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March 31, 2010


A Road Map to Deliver GM; Austrian Study Confirmed as Flawed; Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods; Real or Imagined Threats?


* A Search for Regulators and A Road Map to Deliver GM Crops to Third World Farmers
* Austria Withdraws Study on the Long-Term Consequences of GM Maize
* Does GM maize cause impotence?
* The Science of Stewardship
* Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods
* Are GMOs Real or Imagined Threats?
* Pioneer's Goal: To Aid Farmers Everywhere
* Global Agricultural Conference Participant Hopes to Raise Awareness about Science
* What the Green Revolution Teaches Us


A Search for Regulators and A Road Map to Deliver GM Crops to Third World Farmers

- Gayathri Vaidyanathan of ClimateWire, New York Times, March 31, 2010

In Burkina Faso, a school for the future regulators of Africa's genetically modified (GM) crops is opening up next month.

The school, called the African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE), has been set up by the African Union and is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The operators are careful to point out that this is an "Africa-based, Africa-owned and Africa-led" initiative, an important point, for there are few debates in agriculture there that raise more political heat than issues of food sovereignty and genetically modified crops.

"We acknowledge that sovereignty is in the hands of Africans," said Lawrence Kent, deputy director of the Agricultural Development Initiative at the Gates Foundation. "For research to move forward, the African governments must move forward with biosafety capacity building."

In the transgenic crop fight, the foot soldiers on either side have been dug in for years. But despite the doubts about the necessity of GM, farmers have been voting with their seeds. The acreage where transgenic crops are planted has been increasing. Developing nations and small farming operations are the newest adopters of GM crops. By 2015, the European Commission predicts that there will be 120 commercial crops worldwide, up from the 30 currently grown.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), which monitors the planting of GM crops worldwide, the use of biotechnology increased by 7 percent over the past year. About 90 percent of the 14 million farmers who use GM are "resource-poor farmers," said Clive James, chairman of ISAAA.

Meanwhile, most scientists are calling for sweeping changes to agriculture to prepare for sustainable development and ensure the security of food supplies in the face of climate change and other challenges. The changes, they say, will invariably include transgenic crops.

Much of the new research is happening in developing nations, especially China. And public-sector scientists in these nations are now wondering how to get their crops to the dinner table, past a stringent and too-expensive regulatory process.

Sam Timpo of ABNE talks with a heavy accent over the phone from Egypt. He says it is necessary to develop regulations in the next few years. There is some haste, for another Gates-funded initiative is in the pipeline -- a royalty-free transgenic corn that, in theory, should withstand the droughts of sub-Saharan Africa. But in most African nations, there is no government biosafety agency to approve, monitor and track GM crops.

Biosafety regulations of countries are usually modeled after the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement that promotes a "precautionary approach." It says that GM crops can be adopted if they are of minimal risk to the environment and human health. It lays out a clear set of guidelines to test for that risk.

But guidelines alone don't suffice. "As many as 100 developing countries lack the technical and management capacity needed to review tests and monitor compliance," wrote Jose Falck-Zepeda, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, in a recent policy brief.

Since the first green revolution, investment in agricultural science from the public sector has been lagging in most parts of the world. The private players -- Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer CropScience and others -- dominated most of the research, creating fears about a monopoly over seed supply.

China develops the technology and the markets
The exception is China, which has the world's largest pool of agricultural scientists. With a stable of more than 100 crops waiting for approval, it is the most serious contender with private enterprises for engineering crops.

"They have pretty big capacity of biotech Ph.D.s, probably one of the biggest in the world, if not the biggest, in plant biology," said Guillaume Gruere, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. "More than a hundred crops have been tested both in the lab and in the greenhouse. Most of those crops haven't gone further, but they could one day just get it out if they want to."

China's needs are big. It has to feed a population that will steadily grow, and it takes its food security challenges seriously, according to Falck-Zepeda.

The country also doesn't have to contend with some of the public perception issues that plague other nations. In November, the government approved insect-resistant rice and insect-resistant corn for final field trials, which should hit the commercial markets in two years. Given the nature of rice as a staple, this is an important milestone in the commercialization of a food crop.

"They have the money and understand that biotechnology is power," said Robert Zeigler, director-general of the International Rice Research Institute, based in the Philippines, which was instrumental in helping Asia increase its rice yields during the first "green revolution."

