Today in AgBioView, August 17, 2010
* Food Firms Jarred by Sugar-Beet Restriction
* French officials condemn activists' alleged vine destruction
* GM crops: The EC allows politics to trump science
* Tanzania to Grow Genetically Modified Cotton, Triple Output
* Kenya tests GM cotton for production
* Government rejects call to stop Bt eggplant field testing
* European Food Safety Authority Delivers New Scientific Opinion on Assessing the Possible Allergenicity of GMOs
* Updated AgBiotech Bookshelf
* The Virtues of Slow, Natural, Organic Food – A Myth? (Culinary Luddites)
* Rosamond Naylor on Feeding the World
Food Firms Jarred by Sugar-Beet Restriction
- SCOTT KILMAN, Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2010 <http://online.wsj.com/>http://online.wsj.com/
A federal judge's decision Friday to undo the government's five-year-old approval of genetically modified sugar beets, from which roughly half of U.S. sugar is derived, won't disrupt supplies for at least a year, but could pose headaches for food companies after that.
The order by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. Whitewho had concluded in September 2009 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture hadn't lived up to its obligation to fully consider whether the weedkiller-tolerant sugar beets might harm the environment effectively blocks farmers from planting the seed next spring, but leaves alone the crop already in the ground, which can be harvested this fall, processed and sold as sugar. "In the short term, at least, we're aren't going to see any disruption in the marketing of this year's crop," said Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugar beet Growers Association, a Washington, D.C., trade group.
However food companies that depend on a steady supply of U.S. sugar face uncertainty over where they will source their sugar beets after next year. It is far from clear how soon U.S. sugar-beet farmers can return to planting the seeds, which are genetically modified the same way as the vast majority of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the U.S. The plants are genetically modified with Monsanto Co. genes that give them immunity to glyphosate-based herbicide, which the St. Louis biotechnology company sells as Roundup weedkiller.
The Roundup-resistant trait is popular with many farmers it is present in 95% of the sugar-beet plants grown in the U.S.because it enables them to chemically weed their fields without harming their crops, saving time and the expense of mechanical cultivation. Monsanto licenses several sugar-beet seed companies to use its herbicide-tolerance gene in their breeding programs. The business isn't big enough to be material to the company's financial results.
The lawsuit against the USDA was filed by activist groups including the Center for Food Safety and the Sierra Club, among others. Biotechnology critics worry that the transplanted gene could spread to conventional sugar-beet plants through cross-pollination, and that the herbicide-tolerance trait permits a heavy enough use of Roundup to spur the evolution of weeds that can survive glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weedkiller.
Glyphosate-tolerant weeds are already appearing in southeast U.S. farm fields where farmers have long grown Roundup-tolerant cotton and soybeans. Sugar-beet industry officials say it would be difficult for U.S. farmers to quickly switch back to non-genetically modified seed. Some farmers have already sold off their cultivation equipment which kills weeds by digging into the dirt and it isn't clear how much conventional seed is available anymore.
Genetically modified sugar-beet seed won't be legal to plant again until the Agriculture Department repeats its regulatory review process. Sugar-industry officials widely expect the USDA's biotechnology regulator swho are charged with protecting U.S. agriculture from plant pests to come to the same conclusion and eventually re-clear the seed for planting. But getting there again will include the time-consuming process of writing the environmental-impact statement ordered by Judge White, who sits in San Francisco.
The draft environmental-impact statement that the USDA published in December on Roundup tolerant alfalfa, for example, ran to about 1,500 pages. The USDA has estimated that completing an environmental-impact statement on Roundup-tolerant sugar beets could easily take until April 2012.
Sugar-industry officials say they believe the USDA has the authority to implement interim measures to permit some planting of the genetically modified sugar beets. A USDA spokesman said the agency was "reviewing the judge's order in order to determine appropriate next steps."
French officials condemn activists' alleged vine destruction
- Pat Thompson, CNN, August 16, 2010 <http://www.cnn.com>http://www.cnn.com
Paris, France - The head of a government laboratory studying genetically modified plants said Monday that activists caused major damage during their weekend attack on a research facility in eastern France.
