* Greenpeace Backing Down on GMOs
* Britain Must Launch GM Food Revolution, Says Chief Scientist
* 'GM Organics' Paper Awarded International Society of Bioethics 2009 Prize
* When Cooperation Fails: The International Law and Politics of Genetically Modified Foods
* Forbes' Company of the Year: The Planet Versus Monsanto
* International Paper Turns to Biotechnology to Grow a Better Box
Greenpeace Backing Down on GMOs
- AfricaBio, January 6, 2009
Greenpeace has for the second time in eight years backed down on opposing the development of Golden Rice. Kumi Naidoo of Durban , the South African born newly appointed executive director of Greenpeace International, in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, on the question of Golden Rice, said:
“In view of developments like Golden Rice, Greenpeace must reconsider its position with regard to GMOs. We must make sure not to dismiss new and important developments.”
“This is a very welcome approach to the acceptance of GMOs in general and not only concerns Golden Rice. It will undoubtedly boost Africa’s endeavours to speed up the development of GM crops to alleviate hunger and poverty,” says Professor Jocelyn Webster, executive director of AfricaBio , South Africa , a biotechnology stakeholders’ organisation. “It is an encouraging move away from the usual radical view of activists to a more open approach where things can be discussed, which is a boon to GMO acceptance worldwide in general,” says Professor Webster.
This is the second positive statement from Greenpeace on Golden Rice, Prof Webster emphasised. She pointed out that in February 2001 at the BioVision Conference in Lyon , France , Benedict Haerlin, genetic engineering coordinator of Greenpeace, also backed down from the stand against GM crops. He admitted that Greenpeace would not oppose field trials of Golden Rice being developed to combat blindness in the Third World . (Daily Telegraph, London , 10 February 2001)
Golden Rice was developed to combat Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD) which kills 6000 people daily and causes blindness in 500 000 children annually. (UNICEF 2007)
“A single month of delay in the marketing Golden Rice would cause 50 000 children to go blind. This is the price to pay for opposing the development of this unique scientific breakthrough in human food. At last it seems that Greenpeace is seeing the light that could save the loss of sight of 500 000 children annually in the developing world.”
“I’m sure that South African born Naidoo is encouraged by the success of GM crop production in South Africa over the past eleven years. There have been no adverse effects on human and animal health nor the environment. Main beneficiaries have undoubtedly been the thousands of smallholder farmers who have increased their yields by up to 30%, providing them with a sustainable food supply,” according to Prof Webster.
Commenting on Naidoo’s remarks, Professor Klaus Ammann, eminent Swiss scientist said: “Greenpeace’s aggressiveness towards Golden Rice and Naidoo’s encouraging stance will soon turn into a major success like Bt rice in China. China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of rice and has just approved the production of GM rice promising a yield increase of 8% and an 80% decrease in insecticides.”
Golden Rice is scheduled to be launched in 2011/12.
Britain Must Launch GM Food Revolution, Says Chief Scientist
- John Vidal and Felicity Lawrence, The Guardian, January 6, 2010
Britain must embrace genetically modified crops and cutting-edge developments such as nanotechnology to avoid catastrophicfoodshortages and future climate change, the government's chief scientist will warn today.
In the clearest public signal yet that the government wants a hi-tech farming revolution, Professor John Beddington will say UK scientists need to urgently d evelop "a new and greener revolution" to increase food production in a world changed by global warming and expected to have an extra 3 billion people to feed by 2040.
"Techniques and technologies from many disciplines, ranging from biotechnology and engineering to newer fields such as nanotechnology, will be needed," writes Beddington in a paper, seen by the Guardian, to accompany his speech to the Oxford farming conference.
He warns that time lags for the use of new technology on farms means action is vital now and argues that it is no longer possible to rely on improving yields from crops in traditional ways. "Over the last 50 years improving yields has accounted for 75% of increase in output. However, yield growth rates are now slowing," he says.
Instead, he argues that new technologies such as GM will be critical in meeting economic, environmental and social goals. Beddington says the revolution is needed primarily to counter climate change and help provide food for the 9 billion people worldwide expected within 30 years.