Looming 'South-South' transfers

China is investing heavily in pushing crops through its regulatory system. Late last year, the government invested about $900 million in market biotechnology and teaching researchers how to transfer their nascent crops into the marketplace, according to Falck-Zepeda.

"They know that their internal market is so big and you have so many people internally in China that'll be customers," he said. "They have economies of scale."

And China is initiating "South-South" technology transfers of its seeds. Its non-transgenic hybrid rice seeds are being aggressively marketed in India, Bangladesh and Africa. Its transgenic cotton (a Chinese-developed variety) is available in India.

"Chinese transgenic material is coming," said Swapan Kumar Dutta, crop science director at the government-run Indian Council of Agricultural Research, referring to Chinese Bt cotton. "The Chinese know their business. They are doing it very purposefully."

Once China's recently approved transgenic seed hits the market, there are few regulations that could keep it from seeping into international markets. Given that developing nations usually have a better grasp of each others' needs, this would be a good development, according to policymakers. Farmers typically tend to purchase seeds that deliver the greatest profit, according to Dutta. And although the transfer of seeds involves the Cartagena Protocol, most nations do not have as strict an interpretation of risk as does the European Union.

In Argentina, soybean farmers simply borrowed some biotech seeds from neighboring fields in Brazil before the country decided to adopt the GM seeds. In India, Bt cotton was a reality in the illegal seed market long before the government approved Monsanto seeds, according to Gruere.

The dangers of black markets
The African Union and international aid organizations are working to fill in gaps in regulation because a regulated seed market would be safer than an illegal market, based on seeds smuggled in from abroad. "The danger is when people adopt GM crops in a free-for-all atmosphere," said Francis Nang'ayo, regulatory affairs manager for the drought-tolerant corn initiative called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA).

A significant number of traits have already been developed by public-sector agencies in other parts of the world, as well. But the costs necessary for getting regulatory approval, which can run into millions of dollars, cannot be met by most of these agencies. Most GM crops die in the lab.

This is true in the United States, as well, where public-sector research into plant science has been slow. Getting through the regulatory system can cost as much as $150 million for a single plant, according to Denise Dewar, executive director for plant biology at the industry-sponsored group CropLife International.

"The regulatory system is so expensive and time-consuming that the only organizations that can afford it are big biotech companies," said Nina Fedoroff, science and technology adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Since private companies choose to develop crops that make money, transgenic crops that are necessary for food security get left out, she said.

A business or a 'moral imperative'?
Currently, four crops (soybeans, corn, cotton and canola) and two traits (insect resistance and herbicide tolerance) that are most profitable are being developed by these companies. Other traits or crops that may be useful to the poorer world are largely ignored, since companies' primary responsibility is to the shareholder, according to Falck-Zepeda.

The drought-tolerant corn donated by Monsanto to sub-Saharan Africa seems to be an exception to this rule. "We see it as a moral imperative and think it is beholden upon us to share it," said Vanessa Cook, the project leader from Monsanto.

Monsanto could have other motivations for donating the drought-tolerant corn. The adoption of the crop could improve the standard of living over time and improve farmers' perceptions of other biotech seeds that may arrive for sale. It would be a long-term investment. "It's no loss to them; they gain public relations," said Falck-Zepeda. "Eventually, they may be able to buy seed from Monsanto."

And having a socially advantageous and necessary crop such as drought-tolerant corn could hasten the establishment of biosafety systems.

"If you have a great crop that is ready, maybe it'll push things to go forward and have a bill on biosafety," said Gruere. "If the regulation is not ready, they won't approve anything and [the technology] will just stay in the lab and that's it."


Austria Withdraws Study on the Long-Term Consequences of GM Maize

- GMO Compass, March 26, 2010


Austria has withdrawn a study on long-term feeding trials with mice that was published in November 2008. The study had caused quite a public stir since some of the mice that were fed with genetically modified maize gave birth to fewer offspring. The media and gene technology critics had interpreted the result as evidence of a reduced fertility caused by GM maize.

The Austrian government had already announced in a meeting of the 'Standing Committee for the Food Chain and Animal Health' at the EU commission in October 2009 that the scientists commissioned to do the study had not managed to present a 'satisfactory statistical evaluation' of the data. In addition, the Austrian Ministries that had commissioned the study no longer expected to receive such an evaluation.

