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July 22, 2010


Veering Away from Populism; Let Them Eat Heirlooms; Low-Level Presence; Overhyping the Organic


* Does Consumer Scepticism Cloud the GM Debate?
* A Juicy Debate: Hybrids vs. Heirlooms
* India: Parliamentary Panel Studies Pros and Cons of GM Food
* Irish Department of Agriculture's new report Food Harvest 2020
* Science and Food Security
* The Adoption and Diffusion of GM Crops In United States: A Real Option Approach
* Low-Level Presence of New GM Crops: An Issue on the Rise for Countries Where They Lack Approval
* Scientific Assessments of Ag Biotech's Role in a Safer, Healthier World
* Study Finds Media May be Overhyping Benefits of Organic Food, Agriculture

Does Consumer Scepticism Cloud the GM Debate?

- Ben Cooper, Just Food, July 21, 2010 http://www.just-food.com/

The recent proposals by the European Commission regarding national jurisdiction over the cultivation of genetically-modified food have been criticised by both advocates and opponents of GM which, Ben Cooper writes, only serves to underline the intractability of the issue.

It is somewhat typical of the GM debate that the recent announcement by the European Commission regarding national jurisdiction over the issue appears to have pleased absolutely no one. Last week, the European Commission announced proposals to give EU member states the right to ban or allow GM cultivation on their own territories.

The European biotech industry association, Europabio, said it was "disappointed" by the ruling. Its director for agricultural biotechnology, Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, said the proposals gave "carte blanche to ban safe and approved GM crops in any country or region regardless of the needs or wishes of their farmers". He added that in a future "fraught with the challenges of globalisation, climate change, food insecurity and shortage of natural resources", EU farmers would be denied the ability to use "cutting-edge technologies" available to their counterparts elsewhere.

On the other side of the debate, campaigners at Friends of the Earth were just as dissatisfied. "While the European Commission is seemingly offering countries the right to implement national bans, in reality the proposal aims to do the opposite – opening Europe's fields to GM crops," said Friends of the Earth Europe's food campaigner Mute Schimpf said.

The fact that the decision can illicit two such contrasting interpretations should perhaps not be surprising. GM is an issue where even the merest hint of consensus has been hard to find.

It has been observed by GM advocates that billions of meals with GM content have already been consumed with no ill-effects. While that is enough to convince some, many people remain deeply sceptical.

But why in an age where science appears continually to provide solutions that can sustain us, where we now instinctively turn to science for those answers, do we have such an impasse with GM?

At the heart of the intractability of this issue is public confidence. In spite of the safeguards we put in place, new technologies all carry some element of risk or the possibility that while no overt risk has been identified an unforeseen negative impact may emerge in the future. Science simply cannot give a blanket guarantee.

Scientists and politicians have to weigh those risks against the benefits and the risks represented by the alternatives to the technological solution. So GM advocates argue about the risks of continued pesticide use, about how GM technology can develop crops that need less irrigation, and naturally about the overall food security issue.

But in spite of relentless argument and huge amounts of money spent on PR and lobbying, some technologies are embraced more enthusiastically by the public than others. There is an interesting analogy with mobile phones. Science cannot tell us that using a mobile phone is 100% safe. What it can tell us is that the evidence so far of any harm is sufficiently slender to sanction the technology, with certain safeguards.

It is not hard to see why there has been greater public acceptance of mobile phones than GM. The difference in perceived immediate benefit is immeasurable. By the same token, those campaigning for a more cautious approach to mobile phone technology find they have much less traction with the public – and consequently with the media – than those taking a similar line on GM.

Advocates of GM allege that this is because the public is basically irrational about the issue. The rumpus caused last month by the way the Food Standards Agency (FSA) had gone about planning a public consultation on GM spoke to this very point. The FSA was not only accused of favouring the GM industry but also of taking an overall premise that the public was 'anti-science'.

Whether or not the FSA's approach was correct, the organisation clearly had concerns over the emotive responses GM evokes and how easily these can be whipped up in the media with the 'Frankenstein Food' type of headlines.

While there is a huge amount of research going on into GM, arguably some more could usefully be conducted into exactly how and why consumers respond to GM in the way they do.