"It is [also] predicted that demand for energy will rise by around 50%, and for fresh water by 50%, all of which must be managed while mitigating and adapting to climate change. This threatens to create a[ 'perfect storm' of global events," he says.
The government has wanted GM crops to be much more freely grown for many years but has been reluctant to reopen the debate following intense campaigns against the technology by environment and development groups in the 1990s.
Although Beddington has spoken in support of GM before, his keynote speech – to a conference of farmers and supermarkets – shows that ministers believe it is time to accelerate the debate on the issue.
Intense lobbying by food companies, the growing significance of climate change, recent international food crises and a major independent Royal Society report have all helped to give the government the authority to put GM back on the national agenda.
For six months the government has been preparing the way with a series of reports on consumer opinion. Announcements from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) over the summer also began to frame GM as a new moral imperative in feeding the world. The Cabinet Office strategy unit also highlighted GM as an urgent domestic issue back in the summer of 2008. It said: "Consumer confidence in UK regulations, regulators and food supplies might be prejudiced if GM feed was found in systems claiming to be GM-free or if non-authorised varieties were detected in the UK food chain. If non-authorised material is found, there are also significant cost implications associated with recall."
The assumption that new technology is the answer to the global food crisis is expected to be fiercely challenged by development and environmental charities campaigners who accuse the government of not having looked at the real causes of the global food crisis.
They point out that a UN-sponsored four-year review, involving more than 400 international scientists and chaired by Defra's own chief scientist, Professor Robert Watson, concluded in 2007 that GM technologies were unlikely to have more than a limited role in tackling global hunger.
According to the Watson-led review, the scientific evidence on the claimed benefits of GM suggests they are variable, with increases in yield in some areas but decreases in others, and both greater and lesser pesticide use in different contexts. But crucially it concluded that global hunger is as much to do with power and control of the food system as with growing enough food.
Yesterday, Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, launched the government's food strategy for the next 20 years. He told the Oxford conference that Britain must grow more food in a different way to respond to rising temperatures and world populations. "Food security is as important to this country's future wellbeing – and the world's – as energy security. We need to produce more food. "We need to do it sustainably. And we need to make sure that what we eat safeguards our health," he said.
'GM Organics' Paper Awarded International Society of Bioethics 2009 Prize
The International Society of Bioethics has decided to award its 2009 prize to the paper entitled "More sustainable food: genetically modified seeds in organic farming". You can find the announcement here:
House of Representatives of the Principality of Asturias - International Society of Bioethics (SIBI) has awarded the Prize to the paper presented by Mrs. Mertxe de Renobales Scheifler, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Pharmacy Faculty. University of the Basque Country (Spain).
(Machine Translation below) http://tinyurl.com/yhffykl
The awarded work, a complete study reflected in more than 100 pages, affirms that ecological agriculture is not sustainable long term due to his under yield, reason why, following this form of culture, a quantitative increase would be needed cultivable surface to do against the increasing demand of foods.
Considering that ecological agriculture is characterized by the little phytosanitary product use of chemical synthesis, Mertxe de Renobales considers that there is no scientific reason not to use transgenic cultures and to increase therefore the productivity.
In addition, it affirms that the ecological and transgenic cultures are complementary since both they contribute to the smaller chemical agent use of synthesis. Therefore, the seeds improved genetically are perfectly usable for ecological agriculture, are not incompatible.
The work also deepens in the anti-transgenic attitude of the European Union, a position that has had great influence in the reluctance of many countries to accept these seeds and thus to avoid to put in prohibition its exports to Europe. Against this background also an important reduction of the contributions of international agencies and philanthropic societies has taken place to improve the productivity of agriculture in Africa.
The jury who has evaluated works been has formed by Marcelo Palaces, president of the Scientific Committee of the SIBI; Daisy Rooms, biochemistry and member of the Academy of Sciences of EE.UU.; Erwin Deutsh, director of the Institute of Medical and Pharmaceutical Right in the German University of Goettingen; and Santiago Dexeus, director of Investigation in Obstetrics and Gynecology of the Independent University of Barcelona.
The prize, equipped with 12,000 Euros, will be given during an act that will be celebrated in soothes of the Asturian Parliament the next month of February of 2010.
