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April 10, 2010


Assessing the Revolution on Farmers; Modified and Reviled; Dodging the Oscar Bullet; A Month Without Monsanto


* The Impact of GE Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States
* GM Varieties On Agenda In Wheat Development Deal
* Modified and Reviled But Still An Aubergine
* Agriculture Dodges Oscar Bullet
* Research Alone Won't Drive Agricultural Development
* A Month Without Monsanto

The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States

- National Research Council, http://dels.nas.edu/banr/farmbiotech.shtml

Report Release and Public Briefing - Tuesday, April 13, 2010, 11:00 am-12:30 pm; Lecture Room, 2101 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC

The National Research Council announces the public release of a new report on genetically engineered crops. The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States is the first comprehensive assessment of the environmental, economic, and social impacts of the GE-crop revolution on U.S. farms. It addresses how GE crops have affected U.S. farmers, both adopters and nonadopters of the technology, their incomes, agronomic practices, production decisions, environmental resources, and personal well-being. The report offers several new findings and recommendations that will be of interest to farmers, industry representatives, science organizations, policymakers, government representatives, and the public.

Members of the public are welcome to attend. Please RSVP to Kamo Mutu at kmutu@nas.edu. The briefing will be streamed live at http://www.nas.edu.

Introduction by: Kara Laney, Study Director, National Research Council Featured speakers: * David E. Ervin (Chair), Professor of Environmental Management and Professor of Economics, Portland State University * L. LaReesa Wolfenbarger, Associate Professor of Biology, University of Nebraska, Omaha * Raymond A. Jussaume, Professor of Community and Rural Sociology, Washington State University


GM Varieties On Agenda In Wheat Development Deal

Country Guide (Canada), April 8/2010 http://www.country-guide.ca/

Canada's wheat growers are expected to be among the main beneficiaries of a partnership agreement between a major non-profit wheat developer and seed and chemical firm Syngenta.

Not all Canadian wheat growers are likely to see it that way immediately, however, as the agreement between Syngenta and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) focuses on "the development and advancement of technology in wheat, including genetically modified (GM) wheat."

The development deal is expected to leverage Swiss-based Syngenta's genetic marker technology, "advanced traits" platform and wheat breeding "for the developed world." CIMMYT, meanwhile, is expected to bring to the table its "access to wheat genetic diversity, global partnership network and wheat breeding program targeted to the developing world."

The wheat centre, based near Mexico City, is an internationally funded not-for-profit body running research and training related to maize and wheat breeding and production systems in more than 100 countries.
Its agreement with Syngenta is to involve "joint research and development in the areas of native and GM traits, hybrid wheat and the combination of seeds and crop protection to accelerate plant yield performance."
John Atkin, chief operating officer for Syngenta's crop protection business, said in the company's release Tuesday that the two partners are committed to "transforming wheat production worldwide, by creating new technology platforms which set unprecedented standards for yield and quality."

Wheat production worldwide currently is increasing at only 0.9 per cent per year, Hans-Joachim Braun, director of CIMMYT's global wheat program, said in the release. "This is a very critical issue as global demand is growing at 1.5 per cent or more annually."

Market acceptance
Joachim-Braun, a German scientist based at CIMMYT in Mexico, said that with climate change in mind, "we must avoid the risk of another food crisis and ensure farmers across the world are equipped to meet the demands of a rising world population. "Partnerships like this can greatly benefit the world's farmers, rich and poor. And as "one of the world's largest producers and exporters of wheat," Canada stands to benefit from "any new technology developed through this partnership," Syngenta said.

A handful of grower groups in Canada and other countries contend it's time for developers to move forward and use GM technology, pointing to "the need for the synchronized introduction of biotech wheat."

But citing the loss of canola markets as an example, other ag groups have long warned that to move forward on GM wheat without widespread market acceptance, such as in the GM-shy European Union, would jeopardize several key export markets.

On that point, Syngenta's Atkin said in a video on the company's website that any GM wheat traits developed in the partnership's work won't be introduced unless there is broad acceptance among wheat consumers Syngenta, he said, is also looking at finding the right way to communicate the technology and its benefits to the world at large.


Modified and Reviled But Still An Aubergine

- Salil Tripathi, National (UAE, Abu Dhabi), April 9, 2010 http://www.thenational.ae

'Governments are right to treat food safety as a priority, but Indian officials’ opposition to genetically modified eggplant is a tragedy for the Indian farmer' When the Indian environment minister Jayram Ramesh declared a moratorium on Bt brinjal at the beginning of February, environmental groups, anti-corporate activists, and food purists declared a victory. Agribusinesses were dismayed and scientists divided. The cause of all the fuss is a genetically-modified incarnation of the vegetable that Indians call baingan, or brinjal, Americans refer to as eggplant, and Europeans as aubergine.

In opposing the introduction of the genetically modified brinjal in the Indian food chain, Mr Ramesh was following the precautionary principle, under which governments prefer safety over experimentation and do not allow new technology unless all the known risks are assessed carefully. Businesses and many scientists believe the principle, carried to an extreme, can halt scientific progress. But proponents of this approach believe it is safer to wait before introducing new technology when the consequences are not known.

No society takes food safety lightly, and few can fault the principle under which Mr Ramesh acted. But when examined more closely, problems become apparent. This brinjal has undergone years of testing. According to reports, it has been tested vigorously, and many scientists say it did not pose a threat to human health. It does pose a danger to pests. Certain pests that have become resistant to pesticides are able to destroy crops such as brinjal, and in developing Bt brinjal, its proponents argue, the company behind the product has paid special attention to making the crop resistant to pests.

Ideally, use of the modified brinjal would mean higher yields and more nutrients for Indian consumers. The brinjal is a well-loved Indian vegetable; in some parts of the country it is known as the king of vegetables because of its green top, which, to many, looks like a crown. Baingan bharta, a curried delicacy made with brinjal, garlic and spices, is a frequent feature on vegetarian menus. The company that has developed the technology is Indian. Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds, known as Mahyco, is a large agribusiness and has a joint venture with the multinational company Monsanto – the favourite target of many food activists and environmental groups. Food activists do not like Monsanto because the US company develops “terminator” seeds – they are sterile in the second generation of the plant – forcing farmers to buy the seeds from the company at what the activists claim are exorbitant prices. Activists say this would give Monsanto a monopoly.

The activists’ other fear is that as corporations patent more and more seeds, they will own the source of seeds, and hence food, leading to a depletion of alternative seeds. They also complain about companies such as Monsanto making profits from the trade, which in their view is unethical because it hurts small farmers and poor consumers. To bolster their argument, activists have also raised the spectre of food security. If foreigners own India’s seed pool, that would, presumably, starve India of food. That remains a preposterous argument. Unlike in the 1960s, when India was a poster child of Malthusian economics and people feared millions of Indians dying of hunger, India today is self-reliant in food.

India’s own scientists on the other, led to a spectacular achievement: the Green Revolution. Through scientific hybridisation and the use of chemicals, India significantly boosted its food productivity, eliminating famine. (Food activists oppose the Green Revolution for its impact on the environment). Its achievements, they claimed, would be short-lived.

To be sure, in spite of the Green Revolution, many Indians live in abysmal conditions and are nutrient-poor. While India is “self-sufficient” in food, the distribution of food remains inefficient. By some estimates, at least a fifth of what India produces is lost in transit, rots in transport, is eaten away by rodents in poorly administered warehouses or stays beyond the reach of consumers. Perhaps a quarter, or a third, of Indians still earn less than US$1 a day, the universal benchmark for absolute poverty. And some 60 per cent of Indians work on farms, a sector that accounts for only a small proportion of India’s GDP.

Indian farms need much better irrigation, and small farms need consolidation so that more efficient production processes can be deployed. India needs jobs in other sectors for the millions of people who call themselves farmers but are, in reality, in disguised unemployment. Many of those farmers are in long-term debt and they produce enough just for their own families’ needs. They face a catastrophic crisis if crops fail.

A bug-resistant brinjal is not the solution to these chronic problems. But a pragmatic approach to farming can certainly go a long way in helping India lift its millions of poor out of poverty. That means making agriculture more efficient, easing the transition to other sectors of the economy and making fresh investments to improve yields. And there, technologies such as Bt brinjal can help. They eliminate waste, protect farmers from ruin in case of an attack of pests and ensure that the farmers’ investment – brinjal, for example – will yield results.

But succumbing to international pressure – exerted by anti-corporate activists, non-governmental organisations, environmentalists, policy analysts and some governments – India has chosen as yet not to approve Bt brinjal. The real losers are Indian farmers and consumers. But this is not to suggest that those promoting the technology have only noble intentions. A minister who wrote a letter supporting innovation had used as part of his arguments publicity material from a think tank that promotes genetic modification technology.

That, then, is the ultimate irony: that politicians in India are making important decisions about food safety that are based on propaganda sheets of multinational companies on one hand, and multinational NGOs on the other. Pity the poor farmer. And the genetically modified aubergine.

Salil Tripathi is a former economics correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review who is now based in London


Agriculture Dodges Oscar Bullet

- Forrest Laws, Western Farm Press, April 6, 2010

Commercial agriculture, the kind that produces most of the food, feed, fiber and alternative fuels consumed in America, dodged a bullet at this year’s Oscar ceremonies.

You may not have heard that Food Inc., the movie that claims to expose “the highly mechanized underbelly” of the nation’s food industry, was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary at this year’s Academy Awards.

Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted to give the award to The Cove, a film that tells the story of a team of filmmakers who traveled to a cove in Taiji, Japan, where 23,000 dolphins reportedly are killed every year.

Farm organizations were bracing for the publicity that would have been showered on Food, Inc., if it had been named best documentary. The National Corn Growers Association sent out an Action Alert arming members with a fact sheet to use in discussing the film with friends and neighbors.