In the face of public scepticism, and with the constant risk of extremely negative media coverage, the food industry seems to keep a fairly low profile on the issue.

Retailers, always keen to show themselves to be acutely in tune with their shoppers, in some cases look to make PR capital by taking relatively strong positions against GM, which are arguably out of step with the actual level of risk associated with the technology.

For instance, Tesco says: "Our policy on genetically modified (GM) foods is based on what you, our customers, have told us you want. And our research shows that UK customers don't want GM foods in our stores. So naturally we don't have any own-brand GM foods on our shelves and all of our organic animals are reared using non-GM feed."

The supermarkets' policies are by their own admission not dictated by science but reflect public sentiment. In a statement, Sainsbury's specifically says “whilst the latest scientific research and current Government advice is that GM ingredients do not present any risks to human health, we acknowledge the concerns of our customers and do not permit the use of GM crops, ingredients, additives or derivatives in any Sainsbury’s own label food, drink, pet food, dietary supplements or floral products".

In relation to the potential benefit the food industry could reap from GM, its reticence to take a stronger position is at first surprising but yet one when considers the reputational problems completely understandable. The heavy lifting in advocacy terms is left to the GM companies and industry groups themselves. And biotechnology companies do not win corporate popularity contests.

In one sense it is reassuring that the uncertain public sentiment around GM, which could be characterised variously as fear, doubt, uncertainty, agnosticism and frustration, appears to be reflected in the Commission's recent decision. In essence, we are not sure about GM, so we end up with unsatisfactory legislation.

However, in situations where the public appears simply not to know what to do, there is arguably an onus on governments to lead. By the same token, where prevailing public opinion is seen as misinformed or ill-judged, governments have a responsibility to veer away from populism.

The question is whether the proposals give the EU as a whole, and the individual governments within it, greater scope for taking a lead on GM. While states can opt to ban GM, they cannot do so on health and or scientific grounds as these issues are decided at an overall EU level. They can only opt out on moral or ethical grounds, for example, in the words of John Dalli, when "a country is facing a massive aversion to a certain cultivation issue".

In other words, member governments will be able to take an anti-GM position if consumer sentiment against GM runs high. So in terms of addressing the potentially distorting effect of what could be disproportionate consumer anxiety over this issue, we appear to be right back where we started.


A Juicy Debate: Hybrids vs. Heirlooms

- George Ball, Des Moines Register, July 18, 2010 http://www.desmoinesregister.com/

Today, greener-than-thou gardeners crusade for heirloom seeds, while unjustly damming hybrids. Increasingly, their anti-science credo has hardened into a Luddite fundamentalism, resulting in confusion among the public between hybrids and genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Clearly, the hybrid versus heirloom imbroglio is about more than the quest for the biggest, most delicious tomato.

As a third-generation seedsman, I can lend balance to this lopsided debate. My company, W. Atlee Burpee, has provided American gardeners with heirloom seeds since 1876 and introduced hybrid seeds to American home gardens in 1934. Since Burpee's hybrid and heirloom sales are roughly 50-50, I'm 100 percent in favor of both heirlooms and hybrids.

Starting in the late 1940s, hybrid seed - one of mankind's greatest achievements - transformed agriculture. The "Green Revolution" - the adoption of hybrids by developing nations - boosted wheat, rice and corn harvests, multiplying yields up to tenfold. Hybrids saved millions from famine, dramatically lowered food prices, and helped turn countries dependent on food imports into net exporters. On the home front, hybrid vegetables transformed backyard gardening from a chore into a pleasure abounding with the proverbial bushels of zucchinis and tomatoes.

Many of today's heirlooms were once market varieties prior to the advent of the supermarket; others were regional, from either families or communities such as the Amish. Heirloom devotees are justly smitten with their storybook heritage, relative rarity and unusual flavor.

But when it comes to garden performance, heirlooms prove no match for hybrids. The cachet-free, hard-working hybrids remain "old faithfuls" for the majority of American gardeners. Indeed, in blind taste tests, many home garden hybrids triumph over heirlooms.