When Cooperation Fails: The International Law and Politics of Genetically Modified Foods
- New book by Mark A. Pollack and Gregory C. Shaffer, Paperback, 456 pages, Oxford University Press, USA (July 26, 2009) ISBN-13: 978-0199567058, Amazon.com $20.69
The transatlantic dispute over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has brought into conflict the United States and the European Union, two long-time allies and economically interdependent democracies with a long record of successful cooperation. Yet the dispute - pitting a largely acceptant US against an EU deeply suspicious of GMOs - has developed into one of the most bitter and intractable transatlantic and global conflicts, resisting efforts at negotiated resolution and resulting in a bitterly contested legal battle before the World Trade Organization.
Professors Pollack and Shaffer investigate the obstacles to reconciling regulatory differences among nations through international cooperation, through the lens of the GMO dispute. The book addresses the dynamic interactions of domestic law and politics, transnational networks, international regimes, and global markets, through a theoretically grounded and empirically comprehensive analysis of the governance of GM foods and crops. They demonstrate that the deeply politicized, entrenched and path-dependent nature of the regulation of GMOs in the US and the EU has fundamentally shaped negotiations and decision-making at the international level, limiting the prospects for deliberation and providing incentives for both sides to engage in hard bargaining and to "shop" for favorable international forums. They then assess the impacts, and the limits, of international pressures on domestic US and European law, politics and business practice, which have remained strikingly resistant to change.
International cooperation in areas like GMO regulation, the authors conclude, must overcome multiple obstacles, legal and political, domestic and international. Any effective response to this persistent dispute, they argue, must recognize both the obstacles to successful cooperation, and the options that remain for each side when cooperation fails.
"When Cooperation Fails is a deeply informed, methodologically diverse and richly convincing analysis of the causes and consequences of the EU-US conflict over GMO regulation. Much more than a case study, it provides abundant insights about domestic and international environmental law, including the limits of international institutions in dealing with entrenched differences in risk regulatory policies."--Richard Stewart, New York University School of Law
"This book presents an original and an exhaustively researched analysis of one of the difficult and intractable disputes in the transatlantic relationship. It skillfully explores the complex interaction between the national and international dimensions of the GMO dispute in a way that clearly illuminates both the potential and limitations of international regulatory cooperation. Shaffer and Pollack have made a major contribution to our understanding of the legal and political dynamics of regulatory-related trade disputes."--David Vogel, University of California, Berkeley
"When Corporation Fails is a significant, original contribution regarding the transatlantic dispute over the regulation of genetically modified foods and crops. It is an outstanding and highly informative study of the interaction of four global regulatory regimes and the domestic legal and political responses to them. Pollack and Shaffer provide a model for interdisciplinary collaboration."--Sabino Cassese, Judge, Italian Constitutional Court
(Hat Tip - Vivian Moses)
Forbes Company of the Year: The Planet Versus Monsanto
- Robert Langreth and Matthew Herper, Forbes, Jan 18, 2010
Monsanto biochemist Roy Fuchs takes fish oil pills every morning in hopes of warding off heart disease. He'd much rather get his omega-3 fatty acids in a granola bar or cup of yogurt. But it is tricky to add omega-3s to food products without adding unwanted flavors. After a while on the shelf, omega-3-enriched products can smell and taste like old fish, he says.
Fuchs hopes that the new genetically engineered soybeans Monsanto is working on will solve this problem. The soybeans contain two new genes to make a tasteless oil that is converted inside the body into the form of omega-3 thought to be good for the heart. In a 157-patient study presented at a cardiology conference in November, those volunteers who had high triglycerides saw their levels drop 26% after eating 15 grams of the oil daily for three months.
Wouldn't that be a wonderful product to have for sale? Stops heart disease--and protects the environment, too. People could get their nutritional supplements without depleting fish stocks.
Monsanto needs crowd-pleasers like this to get past its image problems. In economic terms, the company is a winner. It has created many billions of dollars of value for the world with seeds genetically engineered to ward off insects or make a crop immune to herbicides: Witness the vast numbers of farmers who prefer its seeds to competing products, and the resulting $44 billion market value of the company. In its fiscal 2009 Monsanto sold $7.3 billion of seeds and seed genes, versus $4 billion for second-place DuPont and its Pioneer Hi-Bred unit. Monsanto, of St. Louis, netted $2.1 billion on revenue of $11.7 billion for fiscal 2009 (ended Aug. 31). Its sales have increased at an annualized 18% clip over five years; its annualized return on capital in the period has been 12%. Those accomplishments earn it the designation as FORBES' Company of the Year.
