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July 23, 2010


Science-Phobia Killing Green Revolution; Solution to Climate Change; GM OK with Halal; Science, Communication, Aid and Diplomacy


* Will Science-Phobia Kill the Green Revolution?
* Genetically Modified Foods Could be A Solution to the Effects of Climate Change
* World Halal Forum Facilitates Meeting of Ulama and GM Scientists
* Yield Benefit and Underlying Cost of Insect-Resistance Transgenic Rice
* Drought-tolerance: A Learning Challenge for Poor Farmers
* Science, Communication, Aid and Diplomacy
* Food Politics – What Everyone Needs to Know
* An Act of Distinction - Researchers and activists alike benefit from dialogue

Will Science-Phobia Kill the Green Revolution?

- Jon Entine, Huffington Post, July 23, 2010 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-entine/will-science-phobia-kill_b_656066.html

One only has to look to the hunger crisis in Haiti to see how the debate over innovation and technology in agriculture has degenerated into a cartoon discourse.

In early May, two shipments -- 135 tons -- of hybrid varieties of corn, cabbage, carrot, eggplant, melon, onion, spinach, tomato and watermelon seeds began arriving in Haiti. It was the first installment of 60,000 seed sacks -- more than $4 million worth -- of high-yielding hybrid corn and vegetable seeds donated after months of careful negotiations with government and international agricultural experts.

To say the donations are desperately needed is an understatement. According to the UN, every year 38,000 Haitian children, one out of three, die of malnutrition, and more than half of the country's inhabitants survive on $1 per day. But to some advocacy groups in the United States and Europe, the charity was a nefarious capitalist plot.

Haitian peasant groups, with their headquarters in Brooklyn, New York and with deep ties to international NGOs, marched through Port-au-Prince, carrying "Down with GMOs and hybrid seeds" banners and threatened to burn the donated seed. It was an odd display. Genetically modified seeds are controversial but none was provided, asked for, or anticipated by the Haitian government. These were hybrid seeds, around since Gregor Mendel's time in the 1800s. There is no question that they increase yields over pollinated seeds, whether fertilizer is applied or not. What could possibly be the downside for Haitians?

Unfortunately, the world's poor are often caught in the middle of a ferocious but under-the-radar war over the future of world agriculture and the fate of the malnourished. According to the World Bank, about three-quarters of the 820 million people who live in extreme poverty depend on farming for a living. How should we as a society respond to a crisis of such malignant proportions?

The Haitian protesters, who were directed out of the Peasant Movement of Papaye headquarters in New York City offer one vision. They promote a "sustainable" solution based on organic techniques. The organization works hand-in-glove with Greenpeace, the Organic Consumers Association, and other interest groups, which stand steadfast against any technology that can jump yields.

As they see it, the donations are a Trojan horse to migrate farmers from organic agriculture -- which has been a disaster in the face of persistent drought -- to "industrial" farming techniques. Haiti's agricultural problems, they claim, are not homegrown but foreign imposed. They are the result of "US trade and aid policies that led to the destruction of Haiti's capacity to feed itself," charged the Institute for Policy Studies early in July in an open letter to Monsanto, which donated the seeds. The St. Louis-based firm, they claim, is Darth Vader, "a charter member of the industrial-agricultural complex," and the seeds represent "a very strong attack on small agriculture, on farmers, on biodiversity."

The protesters and their NGO enablers seem caught in amber, circa 1960. Beginning a half century ago, the world began reaping enormous benefits from the "Green Revolution," which focused on the targeted use of specialized chemicals, fertilizers, sophisticated irrigation, mechanization, and the use of new crop cultivars to dramatically improve yields and the nutritional content of crops. Such innovations such as atrazine, an herbicide effective in controlling yield-robbing weeds yet is gentle enough to be used on green shoots, ushered in the no-plow revolution, which reduced soil erosion and the use of carbon belching plows. The advent of agricultural biotechnology offered the opportunity to extend those gains.

The most socially attuned aid groups, including the widely respected Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has committed more than $1.5 billion to date to agricultural development, have embraced science and technology as the key to boosting productivity. "We are exploring the development of a diverse range of crops that can thrive in different soil types and resistant to drought, disease, and pests," notes the Gates Foundation. "Our partners employ a range of tools and techniques, from traditional breeding to the newest biotechnologies, in the search for solutions that will help small farmers."

