* Genetic Modification -- the Debate Continues (ad nauseam)
* India: Government Official Lauds Bt Cotton
* India's Biotech "Queen" Backs Bt Brinjal
* Bt Brinjal Safe for Humans, Says Science Ministry
* Danforth Center Wins $44 Million Stimulus Award
* Future Jobs: What Might You Be Doing?
* Genetic Engineer Takes the Helm at Harpenden Research Centre
* America's Agricultural Angst
* Green Revolution – Can Plant Breeding Feed The World? (A new look at Vandana Shiva and her MO)
Genetic Modification -- the Debate Continues
- Jack Shamash, Horticulture Week, January 15, 2010 http://www.hortweek.com
Until a few months ago, it seemed that genetically modified (GM) foods were a complete no-go area for growers. The media regularly described GM as "Frankenstein foods", the public hated it and the big retailers and even restaurants were forced to announce publicly that they would not stock any GM vegetables.
In recent months, there has been a shift. Academics, government bodies and even industry figures have started to suggest that GM is a way forward and that it could ensure that we have food security and access to new varieties that can cope with climate change. There is now a distinct possibility that the future could be genetically modified.
Last week, the Government's chief scientist Professor John Beddington gave growers and farmers at this year's Oxford Farming Conference a clear indication that Britain must embrace the technology, warning them that it is no longer possible to rely on improving crop yields through traditional methods.
"Techniques and technologies from many disciplines, ranging from biotechnology and engineering to newer fields such as nanotechnology, will be needed," he says.
A report by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published in November examined the public attitude towards GM food and, unsurprisingly, found it to be overwhelmingly negative. However, the report showed that many people feel they don't know enough to make hard judgements. It also suggested that negative views to GM were linked to negative views about science as a whole.
The study found that when people were given wider information on GM, their negative views were likely to soften. The pro-GM lobby has taken this to mean there is a good chance that the public might change its mind about GM.
At present, large amounts of maize, cotton and soya have been genetically modified. However, very little work has been done on minor crops. Researchers are now suggesting that this should change.
Agricultural Biotechnology Council chairman Dr Julian Little points out that two trillion meals containing GM foods have been eaten without any obvious harm to consumers. He welcomes the FSA report: "It is encouraging to see that consumer attitudes have become more positive or stayed constant."
Other specialists have also struck a positive note. Professor Jerry Cross at East Malling Research argues that GM technology should not be dismissed out of hand. "It needs to be looked at very carefully. It could help to produce better strains of fruit and reduce our reliance on pesticides," he says.
There are two basic types of genetic modification — cisgenesis and transgenesis. Transgenesis involves importing genetic material from completely different species — such as putting mouse DNA into a tomato. This is highly controversial and often disturbing to the public.
Cross has deep reservations about this technique but is more interested in cis-genesis, where traits are imported from related species. "We could find apples that are resistant to scab and import their DNA into less hardy dessert apples. We'd end up with a better apple," he argues.
He points out that work to transplant resistant DNA into Gala apples is currently being done in Switzerland. Cross suggests that the same result could be achieved with conventional breeding techniques but would take many years. He adds that this sort of technology might be needed because of more stringent rules on pesticide use.
GM has been boosted by Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board chief scientist Professor Ian Crute. He describes GM as "one of the most sensible forms of technology" and says it would be an "important weapon in the armoury". He adds that genetic modification could help reduce the amount of pesticide being used. "Essentially, it's a green thing to do," he maintains.
Crute envisages a wide range of applications. "Work is currently being done on blight-resistant potatoes. Tomatoes can be given resistance to bacteria. There is an enormous amount of work being done on GM oil seed rape. Since this is a Brassica, the technology could be transferred relatively easily to cabbages and broccoli," he says.
He adds that the Chinese are starting work on GM brassicas — primarily pak choi and choi sum. The technology would help to combat club root. He also notes that work on GM carrots and onions is being considered in China and India.
Crute believes that with a less costly regulatory regime, GM could be accepted in this country, and suggests that GM could make good economic sense. Ten years ago it would have cost millions of dollars simply to sequence a gene — the first step required before you can even think about using it. Now the price is down to thousands of dollars.