But economic achievement is not the same thing as public adulation. Over most of the time that Monsanto has been working to make humanity better fed, it has been the object of vicious criticism. In the first round of attacks the company was portrayed as the Satan of agriculture for daring to modify the genes in corn and soybeans. That people have been selecting plant genes for 5,000 years was no defense; Monsanto's gene-splicing threatened the world with ecological catastrophe. Genetically modified crops were the subject of legislation outlawing them and numerous protests in Europe and elsewhere in which biotech crops were ripped from the ground. In 2002 Zambia, during a famine, rejected a cargo of donated corn because it might have been tainted with the offending seeds.
Over time the protests have mellowed, and the legal impediments to GM are gradually falling. It didn't make sense for a hungry planet to reject tools to increase the productivity of farmers. Much of Europe, while still forbidding the planting of GM crops, permits the importation of foods made from them.
But now Monsanto has a new round of enemies. This time its supposed sin is making seeds that are too good. The company has something too close to a monopoly in some seed markets.
The public is hard to please, isn't it? But Monsanto perseveres. It has been in biotech long enough to develop a thick corporate skin.
Chief Executive Hugh Grant, 51, is both manager and evangelist. He says the new generation of biotech crops will go beyond mere herbicide tolerance and pest-killing to help feed the world. "There is bigger demand for food than ever. There is no new farmland," he says. "The business model is you provide more yield to growers, and you are rewarded for that." He vows to increase gross profit (approximately $6.8 billion in 2009) by 25% over the next three years.
By marrying conventional breeding with genetic engineering, Monsanto aims to produce more food for less money on the same amount of land. Conventional breeding--these days a high-tech matchmaking process guided by DNA sequencing machines--will help boost maximum yields. Biotech genes will ensure that pests, weeds, drought and other problems don't destroy a crop's potential, Grant says.
"It is like computers in the 1960s," says Robert T. Fraley, Monsanto's chief technology officer. "We are just at the beginning of the explosion of technology we are going to see." Adds Grant: "Our pipeline is richer and deeper than it has ever been." A new corn variety that includes eight genes for pest resistance and herbicide tolerance could become the company's next big product. It is due out this spring. Also in testing are drought-tolerant corn, corn that needs less fertilizer and higher-yielding biotech soybeans and corn.
Farmers complain about Monsanto's prices, but they still buy the seeds. Ninety percent of the U.S. soybean crop and 80% of the corn crop and cotton crop are grown with seeds containing Monsanto's technology. Other countries are also growing Monsanto's biotech crops, including India, with 20 million acres of cotton; Brazil, with 35 million acres of soybeans; and Argentina, with 43 million acres of soybeans. (Brazil once blocked genetically modified plants, but farmers planted the crops anyway, and it eventually legalized them.) Packaged foods with corn syrup or soybean oil likely contain the fruits of Monsanto's gene-modified agriculture.
But agriculture is not a business that tolerates resting on your laurels. Monsanto faces a rough 2010. Rivals are producing more competitive products, and farmers are likely to resist further price increases. Sales of the herbicide Roundup, the company's second-biggest product, have been declining as renewed availability of raw materials allows other companies to make cheap generics. Monsanto laid off 8% of its staff this fall. Another headache: The Justice Department is looking broadly at competition in agriculture--and is asking questions about Monsanto's practices in particular.
One trend in Monsanto's favor: Demand for grain is likely to grow as emerging countries like China adopt a meat-heavy Western diet. It takes a lot of feed to make all that steak. "How are you going to feed everybody? Yield. Farmers are going to get better yield with genetically modified seeds," says Edward Jones analyst Daniel Ortwerth. Monsanto "is chasing every acre in the world, figuring what bugs are eating people's crops and how to stop them." He predicts Monsanto's sales (after a slight drop in 2010) will climb 10%, to $13 billion, in fiscal 2011.