Almost a year before, the committee had discussed the then newly published study and had come to the conclusion that the data did not allow any inferences to be drawn concerning the investigated GM maize - a cross between the maize lines NK603 and MON810. At that time, Austria had agreed to reappraise the statistical evaluation of the data.

The study, carried out by a working group of the University of Vienna under the leadership of Prof. Jürgen Zentek (now at the TU Berlin), was presented at a meeting in Vienna in November 2008. At the same time the first press releases appeared: "Consumption of GM maize reduces fertility" wrote Greenpeace and demanded that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) should be closed because of incompetence and that all approved genetically modified plants should be removed from the market. The news service Glocialist going a step further wrote "GM maize causes impotence". Austrian politicians of all parties regarded their 'enormous concern' about gene technology in agriculture as confirmed.

Zentek and his coworkers had fed their experimental mice a diet that comprised of one third GM maize from the NK603Å~MON810 cross. A control group had received conventional maize. In another experiment mice were fed over four generations with both diets. In the evaluation of the long-term study published at that time, the number of offspring in the third and fourth litters were less than for the control group fed with conventional feed. Although Zentek warned about hasty generalisations, since then the study has been consistently cited by gene technology critical groups as evidence for health risks through genetically modified food plants.

Subsequently, Austria introduced the study into the consultation at the EU level. It was, according to a government representative speaking to the Standing Committee on 16 December 2008, "Part of comprehensive efforts of the Austrian Government regarding the safety of GM plants". After the discussion, it was observed in the protocol of the "Consensus between Member States" meeting that "the study did not answer the question of safety of the GM maize NK603Å~MON810. The Austrian authorities should consider whether they could provide EFSA and the Member States with the raw data."

Previously both EFSA and some national authorities had examined the results of the feeding study and had come to the conclusion that no inferences could be drawn from the report since the data were incomplete and contradictory. In addition, important information necessary for a scientific evaluation of the study was missing.

Despite their acceptance at that time, the Austrian government was apparently not able to provide either these data or a statistically correct evaluation.

Does GM maize cause impotence? - http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/news/671.docu.html

Note from Prakash: Hundreds of newspapers and dozens of activists reported with glee this story of 'GM maize affecting fertility' from a flawed study in Vienna.

Are we now going to see any newspapers now publishing an erratum (or God forbid activists) saying "Oops... my bad?"


The Science of Stewardship

- Jordan J. Ballor, Acton Institute, March 31, 2010. Embedded links at http://blog.acton.org/archives/15387-the-science-of-stewardship.html

In this week’s Acton Commentary I examine some of the issues surrounding concern for our planet’s growing human population. In “The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods,” (see below - CSP)I argue that increased food production, augmented by advances in genetic modification, has a key role to play in meeting the needs of future generations. And in this way companies like Monsanto have contributed greatly to our ability to address the need for increased yields.

They have done so in great measure by combining tech with technique, or as the Forbes piece puts it, “marrying conventional breeding with genetic engineering.” Just as important as getting seeds that have the right genetic “tech” is mastering all the variables and skills needed to make plants grow properly, from soil makeup, to cultivation techniques, to timing. On the question of timing, for instance, there’s always more research being done on the best time to plant different kinds of crops.

A recent Popular Science feature, for instance, labeled the “bean counter” one of “The 10 Worst Jobs In Science” for being “most tedious.” So that even “after 10,000 years of intensive agriculture, we still don’t understand key things, like the best moment to plant soybeans.” And that’s why graduate students like Andrew Robinson at Purdue will “spend the next few years hand-counting beans from about 750 plots.”

But the question of increased population isn’t as innocent as might first appear. On the one hand, it’s certainly true that concern about the increase of the world’s human population often masks latent or not-so-latent misanthropy.

And on the other hand, as many have pointed out, it’s not the number of people in itself that largely determines global environmental impact, but rather the lifestyle of those people, their consumption habits, as well as the underlying economic structures, that function as determinative factors.

But even so, increased yields might help alleviate some of the difficulties with realizing large-scale urban farming, for instance. And while “complete self-reliance” of cities on local food sources “is not currently sensible,” and perhaps really shouldn’t be pursued, the prospects of getting significant produce from smaller plots looms large as an economic possibility given advances in both biotech and technique. There is real hope here economically and environmentally for places like Detroit.

As I also note in the piece, there are certainly moral limits that provide us space within which to pursue scientific advances and progress, but beyond which we “run the risk of aggravating our offense against God.” And it is not only up to scientists themselves, no matter how concerned, to recognize and articulate those limits.