Probably the biggest barrier to GM is public confidence. There are fears that modified genetic material could spread to the wider population of plants. This could result in, for example, the country being faced with vast populations of weeds that could not be killed with weedkiller.
There are also fears about the role of the multinational companies. The big furore about GM in this country started after it was realised that Monsanto was breeding plants that could not be killed with its own weedkiller, Roundup. Monsanto was perceived as trying to dominate the market for seed and weedkiller simultaneously.
Crute suggests that such fears are groundless. He points out that GM technology is cheap enough for many rival products to be introduced, preventing one company from having a monopoly. He also argues that GM pollen would be unlikely to spread more than a kilometre away from areas where the crops would be planted. This would prevent the uncontrolled spread of the new species.
However, growers are more cautious about a GM future. A recent American survey showed that GM seed has shot up in price over the past nine years. In the 25 years from 1975 to 2000, soy bean seed rose in price by only 63%. Since 2000 — in the period when GM seed dominated the market — seed rose in price by 230%.
For many producers, this has raised concerns that the multinational seed companies are able to force up prices and can take an excessive chunk of the growers' profits. The survey, by the US Organic Center, also showed that rather than reduce the amount of pesticide used on crops, the introduction of GM has actually increased it.
Brassica Growers Association Chairman Philip Effingham is also concerned about the growing power of the multinationals. "In the short term, GM might force down the cost of production. As a result, growers would have to buy GM seed," he says. However, the growers would not be able to hold onto their profits. "The shareholders of these multinationals want double-digit growth. They are in a position to manipulate the market. The grower will simply lose control of the end price."
Effingham argues that attempts to regulate the multinationals would be ineffective. "A harsher regulatory regime would simply put the smaller biological control companies out of business." He suggests the industry should try to be as "natural as possible" and win the respect of the public. "GM is not the answer," he adds.
British Carrot Growers Association chairman Martin Evans believes that GM could have potential benefits - increasing yields and producing a healthier product. However, he warns that it would be a huge struggle to win public confidence. "The closer you get to the market place, the more reluctance there is to introduce GM," he says.
As for apples, there is a similar story. English Apples & Pears chief executive Adrian Barlow says there are some possible benefits. He thinks it might be possible to produce apples with a better shape or colour or with greater regularity of appearance. It might also be possible to get rid of common pests such as scab and mildew.
Barlow is not worried about the multinationals. He says the large variety apples makes it unlikely that one grower could ever get a stranglehold on the industry. However, he sounds a note of caution: "Apples are considered to be very healthy. Nobody would want to undermine that perception".
Some growers are even more negative. British Tomato Growers Association executive officer Gerry Hayman believes that tomato growers have little to gain and much to lose from GM. "We're not interested in herbicide resistance because we grow a crop out of the earth. We're not interested in a long shelf life because that results in a very tough and tasteless fruit." He adds: "Some people have claimed that a GM tomato could have more vitamins, but many of the claims that we have seen on this subject simply don't stand up. In PR terms, GM would be a disaster."
There is undoubtedly more interest in GM than at any time over the past few years. However, whether the GM lobby will get its way is debatable. The Soil Association recently launched a counter-attack, insisting that if any GM foods are sold in this country, they should be clearly labelled as GM and this should be enforceable by law.
This is the sort of proposal that is likely to give supermarket managers sleepless nights. If the public puts its foot down and boycotts GM, it will be impossible for British supermarkets or growers to take the GM route.
India: Government Official Lauds Bt Cotton
- Dilip Kumar Jha, Business Standard, January 20, 2010 http://www.business-standard.com
The country has generated an additional income of Rs 10,000 crore to Rs 12,000 crore annually (~ $3B) because of its higher yield, J N Singh, joint secretary in the Union textiles ministry, told Business Standard.
According to official figures, 80 per cent of the overall cotton crop is from Bt seeds. The area under Bt cotton has been growing between four and five per cent a year, more so in region with irrigation facilities. Bt cotton is, however, unlikely to replace conventional cotton completely, especially in rain-fed regions like Vidarbha, Singh added.