The business model here is productivity: increasing the tons of crop that can be produced per hour of labor and/or per acre of land. Monsanto created soybeans, corn and other plants resistant to Roundup by inserting a gene from glyphosate-resistant bacteria found near a Roundup factory in Luling, La. Farmers can plant their crops and then, whenever weeds emerge, spray on Roundup without worrying about killing their crop.
Monsanto's other main line of products is corn and cotton seeds containing genes for pest-killing toxins produced by the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. Organic farmers have been spraying these natural pesticides on their crops for decades. Monsanto's technology puts the stuff right into the plant. "We are getting more bushels per acre with the same amount of fertilizer" and fewer pesticides, says Champaign, Ill. farmer John Reifsteck, who plants mostly biotech corn and soybeans on his 1,800 acres. Terry Wanzek, a farmer in Jamestown, N.D., used to plant mostly conventional wheat. Now he plants mostly bioengineered corn and soybeans because they produce crops that are more reliable and more profitable. "Wheat and barley haven't kept up with the times," he says.
Even some organic farmers are clamoring for genetically modified crops. Don J. Cameron grows both organic and conventional cotton on his farm in Helm, Calif. The organic fields cost $500 per acre to weed by hand, versus only $30 an acre for glyphosate-immune fields. Lately he can't even sell organic cotton because the stuff coming out of India, Syria and Uganda is so cheap. "I feel the organic industry has painted itself in a corner saying that all genetically modified organisms are bad. Eventually they're going to have to allow it," Cameron says.
The enemies haven't disappeared entirely. A 2009 Union of Concerned Scientists study calculated that only 14% of recent corn-crop yield increases are due to genetically engineered Bt corn. Roundup-ready corn and soy seeds don't increase crop yield at all, it found. Genetic engineering of crops "is inherently risky," says Greenpeace Policy Director Marco Contiero. "We cannot recall crops that are released into the environment." He says Monsanto's dominance decreases seed biodiversity.
Monsanto, formed in 1901, was a food additives and chemical company before starting crop biotech research in 1981. Its biotech crops come out of the same genetic engineering revolution that produced companies like Genentech and Amgen. But while biotech medicines hit the market in 1982 with the approval of recombinant insulin, biotech crops took longer to develop. (The chemical business was spun off in 1997.)
Some of the difficulty was technical. It took a while to figure out how to regenerate whole plants from genetically modified plant cells. In one method scientists would blast new genes into plant cells at high velocity with a gene gun. An advance came in the early 1980s, when researchers at Monsanto and, independently, in Europe discovered that the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens could do the job more precisely. The bacteria cause benign tumors called crown gall disease in trees. Researchers remove disease-causing genes from the bacteria, add new genes of interest and then mix the bacteria and plant cells in a petri dish; the bacteria do the hard work of inserting the new genes into the plant. Most of Monsanto's genetic engineering work still uses this method.
Monsanto's foray into biotechnology was controversial from the start. Its first genetically engineered product, bovine growth hormone for boosting milk production, was introduced in 1994 to a furious debate over whether it was deleterious to health. "It probably wasn't the wisest product to bring out first," admits Earl Harbison, Monsanto's president from 1986 to 1993. "But we had it." (Monsanto sold the product line to Eli Lilly in 2008.)
Initially Monsanto aimed to roll out biotech seeds slowly, Harbison says, building consensus by engaging potential critics. "Seeds are not products people have to accept," he says. The go-slow approach evaporated when Robert Shapiro, who had been head of Monsanto's former Nutrasweet business, became Monsanto's chairman. Highly promotional, Shapiro courted the press with stories about how Monsanto's crops were going to help the environment by reducing pesticides and pushed seeds through friendly regulators. A backlash was inevitable.
Making crops resistant to Roundup was an obvious idea. But it proved difficult to do until someone came up with the clever idea of trying genes from bacteria living in the wastewater near a Roundup plant. "I walked in the lab one day and saw the results on my robot, and it was 'Holy cow,'" recalls Monsanto Vice President Stephen Padgette. Roundup-ready soybeans were introduced in 1996. Bt-endowed cotton came that same year, followed by Bt corn in 1997. The cry went up that genetically engineered crops would cause allergies, but this has not been true for marketed crops "at all," says University of Georgia researcher Wayne Parrott. Then it was charged that Bt corn would kill butterflies or do other bad things to the environment. But the effect on the environment is just the opposite. GM seeds lower pesticide use or, in the case of Roundup resistance, may reduce soil erosion by making low-till farming more practical. "We have to feed people in a less destructive way," says uc, Davis plant biologist Pamela Ronald, author of the pro-biotech book Tomorrow's Table. "Genetically engineered crops can be useful for that."
