Home Page Link AgBioWorld Home Page
About AgBioWorld Donations Ag-Biotech News Declaration Supporting Agricultural Biotechnology Ag-biotech Info Experts on Agricultural Biotechnology Contact Links Subscribe to AgBioView Home Page

AgBioView Archives

A daily collection of news and commentaries on
ag-biotech.


Subscribe AgBioView Subscribe

Search AgBioWorld Search

AgBioView Archives

Subscribe

 


SEARCH:     

Date:

May 11, 2010

Subject:

No Price Fixing Please; Long, Dead-End Road to Commercialization; How Green Turned White and Blue; Rural Institutions and Resource-Poor Farmers

 


* India: Biotech Companies Say Cotton Seed Price Cap Limiting Research
* The Long Road to Commercialization of Bt Brinjal (Eggplant) In India
* Argentina: How Green Biotech Turned White and Blue
* Chinese Green Light for GM Rice and Maize Prompts Outcry
* The Science of GM Crops: A New, Fair Report
* Transgenic Cotton, Rural Institutions and Resource-Poor Farmers

------------

India: Biotech Companies Say Cotton Seed Price Cap Limiting Research

- Jacob P. Koshy, Livemint.com (India), May 4, 2010 http://www.livemint.com

'Use of Bt cotton seeds in India has raised yield from 308kg per hectare in 2001 to 590kg per hectare in 2009'

New Delhi: Indian biotechnology companies that manufacture genetically modified cotton seeds say they are struggling to keep research activities afloat since the three top cotton-producing states - Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat - fixed the prices at which cotton seeds could be sold to farmers four years ago.

"I've spent over (Rs)25-30 crore in the last seven years on research and regulatory approvals around our Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) genes, but with this price cap, I can't negotiate appropriate licensing fees with seed companies and I can't competitively price my seeds. So, we are bleeding," said K.K. Narayanan, managing director of Metahelix Life Sciences Pvt. Ltd, a Bangalore-based crop biotech firm. Bt is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that produces a toxin used to control pests. Scientists have introduced the gene into a variety of crops, including cotton, to make them pest-resistant.

Three other firms besides Metahelix-Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB), a 50:50 joint venture of US-based agricultural biotechnology firm Monsanto Co. and seed company Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd; JK Agrigenetics Ltd, part of the JK Group; and Nath Biogene (India) Ltd - have their own technologies to produce Bt cotton seeds in India.

MMB, JK Agrigenetics and Nath Biogene filed separate petitions in the Andhra Pradesh high court last month to stop the government from capping royalty charged on seed technology transfer. Only MMB's petition has been heard as yet. In July 2009, Metahelix received approval to commercially launch a class of Bt cotton seeds. This year, it was planning to introduce a new class of Bt hybrids. But Narayanan said the price cap has forced them to put the plan on hold. The cotton seed production season begins this month.

"It's becoming harder and harder to convince investors of the viability of investing in new Bt seed technology in India, and that's largely because of states constantly meddling with the prices of cotton seeds," said Narayanan. Metahelix's investments are mainly backed by private equity investors, including Nadathur Holdings and Investment Pvt. Ltd and India Growth Fund.

Until 2006, MMB was the only source of
genetically modified cotton seeds in India. Over a dozen of India's biggest firms incorporated MMBs Bt genes in their seeds, which they sold to farmers at about Rs1,800 a packet. In return, they paid royalty to MMB.

Most farmers couldn't afford such expensive seeds, which prompted regulators to call for limiting the royalty being charged by MMB. Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, which account for 80% of India's cotton production, thus began capping the prices at which the seeds could to be sold to farmers.

"Seed companies that used Monsanto's genes were prohibited from using other kinds of Bt
technology, said an employee of a seed company, who didn't want to be identified. "All in all, it contributed to Monsanto having a monopoly in the Bt cotton seeds market."

Monsanto denied that there was a blanket ban on such use. "We don't prohibit seed companies from using technologies from other companies," said Jagresh Rana, director, MMB. "But any company that does so has a three-year window period during which they have to show us that there is no contamination that results from mixing of two different genes. "

This year, the three states have fixed the price at Rs650 and Rs750 a packet for Bt cotton seeds that contain one and two genes, respectively. The use of Bt cotton seeds in India has increased cotton yield from 308kg per ha in 2001 to 590kg per ha in 2009, according to Cotton Corp. of India Ltd, a state-owned firm that helps market the crop.