Before dawn Sunday, about 70 masked activists associated with the European protest movement Faucheurs Volontaires -- or Voluntary Reapers -- pulled 70 experimental grape vines by their roots and chopped them to pieces, said Jean Masson, president of the National Agricultural Research Institute, or INRA, in eastern France.
He estimated the total damage at 1 million euros ($1.28 million). Police detained about 60 people, questioned them and then released them pending charges. The vines were part of a transgenic experiment to develop disease-resistant plants at the INRA research station and had been attacked once before by a lone activist.
In a communique, the Faucheurs Volontaires said the grape vines were "neutralized" because "this experimental field was a first step toward imposing this type of agriculture, which is currently forbidden." The communique was referring to the experimental development of genetically modified organisms.
The group, which has branches throughout France and Germany, has destroyed genetically modified corn in many regions. Masson told CNN the vines were growing in soil that contains the disease they were studying and therefore cannot be used to plant new root stocks. He said he hopes the attackers will be taken to court as soon as possible.
Masson said the vines would not have been sold and the government-supported institute is "based on pure research." The attack was condemned by the ministers of Ecology, Research and Agriculture who said in a joint communique that they were "shocked by this act of scandalous degradation."
The French Farm Federation also condemned the destruction of the vines as a blow to French public-sector research and particularly to high-level genetic research. The federation noted that French vineyards are concerned over the deadly plant virus called court-noue, which INRA was researching and for which there is no known remedy.
GM crops: The EC allows politics to trump science
- Eoin Lettice, The Guardian (UK), August 17, 2010 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2010/aug/17/genetically-modified-crops-ec-eu>http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2010/aug/17/genetically-modified-crops-ec-eu
'A decision to allow member states to go their own way on genetically modified crops is a failure both to science and to the EU's principles'
The recent decision by the European commission to give its member states the power to ban genetically modified crops on a state-by-state and crop-by-crop basis means that the EC has failed science and failed itself.
The EC plan announced in July is to give individual member states the freedom to "allow, restrict, or ban" the commercial cultivation of GM crops in their jurisdictions. The EU will still need to authorise the growth of these crops as it always has, however now individual member states can ban production even if the EU says they are safe to grow and consume.
On the one hand, the EC is putting its faith in what it calls its own "science-based GM authorisation system", and on the other, saying member states can ignore the science and plough on regardless with anti-GM bans.
With one decision, the EC has cast doubt on its own authorisation system; has refused to back the overwhelming scientific evidence and has handed an own-goal to those who would ban GM crops without any research into their potential benefits, or indeed problems.
Undoubtedly, the GM authorisation system in painstakingly slow. Take for instance the eventual go-ahead received by German chemical company BASF for the production of its Amflora potato variety. With altered starch-producing properties which makes it easier to extract the starch for industrial uses, the company spent 13 years guiding it through the European testing and authorisation procedures.
However, despite the system being slow, there can be little doubt that it is very thorough and very conservative in its decision making. Some GM opponents will, of course, question the result, but there can be few among them who can claim the process is not thorough enough.
With this EC decision, the "science-based authorisation system" remains intact but will now be just the first stage in the authorisation process. Once a thorough scientific investigation has been carried out at EU level, GM crop producers will face a new challenge: that of a heterogenous mix of member states with a range of views on GMOs.
The obstacles at member-state level cannot be science-based: the science will have been tested at EU level and found to be sound (or it would not have reached the member states). The obstacles at member-state level will be political, social and opinion-based.
In announcing the change of course, the Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner, John Dalli, confirmed that this decision had nothing to do with science: "Granting genuine freedom on grounds other than those based on a scientific assessment of health and environmental risks also necessitates a change to the current legislation. I stress that, the EU-wide authorisation system, based on solid science, remains fully in place."