On this the Bible has much to say. I made an attempt about 5 years ago to come to grips with these limits within which responsible stewardship occurs in the form of “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” I followed up that framework, which articulates a view largely affirming the instrumental use of plants, with a series denying a similarly instrumental use of animals.


The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods

- Jordan Ballor, Acton Commentary, March 30, 2010 http://www.acton.org/commentary/581_science_of_stewardship.php

The flip side of concern about the earth’s climate and global sustainability is angst about population growth. Where these issues collide most prominently is in the question of food. Can the earth’s food supply possibly keep pace with a global population estimated by some to top 8 billion by the year 2020 and 9 billion by 2030? A recent article in the journal Science examined the challenge of sustainably feeding a new generation of inhabitants.

As the authors pose the problem: A threefold challenge now faces the world: Match the rapidly changing demand for food from a larger and more affluent population to its supply; do so in ways that are environmentally and socially sustainable; and ensure that the world’s poorest people are no longer hungry. This challenge requires changes in the way food is produced, stored, processed, distributed, and accessed that are as radical as those that occurred during the 18th- and 19th-century Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions and the 20th-century Green Revolution. Increases in production will have an important part to play, but they will be constrained as never before by the finite resources provided by Earth’s lands, oceans, and atmosphere.

These are complex issues that defy simplistic analysis. But one aspect of the population and sustainability challenge that is nearly universally acknowledged is the need to increase crop yields on finite, and increasingly limited, arable land. And at the forefront of these efforts are companies dedicated to altering crops to accentuate desirable characteristics through genetic modification.

That’s one reason why agricultural giant Monsanto was recently selected as Forbes magazine’s company of the year. Robert Langreth and Matthew Herper write, “By marrying conventional breeding with genetic engineering, Monsanto aims to produce more food for less money on the same amount of land.”

According to Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant, these traditional methods “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.” As Langreth and Herper report, “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.”

For Christians, moral questions about the validity of genetic-modification of creatures are raised within the framework of stewardship. On the biblical account, God placed human beings created in his image in dominion over the earth, as stewards of the world’s natural resources, including plants and animals. God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden “to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15 NIV).

With the Fall into sin, however, the created relationships were upset, marred by enmity and distress. Part of the curse on human sinfulness is the difficulty that marks human efforts at cultivation in a fallen world: “Cursed is the ground because of you; / through painful toil you will eat of it / all the days of your life. / It will produce thorns and thistles for you, / and you will eat the plants of the field. / By the sweat of your brow / you will eat your food / until you return to the ground, / since from it you were taken; / for dust you are / and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:17-19 NIV).

It is within the context of this world corrupted by sin and death that famine and hunger reign. And as long as we live in this world of sin, hunger, poverty, and sickness will remain (Matt. 26:11). But as stewards of God’s creation, human beings are called to work to mitigate the effects of sin wherever possible.

So in the realm of agriculture and food, the call to bring forth the fruitfulness of the earth endures from creation to our fallen world. Efforts to minimize the effects of the curse in our lives do run the risk of aggravating our offense against God if they lose sight of our responsibility as stewards behind an emphasis on our liberties as autonomous tyrants.

Thus our stewardship must be cast in terms of obedience to God’s will. As biblical theologian Eugene F. Roop writes in the NIV Stewardship Study Bible, “While virtually all things are possible in God’s garden, not all things are beneficial, and some things are not permitted. Nevertheless, we are genuinely free.” We are free to make use of the land, for good or ill.

The biblical account makes it clear that plants were given to provide sustenance for the creatures of the world with “the breath of life” (Gen. 1:29-30 NIV), including human beings. And so as stewards of God’s creation we have wide latitude to, as Roop puts it, continue “finding new ways to nurture the soil back to life.” Increasing crop yields through technological advances like genetic modification appear to be will within the boundaries of God’s ordained freedom for human stewardship.

A chastened view of stewardship recognizes that we are only caretakers, called to an important task, but nevertheless dependent on the power of God to make the new heavens and the new earth. While growing more food for the earth’s inhabitants will not eradicate hunger this side of Christ’s return, we can understand our own efforts here as reflections, however blurry and indistinct, of the new creation. It is with God’s own rule manifested in heaven that we will finally realize the day in which the Tree of Life will bear its fruit, and “no longer will there be any curse” (Rev. 22:3 NIV).

