* How Frankenfood Prevailed
* Genetically Enhanced Trees May Save the American Chestnut
* Years in the Making, Kenya's GM Law Prepares to Go Live
* Making Good Science Decisions
* High-Yield Agriculture Slows Pace of Global Warming
* Marc Gunther Talks with Dr. Prakash
How Frankenfood Prevailed
- Ken Stier, Time, June 28, 2010 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1997448,00.html
Few companies spin financial growth out of crop growth better than Monsanto. By making an early, successful R&D-heavy bet on biotechnology, Monsanto transformed itself from an agricultural-chemicals company in an increasingly commoditized sector into a cutting-edge seed-and-biotech firm. Because its rivals are still catching up to its prowess in creating biotech traits — the software of seeds — Monsanto has become the standard bearer and lightning rod for the controversial advance of genetically modified (GM) crops, sometimes derisively described as Frankenstein foods.
But it looks as if the monster has prevailed. The company's juggernaut is so impressive that the usually levelheaded market bible Barron's hyperbolically referred to "Monsanto's stranglehold on the planet's food chain." Some 740 million acres (300 million hectares) are planted with GM crops, about equally divided between North America and the rest of the world — primarily Argentina and Brazil.
The difference is that Monsanto's home market uses virtually everything the firm has ever invented; elsewhere, its growth has been more restricted, a result of fewer regulatory approvals. But that's changing as more countries adopt biotech crops, first for fiber (cotton), then for feed (especially corn for animals) and then for food for human consumption. There are 25 countries — collectively home to more than half the world's population — that have planted commercialized biotech crops. Another 32 countries have approved biotech imports for either animal feed or food. The walls of even biotech's most ardent opponent, Europe, have been breached. In March the European Union approved a biotech potato, developed by the chemical company BASF for industrial use, which is the first GM planting approval since a moratorium was imposed some 12 years ago.
In fact, there are already 120 genetically modified plants approved or in the process of being approved in the E.U. (The moratorium has always been full of exceptions.) This is hardly broadcast by Europe's officialdom, whose scientists have no major disagreements with their colleagues in the U.S. over food safety. That silence certainly suits European firms that might otherwise be forced to compete more directly with Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and Pioneer Hi-Bred International. "Neither the government nor companies seem to see much upside in being more candid with the public," suggests Brett Begemann, international executive vice president at Monsanto. "It's a difficult line to walk because when I talk to consumers in Europe, it comes across as 'Gotcha! You are eating it anyway.' There is a lot of work to be done to help people understand what's really going on."
Biotech is the most rapidly adopted crop technology in human history — faster than the corn hybrids introduced in the U.S. in the 1930s and faster than the planting changes that took place during the Green Revolution. Advocates see biotech as a no-brainer, the only way to boost yields while escaping the trends of a growing world population (now 6.8 billion, heading beyond 9 billion by 2050) and finite cropland nourished by stressed water resources.
See pictures of what the world eats :
Genetically Enhanced Trees May Save the American Chestnut
- Tim Latshaw, Observer (NY), June 18, 2010 http://www.observertoday.com/page/content.detail/id/541495.html?nav=5047
For nearly 20 years, different crossbreeds of the American chestnut have been planted along this stretch of backroad, hoping that new variations can stand up to a blight that has been killing off and stunting this once tall and widespread tree for more than a century. Some continue to live, others die, but all eventually contract the blight.
On a small hill above this orchard, however, in a fenced off area, a new hope is starting to take root; one that has science delving straight into the genes of the plants themselves.
Volunteers and members of the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF) met Thursday to plant the first round of test transgenic trees at the site. Retired State Senator Mary Lou Rath, a longtime supporter of the project, had the honor of setting the very first tree at the plot.
"There was never a problem getting the funding for the American chestnut tree," Rath said. "The Legislature always agreed on that."
The first sapling was named "Darling 5" after the Darling family. The late Herbert Darling, Sr. donated most of the Zoar Valley area to the state. His son, Herbert Darling, Jr., would go on to help found the New York chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation and serve for some time as president of the overall organization.