In Ireland, for example, the Green party is now a minority partner in the government and holds considerable sway in its decision making. Good news for the environment perhaps, but the party has secured a promise to declare Ireland a "GM-free zone". Trevor Sargent, Ireland's Green party's spokesman on agriculture, fisheries and food, says the proposals from Europe "facilitate" the delivery of the GM-free zone but he notes: "GM plants do not respect borders and countries like Ireland who are choosing to opt for a GM-free strategy must be facilitated to do so."
Quite how any country could be facilitated in this way is unclear. News from the US last week tells us that GM canola is capable of spreading over large distances, so it raises the question of what would happen if two EU member states sharing a land border were to take opposite views on a particular GM crop.
In addition to a failure to stand up for science, the EC decision appears to be at odds with one of the key goals of the European Union – that of being a free market without border controls between its member states. The proposed amendments to GM policy will lead to a segregation policy with pro-GM and anti-GM states taking sides.
As John Dalli said, the authorisation system based on solid science "remains fully in place". It's just a pity that the EC won't stand up for the results of that system, preferring instead to pass the buck to national governments who will be permitted to ban GM crops with zero science to back up their decision. ----
Eoin Lettice is a lecturer in the School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences at University College Cork, Ireland. He also writes the Communicate Science blog where the original version of this article appears
Tanzania to Grow Genetically Modified Cotton, Triple Output, Board Says
- Fred Ojambo, Bloomberg, Aug 16, 2010
Tanzania will start growing genetically modified cotton and offer credit to farmers to almost triple the country’s output, the Tanzania Cotton Board said.
The legal framework to grow the genetically modified cotton strain, or BT, had been set up and trials would start “any time,” Marco Mtunga, a regulation officer at the Dar es Salaam- based board, said by e-mail today. Lint cotton output may rise to 260,000 metric tons in 2014-15 from an expected 90,000 tons this season through improved productivity, by extending credit to farmers and introducing contract farming.
“The timeline for introduction of BT has not been charted but the legal framework is in place,” he said. “Results from the pilot indicates that productivity will go up as farmers will receive inputs on credit, reliable extension services will be provided in collaboration of the private sector and the government.”
Cotton production is seen steady in the season that ends in March after falling from 123,000 in 2008-09 due to lower prices. Tanzania is Africa’s fifth-largest lint-cotton producer by volume, after Egypt, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Benin, according to 2007 statistics on the website of the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Mtunga said commercial banks had agreed to offer loans for contract farming, and the government was finalizing plans to set up an agricultural bank.
As many as 500,000 Tanzanian farmers cultivate about 485,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of cotton in the country’s northern, coastal and western regions, according to the board. The country grows the medium fiber variety of the crop.
BT cotton is a genetically modified strain that produces toxins lethal to bollworms, a serious threat to crops.
Kenya tests GM cotton for production
- Rosalia Opondo, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, Aug 14, 2010 <http://www.kbc.co.ke/>http://www.kbc.co.ke/
The National Biosafety Authority (NBA) enacted in February 2009 is expected to provide legal framework to allow the safe cultivation of genetically modified crops in the country. Confined field trials currently underway, will by the end of the year determine whether genetically engineered cotton can be adopted commercially in Kenya.
Genetic modification of food involves insertion of genes from one crop to another in order to transfer certain desired aspects. Such aspects include ability to withstand harsh conditions, fast maturity and resistance to disease. In Kenya three genetically modified crops including pest resistant cotton or BT cotton, BT maize and cassava were identified for trials in confined areas.
At Ahiti in Mwea, Kirinyaga district, genetically modified cotton from the US is being tested. The crop is surrounded by rows of conventional or ordinary cotton, which serves as a sink to trap any impurities or pollen from the modified cotton. After the cotton being tested matures, some of it is buried in the soil to test its effect on soil organisms with the results of the risk assessment expected in December.
Results of investigations into GM food will inform decision by the National Biosafety Authority on what biotechnology products to allow in the country. The tests are on all biotechnology products, and not just those that are genetically modified.