What heirlooms may lack in productivity and hardiness, they make up in mystique. True believers overlook their decreased output, lower disease resistance, and - unless they buy heirlooms each year - laborious seed-saving chores. But they go astray when their passion for heirlooms blinds them to the virtues of hybrids.

Increasingly, NGOs and activists are encouraging Third World farmers, in Haiti and elsewhere, to grow heirlooms in lieu of hybrids. By so doing, they are putting their sophisticated personal tastes and aesthetics before the life and death needs of the farmers and their communities - people for whom a poor harvest can be a death sentence. This is nouveau imperialism at its most pernicious: "Let them eat heirlooms."

Yet hybrids have as much history behind them as heirlooms. Farmers and native peoples have been refining and improving seed stock for millennia, selecting the best plants and jettisoning the clunkers. Moreover, due to natural cross-pollination and mutations caused by solar radiation, the genetic makeup of the world's plants is ever changing. Evolution never sleeps.

Without human intervention beginning ten thousand or so years ago, the tomatoes, peppers and other produce we enjoy today would be inedible, even toxic. For example, tech-savvy American Indians progressively wrought extraordinary improvements in corn and potatoes - now global staples. Gregor Mendel's discovery of genetics in 1866 enabled humanity to fulfill these ancestral struggles to develop ever greater food quality and supply. In short, hybrids are improved heirlooms.

In contrast to sterile GMO laboratories, hybrid seed production, created by hand in the outdoors, is about as high tech as knitting. Hybrid research is highly creative, yet little different from what nature does on its own, combining and recombining plants' genes. Spurred by Mendel's work, natural processes are accelerated in both test gardens and winter greenhouses. Breeders work within the plant's genetic system - not outside it. Plus, hybridizers reproduce their plants sexually, while GMO scientists insert DNA into clones. To conflate hybrids with GMOs, as many do, is like mistaking an abacus for a supercomputer.

As for environmental impact, hardy and disease-resistant hybrids require fewer chemical inputs, less water and smaller space. Since they are higher yielding, hybrids reduce habitat destruction in the Third World. You can achieve the same harvest on a quarter as much land.

Finally, contrary to public opinion, genetic diversity is actually enhanced by hybridization. Plant breeders widen available genes by both crossing with wild species and coaxing forth traits already present in domesticated cultivars. Ironically, while expressing unique characteristics, heirlooms, being inbreds, possess narrower gene pools. Therefore, public institutions and private companies, including Burpee, preserve them in seed vaults. By nature, heirlooms exist at a genetic dead end. You can see similar situations in wild animals, livestock and pets. Nevertheless, some heirloom plants possess great virtues, such as novel colors and flavors. We don't have to lose our heirloom past in order to claim our hybrid future.

It's time for gardeners to stop slinging mulch and return to the pleasures and rewards of gardening. There's plenty of room in the vegetable patch for both heirlooms and hybrids.

George Ball is past president of The American Horticultural Society and chairman of the W. Atlee Burpee & Co.


India: Parliamentary Panel Studies Pros and Cons of GM Food

- Devesh Kumar, Economic Times, July 16, 2010

NEW DELHI: Even as the fate of Bt brinjal hangs in balance, the parliamentary standing committee attached to the agriculture ministry has started examining the pros and cons of introducing genetically-modified food in India, with a panel of experts coming out in favour of setting up a regulatory mechanism to monitor their implications.

At the first meeting of the parliamentary panel on the sensitive subject here this afternoon, three experts, including Delhi University vice-chancellor Prof Deepak Paintal, who was a member of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) which gave its approval to the introduction of Bt brinjal in October 2009, made their respective presentations.

Besides Prof Paintal, the other two experts who outlined their views on the subject before the panel, which is headed by CPM parliamentary party leader Basudeb Acharia, were Dr S Nagarajan, chairman of the National Plant Variety Protection and Farmers’ Rights Authority, and Dr V S Chauhan, who leads the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. While Dr Nagarajan is considered to be an expert on wheat-breeding, Dr Chauhan has done an extensive study on the role of biotechnology in medicines.

