Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - August 5, 2010
* Biotechnology is Good for Africa
* French Anti-Biotech Protests Achieve A Glorious State of Sheer Lunacy
* EU Gene technology law: Nationalisation of the GMO cultivation decision
* When We Know So Little, Some Eco-Skepticism Is In Order
* Sharad Pawar: 'India Needs GM Crops'
Biotechnology is Good for Africa
- Michael Allen, The African Executive, August 4, 2010
Sports fans everywhere turned their attention to South Africa as my country hosted the biggest athletic event on the planet. They call it the World Cup for a reason: Teams from just about every nation compete and people from all over watch in rapt attention.
There's no way of knowing for sure how many folks tuned in but some estimates put the television audience for the championship match at more than 1 billion.So it's no exaggeration to say that South Africa is truly on the global stage.
I think we've proven that South Africa can shine. As the tournament kicked off, tourists poured in. Along with huge numbers of television viewers, they've not only cheered goals and saves but they've also learned about my country, its history, and its inhabitants.
Most of these guests and onlookers have come away with a positive impression. South Africa is a beautiful country. It's full of friendly people. Although we have our problems, we also have a lot to offer.
In one area, we are an undisputed leader: agricultural biotechnology. Farmers in South Africa have embraced GM crops. Last year, we planted more than 5 million acres of genetically enhanced corn, soybeans, and cotton. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) lists South Africa as one of 15 "biotech mega-countries." Among other African nations, only Burkina Faso shares this distinction.
My personal experience is typical. I harvest corn and soybeans on about 2,400 acres (1000 ha) in the northeastern part of South Africa, near the town of Middleburg in the province of Mpumalanga--a Zulu name that means "place of the rising sun." Mpumalanga is the home of Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in the world.
I began to research biotech crops more than two decades ago, planting strip trials for seed companies. At first, these early versions of GM corn didn't outperform conventional varieties. Yet they were easier to manage, so I started working with them. In recent years, there's been a remarkable turnaround. The yields of GM crops have beaten non-GM plants by substantial margins.
Over the last decade, my food production has doubled. We owe this to biotechnology ----- today all of my soybeans are GM and most of the corn I plant ----- and other technology innovations. I have access to the latest equipment technology and use precision farming tools such as combine yield monitors and differential fertilizer applicators that allow me to apply the appropriate fertilizer exactly where it is needed.
Many of my immediate neighbors have enjoyed similar levels of success. We're hoping to make even greater strides in the future, especially if drought-tolerant crops become available.
Unfortunately, a larger group of other neighbors--the farmers in nearby African countries--have not reaped the benefits of biotechnology. Although the experience of South Africa shows how much can be gained from using agriculture's latest tools, their governments have resisted GM crops.
Part of this reluctance owes to a simple lack of understanding. But they've also come under pressure from European governments that provide foreign aid and export markets. The EU has remained irrationally hostile to GM crops--and its hostility has blocked agricultural progress in Africa.
This is tragic. All around the world, farmers are learning how to grow more food for more people with biotechnology and other 21st-century tools. Africa, however, is different: It's the only continent where food production is in actual decline.
Things don't have to be this way. The example of South Africa proves that my fellow Africans shouldn't suffer the curse of food insecurity. By taking advantage of biotechnology and other new approaches to agriculture, farmers in my country are growing a lot more food than we did just a few years ago.
Other farmers should have the same opportunity. This is the way forward for Africa and its people. There was a time, not so long ago, when South Africa received a lot of unwelcome attention. My country was treated as an international pariah. Yet much has changed, as our hosting of the World Cup demonstrates. Today, in the areas of agriculture and biotechnology, we can be a model for Africa and the rest of the world.
Michael farms with his son in the North Eastern Part of South Africa in the Province of Mpumalanga and is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.
French Anti-Biotech Protests Achieve A Glorious State of Sheer Lunacy
- Ronald Bailey, Reason, July 28, 2010 http://reason.com/blog/2010/07/28/french-anti-biotech-protests-a
I have often marvelled at the hypocrisy of anti-biotech crop activists who ignored hundreds of crop varieties produced using the relatively crude method of chemical or radiation mutagenesis. As I pointed out back in 2007:
Anti-biotechies worry about a few genes inserted here and there in crops, but completely ignore the wholesale reshuffling of genes that takes place through mutation breeding. The New York Times is running an excellent article on mutation breeding today. The article explains that there are currently thousands of crop varieties that have been created over the past eight decades by blasting seeds and buds with gamma radiation. Breeders plant the irradiated seeds and wait to see what (if anything) comes up. If breeders find an interesting characteristic they begin the process of commercializing it. Keep in mind that no regulatory authority oversees this process of wholesale genetic mutation. And given its history of safety, there is no need for such regulation.
For a list of crop varieties produced by mutation breeding, see the FAO's Officially Released Mutant Varieties Database here.
As the New York Times reports: Though poorly known, radiation breeding has produced thousands of useful mutants and a sizable fraction of the world’s crops, Dr. [Pierre] Lagoda [the head of plant breeding and genetics at the International Atomic Energy Agency,] said, including varieties of rice, wheat, barley, pears, peas, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers, peanuts, grapefruit, sesame, bananas, cassava and sorghum. The mutant wheat is used for bread and pasta and the mutant barley for beer and fine whiskey.
Lagoda who irradiates plants to produce mutants is being somewhat disingenuous when he says, "I’m not doing anything different from what nature does." True, mutations occur in nature all of the time, but it seems somewhat doubtful that plants out in a field experience anywhere near the number of uncharacterized mutations produced in a lab by gamma rays.
But I couldn't just shut up - I had to ask: If anti-biotechies are so afraid of genetic changes in their foods, why aren't they out protesting varieties produced by means of mutation breeding?
Now French anti-biotech activists, filled with pent up antinomian fury over something or other, have now heeded my question. They are now destroying "hidden GMOs" - that is crop varieties produced by mutation breeding. French biologist Marcel Kuntz reports:
Having no GM crops or trials to destroy in France (since there are almost no GMO culture any longer in this country, apart from two small field trials), anti-GMO activists have found a new enemy: on Saturday July 24 2010 at Sorigny and St. Branchs (Indre-et-Loire, France), they vandalized plots of sunflowers they termed as « mutated » and herbicide tolerant. They are not GM, but opponents call them "hidden-GMOs" to continue to use the arguments successfully developed against GMOs and to mobilize their supporters.
What the anti-GMO activists are targeting now is mutagenesis use in plant breeding and, in particular, to produce herbicide resistance, such as those of Clearfield or Express Sun sunflower varieties (the former having actually been originally obtained by a spontaneous mutation).
Actually, the destruction at Sorigny concerned a high-oleic variety of sunflower. Oleic varieties do result from mutagenesis, and some are also used in organic farming. Therefore, if one follows the anti-GMO opponents’ rhetoric, it is ironic that organic farmers are using « hidden-GMOs »!
In requesting that "the regulation on ‘transgenic GMOs’ also applies to ‘GMOs’ obtained by mutagenesis, cell fusion or other manipulations of life", opponents who are basically radical anti-capitalists hope to achieve for the entire plant breeding industry, and consequently for all major agricultural crops, the same economic sabotage as the one which has been so successful against GMOs in Europe.
The argument is the same: « against the new seed privatization that again represents a strategy for corporate confiscation of life ». Despite being wrong, this rhetoric is highly efficient in mobilizing anti-capitalist protesters.
Similarly, claims of « unintended effects that can cause serious damage to health ... » are without factual basis, but aims to frighten consumers (who do not realize they have always eaten « mutants »...).
The stark beauty of this outbreak of lunacy will become fully refulgent when the protesters realize that hundreds of crop varieties grown by organic farmers were created using chemical and radiation mutagenesis. Eventually, the internal logic of their anti-scientific worldview must lead them to burn wheat fields because it came to be when three grasses unnaturally combined their whole genomes. And surely they will want to rip out corn plants as the misbegottn mutants of natural teosinte. Madness, I say. Complete madness!
EU Gene technology law: Nationalisation of the GMO cultivation decision: "The buck has been passed to the Member States."
In July 2010 the EU Commission introduced new guidelines for national coexistence measures. On this basis, the Member States are to have the possibility themselves to restrict or ban the cultivation of genetically modified plants to prevent accidental traces of GMO in other products. In the future such national bans will be made simpler and more comprehensive through a change in the EU release directives. GMO Safety has spoken with Prof. Dr. Hans-Georg Dederer from the Faculty of Law at the University of Passau about the manoeuvring room and limits for the Member States.
Prof. Dr. Hans-Georg Dederer (Faculty of Law at the University of Passau) has presented a report on ‘GMO-free zones and socio-economic criteria for the approval of GMOs' for the Federal Ministry for Education and Research.
National cultivation bans: On what justification?
To overcome the political blockade of the approval of genetically modified plants in the EU, the EU Commission wants to give the Member States the right to decide on a national level about the cultivation of GM-plants. Until now it has not been clear how national bans could be legally justified. Concerns about the scientific safety assessment do not come into consideration since all aspects of environmental and health protection of a GM-plant have been tested in the framework of the EU-wide approval procedure. "Cultural" or "socio-economic" criteria are often named as possible grounds for a national cultivation ban.
GMO Safety: The Commission, with the nationalisation of the GMO cultivation decision, wants to give the Member States more freedom. How is that possible?
Hans-Georg Dederer: The Commission is pursuing two tracks. On one hand, as from now, it is simply relaxing its guidelines on coexistence, which until now at best only allowed GMO-free zones in very exceptional cases. On the other, the Commission wants to introduce a new exemption clause in the release directive 2001/18/EG that should offer the Member States maximum flexibility and almost unlimited leeway for establishing GMO-free zones
GMO Safety: Isn’t the Commission contradicting itself with relaxing the coexistence guidelines? Elsewhere it defines that „Coexistence means that the farmers have a real choice between conventional, ecological or GM production systems“. With the cultivation ban they have no longer have any choice.
Hans-Georg Dederer: Indeed, the Commission has changed the coexistence guidelines in a decisive point in that it is ultimately abandoning the principle of a balance between the three lines of production – gene technological, conventional and ecological. The balance has moved at the expense of GMO cultivation. Whether this now reflects the actual meaning of "coexistence" is questionable. However, with its guidelines the Commission is only giving advice that is not legally binding on how coexistence in the sense of the release directive should look. If it came to a dispute, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) would have the last word on whether it really a matter of coexistence in terms of Directive 2001/18/EG.
GMO Safety: If the Commission’s second track was followed, then in future the cultivation of GMOs could be simple prohibited, independently from the coexistence guidelines. Even if this is not explicitly mentioned in the Commission’s proposal, socio-economical arguments will often be given as the justification. What are these?
Hans-Georg Dederer: Besides the coexistence arguments – such as freedom of choice for the farmers – these are for instance protection of small agricultural structures or certain aspects of consumer protection, where the latter for example could include consideration of ethical or religious concern about GMOs.
GMO Safety: But it appears that these arguments also face limits, since in the press release to its new proposal the Commission writes explicitly "The Member States will also have to abide by the general principles of the treaties and the European market and comply with the international obligations of the EU". What are these general principles?
Hans-Georg Dederer: The Commission cannot of course release the Member States from their EU and international obligations, be that free-trading, basic or world trade laws. Here various questions arise for if a State for instance creates a GMO-free zone, then, for example, GM-seeds will not longer be required and will therefore not enter the market. The ECJ has taken sales-inhibiting bans on utilisation or restrictions as clear infringements of the rights to free trading.
GMO Safety: Cannot such a restriction be justified?
Hans-Georg Dederer: There is doubt as environmental and health protection is already comprehensively taken into consideration in the GMO approval and the existing protective clauses. These cannot be used as a justification basis. Only certain other grounds are left, and the question is whether these are valid. The ECJ has always stressed that purely economic grounds do not justify an intervention in free trading, because these are typically protectionist. On the face of it, protecting the small concern structure of the agriculture is a purely economic reason which will certainly not bear up.
GMO Safety: What the Commission also said was that with its proposal it wanted to take into account the "concerns" of society with regards to GMOs. In what way can that then be justified?
Hans-Georg Dederer: I cannot imagine that the ECJ would allow such mere „concerns“ without further substantiation. And they can only be substantiated primarily just on health or environmental grounds, which however have already been clarified during the approval process for the GMO. Naturally social concerns can also be considered. However, there has been a ruling by the ECJ – on gene technology – in which it did not accept ethical or religious arguments for a national GM-seed ban from a Member State without more detailed sustainable grounds. Similarly, the ECJ does not accept the argument that it would cause unrest within the population. That should not prevent a Member State from consequently implementing EU law. There the ECJ is quite clear.
GMO Safety: From a legal point of view are there any grounds on which a cultivation ban can be justified?
Hans-Georg Dederer: In the end it is not just the grounds but also their importance that matters. Any grounds could be taken as legitimate, but the question is, are they sufficient to justify that measure of restriction? That means that attention also has to be paid to the commensurability. This raises the question of whether there can be a fair balance between the opposing positions. Also, how far can it be assumed that certain socio-economic grounds – provided that they are in principle legal – are not important enough to justify the restrictions. There are also other restriction possibilities that take due account of these reasons. Therefore, an undifferentiated GMO cultivation ban will fail.
GMO Safety: What other restriction possibilities do you mean?
Hans-Georg Dederer: The means to meet the coexistence or acceptance problem have to be proportionate, i.e. for the sake of coexistence everyone has to accept, for example, certain restraints: those who do not want gene technology must tolerate minor GMO traces, and the GMO farmers must apply specific measures concerning processing management, so-called Best Practices – such as coated seeds or separation areas – that all cost money. Such reciprocal restrictions create commensurability, and the ECJ will pay attention to whether a just, for all sides considerate compromise is reached. With respect to acceptance, an identification labelling or threshold value should be considered rather than a ban, as well as measures for compliance.
GMO Safety: What are the positions and rights that – so to speak on the „other“ side – have to be balanced?
Hans-Georg Dederer: There again free trading plays a role, which is also a distinct freedom on which an individual can rely. On top of that comes not only the basic rights on a national level, such as professional freedom, property freedom of farmers and seed producers, but also the freedom of consumers to be able to decide for themselves for or against specific products.
GMO Safety: What will happen now when a country declares itself to be a GMO-free zone?
Hans-Georg Dederer: That will very probably run contrary to free trading, which is laid down in the treaties on the functioning of the EU (TFEU), but also to fundamental and international trade laws. For example, if it came to a violation of the TFEU, then the Commission itself would have to introduce treat violation proceedings. The other possibility is that at the national level petitioners are found who are prepared to let the corresponding legal position be checked in the courts of the Member State concerned. The courts could present the questions concerning EU conformity laws again to the ECJ. With the planned new regulations, the buck is in the strict sense passed to the Member States, as the Commission is leaving them the organisation of the GMO bans and restrictions – and with it the full risk of European conformity law.
GMO Safety: In what cases could Member State then anyway establish GMO-free zones?
Hans-Georg Dederer: One ground could be seed production, because there the "purity" anyway has to be maintained. In this branch suitable practices are already in place, such as enclosed cultivation areas where certain seeds of crossbred plants may not be sown. Therefore it can be said that to protect the production of conventional or ecological seed defined GMO-free zones could be planned – but only always for specific GMOs! Establishing self-contained cultivation areas does not mean that all GMO are banned there, only those with which the seeds could crossbreed. However, I regard zones that prohibit every form of GMO, and that possibly extend to the whole country, as legally impossible. That is not coexistence or legally tenable, in any case not under the points of view of fundamental rights, basic freedom and world trading law, because total freedom from GMOs is not in line with the commensurability principle.
GMO Safety: Will the actual leeway of the Member States for prohibiting cultivation only be legally defined in a few years after the corresponding decisions of the ECJ?
Hans-Georg Dederer: Naturally that depends on how far-reaching the ECJ decides. The ECJ tends not so much towards decisions on basic principles, as for example the Federal Constitutional Court, but more to cases or to questions presented to it by the national courts. It can be assumed that a picture of what the ECJ holds for legitimate concerning GMO-free zones and what not will possibly only become clear after several years and many proceedings.
GMO Safety: What ever way, is it your opinion that non-scientifically based total bans founded on socio-economic or cultural grounds – as currently discussed – will not be legally tenable?
Hans-Georg Dederer: Exactly, that would be my opinion as a lawyer. The lines are drawn by fundamental rights, basic freedom and world trading laws – which each add up to a testing of the commensurability. According to this, even on the first glance, one-sided „zero-tolerance solutions“ are not proportionate.
When We Know So Little, Some Eco-Skepticism Is In Order
- R Jagannathan, Daily News and Analysis (India), August 5, 2010 http://www.dnaindia.com/
It’s good to think green. For one, it’s a pleasing colour. For another, it will help us lead better lives.
But thinking green has its costs. It has become a fad, with newspapers and TV channels devoting full pages and airtime to hector us on it. Green has, in short, become a religious belief system. If you are an environmental skeptic — as I am — they may not burn you at the stake, but that’s only because it will contribute to global warming.