At the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, green houses have been established to enable experiments in controlled environment. Access to the laboratories is restricted, and screening is mandatory, to lock out impurities. Inside the green house, genetically modified cotton is growing in the controlled area, and results from the scientists will establish whether it will eventually be acceptable for growing in Kenya.
The facility is known as a biosafety level 2 green house and allows low risk materials. There are four levels, with level four reserved for materials that may pose high risk to the environment. This facility, the first in Kenya, is one of the projects initiated by Bio safe train, a program whose mandate is to build capacity and infrastructure in biosafety.. The advanced green house, established at a cost of 3 million shillings is part of infrastructural requirements in the sensitive experiments involving biotechnology. GMOs have been a hot subject mainly because of misinformation that was put out in the public domain.
Should all conditions be found satisfactory, then the field trials will move to the commercialization stage, meaning farmers will be allowed to grow GM cotton on their farms. This would put Kenya in the same rank with other countries such as Burkina Faso which have embraced commercialization of cotton.
Local cotton is prone to African ball worm, which greatly reduces yields while herbicides for spraying are ineffective as they kill non-targeted insects. Local cotton also takes 6 months to mature, unlike BT cotton, which takes 7 months. the National Biosafety Authority was launched in a bid to conduct business in the area of biotechnology in a transparent manner with its work enforceable by the Biosafety Law.
Besides training of personnel to handle the transition, stakeholders in the industry have also put in place infrastructure, to ensure that Genetically Modified Foods will pass the test of safety to both human beings and environment.
Government rejects call to stop Bt eggplant field testing
- Ramon Efren R. Lazaro, Business Mirror (Phillipines), August 16, 2010 <http://businessmirror.com.ph/>http://businessmirror.com.ph/
EXPERTS in biotechnology thumb down calls for the Department of Agriculture (DA) to halt all ongoing field tests on Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) eggplant in six sites nationwide. Southeast Asian Research Institute on Community Empowerment (Searice), since August 7, has circulated a petition calling for a total stop to the field tests, arguing that Bt eggplant has substances suspected of causing ailments of the stomach, liver and other internal organs.
Scientists say Bt eggplant is resistant to fruit and shoot borer that destroy the plant and fruit, adversely affecting the harvest of farmers. Experts earlier told the BusinessMirror that with the current non genetically modified eggplant, Filipino farmers lose 50 percent of the harvest to borer infestation. To prevent infestation, farmers spray insecticides to the crops up to 72 times or every other day per season of three to five months, making the cost of spraying amount to 24 percent of the production cost.
Being free from borer infestation, it would increase the income of the farmers by 200 percent, or P50,000 additional income per hectare of production, thus reducing poverty among farmers. Eggplant is a very important crop in the country because it is now the No. 1 vegetable in volume production in the country, outranking tomato. It has high nutritional value because it has energy, carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber, fat, protein, and vitamins and minerals.
The experts, in a press release issued by Biolife News Service, criticized the petition, saying it is tantamount to some form of pressure to stop an essential scientific study. They added that calling for a stop of the multilocation trials and revocation of all permits until all scientific issues are resolved by independent scientists is an unscientific demand.
The experts said documents Bt field trials show it is public project and the trials are an essential research and development [R&D] activity. These trials are being undertaken precisely to generate the scientific information that are required for proper technology assessment and safety evaluation before a product is potentially commercialized, they added. By appealing for the entire enterprise to be scrapped, Searice essentially demanded an end to the inquiry, leaving the so-called scientific issues unresolved, to the detriment of project beneficiaries.
The experts stressed that a far more extensive response to the Searice petition is being prepared to demolish the arguments presented against Bt eggplant. Eggplant is the vegetable of choice by many Filipinos, Asians and even people in the Middle East and Africa. The trials are undertaken under the most rigorous and strictest prescribed procedures and protocols, and the long and extensive track record of the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry [DA-BPI] in this regard since 2002 and 2003 is beyond doubt, the biotechnology experts added.