The country’s annual cotton output is 30 million bales (1 bale = 170 kg). It earned a sum of Rs 2,800 crore (~ $700M) through exports in 2008. Cottonseed oil availability has eased the vegetable oil shortage, while cottonseed meal exports have fetched an additional annual income of Rs 3,500 crore.
Hybrid seed companies had a total sale of Rs 110 crore. Research and development (R&D) has been largely remained confined to public sector companies and government organizations. The agri-biotechnology industry needs a favourable environment that encourages R&D of new technologies to help achieve food security and drive inclusive growth, said V R Kaundinya, CEO and managing director of Advanta Seed Ltd, a company engaged in hybrid seed production.
Visionary policies are required to encourage R&D investment and innovation, promote choice and free markets that encourage competition and the freedom to operate in all states, he said.
Also, industry wants a reasonable return on the big investments needed for bringing new technology in important crops like cotton, mustard, wheat, rice, vegetables, etc.
On Bt brinjal, Kaundinya said Bt soybean and mustard had been used without a problem for years in various parts of the globe. So, brinjal should be no problem. “The world needs to set a priority to meet the widening deficit of food availability due to growing population,” he said.
Now, Kiran Mazumdar Backs Bt Brinjal
- Mangalorean (India), Jan 19, 2010 http://mangalorean.com
(She Always Did - CSP)
India's biotech "queen" Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw of Biocon Tuesday appealed for considering the issue of Bt brinjal cultivation on a scientific basis and not on "unfounded fears". "We would really like to ensure that we take this whole issue of Bt brinjal on a scientific basis and not on unfounded fears, creating a fear psychosis," Mazumdar-Shaw said at a conference on biotech event Bangalore India Bio, to be held June 2-4.
Mazumdar-Shaw, chairman and managing director of leading biotechnology firm Biocon, said the issue of commercially release of the Bt brinjal, after the cotton variety had proved beneficial, has to happen through a detailed scientific evaluation and debate, and not due to fear or an "unfounded" distrust. "BT is a safe science and it is aimed at boosting agriculture. It is the technology of the future and is safe. Through varieties like genetically modified brinjal we could spur the agri-economy," she said.
The chairperson of Karnataka Vision Group for BT said the industry had fully understood its responsibility and would never develop a technology that was unsafe for human consumption. "This technology is not being forced on anyone. When Bt cotton was introduced many were skeptical. Later, when it proved to be a big success, farmers voluntarily adopted it. It will be the same with Bt food crops which are safe for human consumption," she claimed.
Campaigners against Bt brinjal are apprehensive of adverse effects of Bt technology that could impact human and animal health and also on the environment. They fear Bt food could increase health risks and seriously affect the livelihood of farmers.
Bangalore would host a public consultation by the Ministry of Environment on January 25 on permitting Bt brinjal for commercial release. A section of farmers in India and several civil society organisations are opposing introduction of Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has now begun meeting them in a bid to remove their fears.
Indian BT industry to top USD 10 billion
Positive triggers would propel India’s biotech sector to become a USD ten billion industry by 2015, CMD of Biocon Ltd., Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, said on Tuesday. The BT industry veteran expects the industry to grow to USD five billion by next year. "By 2015, we expect it to become a size of USD ten billion", Mazumdar-Shaw told reporters.
India’s BT industry is at an inflexion point, has attained "critical mass" and created a platform that allows it to leapfrog and delivery exponential growth, she said.
"India is today becoming the vaccine capital of the world. Bio-manufacturing offers a huge potential and already there are indications that many global contract manufacturers announced they will be shifting their base from Europe to Asia. I think India will be one of the beneficiaries of that particular strategy", Mazumdar-Shaw said.
Clinical trials, agri-biotech and bio-fuels are becoming big opportunities for India, she said. "There are lot of growth drivers and trigger points which we think will deliver in the next five years".
IANS Adds: Bt Brinjal Safe for Humans, Says Science Ministry
While the government is conducting nationwide public consultations on whether genetically modified brinjal should be commercially released, the science ministry Tuesday endorsed the product, calling it "safe for all".