Darling was on hand at the planting, as was current ACF President Bryan Burhans, who traveled up from the organization's headquarters in North Carolina. Mature American chestnut trees were once prominent throughout much of the Eastern United States before the blight - a fungus that almost literally chokes the trees - was introduced to the country on Asian chestnuts. Now 16 state chapters of the ACF are represented where American chestnuts have dramatically dwindled.
"This represents something that has been missing for over 100 years in New York," Burhans said of the potential success of the testing. "The opportunity to bring something back into the ecosystem - something that's going to benefit wildlife, it will benefit society, it will benefit the private landowner - it has some huge benefits that we're going to involve."
The New York chapter of the ACF is currently the only to conduct transgenic testing - all others only using a traditional and intricate crossbreeding method. The transgenic project in New York has been under the care of Drs. Charles Maynard and William Powell from the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at SUNY Syracuse.
According to Dr. Powell, work on the genetic aspect of the project began about 20 years ago as well, but a lot of research had to be performed to begin the real work.
"They didn't have methods to transform chestnuts when we started," he said. "... I liken it to you have to build your boat before you can go fishing. You have to get the method in place and make sure it works and everything, and then you can start testing different genes."
Dr. Powell said the genetic makeup of an American chestnut is simpler in many ways than that of a human, but the full DNA sequence of the tree is larger. One of the genetic modifications currently undergoing testing incorporates a gene from wheat that may neutralize the acid produced by the blight. Future plantings may introduce American chestnuts that contain genes from Chinese chestnuts, who are much more resistant to the fungus.
Six "events," or different transgenic varieties are currently planted on the 1.4-acre property. Among them are "control" groups of pure American chestnuts, Chinese chestnuts and various hybrids. Additional sites will be established to determine what factors location has on the viability of the alterations, as well.
According to Dr. Powell, if a successful transgenic tree is found, it will go through a deregulation process with the state before it can be introduced to the public. They are currently prohibited from public access, explaining the state-mandated fencing around the area.
The saplings are visible through the fencing, however, and earlier plantings remain unrestricted. There will be plenty of expectant eyes on the young trees as they begin to grow. The blight on the previous test trees is expected to carry easily over to the new samples, upon which their wherewithal over time can be evaluated. It can be an agonizingly long process, but one that carries a great reward for those who have invested in it.
"So many private dollars went into this project," Burhans said of the many donors and volunteers engaged in the Zoar Valley and similar projects. "They have not just relied on a free handout; they've worked their tails off to get to this point."
"It has been coined as the single biggest ecological disaster that we've had," Burhans added, "but what's exciting about the return of the chestnut is it also represents probably the single biggest ecological success story over many generations."
Years in the Making, Kenya's GM Law Prepares to go Live
David Njagi, Scidev.net, June 16, 2010 http://www.scidev.net/en/news/years-in-the-making-kenya-s-gm-law-prepares-to-go-live.html
Kenya's long-awaited biosafety law is likely to become operational this month — well over a year after its president approved the legislation. President Mwai Kibaki signed off parliament's approval of the biosafety legislation in February 2009, after a decade of controversy about the advisability of allowing the commercialisation of genetically modified organisms.
Last month, agriculture minister William Ruto confirmed that the biosafety guidelines had been finalised. Now, Harrison Macharia — chief science secretary of the newly created National Biosafety Authority (NBA) — confirmed to SciDev.Net that the gazetting of the bill, and thus its official commencement date, will happen this month.
Kenya will become the fourth African country to implement such legislation, after Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa. Muo Kasina, principal research officer at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute said that research that has so far been held back because of a lack of legislation will now be able to undergo open field trials, and mass production of GMOs will attract more investment.
He added that the regulations will encourage transgenic research and help address the country's brain drain. "Having the biosafety regulations in place will ensure the products meet standards for commercialisation and provide the basis for product stewardship," said Kasina. "This will have a positive impact on the commercialisation of such products since they will be assessed under the expected conditions of their use."