They also put to task the supposed independent body that would assess the project. Who or where are the so-called independent scientists who can assess and make informed decisions about the technology without the knowledge and information coming from the specific studies and experiments that need to be done? they asked. The experts are vouching for the independence and competence of regulators of agricultural biotechnology products in the country and are challenging the critics to prove their case that regulatory agencies favor Bt eggplant and would allow its commercialization without proof that it is safe, healthy and a viable product in the longrun.
The DA also said all information regarding the Bt eggplant project are available subject to existing policies and guidelines of the technology developers/proponents and the regulators.
The experts said Searice wants broad and inclusive national and local consultation processes but noted that a clearer definition of broad and inclusive will he helpful, especially if an implied definition of broad and inclusive means ensuring that those who are philosophically and politically strongly opposed to biotechnology, whose main agenda is to stop agricultural biotechnology in the country are included.
They added: The current guidelines already prescribe information and consultation activities attendant to and proportionate to the need at the various stages of the research and development process, and are complied with.
In addressing allegations about biopiracy surrounding the use of Dumaguete Long Purple and Mara varieties in the project, the experts said: The National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory, the Institute of Plant Breeding of the Crop Science Cluster of UP Los Baos, the University of the Philippines Los Baos and the DA, through the BPI, are committed to and are the vanguard of the protection, conservation and sustainable use of the Philippines crop genetic resources. Allegations of biopiracy involving eggplant varieties used in the project, they stressed, should be backed by evidence or end up merely as a fishing expedition.
European Food Safety Authority Delivers New Scientific Opinion on Assessing the Possible Allergenicity of GMOs
EFSAs Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Panel has adopted a scientific opinion on strategies for assessing the risk of allergenicity of GM plants and microorganisms and derived food and feed. This opinion is part of EFSAs ongoing effort to ensure that its risk assessment always reflects the latest scientific developments and addresses the widest range of potential concerns. Recommendations in the opinion are provided to update and complement EFSAs allergenicity assessment of GM plants and microorganisms and derived food and feed.
The final opinion takes into consideration a total of 181 comments, received during a 10-week public consultation, from 17 interested parties including: national assessment bodies, non-governmental organisations, business associations and universities, as well as individuals. Comments mostly addressed the issue of how to implement the general approach for assessing the allergenicity of GMOs, as well as how to interpret the results of the methods discussed in the opinion. Some comments also covered more technical aspects and are addressed in a series of specific annexes to the opinion.
GM food and feed could contain quantities of new or existing proteins which might cause food allergies in people and animals. EU legislation therefore requires that the allergenicity of GMOs and food and feed derived from GMOs be assessed before they can be placed on the market.
EFSAs GMO Panel initiated this work in order to review and update current methodologies used to assess the allergenic potential of GM plants and microorganisms. In its opinion, the Panel concludes that, as there is no single test to assess the allergenicity of a GM food or feed, a case-by-case evaluation based on a weight-of-evidence approach is the most appropriate way to do this.
In the opinion, the Panel describes how to analyse the sequence of the proteins in order to identify possible similarities with known allergens; how to test the potential of the proteins to bind with specific antibodies (suggesting they could trigger an allergic reaction); and how to assess the breakdown of the protein during digestion. In addition to assessing the new protein, the Panel recommends that for crops known to be allergenic, the whole GM plant is tested for allergenicity.
Updated AgBiotech Bookshelf
- Andrew Apel, AgBioView, August 17, 2010
The AgBiotech Bookshelf was published a couple of years ago:
Since then, a number of good books were published:
Biotechnology in Development: Experiences from the South", by Guido Ruivenkamp. Available at
White Book: genetically modified crops, EU regulations and research experience from the Czech republic. Black Sea Biotechnology Association. Available at
The Gene Revolution and Global Food Security: Biotechnology Innovation in Latecomers, Padmashree Gehl Sampath and Banji Oyeyinka
GM Food on Trial: Testing European Democracy, Les Levidow.
Modification of Seed Composition to Promote Health and Nutrition
The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century. Peter Pringle.
and, of course:
Food Politics What Everyone Needs to Know. R. Paarlberg.