Jordan J. Ballor is associate editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality.


Are GMOs Real or Imagined Threats?

- Prof. Pierre Mallia, Malta Independent, March 31, 2010. Full commentary at http://www.independent.com.mt/news.asp?newsitemid=103907

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) offer considerable benefits, but as soon as the word genetic manipulation is mentioned we immediately perceive a threat to what is usually referred to as ‘common heritage’. Our genes and the genes of organisms around us have taken on the connotation of a ‘holy grail’ which should not be touched.

Whilst it is true that we manipulate genes by many other means than by direct genetic engineering, and to this end, the argument that we have been manipulating genes by forms of eugenics and agricultural manipulation, is true, this is in reality only a form of genetic selection. When we say that we can now actually modify genes, many feel a threatened and the usual statement of ‘playing God’ is often invoked.

I personally used to consider the phrase ‘playing God’ as mere rhetoric, used by people who wish to take issue with scientific advancement. Time and time again we have shown that what science proposes always elicits antagonism, but in time it is accepted. We even saw computers and IT as a threat and now in less time than we expected, not only do we have a computer in every home, but all our appliances are computerized

There is no such thing as a medical advancement without prices to pay in the process. We have today’s medicines because people experimented for centuries with herbs and other stuff which sent a lot of people to heaven. But the fact is that they would probably have arrived there earlier if no one bothered to try anything. I am quite sure that a glance at scientific-debate of a century ago will have mentioned the manipulation of humankind by the throwing in the bodies of all these chemicals. And we all remember the religious crusade against vaccination, which resulted in the cure of so much diseases. We will never eliminate all disease and new ones will turn up, but it is in our nature to be fighters and to give each other hope.

This is the whole context in which we should deal with GMOs. It is not about someone making money. Of course money is often the incentive which makes industry go into a field. But it goes there because it sees the prospect. This does not mean we should not move without precaution. It is a known fact that genetically modified crops can affect crops in fields miles away by the transfer of genes by several vectors, including insects. Introducing GMO foods means that we may have to tolerate some other food to be ‘contaminated’ with these genes. So, for example, if we modify an apple to make it bigger, or a crop to make it resistant to insects thus not requiring pesticides, or, even still, introduce a gene which will make the crop more numerous, there is no absolute guarantee that the ‘normal’ crops, will not take on these traits. But the contamination is with something positive and one surely can see a benefit if crops had not to be sprayed with pesticides.

Does going ‘Green’ mean that we should not have GMOs at all? The reality is that there is a lot that we do in agriculture which has affected our health. We all remember mad-cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease. Did this stop us from producing meat? If we had an opportunity to apply the principle of precaution, how could we have done it? It seems to me that to apply the principle of precaution for GMOs means, to many, that we should not have GMOs at all. This is not however what this principle speaks about. It is not a caution against scientific advancement. It is a principle which tells us to stop early in the process if we detect anything which may be of detriment had we to stop and wait for hard evidence and legal battles. Thus if one notices a surge in allergic reactions and one relates it to areas where GMOs have been introduced then one should act immediately rather than wait for more evidence.

When it comes to this science which we do not yet understand, it is this risk which industry should be made to understand that it is taking. And before we actually enforce this principle at EU level, then it will not be heeded. So when we come to the decision taken by the new EU commissioner, presuming that what was said was all true – that it was not for human consumption, and that evidence had been produced that it will not affect nearby agriculture - then the decision was one in favour of progress in this area. It was probably not the place to invoke a principle of precaution. It will be the case if there is any minimal observation of harm being done, in which case another courageous decision would be needed to stop before it is too late.

I am quite certain that genetics is one of the ways humanity has chosen for the future. I am also quite certain that we will experience difficulties and there will be instances, such as the allergic reactions we saw to GMO nuts, where people will go out in the streets in protest. But if we are to have foods which do not require pesticides, I see this as a move in the ‘green’ direction too, lest we enter a tower of Babel and start finding it difficult now to define what is ‘green’ and what is ‘dark’ green. The principle of precaution however is a tool which has been adopted in principle by the EU and EC and there has to come a time when it is invoked. Clearly any GMO must be policed in a way to stop that one that gives indications that it will go wrong.

