God. We've been at it for centuries anyway. Nor am I one of those who would refuse a designer heart if it happened to have been grown in a pig. I believe we should at least listen to people such as our chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, and his colleagues at the Royal Society who think Britain must not rule itself out of the GM technology market and that GM technology could one day be needed to feed the world.
That is not a trivial task. The wobble in the world's food supply that began two harvests ago, which set rice and grain prices soaring, made scientists think about how we can feed a society of 9 billion people in 40 years' time. Since the green revolution in the 1960s, world food production has risen from 1.84 billion tons to 4.38 billion tons. Scientific development is clearly vital to the new agricultural revolution - as Professor Sir David Baulcombe, chairman of a Royal Society study, said last month. It is just that there are different views about which technology has the answers. Indeed the most immediate things that the society recommends - using ecology to manage pests in crops, for example - aren't anything to do with whizzo GM science at all.
The green revolution succeeded but its ugly downside was that industrial agriculture did not do much for the countryside, the rural poor, or arguably the quality of our food. In the countries that used the first GM crops, the same features have persisted and pesticide use has soared - contrary to predictions. GM monocultures have grown at the expense of rainforest and the climate. The big biotech companies have made huge profits.
Which brings us to the question of whether the new GM soya is going to feed the world - or is it really designed to feed the American appetite for food additives? Certainly an omega-3 enhanced oil that doesn't taste of fish and could be added to margarine and other processed foods has its attractions. The soya oil with omega-3s that Monsanto has engineered seems to be taken up by the body more efficiently than current linseed-based additives. The crop is more suited to temperate North America than Brazil, so it might not displace much rainforest.
Will it take pressure off the world's fish? I'm not so sure. GM soya isn't going to stop people catching s mall fish and grinding them up as fishmeal. Monsanto says its soya is primarily designed for feeding to humans, not fish, so the big problem of finding substitute foods for farmed fish remains unresolved.
The greatest fallacy would be to suggest that Monsanto's new product might somehow tackle the problem of the 84,000 Americans who died of heart disease and might not have done if they had eaten a sufficient amount of fatty acid in their diets, according to a 2005 study. Those people who died of heart disease had poor diets. Eating a healthy balanced diet gives you enough omega 3s without any need for additives in processed food. For the same reasons, hunger, poverty and nutritional problems in the developing world can't be fixed by growing commodity crops. What people need are better diets.
What nobody tells you about GM crops is how far off are those that are theoretically worthwhile. Compared with air travel, biotech is still building with wire, wood and paper. Remember golden rice, the crop that was going to address vitamin A deficiency? That's still under development. The Royal Society says that developing crops that are resistant to disease, drought, salinity, heat and heavy metals will take eight to 16 years. It will take longer than that to develop wheat or rice capable of fixing nitrogen from the air, thus reducing the need for fertiliser.
Monsanto's new soya is undoubtedly part of a new era. The agri-business giants have learnt from their failure to win general public approval, particularly in Europe. They have realised that to achieve that they must provide benefits to the public. I suspect that biotech companies will eventually invent something we need - and the opposition to GM, justified until now, will fall away. But does the world need Monsanto's fishy soya? The jury is out.
Compiled by C. S. Prakash.
Write to him at prakash(at)tuskegee.edu