"Though this (price control) has kept cotton seed prices low for farmers, it began hurting revenue streams of other seed biotech companies," said Ram Kaundinya, managing director of Advanta Seeds. "Monsanto is a much bigger company, and may be able to hold on longer. But ultimately, smaller local companies with their Bt
technologies are being hurt." "For existing technologies that we have, we can sustain ourselves, but in such an environment it makes no sense to invest in new technologies," Monsanto's Rana said. "That would be damaging to the farmer, because different regions often have unique pests and you need different tech to address them."

Andhra Pradesh's agriculture commissioner Sunil Sharma didn't respond to Mint's request for comment. Experts agreed that fixing prices wasn't a viable option for keeping seed prices
affordable to farmers, but regulation was necessary to prevent cartelization.

"Seed prices aren't completely determined by market forces. There are political factors at play too," said Himanshu, who goes by one name, an agriculture economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. "But there has to be a balancing act somewhere...government must ensure that competition prevails, without resorting to blanket price fixtures." Himanshu writes a column on agriculture for Mint.

===================

The Long Road to Commercialization of Bt Brinjal (Eggplant) In India

- A.M. Shelton, Crop Protection 29 (2010) 412-414; http://www.elsevier.com/locate/cropro (Cornell University, Geneva, NY; ams5@cornell.edu) (Excerpted below with the permission of the author)

On 14 October 2009, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of India approved the commercialization of transgenic Bt brinjal (eggplant), transformed to express an
insecticidal protein (Cry1Ac) from the bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. This was a significant decision on the long road to becoming the first genetically engineered food crop in India. According to the Ministry of the Environment and Forests of the Indian Government, GEAC is the apex body constituted in the Ministry of Environment and Forests under 'Rules for Manufacture, Use, Import, Export and Storage of Hazardous Microorganisms/ Genetically Engineered Organisms or Cells 1989', under the Environment Protection Act, 1986
http://moef.nic.in/modules/projectclearances/geac-clearance).

Thus, the Minister of Environment and Forests, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, considers his agency as the final gatekeeper of genetically engineered crops in India. According to Mr. Vijayaraghavan, the South Asia Regional Coordinator of the Bt brinjal project, soon after GEAC's announcement, members of Greenpeace and other anti-biotechnology NGOs sent thousands of faxes and emails to Mr. Ramesh's office urging him to ban the cultivation of Bt brinjal. Thus, Bt brinjal continues to be caught in a political hurricane in India. Its final fate may be decided by the time this article appears in print, but what that will be is not presently known. I offer my perspective on this issue for your consideration. Much of the background on brinjal and its pest complex is summarized in a recent publication by Choudhary and Gaur (2009). However, this is only part of the story in this complex situation.

The transformation of Bt brinjal was first begun in 2000 by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) in India under a partnership with Monsanto and using its cry1Ac gene which had already been widely used in Bt cotton in India. Control of FSB by Bt brinjal was demonstrated in greenhouse trials and, in late 2003, a
partnership was developed with Mahyco, Cornell University and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Program II (http://
www.absp2.cornell.edu/projects/project.cfm?productid?2). Each group shares in the responsibility to get Bt brinjal to market but what is unique is that the partners have decided to have two market channels: a "pro-poor" for the distribution of open pollinated (OP) lines and the "normal" channel through which the higher priced hybrid varieties would be sold and Mahyco would recover some of its investment. This pro-poor strategy and the shared partnership were particularly attractive to USAID which decided to provide funding to help the products come to market. The OP lines were created by local agricultural universities (e.g. Tamil Nadu) which received the donated original transformed line ("event") from Mahyco. As with any GM crop, the Indian
regulatory system requires a set of studies which were carried out and these included: toxicity, allergenicity, animal feeding studies, pollen flow, food equivalency, non-target organisms, large-scale field trials as well as studies on the socio-economic impact of Bt brinjal.