Then there is also a moral question. These are more difficult to answer in either an amoral society or in a society where many ideas can be morally neutral or relative. Should we produce chicken with four thighs or cows that produce more milk or milk with certain properties? Clearly we depart from what is natural. But is it natural anyway for chickens to be produced in crowded incubators and never see the light of day? Their destiny is the cooker or the skewer. But we find solace in the fact that its ‘nature’ has not been modified. But its nature has been modified, at least in the sense that it was intended to live in. That is the price we pay for agriculture. Bizarre as it seems, if the chicken had to have meatier thighs, no one would be the wiser. If the thighs had to be all the same (four thighs and no wings), then we pontificate on the poor bird’s nature, when it will never know the difference anyway because it never got to open those wings, which serve at most as a delicacy on Chinese and barbequed dishes.

It does however show that humans do have a limit to what they wish to manipulate. This has been called the ‘yuck factor’. We tend to accept and tolerate chicken to grow as they do and wonder at the advancement of technology. Some of us don’t and become vegetarians. The reason is philosophical. But when it comes to changing the form, many seem to invoke a ‘yuck factor’.

The problem with GMOs is therefore twofold. Both are ethical in nature and both ask what we ought or ought not to do. One asks the medical/health question. Will we damage in the long run our supply of natural food? The other is a philosophical question, no less important, even though many may find it amusing: is an apple supposed to be big and insect resistant? Whatever our answer we cannot stop progress. But in a world where might is right, we expect politicians to give go-aheads to progress; we also expect them to be moral when their duty calls them to be so. The precautionary principle is not pre-caution, i.e. caution before something is introduced. It is postprandial, so to speak. It is the courage to monitor and stop something should harm be suspected to be coming from it. To use a principle of precaution too early (and stop all GMOs) is not precaution. It is mere folly. Not to use it at all, and use it they occasionally eventually must, is cowardice.

One thing is certain. We can never know the consequences of all our actions. But this is a fact of life, from entering into marriage to waking up in the morning. The early years of GMOs will tell us a lot whether they are the future or not. Some threats may be real and have to be curbed early. Some are just imaginary. Genes, whether human, animal or of crops, are not a stable entity. They change all the time. It is a false sense of security that if genes change because of natural selection, then it is good, as man has been selecting genes for ages, and it still has been considered natural.

New crops have been created by man, which nature would not have selected on its own. This in and of itself is genetic engineering as well. GMOs will not take us into a brave new world. We are already brave. It is not right to eliminate that gene which causes disease (in both man and food), or to correct a mutation introduced by nature which limited quality (of both man and food), or introduce that gene which some have and others not, that all may benefit from the trait, in the name of diversity?

Perhaps we should accept an important trait in our nature – that it is in our nature to make small steps at a time and not to see too much into the future. After all we are still here.

Pierre Mallia is Associate Professor in Family Medicine, Patients’ Rights and Bioethics at the University of Malta; he is also Ethics Advisor to the Medical Council of Malta. He is also former president of the Malta College of Family Doctors.


Pioneer's Goal: To Aid Farmers Everywhere

- Paul E. Schickler The Des Moines Register (Iowa), March 31, 2010

If I've learned anything from my 35 years working in agriculture around the world, it's that farmers are always on the lookout for the next great innovation. It doesn't matter if their acreage is big or small. It doesn't matter if they live in Indonesia or Iowa. They all want to grow more and live better, so they're early and eager adopters of new technology.

At Pioneer, our business is to help them. That's why I was so disappointed by a March 20 guest essay in The Des Moines Register that criticized our involvement with African farmers ("Colonialism Lives in Biotech Seed Proposal for Africa"). Pioneer has partnered with Africans for more than half a century.

Every day, we collaborate with Africans to improve their farm productivity and food security. Our businesses in Africa are led by Africans for Africans. The work is pressing because every night tens of millions of Africans go to bed hungry and malnourished.

There are no simple solutions to this complex problem, and we certainly don't have all the answers. Our strategy is to offer improved choices. We trust African farmers to make intelligent decisions about what technologies and practices are best suited to their individual needs, as farmers do everywhere. These needs vary dramatically from region to region. Nobody understands local conditions and opportunities as well as the people who live in their presence. When farmers in Kenya, Tanzania or Zambia take advantage of our products and services, it's because they've made deliberate decisions based on self-interest.