The judicious use of agricultural chemicals like atrazine and glyphosate, sophisticated hybrid seeds, and biotech products are essential if we are to use all the tools available to raise yields and combat hunger. While the Western media circulated stories of the Haitian protest, the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture quietly went about the more cogent challenge of addressing its hungry citizenry. It applauded the "generous donation" of the vegetable and maize seeds, which "have been tested in Haiti previously and are well accepted by the farmers." The scare campaign may yet throw a wrench into the aid project, but for now at least, science has prevailed.

Of course this is only the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle. "This global effort to help small farmers is endangered by an ideological wedge that threatens to split the movement [to address world hunger] in two," Bill Gates declared at a speech for the presentation of the World Food Prize, last fall. Innovation critics, he said, are presenting us with a "false choice" between a "technological" approach geared to boosting productivity and a so-called "environmental" one focused on sustainability. "We can have both."

There is no zero sum trade-off between technology, productivity and sustainability. The world's poor do not have the luxury to play the ideological games that dominate Western politics. To consign the malnourished to lives of hunger to satisfy romantic notions of agriculture is the worst kind of imperialism.

Jon Entine, a columnist for Ethical Corporation magazine and CEO of ESG MediaMetrics, a sustainability consultancy, is the author/editor of "Crop Chemophobia: Will Precaution Kill the Green Revolution", to be published this November by AEI Press



Genetically Modified Foods Could be A Solution to the Effects of Climate Change

- Jack Lundee, Biofortified, July 22, 2010 http://www.biofortified.org/2010/07/genetically-modified-foods-could-be-a-solution-to-the-effects-of-climate-change/

Earth is a sustainable planet that produces life, shelter, and sustenance to billions of its inhabitants, but the climate of this planet is changing and with that we must also change. To continue to reap the benefits of the planet’s nourishment we must figure out ways and solutions to produce food that is capable of braving the storm of climate change. Many solutions have presented themselves, but one stands out in front of the others as a potential fix to the food affected by climate change issue. That solution would be crops that are genetically modified.

Genetically modified foods or crops are plants created using the latest technology in microbiology and agricultural science. Much in the same way that certain animals are bred to carry on specific characteristics, genetically modified foods and crops are created to enhance certain traits that make them modified to certain areas, constructs, and situations. For example, many advantages of genetically modified food is that they can be made to be pest resistant, herbicide tolerant, disease resistant, extra nutritious, and most importantly can stand up to effects caused from climate change. This is pertinent to the global warming discussion because by creating crops that can protect Mother Nature from Mother Nature we can operate, produce, and consume food that can outlast any change in climate.

Since 1996, there has been a rapid growth in genetically engineered crops in the United States (with some crops like soybeans growing going from under 10 percent of acres used to over 90 in a 12 year span). This growth can be connected to organizations and companies investing in genetically modified crops as the future of food production and consumption. For example, US biotech companies like Monsanto have begun testing water efficient and drought tolerant engineered crops that can survive and continue to be produced in case of drought or flood cause from climate change. Even humanitarian organizations like the Clinton Global Initiative, organized by close personal aide to Former President Clinton, Doug Band, are working with agricultural research centers like the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to produce flood resistant rice crops that will help protect small rice producing villages that are effected by climate change produced flooding.

Sure, genetically modified foods do have their detractors who argue that the chemically altered food isn’t safe and hurts biodiversity, but the positives outweigh the negatives. Genetically modified foods are a clear solution to the effects of climate change and can help keep food production steady in an unsteady climate.
Jack Lundee is a follower of all things green and progressive. With a degree in creative writing, and a strong involvement in the green blogosphere, Jack has been producing and editing his own content concerning things like climate change, carbon emissions, green infrastructure, green space, eco-consciousness, and so on and so forth.


World Halal Forum Facilitates Meeting of Ulama and GM Scientists

- Crop Biotech Update, July 23, 2010 http://www.isaaa.org/kc/

The recently concluded World Halal Forum 2010 (WHF) http://www.worldhalalforum.org/ in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia had a half-day session on "Genetically Modified Crops and Halal" which brought ulama and GM scientists together to discuss the permissibility of GM foods in the context of Islam. This issue commands serious attention as Islam places much importance to the way food is prepared and its origin. The session was attended by a number of prominent scientists, shariah experts from around the world, and members of the academe. The topics discussed were GM technology, its impact, the global status, benefits to developing countries, safety issues, and Islam's perspective of GM technology.

After much deliberation, the experts and participants concluded that GM crops and products from halal origin that have undergone food and environmental safety tests are acceptable in the Islamic world as halal, there is need to strengthen awareness on biotechnology to enable decision-making, and the involvement of ulama in discussions related to biotechnology should be enhanced.


Yield Benefit and Underlying Cost of Insect-Resistance Transgenic Rice: Implication in Breeding and Deploying Transgenic Crops

- Hui Xiaa et al., Field Crops Research, v.118, Issue 3, September 10, 2010, Pages 215-220

The rapid development of transgenic biotechnology has greatly promoted the commercialization of genetically modified (GM) crops including the insect-resistant crops worldwide. Apart from the enormous yield benefits brought by the GM crops, the cryptic fitness cost associated with transgenes has also been detected under experimental conditions although it is considered to be rare.

To estimate the yield benefit and cost of insect-resistant GM rice, we studied field performances of three insect-resistant GM rice lines, involving their non-GM parental variety as comparison. Great benefits as estimated by the yield-related traits were observed in the GM rice lines when high insect pressure was recorded, but a cryptic yield loss was detected when the level of insect pressure was extremely low. Given the fact that cryptic yield loss presented in the GM rice lines under the low insect pressure, a strategic field deployment should be required when insect-resistant GM rice are commercialized to circumvent the unnecessary yield losses. This is probably true for other insect-resistant GM crops. Effective biotechnology and breeding measures are also needed to particularly minimize the potential underlying cost of an insect-resistance transgene before commercial production of the GM crops.

Full paper at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T6M-50F45Y2-1&_user=496259&_coverDate=09%2F10%2F2010&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000024178&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=496259&md5=36d70ebe0dde6ea61b1cabaa82d48f41


Drought-tolerance: A Learning Challenge for Poor Farmers

- Travis Lybbert, Scidev.net, July 14, 2010 http://www.scidev.net/en/opinions/drought-tolerance-a-learning-challenge-for-poor-farmers.html

'Drought-tolerant crops could improve food security — if researchers take downstream adoption challenges seriously, says Travis Lybbert.'

Few aims have attracted as much attention and investment from private, public, academic and philanthropic sectors in recent years as drought tolerance (DT) in agriculture. In the past decade, more than US$1 billion has been spent on DT research and investment shows no signs of letting up.

With climate change, growing water insecurity and renewed concerns about food security in the wake of recent price spikes, the potential welfare gains from effective DT crops are enormous. In rainfed regions of Australia and North America, investments in DT are expected to bring large private profits. Among the poor in developing dryland areas, gains from DT could make the difference between survival and starvation. During a drought, DT could limit catastrophic losses and help households recover more quickly.

Many proponents argue that adopting DT varieties may also allow poor farmers to become more entrepreneurial and diversify their livelihoods. All these prospective DT benefits not only hinge on transferring lab results to farmers' fields, but also on farmers being able to see these benefits for themselves — which may be particularly tricky for smallholder farmers.

Tough to test
Public institutes and private firms release DT varieties only after they have proven themselves in experimental trials. Even in very controlled settings, breeders struggle to stress their test varieties with the right amount of drought at the right time, but the difficulties don't end there.

A breeder may be satisfied that a DT variety outperforms conventional crops, but poor farmers in difficult growing conditions will, rightly, insist on comparing varieties themselves. Yet smallholder farmers — who typically face poor soils, erratic weather, and limited or no access to irrigation and other inputs — often lack the control over conditions required to perceive subtle differences between competing varieties.

This is precisely why private firms often can't afford to target smallholders as their clientele: this 'background noise' can make it tough for them to see the difference between a new variety and an old one.

Traits that confer truly dramatic benefits can outcompete this background noise. Bt cotton, for example, has been rapidly adopted by poor farmers in India because its benefits are almost impossible to miss (even with counterfeit Bt seeds in circulation). This is particularly true in extreme cases — indeed, the higher the bollworm pressure the more exaggerated the relative performance of Bt cotton.

In contrast, the relative benefits of DT peak in just the right drought conditions, then quickly fade with increasing drought pressure. These benefits are also much less uniform and observable as they depend on microclimates, rainfall timing, and soil topography and composition.

Accelerating adoption
In a recent paper, we modelled the differences between farmers' decisions to adopt Bt and DT. Our model predicts that the diffusion of DT will be four times slower than Bt crops. [1]

The model also shows that vulnerable farmers — the professed target clientele of many public or public–private DT research efforts — take four times longer to reach 90 per cent diffusion than their less vulnerable peers. This is because the vulnerable farmers are highly sensitive to extreme drought. DT crops do not fare well in extreme drought: when the rains fail and households are really suffering from the broader impacts of drought, DT yields may also fail to deliver.

Furthermore, although DT research is often motivated by impending climate change, the more frequent extreme events predicted by most climate models may actually slow DT adoption. These learning complications are surmountable, but downstream challenges must be taken seriously.

Bundling DT with other improvements that offer unconditional benefits, such as early maturation, could speed adoption. A functional agro-services sector and regulatory environment could also alleviate some of the learning problems by improving the flow of information to farmers through effective extension, variety labelling and certification.

And pricing will be key. DT diffusion is likely to be especially sluggish among vulnerable farmers if they have to pay a premium for DT seeds, highlighting the importance of royalty-free, humanitarian uses of intellectual property in existing and future public–private partnerships.

DT certainly has the potential to help poor rural households cope with and recover from drought but developing effective DT traits in laboratories and test plots is only part of the solution.

To clear the path to widespread adoption among poor farmers, we must take seriously the quandary of a smallholder farmer in drought-prone Africa trying to figure out whether his neighbour's DT maize really did better than his own.
Travis J. Lybbert is assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at University California, Davis in the United States.

[1] Lybbert, T.J. and Bell, A. Stochastic Benefit Streams, Learning and Technology Diffusion: Why Drought Tolerance is not the new Bt. AgBioForum 13(1) (2010)


Science, Communication, Aid and Diplomacy

- David Dickson, July 16, 2010 http://www.scidev.net

'Negotiations must be informed, not driven, by science. Helping developing countries communicate and use science is essential to international aid and diplomacy.'

The biggest single factor limiting developing countries' potential for achieving sustainable economic growth — or even attaining the Millennium Development Goals — is their ability to access and apply the fruits of modern science and technology.

This statement is more complex than it sounds. There are, for example, many political and economic obstacles to accessing science and technology. And even if access is granted, using science and technology effectively and adapting knowledge to local conditions remains challenging.

But it usefully distils one concept. We need to put capacity building that helps developing countries use science and technology at the heart of both international aid policies and broader diplomatic initiatives.

It also highlights the importance of effective science communication — crucial for bridging the gap between producing new knowledge and turning that knowledge into either practice or policy, thus significantly increasing the returns from initial investments in research.

Rising role for science

Fortunately, science communication as a development strategy is slowly making its way up the political agenda, in developed and developing countries alike.

An increasing number of aid agencies and charitable foundations, for example, now sponsor projects and programmes in this field. They include the aid agencies of Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom — each of which support SciDev.Net and other organisations such as the World Federation of Science Journalists.

It is difficult to directly demonstrate how these organisations help explicit development goals. Measurable achievements, such as lower child mortality rates or increased food production, have many contributing factors.

But it seems highly unlikely that the increasing attention decision makers have paid to science over the past decade is unrelated to the rise of 'science communication for development' initiatives, and the growing commitment to science communication within developing countries themselves.

A more plausible explanation is that those communication initiatives have helped foster recognition, in both political circles and the wider community, that policy decisions must draw on scientific evidence in fields ranging from food security to climate change.

The lure of science diplomacy
Rising interest in 'science diplomacy' — a broad term used to cover a variety of ways in which scientific and diplomatic endeavours can overlap — has encouraged this. The US administration, for example, is actively promoting science diplomacy as a central component of its strategy for forging links with Muslim countries, such as Indonesia.

This approach has its limits. As became clear at a recent meeting at Wilton Park in the United Kingdom, putting too much trust either in science to drive diplomatic negotiations — for example, over climate change — or in discussions between scientists as a substitute for such negotiations, risks over-stating the status of science.

Yet there is a role for robust scientific evidence to inform policy decisions at all levels, from community politics up to international diplomatic negotiations. The more solid the reasoning behind such decisions, the more likely they are to achieve their desired objective.

Crucial alliance
And that again underlines the importance of science communication. The key word here is 'inform'. Informing policy decisions means ensuring that all stakeholders have access to relevant scientific information, in a form they can easily understand — in other words, to well-communicated science.

Good science communication is not a public relations exercise. Its purpose is not — or shouldn't be — to boost the profile of those who do, or pay for, the research.

Rather, it should put scientific knowledge into the hands of those who can use it, (including, in areas such as nuclear weapons or genetically modified crops, regulators who ensure that the science involved is used responsibly). And, by doing so, ensure the money spent on generating research secures greater 'bang for the buck'.