"As science and technology ministry, we support the clearance of the expert group. It is safe for all," Science and Technology Minister P. Chavan said at the social editors' conference here. "Thirty best scientists have cleared it and we stand by it. I am a health professional and let me tell that BT Brinjal is absolutely safe for all mammals," said M.K. Bhan, secretary in the department biotechnology. "It's safe for the human body and it's safer technology," Bhan added.
This is the first time a ministry has openly supported the genetically modified product despite protests across the country. "I don't know whether people will like the taste or not but it is safe for all humans. Let me also say that adopting this technology will help thousands of farmers," said Samir Bramhachari, chief of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the apex body of government-run research institutions.
In October last year, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) which is the government's biotech regulator approved the commercialisation of the genetically modified crop. Now the environment ministry has to decide if Bt Brinjal will be allowed for commercial use. On Jan 13 the ministry started a series of public consultations on the issue.
Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has now put the process on hold after three major brinjal producing states that account for nearly 60 percent of the produce refused to endorse the product. After West Bengal and Bihar, Orissa has opposed the commercialisation of Bt Brinjal. Earlier, the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh had said they would not have Bt Brinjal in their states.
Green NGOs have strongly condemned the regulator's clearance. Global environmental activist group Greenpeace has said GEAC "mindlessly" gave its clearance "when informed scientists and citizens raised serious concerns on the nature of the safety studies".
Bangladesh Trials GM Crops
- Fruitnet.com , January 18, 2010 via Checkbiotech
Agricultural scientists in Bangladesh are undertaking research to develop genetically modified (GM) varieties of eggplants and potatoes, the country's Daily Star reported. Scientists say the move to introduce GM crops will save farmers the cost of insecticides and fungicides, boost production and enable consumers to enjoy vegetables free of pesticides.
The transgenic eggplant varieties, known as 'Bt' eggplants, are on trial in seven confined fields in agricultural research stations. The GM potatoes, known as 'Rb' potatoes are also on trial in two confined fields. Bt eggplant crops enjoyed positive field trials, and it is expected the first GM eggplant seeds could be given to farmers within the next three years, subject to Bangladesh government approval.
"We got good results in the confined field trials last year and found 85-95 per cent of eggplants were infestation-free," said Dr Md Al-Amin, head of biotechnology at the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI).
If the variety can be proved safe for human consumption and harmless to the environment, it will be the first GM crop in Bangladesh.
Environmental activists oppose the move, however, arguing that genetically modified crops would not be safe for human consumption or the environment. "When an insect cannot eat crops, how will it be safe for human consumption?" said Farida Akhter of Nayakrishi Andolon, a group of farmers who use ecologically sound methods. "Above all, farmers will lose their right to preserve seeds," she said.
Dr Al-Amin disagreed with Ms Akhter regarding the effects the modified produce would have on the human body. "By the method we have used, there is no possibility of toxicity in humans," said Dr Al-Amin. "It requires a receptor to create a toxic effect on humans, but the human body does not have that receptor. Our findings show that it does not create any health hazard."
Danforth Center Wins $44 Million Stimulus Award
- Bill Lambrecht, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Jan 13, 2010
The Obama administration announced this afternoon that a consortium led by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis is the winner of a $44 million Recovery Act award for research into converting algae into biofuels.
Two more grants totalling $5.6 million for Better Family Life, of St. Louis, and Alternative Solutions, of Springfield, Mo., also were announced this afternoon by the Labor Department. The $5.6 million will be devoted to training unemployed workers from high poverty areas for green-energy jobs such as weatherization and rehabbing.
The Energy Department grant to the Danforth Center-led effort is among the largest awards or tax credits to be received in the bi-state region under the $787 billion stimulus package approved by Congress last year. The White House said in a release that the project, called the National Alliance for Advanced Biofules and Bioproducts, would aim toward production of biofuels made from algae.
Local members of Congress praised the grant. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said the award could provide jobs and “establish the St. Louis region as a leading center for the development of renewable fuels and other green energy technologies.” Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, had pushed for the Danforth Center to be included in the program. He said in a statement that “investments like this are helping to set us on a real path toward energy independence …”
Producing fuels from algae involves converting the carbon dioxide that results during photosynthesis. But the fuels have remained too expensive to produce and thus far have not become commercially viable in the competition with other fuels.