While stressing on the need to have a regulatory mechanism, the experts welcomed the new law seeking the setting up of the National Biotechnology Authority.

The bill was drafted by the department of biotechnology in 2008, but has failed to see the light of the day till now. The experts came out strongly in favour of enacting the law without any delay.

With the controversy surrounding the introduction of Bt brinjal still fresh in their minds, members of the standing committee sought to raise questions on the fall-out of genetically-modified food on the lives of people and the environment in which they lived.

Former Union minister Hukumdeo Narain Yadav and senior Congress leader Satyavrat Chaturvedi sought to know from the experts the likely impact of genetically-engineered food on the health of people, on environment and soil fertility, on the nutritional value of food, on the interests of farmers and on the health of the economy in general.
The committee, in the coming days, is likely to seek the opinion of other experts, stakeholders and parties involved in the policy-formulation and growth of genetically-modified food before formulating its report on a subject which has already generated a lot of heat across the country.

Its import was brought to the forefront in February this year, when the environment ministry slapped a moratorium on the release of the transgenic brinjal hybrid developed by Mahyco, a subsidiary of global seed giant Monsanto.

The moratorium would, according to environment minister Jairam Ramesh last “till such time 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, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in our country”.

The minister’s decision came in the wake of a month-long exercise of public consultations in seven cities, which were attended by some 8,000 people. They were organised after widespread protests against the GEAC recommendation approving the introduction of Bt brinjal in October 2009.


Irish Department of Agriculture's new report Food Harvest 2020

- Ireland's Department of Agriculture's new report Food Harvest 2020 http://www.agriculture.gov.ie/media/migration/agri-foodindustry/agri-foodindustrypublications/2020Food%20harvest190710.pdf

Two references to GM

pg. 50: "Teagasc should continue to provide an impartial research programme on the issues of GM crop cultivation to policy makers, tillage farmers, and the general public, in order that Ireland can engage in scientific discussions on new crop technologies and be to the forefront of technology should EU policy on GM crop cultivation alter and broader acceptance of the merits of GM technology emerge."

pg. 20 "With the aim of ensuring the competitiveness and viability of Irish production, DAFF should monitor and appraise policy, trade and commercial developments at EU and other relevant levels with respect to the use of existing and emerging technologies in areas such as biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs)."


Science and Food Security

- Dr. Krishna Dronamraju, AgBioView, July 22, 2010 (President, Foundation for Genetic Research, USA - KDronamraj@aol.com)

Review of book: Science and Sustainable Food Security By M.S. Swaminathan, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, Chennai, London and New Jersey, 2010

Anyone who followed the progress of agriculture in India during the last fifty years should be very familiar with the name of Prof. M.S. Swaminathan and the distinguished service performed by him. Indeed, he is also known widely as the “Father of Green Revolution” in India and abroad. His name is synonymous with the history of agriculture and food production in India.

He was one of three people from India included in TIME Magazine's 1999 list of the "20 most influential Asian people of the 20th century", the other two being Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors. Only a few are mentioned here: UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize Laureate for outstanding contributions to the protection and management of the environment. Co - winner with Paul and Anne Ehrlich 1994 prize. The Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, Honda Prize, for achieving outstanding results in the field of ecotechnology, 1991, Padma Vibhushan 1989 World Food Prize for advancing human development through increased quantity, quality or accessibility of food, 1987 , Golden Heart Presidential Award of the Philippines, conferred by President Corazon Aquino , Albert Einstein World Science Award by the World Cultural Council for research which has brought true benefit and well being, Norman Borlaug Award, given by Coromandel Fertilizers in profound appreciation of his catalytic role in providing deep insights and inspiring fellow scientists to set goals ... for evolving a strategy for agriculture rooted in science, but tempered by a concern for ecology and human values, Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership 1971. He holds 58 honorary Doctorate degrees from universities around the world. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and a Foreign Associate of many academies of the world including those of the United States.

On the occasion of Dr. Norman Borlaug's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, he said of Dr. Swaminathan: "The green revolution has been a team effort and much of the credit for its spectacular development must go to Indian officials, Organizations, Scientists and farmers. However, to you, Dr. Swaminathan, a great deal of the credit must go for first recognizing the potential value of the Mexican dwarfs. Had this not occurred, it is quite possible that there would not have been a green revolution in Asia.