Consider the case of Debebe Ayele, a corn farmer in Ethiopia. A number of years ago, he planted our hybrid seeds for the first time. He also adopted new management techniques. In the wake of these choices, his corn yield per acre jumped by a factor of six. This accomplishment enabled him to triple the size of his farm, renovate his home, and put his kids through school.

The truth is that the nations of Africa are in desperate need of agricultural improvement. Their corn yields are the lowest in the world. Over the last generation, farmers elsewhere have seen their productivity boom. In Africa, however, it has remained flat - even as the continent's population has grown to roughly 1 billion people.

Because Africa is vast and diverse, addressing this situation will require a wide range of approaches. Many farmers will want seeds that make the most efficient use of nitrogen fertilizer, which is far more expensive in Africa than in developed countries. Some will seek the nutritional fortification of sorghum, a staple crop. Others will want to consider the pest-fighting benefits of biotechnology, which has delivered record harvests in the Western Hemisphere, but has barely made a dent in Africa.

Our goal is to improve the productivity and livelihoods of farmers everywhere, and turn Africa's subsistence farmers who struggle to scratch out a living into agricultural entrepreneurs who have surplus food they can sell to their neighbors and to markets.

Some people seem to think Africans either don't want to improve their lot, or that they can't handle more advanced technologies that farmers in the United States use every day.

They're wrong. Africans both desire and deserve access to the tools that will give them the best chance to get the most out of their local environments. In this sense, they're no different from farmers in Arlington or Rockwell City. To suggest otherwise is to deny them the basic human motivation that lies behind success stories in agriculture everywhere.

Paul E. Schickler is president of Pioneer Hi-Bred and formerly vice president of its international operations.


Global Agricultural Conference Participant Hopes to Raise Awareness about Science

- Joe DeCapua, Voice of America, March 30, 2010. Listen to the interview at

The Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD) continued for a third day Tuesday in Montpellier, France. About one thousand participants are trying to produce an action plan for G8 and G20 countries to boost agriculture and help ensure food security. Peter Hartmann, director-general of the Nigerian-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, is among those taking part. “My hope is that regions of Africa, Americas and Asia would present clearly what their needs are and where they see science could contribute,” he says.

Much to offer
“We could contribute a lot because we can boost productivity and we can reduce the waste from plant pests, diseases and just waste from post harvest losses.” There’s been much debate in recent years over genetically modified seeds and plants. Those promoting biotechnology say it can help solve food insecurity, while critics say it can threaten biodiversity.
gcard 2010

“My view is that it’s a subject that’s very poorly understood says Hartmann. First of all, it’s not one technology. It’s biotechnologies. It’s a collection of technologies. And the second point I would say is that too many people put it on a pedestal as though it’s the savior of everything.” Nevertheless, he says, the technologies have value. “It’s a healthy group of scientific tools that we can use to speed up the things I said we could do to speed up food and agriculture.”

Faster growing plants
The International Institute of tropical Agriculture was established in 1967 with the financial support of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations to operate in sub-Saharan Africa. It has programs in about 15 countries.

“So we are very focused. That’s the only place you’ll find our people,” he says. Part of the institute’s mission is to fight biological threats to key food crops. Hartmann adds, “We have been providing varieties (of plants) that farmers can use to their advantage.” For example, the traditional variety of black eyed peas takes 120 days before they can be harvested.

“We provided varieties that can grow in 35 days or 65 days. So when the weather changes or the rains are inconsistent, they are helped a lot by using crops that can grow quickly,” he says.

Getting back to the land
Hartmann says he wants to raise awareness about agriculture’s contribution to economic growth, poverty reduction and food security. “Countries like Nigeria, for example, that had oil, forgot about agriculture. And now they’re realizing that was a mistake and they’re coming back to it, same as Gabon. And when that kind of awareness arrives then we can move much faster because there’ll be support for national systems and universities and investors to look at that sector.”