The Africa Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum's senior programmes officer, Felix M'mboyi, said its members are planning to carry out open field trials with GM crops, including BT cotton and maize, later this year.
But Ann Kingiri — a plant pathologist who recently completed a PhD on Kenya's biosafety system at the UK-based Open University — said that although Kenya has the scientific capacity to steer itself towards the transgenic path, its regulatory and institutional capacities are not as well equipped to cope with the flow of technology expected to come with the commercial production of GMOs.
"Institutional capacity respective to regulatory agencies needs to be streamlined to, for instance, handle the hurdles involved in lengthy seed certification process," she said. "The NBA also needs to train and employ biosafety officers to ensure it operates independently."
"Kenya is blessed with a rich diversity of species, including a rich agro-biodiversity on rural subsistence farms," said Dino Martins, a researcher with Nature Kenya — the East Africa Natural History Society. "The new technologies require very sophisticated analysis and tools and systems that Kenya, as a developing country, just does not have and cannot afford."
And Miriam Kinyua, a biotechnologist at Moi University, Kenya, called on the NBA board to acknowledge its ignorance in some of the areas it will now have to work on. Kenya should not rush into the production of GMOs because it still lacks adequate capacity to deal safely with technologies associated with it, she said. "[Allowing GMOs] depends on whether we will work with propaganda or facts," she told SciDev.Net." I expect the responsible board to be guided by facts as we try to put structures in place and strengthen the existing ones."
Making Good Science Decisions
- Dennis Avery, Canada Free Press, June 17, 2010 http://canadafreepress.com/index.php/article/24380
I can’t help but praise Michael Specter’s new book: Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. Specter warns that we live in a world where the leaders of African nations prefer to let their citizens starve to death rather than import genetically-modified food grains. Childhood vaccines have proven to be the most effective public health measure in history, yet people march on Washington to protest their use. Fifty years ago pharmaceutical companies were regarded as vital supports for our good health and lengthening life spans; now they are seen as callous corporate enemies of health and the environment.
Specter explains why these irrational things happen: “an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.”
We demonize genetically modified foods, says Specter, because of food elitism—making decisions that work against feeding the hungry in developing nations under the guise of protecting their best interests.
“In other parts of the world, a billion people go to bed hungry every night,” Specter told National Public Radio. “Those people need science to help them.” “Either you believe evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated will lead to a better understanding of reality or you don’t,” says Specter. “We are either going to embrace new technologies, along with their limitations and threats, or slink into the slime of magical thinking.”
Societies have used magical thinking for thousands of years, and it has provided emotional comfort to billions. Unfortunately, it has had little beneficial impact on the length of our lives, our earning power, or our quality of life. Magical thinking can’t produce comforts like air conditioning, conveniences such as computers and microwaves; or breakthrough technologies like antibiotics, and joint replacements..
Add to the irrational list:
People marching to demand the right to drink raw milk, which presents major health risks due to the bacteria it contains, instead of feeling grateful for pasteurization.
The European politician who proposes to ban rat poison because it is “too dangerous.” Bubonic plague, spread by rat fleas, killed a third of the people in Europe—twice. Rats also spread such “filth risks” as salmonella and E. coli.
There’s no question that the mainstream media have aided, abetted and encouraged the irrationality. In fairness, the media also trumpet the news of new scientific breakthroughs—but their news instincts home in more aggressively on bad news. Moreover, we in the First World don’t really have much really serious stuff to complain about anymore except for the politicians we ourselves elect. That leaves the journalists short of the bad news they crave.
Ergo, they have turned to the activists for scare stories and there have been a zillion of those. Working together, the journalists and activists have helped create the backlash against science. The journalists are paying for this now, of course, as the public has gotten “scare fatigue.” The Internet and talk radio have given a broader perspective, and called the mainstream media’s judgment into serious question. People are simply not buying the newspapers or watching the network TV news as did an earlier generation.