Nonetheless, high oil prices and the wastes of converting corn into ethanol have continued to generate interest in various forms of next-generation biofuels production, and algae has the benefits of being energy efficient and posing little or no harm to the environment.
In an unrelated announcement, the White House Council of Economic Advisors said this afternoon that about 63,000 clean-energy jobs had been created thus far with expenditures of $5 billion of the stimulus fund. The report predicted that more than 700,000 jobs would be created through 2012 from the Recovery Act’s clean energy spending.
The Danforth Center was founded 12 years ago with proceeds from the Danforth Foundation, the Monsanto Fund and state tax credits.
Future Jobs: What Might You Be Doing?
- Science of What (UK), January 4, 2010. Full list at http://sciencesowhat.direct.gov.uk/future-jobs/future-jobs-what-might-you-be-doing
With the help of the team at Fast Future Research, Science: [So what? So everything] has looked at potential developments in science and technology over the next 20 years and identified 20 jobs we could be doing as a result of these advances. What would you like to do?
3. Pharmer of genetically engineered crops and livestock New-age farmers will grow crops and keep animals that have been genetically engineered to increase the amount of food they produce and to include proteins that are good for our health. Scientists are already working on a vaccine-carrying tomato and therapeutic milk from cows, sheep and goats.
Genetic Engineer Takes the Helm at Harpenden Research Centre
- Alex Lewis, St. Albans and Harpenden Review (UK), Jan 18, 2010 http://www.stalbansreview.co.uk
Professor Maurice Moloney, one of the world's leading plant biologists, has been appointed as the new chief of Harpenden's Rothamsted Research.
Currently chief scientific officer of SemBioSys Genetics, a top biotechnology firm based in Calgary in Canada, he will take up the post of director and chief executive of Rothamsted in April to replace Ian Crute, who left last summer.
Professor Douglas Kell, chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Rothamsted's governing body, said: “Maurice Moloney brings a unique combination of skills and experience that combines top class plant cell science with effective translation of research into successful business activity. "His experience of leadership in academic, commercial and policy arenas will help Rothamsted Research to capitalise fully on its scientific strengths and play its full role working closely with other UK and international partners, in delivering food security and sustainable bioenergy."
Originally from Ireland, Professor Moloney has written more than 80 scientific papers and holds more than 300 patents. He specialises in the use of plants to derive medical or therapeutical products such as insulin, as well as improving crops through genetic engineering.
Before founding SemBioSys Genetics in 1984, he worked at the University Of Lausanne in Switzerland and a company producing genetically modified oilseed rape in California.
Rothamsted's acting director Peter Shewry said: “Maurice’s leadership will not only ensure our research is of the highest international quality, but also build on our strength in ensuring it is translated into useful outcomes for the industry and the public.”
Professor Moloney said: “Rothamsted Research is one of the most powerful engines for agricultural research in the world. "It will be a great privilege to lead future scientific developments at the institute and to deploy its science in meeting the challenges of sustainable food supply, bio-based energy and mitigation of agriculture’s carbon footprint for the benefit of both UK and global agriculture."
America's Agricultural Angst
- Joel Kotkin, Forbes, Jan 19, 2010
'Farming is big business, but some green activists are seeking to destroy it.'
In this high-tech information age few look to the most basic industries as sources of national economic power. Yet no sector in America is better positioned for the future than agriculture--if we allow it to reach its potential.
Like manufacturers and homebuilders before them, farmers have found themselves in the crosshairs of urban aesthetes and green activists who hope to impose their own Utopian vision of agriculture. This vision includes shutting down large-scale scientifically run farms and replacing them with small organic homesteads and urban gardens.
Troublingly, the assault on mainstream farmers is moving into the policy arena. It extends to cut-offs on water, stricter rules on the use of pesticides, prohibitions on the caging of chickens and a growing movement to ban the use of genetic engineering in crops. And it could undermine a sector that has performed well over the past decade and has excellent long-term prospects.
Over the next 40 years the world will be adding some 3 billion people. These people will not only want to eat, they will want to improve their intake of proteins, grains, fresh vegetables and fruits. The U.S., with the most arable land and developed agricultural production, stands to gain from these growing markets. Last year the U.S.' export surplus in agriculture grew to nearly $35 billion, compared with roughly $5 billion in 2005.