When drug giant Pharmacia (now Pfizer) agreed to merge with Monsanto in 1999 to snag its arthritis drugs, Pharmacia shares dropped because drug investors wanted no part of the controversial seed business. The genetically modified crop controversy reached a climax in 2000, when a competing genetically modified corn product--one not approved for human consumption--was detected in Kraft taco shells, prompting a nationwide recall and yet more bad publicity.
When Monsanto was spun off from Pharmacia in 2002 sales of the synthetic seeds were gaining, but the company was not making money on them. "We were a mile wide and an inch deep," recalls Monsanto molecular biologist David Stark. There were research projects in everything from wheat to turf grass to coffee. Hugh Grant, a company lifer who snared the top job in 2003, killed most of these projects and bet heavily on three big crops--corn, soybeans and cotton. These crops were the most likely to generate sales big enough to justify the $100 million investment that new genetically engineered crops require. Bioengineered corn and soybeans are less controversial because they are rarely sold directly to consumers.
Grant also realized that genetic engineering alone was not enough for success in the seed business. It cannot replace conventional breeding methods, which allow crop scientists to create hundreds of seed varieties tailored to different soils and weather. Monsanto's research budget is now split equally between genetic engineering and conventional breeding. "If you have incredibly brilliant biotech and extraordinarily average seed, you will end up with average crop yields," Grant says. "The thing the [genetic engineering] does is protect that preprogrammed yield."
Grant's job gets more difficult from here on out. A main patent on Roundup-ready soybean seed expires in 2014. This could threaten $500 million in royalties Monsanto gets from licensing this genetic trait to competitors, estimates JPMorgan. Monsanto just introduced a second-generation herbicide-tolerant product that it says will produce 7% more soybeans per acre. But rivals like DuPont are working on their own herbicide-tolerant seeds. Dupont hopes to combine its herbicide-tolerant trait with the Roundup-proof trait; Monsanto is suing DuPont to stop it. "It's all being slowly chipped away," says Ticonderoga Securities analyst Chris L. Shaw, who calls the company overvalued.
Then there are antitrust questions. Competitors like DuPont, which has countersued Monsanto on antitrust grounds, and some farmer groups object to Monsanto's licensing agreements with numerous small seed companies. They say the agreements are too restrictive and limit other companies' ability to blend in their own traits. Monsanto says the Department of Justice has made inquiries "similar to the claims made by DuPont" in its lawsuit. "Concentration in the seed industry has resulted in higher prices and less choice" for farmers, complains William Wenzel of the Wisconsin nonprofit Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering. Wisconsin dairy farmer Paul Rozwadowski blames Monsanto for the difficulties he has had finding the conventional corn seed that he has used for decades. "Monsanto is taking over the industry," he says. "They are trying to eliminate all conventional seed."
"Any time you have a firm with 90% to 95% market share and you have concerns about supercompetitive pricing, you're going to get on the doj's radar," says Brian A. Weinberger, an antitrust attorney at Buchalter Nemer. "If Monsanto clamps down too hard on the licensees, it puts itself front and center."
Monsanto says it licenses its genetic traits broadly and is so far ahead simply because it bet heavily on genetic engineering years before the competition. "Farmers vote one spring at a time. You get invited back if you do a good job," Grant says.
Since 2005 Monsanto has been gradually moving back into other food crops, including fruits and vegetables. Among the projects in the works are a lettuce with the crunch of iceberg and the nutrients of romaine, and a watermelon whose flesh doesn't leak after being cut. This research involves conventional breeding. Monsanto abandoned its biotech wheat research in 2004 after it proved too controversial. In July Monsanto reentered the wheat business by acquiring conventional breeder WestBred for $45 million. It hopes to use genetic engineering to create drought-tolerant varieties.