Additionally, an insecticide resistance management program and product stewardship programwere required (many of these reports can be seen on the GEAC website, http://www.envfor.nic.in/divisions/csurv/geac/information_brinjal.htm). Many of the safety studies were made easier because of the familiarity with the cry1Ac gene which was approved in Bt cotton in India in 2002. In 2009, Bt cotton containing this gene was grown on 8.4 million ha in India (James, 2010). However, what is extremely advantageous to the commercialization of Bt brinjal is that India requires labelling only the seed packages as GM and not the final product. Labelling of the individual fruit in all the diverse marketplaces in India would have been impossible and was one of the strategies promoted by Greenpeace to halt Bt brinjal. Another Greenpeace strategy was to continue to bring lawsuits against large-scale field trials of Bt brinjal, and this strategy was successful in 2007 for several months before the Indian Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing such trials. In 2008, Greenpeace mounted an aggressive campaign and projected Bt brinjal as a "Poison" product and Mahesh Bhatt, the film producer, created a movie called "Poison on the Platter" to highlight the harmful effects of GM foods in general and Bt brinjal in particular http://www.wittysparks.com/2009/02/18/poison-onthe- platter-a-documentry-film/). Yogi Ramdev, a well know Yogic guru, also openly preaches against Bt brinjal (http://www.ayurvednews.com/archives/214).

On the other side, biotechnology has its supporters. The President of India, Smt. Pratibha Devisingh Patil, and the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, have both made statements about using biotechnology to meet the needs of the people of India. Most importantly, the data show strong economic and environmental benefits of adopting Bt eggplant. Krishna and Qaim (2008) analyzed field trials and surveyed eggplant farmers in the Central/South and East regions of India and estimated that the farmers' gross margins in these areas would increase by Rs.16,299/acre ($361) and Rs. 19,744/acre ($437), respectively. They noted that yields of Bt hybrids were double those of non-Bt counterparts and, nationally, they estimated the aggregate economic surplus gains of Bt hybrids could be around $108 million/year with consumers capturing a large share of these gains.

Furthermore, they stated that farmers will realize an additional $3-4 million per year in health benefits from the reduced insecticide sprays but that this is "only a small fraction of the technology's environmental and health externalities". In the spiritual and diverse cultures present in India, the world's largest democracy, it is clear that the road to commercializing a GM product has had, and will continue to have, far more twists and turns than in other types of governments, such as China, which has decided to embrace food products produced through biotechnology to feed its citizens. In fact it has been argued that India adopted its first GM crop, Bt cotton, only after the farmers were faced with a crisis controlling the bollworm and threatened the Indian government with civil disobedience if it did not approve Bt cotton (Herring, 2007).

If and when Minister Ramesh approves Bt brinjal, it will not be the end of the road e it never is with any one tool of IPM. Although Bt brinjal has been shown to provide superior control of FSB, the key pest of brinjal, it is not the only pest. Other arthropods (mites, jassids, mealybugs, whiteflies and leaf eating beetles) and diseases (damping off, verticillium wilt, bacterial wilt, blights and rots) also must be managed. However, field trials submitted to GEAC by Mahyco have indicated that the amount of insecticides used against FSB was reduced by 80%, translating into an overall insecticide reduction of 42% for the crop (Krishna and Qaim, 2008). This would be a major achievement for the health and welfare of the people of India. As discussed by Naranjo et al. (2008), plants that are resistant to key pests should be the foundation for IPM. The question now is whether Bt brinjal will get through this last regulatory hurdle and whether educational programs can be implemented to help Indian farmers learn how to use this IPM tool to the advantage of the consumers, environment and their own agricultural sustainability.

Epilogue
After this article was submitted for publication, on 9 February 2010 Minister Ramesh decided to impose a moratorium on Bt brinjal until "such times independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment.." (http://moef.nic.in/ downloads/public-information/Annex_BT.pdf). Reading through the entire document, it appears to me that the Minister was more strongly influenced by political pressure from those opposed to biotechnology rather than by critical scientific and balanced judgements of the technology.

Despite his statement that his decision should not be construed as discouraging "on-going R&D in using tools of modern biotechnology for crop improvement" it is hard to conceive that such discouragement will not occur and have a profound negative impact on Indian agriculture. In the meantime, other Indian scientists and agencies are attempting to reverse the Minister's decision. Thus, at this time it is unclear what lies beyond the next bend in the road for commercialization of Bt brinjal in India.