It’s too soon to tell whether all this will lead to good or ill, although I’m personally and professionally appalled at the Obama idea of subsidizing news organizations. Neither Britain’s BBC nor our National Public Radio has been any more resistant to activist scare stories than NBC, “20/20” or Shepherd Smith.
Specter gives us no solution, but having TV, talk radio, and the Internet certainly puts us ahead of any previous information consumers in history.
Dennis T. Avery, is a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute in Washington. Dennis is the Director for Global Food Issues cgfi.org. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State.
High-Yield Agriculture Slows Pace of Global Warming
- Louis Bergeron, R&D, June 16, 2010 http://www.rdmag.com/
Increased yields of crops—such as this maize in Kenya—have not only helped feed the world, but have reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Credit: Marshall Burke
Advances in high-yield agriculture over the latter part of the 20th century have prevented massive amounts of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere—the equivalent of 590 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide—according to a new study led by two Stanford Earth scientists. The yield improvements reduced the need to convert forests to farmland, a process that typically involves burning of trees and other plants, which generates carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The researchers estimate that if not for increased yields, additional greenhouse gas emissions from clearing land for farming would have been equal to as much as a third of the world's total output of greenhouse gases since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in 1850.
The researchers also calculated that for every dollar spent on agricultural research and development since 1961, emissions of the three principal greenhouse gases—methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide—were reduced by the equivalent of about a quarter of a ton of carbon dioxide—a high rate of financial return compared to other approaches to reducing the gases.
"Our results dispel the notion that modern intensive agriculture is inherently worse for the environment than a more 'old-fashioned' way of doing things," said Jennifer Burney, lead author of a paper describing the study that will be published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Adding up the impact
The researchers calculated emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, converting the amounts of the latter two gases into the quantities of carbon dioxide that would have an equivalent impact on the atmosphere, to facilitate comparison of total greenhouse gas outputs.
Burney, a postdoctoral researcher with the Program on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford, said agriculture currently accounts for about 12 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Although greenhouse gas emissions from the production and use of fertilizer have increased with agricultural intensification, those emissions are far outstripped by the emissions that would have been generated in converting additional forest and grassland to farmland.
"Every time forest or shrub land is cleared for farming, the carbon that was tied up in the biomass is released and rapidly makes its way into the atmosphere—usually by being burned," she said. "Yield intensification has lessened the pressure to clear land and reduced emissions by up to 13 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year." "When we look at the costs of the research and development that went into these improvements, we find that funding agricultural research ranks among the cheapest ways to prevent greenhouse gas emissions," said Steven Davis, a co-author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford.
To evaluate the impact of yield intensification on climate change, the researchers compared actual agricultural production between 1961 and 2005 with hypothetical scenarios in which the world's increasing food needs were met by expanding the amount of farmland rather than by the boost in yields produced by the Green Revolution. "Even without higher yields, population and food demand would likely have climbed to levels close to what they are today," said David Lobell, also a coauthor and assistant professor of environmental Earth system science at Stanford.
"Lower yields per acre would likely have meant more starvation and death, but the population would still have increased because of much higher birth rates," he said. "People tend to have more children when survival of those children is less certain."
Avoiding the need for more farmland. The researchers found that without the advances in high-yield agriculture, several billion additional acres of cropland would have been needed.
Comparing emissions in the theoretical scenarios with real-world emissions from 1961 to 2005, the researchers estimated that the actual improvements in crop yields probably kept greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to at least 317 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and perhaps as much as 590 billion tons.
Marc Gunther Talks with Dr. Prakash, professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University
Dr. C. S. Prakash is a professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University, a historically black college in Tuskegee, Alabama. Prakash, as he’s called, oversees research on biotech food crops for the developing world, as well as the training of students and scientists in plant biotechnology. He has also been an active participant in the debate over biotech food, through his website, newsletter and public speaking. He has served in advisory committees to the US Department of Agriculture and the government of India on biotech crops.