The overall impact of agriculture on the economy is much greater than generally assumed, notes my colleague Delore Zimmerman, of Praxis Strategy Group. Roughly 4.1 million people are directly employed in production agriculture as farmers, ranchers and laborers, but the industry directly or indirectly employs approximately one out of six American workers, including those working in food processing, marketing, shipping and supermarkets.
Yet none of this seems to be slowing the mounting criticisms of "corporate agriculture." A typical article in Time, called "Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food," assailed the "U.S. agricultural industry" for precipitating an ecological disaster. "With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil--which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills--our industrial style of food production," the article predicts, "will end sooner or later."
The romantic model being promoted by Time and agri-intellectuals like Michael Pollan hearkens back to European and Tolstoyan notions of small family farms run by generations of happy peasants. But this really has little to do with the essential ethos of American agriculture.
Back in the early 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville noted that American farmers viewed their holdings more like capitalists than peasants. They would sell their farms and move on to other businesses or other lands--a practice unheard of in Europe. "Almost all the farmers of the United States," he wrote, "combine some trade with agriculture; most of them make agriculture itself a trade."
Despite the perceptions of a corporatized farm sector, this entrepreneurial spirit remains. Families own almost 96% of the nation's 2.2 million farms, including the vast majority of the largest spreads. And small-scale agriculture, after decreasing for years, is on the upswing; between 2002 and 2009 the number of farms increased by 4%.
This trend toward smaller-scale specialized production represents a positive trend, but large-scale, scientifically advanced farming still produces the majority of the average family's foodstuffs, as well as the bulk of our exports. Overall, organic foods and beverages account for less than 3% of all food sales in the U.S.--hardly enough to feed a nation, much less a growing, hungry planet.
Then there's the even more fanciful notion--promoted by Columbia University's Dickson D. Despommier--of moving food production into massive urban hothouses. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times he argues we are running out of land and need to take agriculture off the farm. According to Despommier, "The traditional soil-based farming model developed over the last 12,000 years will no longer be a sustainable option."
Yet Praxis Strategy's Matthew Lephion, who grew up on a family farm, points out that such projects hardly represent a credible alternative in terms of food production. Urban land is far more expensive--often at least 10 times as much as rural. Energy and other costs of maintaining farms in big cities also are likely to be higher.
Furthermore the notion that America is running out of land--one justification for subsidizing urban farming--seems fanciful at best. The past 30 years have seen some loss of farmland, but the amount of land that actually grows harvested crops has remained stable. Though some prime farmland close to metropolitan centers should be protected, agriculture has over the past decades returned to nature--forests, wetlands, prairie--millions of acres, far more than the land that has been devoted to housing and other urban needs.
However ludicrous the arguments, the Obama administration remains influenced by green groups and is the cultural prisoner of the lifestyle left, with its powerful organic foodie contingent. That leaves farmers and the small towns dependent on them with little voice.
The ability of greens and others to wreak havoc on agriculture can be seen in the disaster now unfolding in California's fertile Central Valley. Large swaths of this area are being de-developed back to desert--due less to a mild drought than to regulations designed to save obscure fish species in the state's delta. Over 450,000 acres have already been allowed to go fallow. Nearly 30,000 agriculture jobs--held mostly by Latinos--have been lost, and many farm towns suffer conditions that recall The Grapes of Wrath.
Not satisfied with these results, the green lobby has prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service to further cut water supplies, in part to improve the conditions for whales and other species out in the ocean. Given these attitudes, farmers, including those I have worked with in Salinas, are fretting about what steps federal and state regulators may take next.
One particular concern revolves around the movement against genetically modified food. Already there are calls for banning GMOs in Monterey County. Local officials worry this would cripple the area's nascent agricultural biotech industry as well as the long-term ability of existing farmers to compete with less regulated competitors elsewhere. The fact that a less advanced form of genetic engineering also sparked the "green revolution" that greatly reduced world hunger after 1965 seems, to them at least, irrelevant.