================

How Green Biotech Turned White and Blue

- Lucas Laursen, Nature Biotechnology, May 2010, v. 28, P 393-395

'Argentina has blazed a trail as one of the leading genetically modified (GM) crop producers. Can other developing countries import the seeds of its success? '

This year, midway through Argentina's 2005-2015 Strategic Plan for Biotechnology, a long-stalled update of the Seed Law circulating in Buenos Aires may finally reach the legislative floor. The current law, which facilitated the rapid boom of transgenic crops in Argentina in the 1990s-60% of Argentina's soy crop was genetically modified for herbicide resistance within three years of the introduction of Roundup Ready soy-is a source of conflict over intellectual property rights, as it permits farmers to retain seeds without paying royalties.

However, the meteoric rise in GM crop production was not solely the function of the seed law. Compatible agricultural practices in the early 1990s and a welcoming government contributed. Critics and fans alike say it's a model from which other developing countries can learn important lessons. Critics warn of agribusiness's disproportionate influence on government, an influence they say has created an explosion of monoculture that jeopardizes the businesses and health of small farmers. Conversely, Argentine farmers and investors continue betting on GM varieties, arguing that the increased yields and financial returns have helped prop up the country's ailing economy. The question now is whether other countries will continue to look to Argentina as a role model in the adoption of GM crops.

Fertile ground
Moises Burachik, a senior scientist at the Buenos Aires-based National Commission for Agricultural Biotechnology Assessment (CONABIA) and part of a team responsible for assessing the risks of GM crops, worked through his recent summer vacation to get through a backlog of applications. Together with his counterparts at the National Service for Food Health and Quality (SENASA, Buenos Aires), who study the impact of new products on human health, Burachik has a growing to-do list and brimming calendar.

Burachik is proud of the group's performance in enabling Argentina's biotech boom, but he is concerned that understaffing and outdated regulations are holding back field trials and commercialization. And although Argentina was once second in the world only to the United States in terms of transgenic acreage, this year the country slipped into third place behind Brazil, which has been expanding cultivation of biotech crops. Bureaucratic hurdles are not the only things slowing down GM crop adoption; there is also a lack of public investment in
agricultural research in Argentina. And although Argentinean regulators approved a new variety of maize (the Swiss-based Syngenta's Bt11xGA21 GM maize), which represents the next generation of transgenic crops, in Brazil a national research group recently independently produced its own herbicide-resistant form of GM soybean, something Argentina has yet to accomplish. In some ways, it's surprising that Argentina has been such a trailblazer for biotech crops; part of the reason for that was the willingness of politicians and their scientific advisers nearly two decades ago to create the necessary infrastructure.

Royalty-free cultivation
Argentina's intellectual property laws helped to lower the cost of adoption. Argentina adheres to the 1978 International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV 1978), which permits creators of new plants to charge an initial license fee, but exempts growers from paying annual fees for new seeds. For maize, creators are able to earn their R&D costs back because the plants are not self-fertilizing and growers must buy the seeds each year. Soy is self-fertilizing and although Argentine farmers may not legally distribute seeds, under UPOV 1978, they are permitted to retain seeds for their own use. UPOV updated its terms in a 1991 convention to limit this practice, but Argentina and its partners in the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) have not signed on to the new convention.

When Roundup Ready soy arrived in Argentina, it was under license to Asgrow Argentina, a multinational owned at the time by the American-based Upjohn Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan, which seed and grain importer/exporter Nidera of Buenos Aires subsequently acquired. Nidera spread the seeds widely and legally throughout the country, but illegal trade, nicknamed 'white bag', had already begun. During that time, Monsanto made much of its Argentine income from selling the patented Roundup Ready herbicide that accompanied Roundup Ready-resistant soybeans. By the time Monsanto applied for a revalidation patent on its Roundup Ready-resistant soy in 1995, Argentina had signed TRIPS, the international "trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights" agreement that does not recognize revalidation patents. Argentine courts could deny the Monsanto application on the principle that the transgenic seed was already widely distributed and part of the public domain. In 2003, Monsanto withdrew its soy business from Argentina, though the firm still sells various formulations of Roundup Ready herbicide there and reported $183 million in gross receipts from Argentina in its fiscal 2008-2009 year, making Argentina its third-biggest regional market.

A consequence of the Argentinean legal environment was that the price of legitimately licensed seeds fell, giving Argentine exporters a small but noticeable advantage in global markets. This prompted the US government and the American Soybean Association, headquartered in St. Louis, to put pressure on developing countries like Brazil not to import Roundup Ready soybeans from Argentina. By then, however, the trade in illegal seeds had spread beyond Argentina's borders into agriculturally similar parts of Brazil and Paraguay.