Seen from this angle, science, communication and diplomacy can form an important alliance, particularly in the context of development aid. Putting this alliance into effect is not easy. But it is essential if the goals of sustainable economic growth and social development are to be achieved across the developing world.

Watch a video report on a discussion meeting on 'Science communication for development', organised by SciDev.Net and held at the Commonwealth Foundation in London earlier this year. at http://vimeo.com/12753201


Food Politics – What Everyone Needs to Know - by Robert Paarlberg, pp. 218 (Oxford Press, 2010).

- Reviewed by Prof. Drew L. Kershen, Earl Sneed Centennial Professor of Law; University of Oklahoma; dkershen-at-ou.edu

Food Politics – What Everyone Needs to Know is focused, as the name states, on food politics which means a heavy dose of discussion of agriculture, agricultural development, food safety, food marketing, agribusiness, etc. One chapter has the title “Organic and Local Food;” another chapter, “Food Safety and Genetically Engineered Food.” Each chapter contains questions about the chapter topic and a discussion (answer) to the questions.

The book is clearly written, moderate and thoughtful in tone, accurate and careful in its data and arguments. The book shows clearly the breadth of Rob’s knowledge and the depth of Rob’s insights about food politics, The book is excellent in providing information and perspective about many contentious issues. Readers will learn a great deal from Rob’s calm, thoughtful, worthwhile questions and answers.

The book also reads very easily and presents its questions and answers in language that can be understood by all without being condescending. I enjoyed reading the book and I highly recommend it to others.


An Act of Distinction

- Editorial, Nature v.466, p 414, July 22, 2010

'Researchers and activists alike benefit from dialogue — and a clear line between legal and illegal acts.'

When prosecutors in California charged four animal-rights activists with violations of the 2008 federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) last year, they were vague about the actions involved — which is why the indictment was dismissed on 12 July. The act criminalizes “a course of conduct involving threats, acts of vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment, or intimidation” if it places individuals who work with animals, or their families, in fear for their lives or safety. Federal judge Ronald Whyte of the Northern California district court in San Jose said that prosecutors had not explained what the activists had done to cross a line.

The prosecutors have the option to re-indict if they can be more explicit. But a lawyer for the activists suggests that the prosecutors' vagueness on that first round was intentional: the specific actions, when set down in an indictment, might look suspiciously like 'speech' protected by the first amendment to the US constitution.

According to police reports, that speech allegedly involved shouting epithets at researchers on university campuses throughout California's San Francisco Bay Area — “Vivisectors go to hell!” and “You're a murderer!” being among the milder examples — writing slogans on the pavements outside researcher's homes; wearing masks; and banging on doors.

Whatever one thinks about such behaviour, the US constitution does protect even offensive free speech. Lawyers, ethicists and the research community should look critically at the AETA. Does it make the line between protest and crime clearer or blurrier? Is it even necessary?

There is a case to be made that it is not. Animal-rights activists causing trouble for researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have been successfully dealt with using court injunctions and existing anti-stalking laws, for example.

But there are also arguments to be made in the AETA's favour. According to Colin Blakemore, a University of Oxford neuroscientist with extensive and sometimes painful experience of the issues, similar laws enacted in the United Kingdom have been instrumental in raising awareness among police and prosecutors about the activists' gruelling organized campaigns. And when enforcement against activists was tightened, the result was a general relaxation among researchers and a boom in communication and openness.

Whatever the merits of the AETA, having a clear distinction between legitimate and illegitimate tactics is in everyone's best interest. Activists who want to protest legally need to know what is allowed, and researchers who wish to engage with legitimate animal-rights activists need to be able to recognize who they are.

Not every researcher believes that such engagement is worth pursuing, arguing that the minds of hard-core activists are already firmly made up. But engaging in dialogue with more moderate animal-rights groups — particularly young people who might otherwise, in the future, become further radicalized — can be mutually beneficial, demonstrating to everyone that the opposing side are not monsters.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, where cars have been set alight, homes flooded and razor blades sent in the post, the US branch of the animal-research defence group Pro-Test and the campus animal-rights club Bruins for Animals put together a panel on animal-research ethics in February. The event culminated in a joint statement condemning harassment and intimidation that had been directed at those who participated in the panel.

Such steps are to be applauded. When researchers and non-violent animal rights advocates air their differences by communicating with one another, the result can be more than just a feel-good exercise. If labs communicate, animal lovers can be convinced that not all research involving animals is torture. And if activists persuade rather than frighten, researchers can be motivated to rethink experimental design and reduce their reliance on animals.