When viewed globally, the anti-big farm movement seems even more misguided. As Chapman University's professor of food science Anuradha Prakash observes, India's own organic farms serve a small portion of the market and cannot possibly meet the nutritional needs of the country's expanding population. "You just don't get the yields you need for Africa and Asia from organic methods," she explains.
A formula that works for high-end foodies of the Bay Area or Manhattan can't produce enough affordable food to feed the masses--whether in Minnesota or Mumbai. The emerging war on agriculture threatens not only the livelihoods of millions of American workers; it could undermine our ability to help feed the world.
Joel Kotkin is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Legatum Institute in London and serves as executive editor of newgeography.com. He writes the weekly New Geographer column for Forbes. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin in February.
Green Revolution – Can Plant Breeding Feed The World?
- Noel Kingsbury, Excerpted from "Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding"; Chapter 12, Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago Press. http://www.seedquest.com/forum/bookexcerpts/hybrid/chapter12.htm
Just as the world of politics has reformists and revolutionaries, so does the world of agricultural development – there are those involved in the business who believe that problems can be solved through the constant self-correcting mechanism of science and the market, and those who reject the entire system.
Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins, of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, an NGO based in California have been at the forefront of a radical critique of food and development policy since the 1970s. Lappé wrote Diet for a small planet in 1971 – it was very influential at the time, introducing a radical critique of global food issues, as well introducing many readers to the idea of a vegetarian or reduced-meat diet in order to make the world’s limited supply of agricultural land go further. It also included some very good recipes – the author still makes their poppyseed cake regularly, some thirty years later. In 1977, with Joseph Collins, he produced another very influential book, Food first: beyond the myth of scarcity.
The Green Revolution, they say, “was a choice not to start developing seeds better able to stand drought or pests. not to concentrate first on improving traditional methods of increasing yields, such as mixed cropping…not to concentrate on reinforcing the balanced, traditional diets of grain plus legumes”. There is a reluctance to believe that the Green Revolution actually fed more people, and predictions of famine in the future as disease sweeps genetically uniform crops or some other disaster strikes.
No one since the 1970s can deny that the Green Revolution has produced more food, but radical critics argue that simply relying on producing more food will not solve world hunger. This will only happen when unjust social, economic and political structures are changed. Food they say, is “plentiful”, as do many others in the global justice movement, indeed “there is enough food in the world” has become something of a mantra; the problem they believe lies in unjust social systems that stop it being equitably distributed. HYVs tend to be referred to sarcastically as “miracle seeds” (with the inverted commas), and the role of plant breeding is implicitly denied.
There is no denying that social justice would indeed help to feed more people, but what is distinctive about the arguments advanced here is that there seems to be an unnecessary ‘either/or’ inserted into the analysis, as if social justice on its own would make scientific advance unnecessary, and that scientific plant breeding is not needed. Many would go further and argue that scientific plant breeding is part of a plot for world domination by US capitalism.
Indian activist Vandana Shiva belongs to this camp. The Green Revolution, she argues is part of a sociopolitical strategy aimed at “pacifying” the poor “not through redistributive justice but through economic growth”, and at ensuring dependency on the west and on multinational corporations. Despite having started her career in science (nuclear physics), Shiva is now very anti-science, speaking of “the exaggerated sense of modern science’s power to control nature and society”. Asian agricultural systems had nothing to learn from outside, she argues, quoting Sir Alfred Howard (1873-1947), “The agricultural practices of the orient have passed the supreme test, they are almost as permanent as those of the primeval forest, of the prairie, or of the ocean”. Any vegetation ecologist will of course now tell you that there is nothing primeval or unchanging about any of these environments.
Who was Sir Alfred Howard? He was an Imperial British agriculture expert who worked in India from 1905 to 1924, who became a convert to traditional farming technology, believing that it could not be improved upon; he went home to become an early campaigner for organic agriculture. What was he doing in India? He, and his first wife Gabrielle were breeding new wheat varieties. Unlike most of the wives of British imperial civil servants whose work was almost entirely taken up with organizing large teams of servants, Gabrielle Howard spent a great deal of time doing the intricate work of cross-breeding wheats, working under a parasol “to the astonishment of the ladies of the Station, who prophesied either a complete breakdown in household arrangements or at least sunstroke from so many hours spent in the field”.