Marc Gunther: Dr. Prakash, you grew up in India, you were educated in Australia and now you are working in the U.S. Tell us a little about how you got from there to here.
C.S. Prakash: I grew up in Bangalore, and studied agriculture at the University of Agriculture Sciences. Subsequently, I got the opportunity to go to Australia to pursue my Ph.D. When I finished there, I got an appointment at the University of Kentucky to pursue post-doctoral research in forestry and genetics. This was the mid-1980s—the field of agricultural biotechnology was just getting started—and in around 1989, I came to Tuskegee University to start a program in agriculture/biotechnology. I’ve been at Tuskegee ever since.
Gunther: What attracted you to the field?
Prakash: Biotechnology is just another tool, a tool in the hands of plant breeders. I’ve always been a plant breeder and this was a new tool with a lot more power and precision than what we had been used to. So it was logical that a lot of us who studied plants, genetics and breeding embraced this new technology. It just gave us more ammunition to develop better varieties.
Gunther: Let’s first talk about your own work, and then about your advocacy. What research have you and your students focused on?
Prakash: The focus of my research has been sweet potato crops and peanuts, because historically, you know, George Washington Carver was a famous scientist who worked on these two crops at Tuskegee University. Those of us working here now—students and other scholars—have been studying the genetic diversity of those two crops and building ways to put foreign genes into both sweet potatoes and peanuts. We have been able to improve the nutritional quality of sweet potatoes, using genetic engineering, and if we can successfully transfer some of these traits to African varieties, down the road we may be able to improve the nutritional composition of sweet potatoes eaten in Africa.
Gunther: Are these commercially available crops or are you still working in the laboratory at testing? Prakash: We are still working in the laboratory; we still have a long way to go. A lot of our work is still about trying to understand how some of these things could be done. Gunther: So you tried to improve the nutritional quality of the sweet potato; what are you doing with respect to the peanut?
Prakash: I’m not directly involved in the laboratory research right now but a colleague of mine, Dr. Guohao He, has done some tremendous work in trying to understand the genome of peanuts, working with scientists at the University of California at Davis. This helps us to understand the basic biology of peanuts and gives us a very powerful tool to breed better peanut varieties for disease resistance and improved quality.
Gunther: So how did you then move from the practice of science to becoming, at the same time, a spokesman on the issue of biotechnology?
Prakash: I was always involved in some outreach because we are a historically black university. One of my jobs was to recruit more high school students into biotechnology. So in the early 1990s, I would visit a lot of high schools to talk about our research and how this technology is going to be critical to the future of science in the United States. I also became a part-time journalist; I used to write newspaper articles on biotechnology trying to explain the research coming out of the labs to the man on the street.
When controversy erupted with the protests and opposition to genetically modified crops, I was drawn into the debate. I spoke at public gatherings, and also would talk to the policy makers in the U.S. Congress, in the United Nations, in the Vatican and so on.
Gunther: As you and others have pointed out, we have been breeding and improving crops for a long time. Why do you think biotech crops aroused the opposition that it has? Were you surprised by that, as a scientist?
Prakash: Certainly. I don’t think scientists expected this level of opposition to this technology, because a lot of us, we felt really proud in trying to embrace a new technology that we believed was very safe. And, at the same time, we knew the possibilities of what we could do with this technology were endless. We could change the whole way we feed people by developing improved varieties of crops like wheat and rice, faster than we could do so with conventional tools. So we were really taken aback when opposition started raising its head in the late 1990s.
Looking back, I believe that some of the apprehension and opposition was orchestrated by groups with vested interests. But I can also understand public fears about genetic engineering. It became an emotional issue. People were uneasy. And we as scientists did not do a very good job of explaining the safety of this technology and the benefits that would accrue from its long-time use.
Gunther: Why would anyone have a vested interest in opposing agricultural biotech?