The debate over GM crops is much louder in other developing countries. In Peru, which still lacks regulation to enforce its biotech law, opponents have called for a moratorium on the import of biotech products and claimed to detect transgenes in cultivated crops. A scientist who contested these claims is currently facing criminal charges for defamation (Nat. Biotechnol. 28, 110, 2010). Greenpeace is sponsoring a "Brazil Better Without Transgenic" advertising campaign and some consumer-facing food processors and retailers are hesitant to adopt biotech products, though they remain popular with producers3.

With growing markets in China, India and elsewhere, Argentina and its neighbors will continue trying to capitalize on their competitive advantages growing soy, cotton and maize. The new seed law under consideration in Buenos Aires may open the door to more private investment if international firms, such as Monsanto, are satisfied that their royalties will be more secure than under today's system. But the cost of distribution will depend heavily on international agreements, such as the pending EU approval schedules. Those challenges, which Argentina has navigated thus far, might be enough to make other countries think twice about how to implement their own biotech crop plans, but at least in Argentina, Yankelevich says, "there's no going back."

================

Chinese Green Light for GM Rice and Maize Prompts Outcry

- Hepeng Jia, Nature Biotechnology, May 2010, v. 28, p 390-391

'China's homegrown GM rice could soon reach local markets, but critics are voicing strong concerns over the nation's staple crop.'

Biosafety certificates for genetically modified (GM) rice and maize issued by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture late last year have prompted a protest from over a hundred intellectuals and prominent public officials. This represents one of the most high-profile challenges to China's aggressive policy for the adoption of transgenic crops. Even so, proponents of the technology say that opposition is likely neither to block the path to commercialization of GM rice nor to stall development of an approach that Chinese government officials have long recognized as a key to addressing the country's growing demand for food.

In early March, 120 Chinese scholars-mostly in the areas of humanity and social science-signed a public petition asking the Ministry of Agriculture to withdraw the two safety licenses issued last November. The petition, presented during the annual plenary meeting of China's legislature, the National People's Congress, was reinforced by a motion from the Zhigong Party, chaired by China's Science Minister Wan Gang. The motion, introduced to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, China's Upper House, urges a cautious approach to GM crop development.

But opponents of GM technology refuse to accept such reassurances. What's more, there appears to be confusion about the significance of the biosafety certificates. Critics are failing to distinguish between the green light for
field-testing, and the go-ahead to commercialize. Thus, the petition states "the approval for the commercialization of GM rice and maize enables China to become the world's first country to plant a GM staple food, threatening the national safety." But the certificates issued so far are only for field trials assessing safety; further studies would be needed before commercial release would be considered (and, in any case, China would not be the first country to plant a GM staple given that the US has been planting Bt maize for the past 15 years).

Apart from the precautionary concerns over the impact of GM varieties on human and environmental health, opponents argue that transgenic rice and maize represent a threat to small-holding farmers in China. "In the cases of commercialized GM crops, most of the benefits go to big GM seeding companies, such as Monsanto, and farmers remain losers because they have no other choices and they cannot obtain conventional non-GM seeds," says Lifeng Fang, an anti-GM campaigner of Beijing-based Greenpeace China.

But studies assessing the benefits, especially increased yields, associated with commercialized varieties of Bt cotton and Bt maize in developing countries have overwhelming demonstrated benefits for small farmers (Nat. Biotechnol. 28, 319-321, 2010). And according to the annual report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA; New York), Bt rice has the potential to create an estimated benefit of $4 billion per year for up to 440 million rice farmers in China; similarly, maize engineered to express phytase could enable savings on livestock feed and reduce pollution from undigested phosphorous.

Evidence on the ground also indicates that Chinese farmers are receptive to GM technology. Since its approval in 1997, Bt cotton has been adopted to the extent that by 2009, 68% of the total cotton planted in China was transgenic. And even though this represented a slight reduction in the area of transgenic cultivation over the previous year-to 3.7 million hectares compared with 3.8 million hectares in 2008-Ruifa Hu, a senior researcher at Beijing-based Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policies (CCAP), the Chinese Academy of Sciences, thinks this reflects recent economic and environmental conditions rather than a cooling reception for GM technology. "It is mainly a result of lower prices for cotton that have reduced the total planting area of the crop," he says. In addition, the cotton borer worm population, which is targeted by Bt varieties, has dropped significantly in recent years, and farmers may have opted to save money last year by planting conventional non-GM varieties. "The normal market and fluctuation in cultivation area will not impact the future commercialization of GM rice," Hu believes.