The Howards had taken the decision to use native Indian wheats as much as possible; they sifted through landraces to isolate pure lines and cross-bred to improve yields and rust resistance, coming up with some fifty varieties, all including ‘Pusa’ in the name. The new wheats made a huge impact on Indian agriculture and were widely used for breeding elsewhere. The message for today is that a belief in the worth of traditional agricultural systems can go hand in hand with scientific plant breeding. Sadly this message seems to have been lost on Vandana Shiva and almost the entire alternative agriculture movement.
In her 1991 book, The Violence of the Green Revolution, Shiva maintains that the Green Revolution set off a spiral of social conflict. Between 1970 and 1980, the number of landholdings in Punjab state fell by around 25%, as a result of poorer farmers leaving the land, often, according to Shiva, because they were unable to afford the higher costs of inputs needed by the new crops. She goes on to claim that increasing indebtedness in Punjab during the early 1980s led to agitation by farmers over the costs of agricultural inputs, which contributed to the destabilization of the state by Sikh separatists, culminating in the attack by the Indian army on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984, and the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
She tries to blame the Green Revolution for more or less everything that went wrong in Punjab during this time: alcoholism, smoking, drug-addiction, pornography, violence against women. In particular she sees the Green Revolution as a “cultural strategy” replacing “traditional peasant values of co-operation with competition, of prudent living with conspicuous consumption, of soil and crop husbandry with the calculus of subsidies, profits and remunerative prices”.
Shiva’s critique of the Green Revolution centers on two main issues: what she argues is the replacement of diversity of crops with uniformity, and on the substitution of the internal resources of the farm with inputs which have to be bought in: fertilizers, pesticides, seeds etc. In the case of the latter, she is putting forward an argument which has been a constant in the alternative agriculture movement, that of self-sufficiency. Her argument is very much that traditional societies managed very well through their self-sufficiency and recycling of nutrients, and that entry into the market place inevitably brings with it social and ecological disintegration.
The seed in particular becomes the focus of her discourse, and that of many others in the this movement, as the repository of deep symbolism; indeed it becomes a quasi-spiritual entity. In particular it becomes a block to the introduction of market economics to the world of the farm, for the seed (at least in the case of grains and pulses) is not just the end-result of one’s labors – an item of food, but also the means to start the next year’s crop; it is both present sustenance and future crop.
The fact that traditional farmers can save their seed and start again next season presents a clear block to the interests of commercial seed suppliers. ‘The seed” explains Shiva, “has therefore to be transformed materially if a market for seed has to be created… modern plant breeding is primarily an attempt to remove this biological obstacle to the market in seed”. The marketing of F1 hybrid seed which has to be sown every year clearly gives private sector seed producers an open door, yet Shiva appears to object to any ‘corporate seed’ which puts control over seed and breeding beyond the control of farmers themselves, even if it is open-pollinated.
By effectively forcing farmers to become part of the marketplace: by buying seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, even water, from outside the village, the Green Revolution, so its radical critics allege, breaks open the tight and self-contained world of the traditional village and integrates its inhabitants into a global world where everything is a commodity. The implication of the critics is that this is by its very nature, a bad thing. Those who argue for science-led development are entitled to ask, how is agriculture meant to progress, in order to feed millions more hungry mouths, in particular those increasing millions who are moving to the cities?
Radical critics of the Green Revolution such as Shiva tend to ignore the fact that many, indeed most, traditional societies were far more integrated into extensive market-based systems than is often supposed, and that many traditional societies were extremely rigid, offering a life of poverty and ceaseless hard work for the vast majority; it is for this reason that many of those millions are leaving the country for the city – they want the possibility of freedom from centuries of class- and ethnically-based repression, the chance to be part of a labor market which offers minimal options rather than none at all, and the opportunity to better themselves and their families through education and entrepreneurial activity.
Interestingly, critics such as Shiva rarely discuss the deeply oppressive nature of many traditional societies - instead the traditional village becomes an idealized golden age. Any mention of India’s own ‘peculiar institution’ - caste, is strangely absent from Shiva’s discourse.