On the occasion of the presentation of the First World Food Prize to Dr. Swaminathan in October 1987, Mr. Javier Perez de Cuellar - Secretary General of the United Nations, wrote: "Dr. Swaminathan is a living legend. His contributions to Agricultural Science have made an indelible mark on food production in India and elsewhere in the developing world. By any standards, he will go into the annals of history as a world scientist of rare distinction".
Swaminathan has been described by the United Nations Environment Programme as "the Father of Economic Ecology".

Science and Sustainable Food Security is a compilation of 28 research papers, articles and special addresses by M.S. Swaminathan which were published in international journals and other publications. The years of publication of these papers range from 1954 to 2007.

The papers cover an impressive range of subjects, those in pure science discussing methods and discoveries in plant hybridization to international concerns in food and water security. The most important subject which occupied Swaminathan’s attention in recent years, “Evergreen Revolution”, receives special attention. The term “Green Revolution” itself was coined in 1968 to indicate revolutionary improvements in crop yield in several Asian countries. After a brief review of the earlier methods, which were not successful in increasing crop yields, Swaminathan narrates the steps leading to the beginnings of “Green Revolution”. Swaminathan joined the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in 1954 and immediately started a research programme for developing non-lodging, fertilizer-responsive varieties of wheat.

During the late 1950s, Dr. Orville Vogel of the United States published reports on the transfer of dwarfing genes to North American winter wheats. He sent seeds of Gaines, a semi-dwarf winter wheat, to India. In March 1962, a few dwarf spring wheat strains were grown in IARI experimental plots. These plants were shorter in height but produced many more grains. Shortly afterwards, in September 1963, Dr. Norman Borlaug sent a wide range of semi-dwarf wheats, which provided the material for much higher crop yields in the following years. In the following years, Swaminathan writes, “when small farmers harvested over five tones of wheat per hectare, the impact on the minds of other farmers was electric. The clamour for seeds began.. and the small government programme had become a mass movement.” That was the beginning of India’s “Green Revolution”. Wheat production in India rose from 10 million tones in 1964 to 17 million in 1968.

However, today the focus is on “Ever-Green Revolution”, a term coined by Swaminathan to emphasize the need for improving productivity in perpetuity without associated ecological harm. It is based on a paradigm shift from a commodity centred to a farming system centred approach in technology development and dissemination. As Swaminathan noted, “It involves attention to Integrated Natural Resources Management.”

It is impressive to view progress in Indian agriculture during the last fifty years through Swaminathan’s selected papers as he has been the central figure and the driving force which provided much impetus for this progress.


The Adoption and Diffusion of GM Crops In United States: A Real Option Approach

- Scandizzo, P.L., & Savastano, S. (2010). AgBioForum, 13(2), 142-157. Full paper at http://www.agbioforum.org/v13n2/v13n2a06-savastano.htm

The article aims at modelling adoption and diffusion decisions of farmers towards genetically modified crops under a real option framework. Modern GM crops help farmers to resolve two main sources of uncertainty: output uncertainty and input uncertainty. Those crops represent a revolutionary form of farming compared to the technology adoption studied in the literature in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The article develops a theoretical model of adoption and diffusion of new GM crops under uncertainty and irreversibility. We test our theoretical predictions using data from 2000 to 2008 of a panel dataset constructed for 13 US states involved in the production of four different GM crops.

These conclusions may appear to contradict the general perception of a delayed penetration for the GM crops, whose success seems to be retarded by lack of information, mistrust, and an exaggerated perception of risks. GM crops tend to be invasive, in that their short-term profitability is so high as compared with the investment needed, that once the hump of uncertainty is overcome, they operate a veritable takeover of agriculture. (University of Rome “Tor Vergata”)


Low-Level Presence of New GM Crops: An Issue on the Rise for Countries Where They Lack Approval

- Alexander J. Stein and Emilio Rodríguez-Cerezo. AgBioForum, 13(2), 173-182. Full paper at http://www.agbioforum.org/v13n2/v13n2a08-cerezo.htm

This study addresses a new issue in the commercialization of GM crops, namely the occurrence of traces—or “low-level presence” (LLP)—of nationally unapproved GM material in crop imports. The commercialization of GM crops is a regulated activity, and countries have different authorization procedures. Hence, new GM crops are not approved simultaneously. This “asynchronous approval” (AA), in combination with a “zero-tolerance” policy towards LLP, is of growing concern for its potential economic impact on international trade.