Additional concerns for GM varieties in China relate to admixture and outcrossing with conventional crops and to the pernicious stranglehold of Western multinationals like Monsanto and Basel-based Syngenta on intellectual property rights (IPR) covering transgenic technology. In terms of outcrossing, opponents are particularly concerned about the possibility that transgenic crops currently unauthorized for mass planting could transfer traits to conventional crops cultivated on farms or admix with them. Greenpeace reported in late March that the Bt protein had been detected in rice sold in Changsha, in southern China, through what is suspected to have been a release from the Central China University of Agriculture. Since 2005, similar reports have been repeatedly made by the environmental group Greenpeace. In the European market, rice imported from China has also been found to contain Bt ingredients
http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060904/full/news060904-5.html). Zhang admits that the unintentional flow of GM rice is possible. "In 1999, when there was no strict biosafety regulation and we had poor IPR awareness, some of our GM rice seed samples may have been stolen at a national scientific achievement show. It is possible that illegal plantations of GM rice could have resulted," Zhang told Nature Biotechnology.

Opponents say that the cultivation of unauthorized varieties of Bt rice is a sign of lax oversight, an indication that GM rice cannot be properly monitored and controlled once commercialized. "It could pollute nearby non-GM crops by outcrossing," says Dayuan Xue, a biodiversity professor at the Central University of Nationalities in Beijing.
Click here to find out more!

Protests against the lack of transparency in the decision process are flooding the Chinese media. For instance, the Ministry of Agriculture has admitted that the biosafety certificates for GM rice and corn had actually been issued a year before their formal announcement last November. The neutrality and credibility of scientists involved in the development of GM crops is also under scrutiny. Some are even being accused of pursuing their own financial interests, an allegation that Zhang disputes: "You cannot say doing research projects is for self-interest, as we cannot profit from commercialization because the IPR belongs to the state."

Despite increasing resistance to cultivation of GM crops in China, Huang of CAAS reveals that Chinese policymakers are likely to continue the push toward commercialization of GM rice. "Under pressure, there could be some pauses, but science should play its role," says Huang. The ripples from China's decisions are likely to be felt internationally. "We Asian nations are closely watching China. What China does [in GM crop commercialization], other nations will follow," says Bhagirath Choudhary, Delhi-based ISAAA Indian national coordinator.

================

The Science of GM Crops: A New, Fair Report

- James McWilliams, The Atlantic, April 29 2010 http://www.theatlantic.com/food/archive/2010/04/the-science-of-gm-crops-a-new-fair-report/39649/

Few topics in the food world are debated as contentiously as genetically engineered (GE) crops. Advocates hyperbolically charge that GE seeds will feed the world through increased crop yields, save the environment by eliminating pesticides, and make poor farmers rich.
Detractors, deeming these seeds the diabolical feedstock for "frankenfoods," argue that they'll destroy biodiversity, afflict us with allergies, drive poor farmers to suicide, and foster "superweeds" that'll choke out native flora and fauna. What's often missing in all the drama is neutral scientific support.

That's starting to change. Last week the National Research Council (NRC) released the most extensive (and unbiased) report to date on the performance of GE crops since their commercial introduction in 1996. The report was quite explicit about the threat of herbicide resistance caused by over-spraying GE crops with
broad-spectrum herbicides (more on this soon). At the same time, it provided several reasons to be optimistic about the responsible use of GE crops, both now and in the future.

Even GE's most ardent detractors should give due consideration to the following sample of findings:
1. Farmers globally have applied less insecticide per acre as they've increased their use of Bt seed (seed engineered for insect resistance). Beyond the obvious health benefits, reduction in insecticide application has saved substantial aviation fuel, water (to make insecticides), and plastic containers.

2. Farmers and their families have been safer from chemical exposure as a result of less harsh pesticides and less time spent out in the fields spraying. The authors of the report hypothesize that farmers pay more for GE seeds in part to protect their families and employees from exposure to harsh chemicals.

3. The greatest environmental benefit of adopting GE crops may turn out to be the rate at which water is retained as a result of conservation tillage, which herbicide tolerant (HT) crops directly foster. No-till methods also improve soil health, something conventional farming is often accused of ignoring.

4. Economically, the savings gained from GE adoption generally outweighed the expense, and the economic benefits gained by adopting farmers also extend to non-adopters as well. In
controlling so effectively for the corn borer, for example, Bt corn indirectly protects neighboring crops. (A very similar thing happened in Hawaii when GE papaya was introduced to save the crop from a devastating outbreak of ringspot in the 1990s.)

5. The drift of pollen from GE to non-GE plants-a phenomenon that anti-GE advocates often highlight as a chronic problem-turns out to be relatively rare, or at least "not a concern for most non-GE crops." This is not to say that it doesn't happen, or that it doesn't matter, but only that drift is hardly a first-order concern when it comes to GE pollen.

For all the report's enthusiasm for the potential benefits of GE crops, it was by no means shilling for the technology, much less the corporations that monopolize it. As mentioned earlier, of particular concern to the study's researchers was the repeated and exclusive use of glyphosate herbicides (the most common of which is
Monsanto's Roundup Ready). As scientists have long predicted, the spraying of a single agent can quickly lead to glysophate resistance in the targeted weeds, thus forcing farmers to spray even more toxic chemicals in order to control them.

Appropriately, the NRC dedicated ample space to offering advice that could mitigate the impact of this dangerous (albeit predictable) development that could negate the environmental gains associated with herbicide-resistant crops. The organization advises farmers to employ a rotation of different herbicides as well as "tank mixes" that combine several agents into a single concoction. It also notes that GE seeds are now being developed that will make alternative weed management strategies more readily adoptable. It did not mention, but might have, the fact that weed resistance remains a major problem with traditionally bred seeds as well. Some evidence suggests that the problem may be worse with conventional seeds.

In highlighting both the strengths and weaknesses of GE crops, the NRC report does this rancorous debate a great service-it suggests room for compromise. Of all the suggestions that the report offers, there one in particular that might provide a foundation upon which detractors and advocates could find common ground: "Genetic engineering could potentially be used in more crops, in novel ways beyond herbicide and insect resistance, and for greater diversity of purposes."

Implicit in this comment is the critical recognition that current applications of GE technology-mainly soy, corn and cotton-ultimately perpetuate monoculture systems that churn out food and fiber destined for feedlots, ethanol plants, junk food, and factories. In other words, the technology-despite its environmental benefits-is still a technology that greases the wheels of industrial agriculture.

But biotechnology can do better than that. Right now a range of more humanitarian, environmentally sound GE seeds wait in the wings. These seeds-bred for a wider variety of traits (such as drought resistance), for a diversity of subsistence crops (cassava, millet, rice), and to serve niche producers in local markets-have (as I will discuss in a future post) been stymied by growing public distrust of GE seeds in general. As with most agricultural subjects, however, distinctions must be drawn. The NRC report guides us in doing just that.

-
James McWilliams is an Associate Professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos.
================

Biotechnology and Agricultural Development: Transgenic Cotton, Rural Institutions and Resource-Poor Farmers

- Food Security and Ag-Biotech Newshe Meridian Institute, http://www.merid.org/fs-agbiotech/

A new book commissioned by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Oxfam America addresses the continuing controversy over the potential impact of genetically modified (GM) crops, and
particularly of GM cotton, in developing countries. According to the book's publisher, the book challenges those who have predicted technological failure by describing instances in which GM cotton has proven useful and has been enthusiastically taken up by smallholder farmers.

But the book also challenges those who claim that biotechnology can take the lead in agricultural development by examining the "precarious" institutional basis on which these hopes rest in most countries. At the core of the book are four country case studies based on original fieldwork in the principal developing countries that grow GM cotton: China, India, South Africa and Colombia. The analysis is said to show how biotechnology's potential contribution to agricultural development must be seen as a part of, and often secondary to, more fundamental policy change.

The book's title is "Biotechnology and Agricultural Development: Transgenic Cotton, Rural Institutions and Resource-Poor Farmers." [According to a related press release from Oxfam America (March 18, 2010), Oxfam has worked with West African cotton farmers to highlight injustices in the international trading system and to shift the balance of power in the cotton value chain toward cotton producers. Kimberly Pfeifer, head of research at Oxfam America, said the research provided in the book was in part a response to the need to provide advice on GM cotton, given "pressure that existed to establish biosafety regulations to pave the way for the commercial adoption of transgenic cotton."] More information is available online at the link below. http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415543842/