The Virtues of Slow, Natural, Organic Food – A Myth?
- Leon Kaye, Triple Pundit August 16, 2010 <http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/08/the-virtues-of-slow-natural-organic-food-a-myth-rachel-laudan/comment-page-1/>http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/08/the-virtues-of-slow-natural-organic-food-a-myth-rachel-laudan/comment-page-1/
Plenty of evidence exists that suggest corporate agriculture exacts huge impacts on the planet. And thanks to the efforts of everyone from Alice Waters to the organizers of local farmers’ markets, we arguably have better food options than we did a generation ago.
But so much about our new food revolution has been based on the premise that food must be fresh, natural, and unprocessed. Many of us who search for artisan, authentic, and genuine foods and recipes do so out of the belief that we are returning to the foods of our ancestors, and we absolutely need to turn away from processed and genetically modified foods. The reality, however, is that just about everything we eat today has already been genetically modified. And an assumption that we are simply going back to a time when life was simpler and everything was natural is just plain false. As historian Rachel Laudan explains, an insistence that food must always be fresh is modern-day wishful thinking.
As Professor Laudan explains in her blog and in the Utne Reader, wistful nonstalgia masks the reality of what fresh and natural used to mean. <http://docs.google.com/leaf?id=0B9HbgKDkUrDEM2NjOThkZjAtYTUyNS00NDYxLWI0NDMtMDUwYzcwODQyOWY1&hl=en&authkey=CP2XufED&pli=1>http://docs.google.com/leaf?id=0B9HbgKDkUrDEM2NjOThkZjAtYTUyNS00NDYxLWI0NDMtMDUwYzcwODQyOWY1&hl=en&authkey=CP2XufED&pli=1 The food on which our ancestors subsisted would make us blanch: nuts were bitter and astringent; women would spend most of the day beating grains into gruels that were mushy and barely digestible; meat was tough, tough, and well, almost always tough. So over time, we developed hybrids of fruits and vegetables that were sweet, frangrant, and juicy; animals were domesticated and bred for their soft, tender flesh; and preservatives like salt, sugar, vinegar, and bacteria, allowed foods to taste better and last longer. Speaking of salt—as Mark Kurlansky explains in his book, humans spent generations finding the purest form of salt. That pricey Himalayan salt you swoon over, by the way, has dirt in it; it took centuries eliminating those minerals from what was once an expensive commodity.
Dishes that we deem authentic were in reality exclusive to urban aristocrats who for ages took the best ingredients for themselves. They left the remnants for the farmers, who generally were overtaxed, overworked, and malnourished; they lived a painful life of subsistence. As for the food and drink that ended up on the plates: Ottoman dolmas, Korean teas, and some of your favorite Indian dishes were once the purview of the wealthy. Rustic foods like Italian (tomatoes from South America) and Korean (red peppers from Portugal) were transformed thanks to the introduction of foreign ingredients.
In the end, Laudan posits that hand-wringing over industrialized food is sometimes overblown. No pantry should be without canned tomatoes, one of the best canned food options around, and the organic, free trade chocolates we may enjoy are not possible without machinery. Even the bogeyman, GMO, is not always evil: Stewart Brand has made the point that GMO crops are one way to feed a growing world, and can make it possible to grow food in drought-ridden areas while avoiding the use of pesticides.
The folks who Laudan describes as “Culinary Luddites” are reminiscing for a time that never was, and for a lifestyle to which few of us would return. Men and women have more opportunities today because we do not toil in the fields from sunrise to sundown, or do have to endure backbreaking labor to prepare food for large families—without the option of the Whole Foods hot bar in case the day’s meal goes awry.
Where slow food advocates have it right, however, is to understand where our food originates, and how to prepare it. In closing, Laudan writes:
"What we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it; an ethos that opens choices for everyone, not one that closes them for many so that a few may enjoy their labor; and an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial."