What the Green Revolution Teaches Us

- Prof. Arvind Panagariya, Economic Times (India), March 31, 2010

The issue concerning genetically-modified crops is not that Bt brinjal was consigned to cold storage but the process that led to its approval being held in abeyance, says Arvind Panagariya

THE priority our environment and forest ministry gave public consultation over scientific evidence in reaching a negative verdict on Bt Brinjal calls for a look back at the process leading to the adoption of high-yielding varieties (HYV) that ushered the Green Revolution. The courage and tact then minister of agriculture C Subramaniam exhibited in navigating the process eventually earned him India's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna. And late Dr Norman E Borlaug, the inventor of the new technology with HYV seeds at its centre, won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

In the mid-1960s when Subramaniam became the minister of agriculture, India suffered from such serious food shortages that then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri called upon all Indians to miss one meal each week. Around this time, assisted by the Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) had been experimenting with the seeds and cultivation method of Dr Borlaug. The IARI had observed in its experiments yields twice those obtained in traditional agriculture. Ralph Cummings of the Rockefeller Foundation brought the studies based on IARI experiments to the attention of Subramaniam. The latter had the studies reviewed by a panel of scientists he himself appointed. The panel overwhelmingly, though not unanimously, recommended in favour of the new technology.

The dye was cast but Subramaniam faced formidable opposition from within the Cabinet as well as from the left parties and public. He needed foreign exchange to import seeds and fertiliser and commitment of additional rupee resources to compensate farmers in case the new technology failed and farmers incurred losses. Then finance minister T T Krishnamachari was unwilling to provide either. The left parties, which saw an American hand in the new policy and contended that the new strategy will hurt small and marginal farmers by lowering agricultural prices, actively opposed Subramaniam. A large number of our economists also leaned against the proposed strategy. The opponents organised as many as thousand protest demonstrations around the country.

But Subramaniam worked diligently to persuade various constituencies to his view. Among other things, he converted five acres of lawns and playgrounds in his bungalow into a demonstration farm of new strategy. That experiment proved highly successful, leading his Cabinet colleagues to capitulate.

The process leading to the rejection of Bt Brinjal stands in sharp contrast to this splendid episode in our economic history. To be sure, GM foods are no longer new; they have existed in North America for nearly one-and-a-half decades. Even the European Union, which had at one time led the charge against GM foods, recently gave approval to Amflora, a GM variety of potato. In my personal view, India can ill-afford to ignore GM food varieties if it is to combat food shortages and the resulting food inflation.

But for the present purpose, the denial to Bt Brinjal is not at issue. The concern is with the process by which the decision was reached. With some dissenting voices recorded, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex regulatory body under the environment ministry charged with the approval of GM foods, gave Bt Brinjal its approval on October 14, 2009. According to available reports, the GEAC reached this decision on the basis of scientific data generated during 2002-2009, international experience with GM crops and scientific reviews by as many as three high-level technical committees. The committees included the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulations and two expert committees that the GEAC itself appointed in 2006 and 2009.

ODDLY, after the GEAC had made its recommendation, the environment ministry decided to invite comments from the public on its report. Surely, if public opinion was to be given a prominent role, an initial draft report outlining the benefits and potential risks of GM seeds should have been circulated to the public prior to the committee making its recommendation. More importantly, at this late stage in the game, the environment ministry went a step further, actively organising a series of consultations in different places with scientists, agriculture experts, farmers' organizations, consumer groups and NGOs. A collection of assertions and claims of various groups present at the consultations put together in a “free for all” format in a “report” rather than scientific analysis and evidence then became the basis of the final decision by the ministry.

There are no indications in published accounts that the allegations of misconduct against a small number of GEAC and technical committee members, brought about mainly by opponents of Bt Brinjal, led the environment ministry to doubt the integrity of the GEAC recommendation. Indeed, if that were the concern, any public consultation would have been unnecessary. The concern itself would have provided a compelling basis for seeking fresh scientific opinion. On the other hand, if the GEAC recommendation was untainted and based on the best scientific evidence and knowledge available, its members and the members of the technical committees should have been brought to consultation sites to address the concerns aired by other scientists, agriculture experts, farmers and NGOs. Good public-policy making is not just about listing hundreds of positive and negative opinions and fears expressed by those consulted, as the consultation report literally does, but about informing them whether scientific analysis and evidence supported their opinions and fears.

In a 2002 public letter, addressed to his Green Revolution colleagues in India that included M S Swaminathan, Nobel Laureate Borlaug had stated, “as an enthusiastic friend of India, I have been dismayed to see it lagging behind in the approval of transgenic crops, while China forges ahead. I hope India's recent approval of Bt cotton is indicative of a change towards more progressive leadership in agricultural policy.” If the expectation of this great scientist is to be fulfilled and the work of Bharat Ratna Subramaniam brought to its logical conclusion, our approval process must be better streamlined, with decisions based on science rather than “consultation” with all and sundry.

(The author is a professor at Columbia University, USA)