Prakash: I think the biggest reason is that, unlike the traditional tools that geneticists use in plant breeding, this technology was primarily brought forward by private companies. Many of the opposition groups were concerned about the rise of corporate power; remember this coincided with the fears about globalization, and the fear of a few companies dominating the global, agricultural, and trade scene. Biotechnology became a proxy for some of those who were interested in attacking the rise of corporatization if you will, in any culture.
Gunther: That’s a fascinating insight. What looked like a debate about science or safety was, in fact, corporate power. If biotech crops had come out of Tuskegee or UC Davis or or another academic institution, the early acceptance might have been greater, you’re suggesting.
Prakash: Certainly, I would think so. They also, in Europe, saw it as an example of American hegemony if you will, and as an American effort to try to force the products of U.S. corporate interests on European consumers. Then there was also the unfortunate timing of the mad cow disease that happened in Europe. The Europeans’ trust in their regulatory system and their political system to keep the food safe was eroded. Because GM products and genetically modified food was being introduced at the same time, skepticism extended to this too.
Gunther: I imagine that in Europe, like in the U.S., there is also a romance about the small family farm and so all forms of large scale or technological agriculture suffer by comparison.
Prakash: Oh, certainly, in Europe, especially again, the food and agriculture have a much greater relevance to the culture.
The other group that contributed to the attack on biotechnology was the organic food industry. Even today, organic foods make up less than 3 percent of all the food that we consume in the United States and all scientific studies show that they are no safer or more nutritious than conventionally grown food. Even their contribution to the movement towards sustainability can be questioned in many ways. What happened was that the organic food groups recognized that one way to improve their marketability is to portray some of the alternatives as more damaging and harmful. So it was really opportunistic on the part of the organic agriculture groups to start attacking genetically modified foods.
Gunther: Nevertheless, the number of acres of biotech crops planted around the world has been growing steadily not just here in the U.S., but in places like Brazil and China and India as well. Does that reflect a shift in the debate that favors biotech crops?
Prakash: The debate has moved away from questioning the safety of these foods and into some of the issues related to, say, labeling and adventitious presence and other more technical, advanced issues. The downright opposition to these foods, at least in the United States, is not that great.
Gunther: What do you mean by adventitious presence?
Prakash: If you’re trying to sell food such as organic soybean or non-GM soybean, the question is, how much of the presence of the so-called contamination—we don’t use the word contamination because that’s negative—but how much of the GM food can you tolerate? So that’s called the adventitious presence.
Nevertheless, there has been growing acceptance of this technology, even in the European Union, although they have been very slow moving forward. What we have seen are countries such as Brazil and India embrace GM crops like cotton in India and soybean and corn in Brazil in a very, very vigorous manner.
Gunther: What does that tell you?
Prakash: That tells me that when the farmers have been given a choice to explore this technology and decide for themselves, whether it is beneficial or cost-effective, the technology will be successful, whether in the Philippines or South Africa or India. So many of the criticisms regarding these technologies—that the small farmers would not be able to afford this, that it is going to be very expensive and so on—have now been unfounded or have been proved wrong.
Gunther: I think my last question — and maybe we should go back to your roots in India to address why this is important — what are the stakes here?
Prakash: The stakes are very big. We already have almost 7 billion people on this planet and it’s going to be about 9 billion in about 20 to 30 years’ time. We still have a billion people who go to bed hungry every day. We have water and land resource issues. Biotechnology along with many other solutions is going to be essential to our ability to not only produce food, but produce it in a sustainable manner, without degrading the natural resources, the soil and water that we depend on so much, and to make sure future generations have the same ability to feed themselves.
Gunther: So you view biotech food not only as a tool to deal with what may be a global food crisis in the future, also as a “green” technology?
Prakash: I think it’s one of the greenest technologies to have come along and the facts prove it. Studies show that we have saved almost a billion pounds of pesticides since we started using these crops. Almost a billion pounds of top soil have been saved from being eroded. And we have produced 200 million more tons of food.