Whatever your opinion is on slow vs. fast food, help is on the way. More companies are rethinking how their operations affect the planet; and more investors are interested in alternative agricultural methods to find a balance between corporate farming and backyard gardening. There’s hope for farming that offers economic economic opportunity while ameliorating its effects on the environment–whether it can improve working conditions is another matter.
Now for the real fun, make some popcorn, forward straight to the comments, and watch the fur fly!
Rosamond Naylor on Feeding the World
- Amanda Bensen, Smithsonian magazine, August 2010 <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/>http://www.smithsonianmag.com/
'The economist discusses the stresses that climate change and a greater world population will have on our food supply'
By 2050, there will be an estimated nine billion people in the world. Do we have the land and water to feed them? The arable land area is certainly not enough to meet those demands unless there are major breakthroughs in terms of crop yields. Agriculture and livestock are by far the largest water users in the world. We could have water shortages in a lot of locations. Farmers are going to have to adopt new technologies and crops to be more conservative in their water use. I look to feedbacks in the system. As we start hitting periods of shortages, there is typically more commitment to invest in agriculture to increase productivity. Agricultural markets are dynamic, prices reflect scarcity, and production and consumption can change. I think these dynamics are going to kick in to help.
How do those dynamics work?
As water becomes more scarce, farmers are probably going to switch to crops that are less water-intensive, or that rely on drip irrigation. Or as food prices rise for consumers, maybe they wont eat quite as much meat especially not as much as we do in the United States and that will have a feedback on the demand side. We can either adjust and start using land and water more efficiently, or people are going to suffer. A billion people are chronically malnourished and cant afford adequate food right now. If prices go higher, the poor will be among the first to suffer.
You mentioned the need to increase crop yields. How? Theres a big gap between farmers yields and experimental yields, that is, the highest that could be achieved. In places like Nebraska, farmers probably are close to the yield ceiling on corn. But for most of the worldAfrica, Asia and Latin America other constraints are keeping farmers from reaching more than 50 percent of the yields we achieve in the United States. Are there incentives to raise crops in more efficient ways? Are there policies that stabilize prices, so farmers invest in crop productivity? Do farmers need better roads to access markets, or credit to buy fertilizer?
Why are so many people hungry?
Persistent poverty. This is really where the population issue comes in, in a nasty way, because its so hard to take care of everybody. Maybe were not thinking about it right. Maybe were thinking that everything will trickle down to these folks and its not going to. The global community has only begun to focus on what kind of crop investments you need to reach the poorest of the poor. I think the Gates Foundation, the McKnight Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation are trying to get at that on a big scale now. They're trying to figure out how to get seed markets going, improve crop marketing for the poor, improve nutrition and make rural economies functional.
How might climate change affect the worlds food supply? What we know for sure is that temperatures are going to increase, which will cause crop productivity to fall after a certain threshold. People say, well, in the United States, if we have warmer temperatures, wont that increase corn production, for example? Yes, up to a point then there is likely to be a huge drop. Temperature affects evaporation and moisture stress on crops. With the temperature increases that are projected for the next 40 to 50 years, were going to start to see drop-offs in many parts of the world, particularly in the tropics and subtropics. As the planet warms there may be more moisture in the atmosphere overall, but it wont necessarily fall where you want it, when you want it.
Can you offer an example of increasing food access in a needy population? Were involved in a project right now in Benin, West Africa, where it rains only three to four months of the year. Were using solar-powered drip irrigation to irrigate small plots of high-value crops for poor farmers. Indigenous legumes that yield more protein and fertilize the soil. Carrots and leafy vegetables that are very nutritious. And the markets are right there in the very poor areas. Farmers are taking their products to market at 5 in the morning and its all gone by 5:15. Its amazing. In villages where weve been evaluating these techniques, theres been a doubling and tripling of income for families involved, and nutrition has improved throughout the communities.
Do you think genetically modified crops are part of the solution? Traits like heat tolerance and drought tolerance in crops are probably going to be induced much more efficiently by genetic engineering than by traditional breeding. I think both approaches have to be part of it.