"When people are confused or worried the natural tendency is to just say no," says Monsanto scientist Stark. "The only thing we can do is produce products with real benefits and hope that people eventually become comfortable what we are doing is good."
International Paper Turns to Biotechnology to Grow a Better Box
- Valeri Oliver, Business TN, January 6, 2010 http://businesstn.com
If an age-old challenge in agriculture -- producing more on fewer acres -- finds a solution in biotechnology, a Tennessee company stands to profit.
Some 40 years from now, farmers will need to feed one-third more people worldwide than they do now, according to the World Bank. The farmland that will support those food crops will have more than one tenant, as biofuel feed stocks such as corn gobble up acreage, too.
Memphis-based International Paper, one of the word's largest paper producers with 2008 sales of $24.8 billion, wants to achieve for the forest products industry what farmers have achieved with food crops: use biotechnology to grow more trees on fewer acres.
Critics call the trees in question "Franken-trees." Whether the image conjured by such a term amuses or dismays probably depends upon whether one thinks of Boris Karloff or of kudzu. For IP officials, the term distracts from technological advances they feel will ultimately save native forests by producing genetically altered trees that grow faster and require fewer chemicals to process into paper.
IP owns a one-third interest in Summerville, S.C.-based ArborGen, which has requested U.S. Department of Agriculture permission to sell the first genetically engineered forest trees outside of China. The fast-growing Australian eucalyptus, genetically engineered to survive winters in the southern U.S., grows sustainably in Brazil. Genetic engineering makes the altered version more freeze-tolerant.
"Eucalyptus has an exceptionally fine fiber that excels in producing a clean white paper, which is why pulp from the trees is in high demand around the world," says ArborGen CEO Barbara Wells. "As a biomass stock, eucalyptus is one of the fastest-growing trees in the world, which makes it an ideal biomass plant for biofuels and bioenergy."
Today, conventional forestry methods grow between 500 and 600 trees an acre. ArborGen wants to increase that to 750 trees per acre. Under current plans, seedlings could be available commercially by 2011 and harvesting would occur seven years later.
"With increasing demands on a global basis for wood products, the question is not can firms like IP make more money, but whether there will be enough fiber to go around and still protect and conserve valuable native forests," Wells says.
Some environmental groups oppose ArborGen's effort as a freakish attempt to bend nature to its profit will. Said liberal commentator Jim Hightower on behalf of the Organic Consumers Association: "Your genetically engineered eucalyptus are wildly invasive, explosively flammable and are insatiably thirsty for groundwater."
OCA supporters sent almost 7,000 comments against ArborGen's recent request for a federal permit that would allow existing field trials of trees to flower. IP officials, however, reject arguments that what ArborGen is doing is dangerous. "There are those who oppose advances in science and technology and use inflammatory and deceptive terms to describe new developments," says IP spokeswoman Kathleen Bark.
Bark's general dismissal does little to address environmental concerns over the eucalyptus hybrid's potential bite. After all, one needs look no further than the nearest kudzu-carpeted hillside -- and the South has plenty -- to be reminded of the devastation even the most well-intended transplant can cause.
Nonetheless, not every species transplant or hybridization effort goes awry. Consider the plight -- and blight -- of the American chestnut. Wiped out in the early 1900s by blight, the majestic tree is at the center of attempts by UT-Knoxville researchers and others to restore the chestnut to its former glory as a dominant tree in eastern U.S. forests. The UT Tree Improvement Program is one effort seeking to return a genetically altered version of the tree to the region's forests. Lauded by some conservationists as one of the great success stories of American forestry, test plantings of blight-resistant trees grow now in three southern national forests.
Although sustainable forests of chestnut trees may still be a dream, the science behind the attempted comeback has the potential to help other endangered species.
"The biggest impact is to provide a road map for other species," says Stacy Clark, lead researcher with the U.S. Forest Service restoration project. "If we are successful, this will be one of the greatest triumphs in the history of forest conservation."
So, are genetically engineered trees like ArborGen's eucalyptus cause for concern or cause for celebration? The answer, as with many technologies, may be both -- and neither. Regardless, IP's effort serves as a reminder to those jostling for acreage to grow food and provide energy -- save some room for the cardboard boxes, too.