It’s unfortunate a movie with a flawed premise and factual inaccuracies can receive so much attention. But it seems to be agriculture’s fate that the more outrageous the claims and less grounded in reality a film, article, book is — the more notoriety it achieves.

In the press notes, filmmaker Robert Kenner claims “Our nation’s food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment.”

The film says these corporations – Smithfield Foods, Tyson, Perdue and Monsanto and other multinationals “control” everything from seed to plate. It uses stories, video clips and interviews – not with scientific experts – to imply the overuse of corn in U.S. food production results in higher likelihood of food borne illness, obesity and declining numbers of farmers.

The interviews are with Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, and Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food: An Easter’s Manifesto, so-called experts who have turned criticizing America’s farmers and ranchers and food processors into a cottage industry.

It never mentions that pesticide manufacturers spend upwards of $250 million testing a new product to make sure it is safe or that plants containing biotech traits are no different than conventional or even organically grown crops except for the gene that protects them against a specific pest or herbicide.

If “experts” like Schlosser and Pollan really want to address food safety, they should travel to China or to other countries that ship food and other products that are practically unregulated to the U.S. That would be far more productive than attacking a system that, while not perfect, offers a safe, nutritious bountiful harvest that is the envy of the world.


Research Alone Won't Drive Agricultural Development

- Sian Lewis, SciDev.Net, April 9, 2010

Agricultural development is the result of a complex system
Flickr/World Bank/Gennadiy Ratushenko
Even focused research will not deliver agricultural progress unless donors also help join up links in the development chain.

When international development aid funds science, donors increasingly ask potential grant recipients what benefits they will achieve with the money.

And there may be many good answers! Ask 1,000 donors, policymakers, private innovators, farmers and development workers how science can best serve development, and you're likely to come up with 1,000 different responses.

So it comes as no surprise that a major international conference, which brought such a group together last week (29 March) to thrash out a new vision for agricultural research for development, failed to agree on an overall solution for translating agricultural research into effective development.

Unreasonable demands?
The Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD), in Montpellier, France, heard major donors to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) — a global network of 15 agricultural research centres — call loudly for results-oriented research that delivers real development impact (see Agricultural mega-programmes will not attract funding).

But is it a realistic demand? The truth is that international research alone cannot guarantee agricultural development.

Research is just one component in the complex system that produces new knowledge and puts it to use. That system includes not only national universities and research institutes, but also seed companies, extension services, small enterprises, nongovernmental organisations, markets and farmers themselves.

A new rust-resistant wheat variety, for example, may have great potential for reducing poverty and hunger. But if there are no seed policies or extension services in place to get it into the hands of farmers, it stands little chance of making a significant contribution to food production.

Enabling the system as a whole to deliver real improvements requires 'joined-up thinking' across the board, with all the components working together to produce a better and more effective result.

Partly, this means national governments must take responsibility for bolstering their own research infrastructure and agricultural sectors, rather than leaving it to the international community.

The GCARD flagship report calls on developing countries to increase their funding for agricultural research to 1.5 per cent of agricultural gross domestic product (see Report urges poor countries to spend more on agricultural R&D). It was authored by a global team of agricultural experts, led by Uma Lele, a former senior advisor at the World Bank.

But can this actually be achieved in countries already struggling to meet existing commitments to invest one per cent of overall GDP in research across the board?

Donors' supporting role
The report also rightly calls on developing countries to increase investment in other parts of the agricultural system. At the end of the day, the CGIAR is not accountable for national development agendas. That is a sovereign responsibility.

Yet donors have a supporting role in such a task. The Paris Declaration, signed in 2005 by more than 100 countries, provides a framework for wider bilateral investment that is driven, at least in principle, by national demands. It represents a commitment to harmonising aid policies across donors, and encouraging strategic use of that aid by recipient governments.

But to achieve that, donors must also look to their own houses and ensure their portfolios provide a coherent 'package' that builds national capacity in agricultural production.

For example, to strengthen national agricultural innovation systems you must fund not only research but also national higher education institutions. This area has been sadly neglected by major donors in the past two decades, although it is slowly making its way back on to their agendas (see Aid for higher education).

And donors, through the vast array of projects they support, can and should promote the coordination needed to ensure that research delivers results. They should be facilitating networking between projects and opening up communication that builds bridges between knowledge providers and knowledge users.

First steps on a long journey
CGIAR's past successes show how much can be achieved by joined-up thinking — not only between the donor agencies, but also between donors, governments and agricultural researchers — on what they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it.

Last week's GCARD meeting represented an important step towards including other key stakeholders, such as farmers and nongovernmental organisations. Their engagement in setting the research agenda is essential if research goals are to be driven by real development needs.

But the tensions that surfaced in Montpellier showed that there is a long road to travel before the system works smoothly (see 'Historic' agricultural conference wraps up with roadmap). It will take the sustained political will and coordinated action of donors, governments, researchers and development partners to get us there.

(Sian Lewis is Commissioning editor, SciDev.Net)


A Month Without Monsanto