To be an eco-skeptic is not the same as being opposed to ecological sensitivity. But there is a difference between having sensible laws for ensuring clean air and water and trying to legislate changes to reduce global warming. The former directly affects us. If we don’t stop emptying putrid wastes into our rivers and water sources, our children will fall sick or even die. If we don’t reduce automobile pollution, we are going to choke and fall prey to lung diseases. But if we hasten slowly on climate change, we are only going to get better solutions.
We need a two-speed ecological roadmap — a quick one for issues that directly affect us, and a slow one for problems that we can’t possibly understand right now. I can’t work up a lather over global warming. Even the eco-nuts haven’t a clue on what to do about it.
There are four fundamental points to consider before we abandon eco-skepticism on issues like the hole in the ozone layer. First, evolution, and the role technology has played in it. Homo sapiens rose to predominance primarily by defying nature and harnessing technology. The ascent of man was predicated on the belief that nature can be tamed and forced to serve human ends.
Technological progress — from the invention of stone-age tools to agriculture to space missions and nuclear fission — has surely contributed to environmental degradation, but the same technology can be used to reverse the process.
So rather than ask humans to go back to the stone age to prevent ecological damage, we need to invest in technologies that can rectify this. If greenhouse gases are causing a hole in the ozone layer, surely we can invent technologies to patch it up?
Second, the sheer growth of human population will not allow us to return to nature — however romantic the idea sounds. With a population approaching seven billion, and with significant billions teetering on the edge of poverty in Asia and Africa, the green approaches of well-to-do Scandinavians will be completely different from that of dirt-poor Indians. We cannot feed our millions without some ecological damage. The focus should be on technology-driven solutions.
Example: we can’t have another green revolution without genetically-modified (GM) seeds — howsoever risky that may be. We need fast agricultural growth in the shortest possible time, and we cannot afford to delay decisions on GM crops endlessly. We need to set up a transparent mechanism to do pilot projects, learn from them, and expand quickly once the results are acceptable. India can’t be fed through organic farming alone. Sure, GM crops may have their downside. But so does eco-farming. Millions will die before we reach anywhere near self-sufficiency on the organic food front — assuming it is at all possible.
Third, there’s the consumption economy to think about. The expansion of humankind and the modern world economy has been built on steady increases in consumption. Asking overconsumers to eat and spend less may be good advice at the individual level, but if even 10% of the world population takes this advice, the global economy will see a great depression to rival the one we saw in the 1930s.
The world can escape de-growth only by asking Africa, India and China to consume more to compensate for lower consumption by the US and Europe which account for more than half the world’s GDP. If India and China consume more, that’s more than 2.5 billion people eating more, spending more. That much consumption growth will damage the environment. Only technology — and not green abstinence — can provide an answer here in the short term.
Fourth, the real reason for eco-skepticism is that we can’t really know if the solutions proposed to reduce global warming will really work. Ecology is impacted by hundreds of things. For example, solar power is touted as an eco-friendly source.
But if we really expand solar power phenomenally, the number of solar panels used to tap the Sun’s light for conversion to heat will result in warming up the temperatures.
Meanwhile, natural phenomena contribute as much to global cooling as warming. In Super Freakonomics, economists Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner point out that the eruption of Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 released so much sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere that it absorbed water vapour and diffused the sunlight — causing visible global cooling.
Eco-skepticism is in order when we can’t know much about the systemic effects of what we do.
Sharad Pawar: 'India Needs GM Crops'
- Sanjay Jog, Reuters, August 4, 2010
What's your view on allowing use of GM (genetically modified) seeds in crops other than cotton?
The population of India is expected to reach 1.5 billion by 2025. Providing food and nutritional security to this large population will be the most important social issue. Food production will have to be doubled. Conventional technologies are inadequate to meet the formidable challenges of feeding the burgeoning population with limited land and water resources. In addition, the adverse effects of global climate change impose limitations on crop production.
The biotechnological applications in agriculture, including introduction of GM crops, are a powerful tool to meet the challenge of food and nutritional security. GM crops have the capability to contribute to productivity, if the varieties developed are pest-resistant, disease-tolerant and biotic and abiotic stress-tolerant. They could also reduce the production cost.
The government of India has been very supportive of efforts to develop transgenic crops and invested liberally (for this). A large number of transgenic crops are currently being developed and tested at various public and private institutions. The country has seen the benefits of Bt cotton, which was grown in more than 80 per cent of the cotton area in the country during 2009-10.