To forecast the future evolution of this issue, we compiled a global pipeline of GM crops that may be commercialized by 2015. This pipeline is analyzed by crop and likely LLP scenarios are discussed. While currently there are about 30 commercial GM crops with different transgenic events worldwide, it is expected that by 2015 there will be more than 120. Given that problems of LLP have already occurred with the 30 current events, these issues are likely to intensify when more events become available in more countries. (European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Institute for Prospective Technological Studies )


Benefits of Biotechnology: Scientific Assessments of Agricultural Biotechnology's Role in a Safer, Healthier World

Download at http://www.soyconnection.com/soybean_oil/benefits_of_biotechnology.php

The full report from The United Soybean Board is available in 13 languages and the abridged report is available in 11 languages. You may download high- and low-resolution formats. Examining available research, the scientific assessment demonstrates that biotechnology has the power to increase human health, environmental sustainability and the well-being of consumers and farm communities globally.

These findings include:

* Higher yielding crops developed through agricultural biotechnology can contribute toward meeting the United Nation's estimated need for a 50 percent increase in world food production by 2030.
* More nutritious crops developed through agricultural biotechnology can help consumers meet specific nutrient needs such as increasing omega-3 fatty acid consumption or reducing saturated fat consumption.
* These improved crops have been declared safe repeatedly by the world's top scientific and regulatory bodies, so consumers can feel safe eating foods with biotech-derived ingredients.
* Farmers can contribute to sustainable farm communities by earning higher incomes for biotech-derived crops.
* Better soil health, improved water retention/decreased soil erosion and decreased herbicide runoff are resulting from the use of biotechnology.
* Agricultural biotechnology is decreasing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from farming.


Study Finds Media May be Overhyping Benefits of Organic Food, Agriculture

- PhysOrg.com, July 21, 2010

News accounts of organic agriculture and organic food are more likely to be positive than negative and inaccurately claim organic food is safer, according to Kansas State University's Doug Powell. Powell, an associate professor of food safety, is the co-author of "Coverage of organic agriculture in North American newspapers: Media -- linking food safety, the environment, human health and organic agriculture," just published in the British Food Journal.

The paper is based on a study Powell conducted from 1999-2004 with two colleagues at the University of Guelph in Canada, Stacey Cahill and Katija Morley. Cahill was one of Powell's students at the time. The team explored how topics of organic food and agriculture were discussed in five North American newspapers. Using the content analysis technique, the 618 articles collected were analyzed for topic, tone and theme regarding food safety, environmental concerns and human health.

The prominent topics of the articles were genetic engineering, pesticides and organic farming, Powell said. The analysis found 41.4 percent of the articles had a neutral tone toward organic agriculture and food, 36.9 percent had a positive tone, 15.5 percent were mixed and 6.1 percent were negative, Powell said.

"We concluded that articles about organic production in the selected time period were seldom negative," he said. "Organic agriculture was often portrayed in the media as an alternative to allegedly unsafe and environmentally damaging modern agriculture practices. That means organic was being defined by what it isn't, rather than what it is."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has repeatedly stated that the organic standard is a verification of production methods and not a food safety claim, Powell said. "Food safety was the least important in the media discussion of organic agriculture," Powell said. "The finding that 50 percent of food safety-themed statements in news articles were positive with respect to organic agriculture, while 81 percent of health-themed statements and 90 percent of environment-themed statements were positive toward organic food, indicates an uncritical press."

Analysis of articles over time, among media outlets and by topic, allows for understanding of media reporting on the subject and provides insight into the way the public is influenced by news coverage of organic food and agriculture, Powell said.

The article is available at: