* China Urged to Allow Modified Crops
* Keeping Tabs on the Next Generation of Transgenic Crops
* In the Fields of Italy, a Conflict Over Corn
* Agronomist Gives Italy an Earful
* Earth Needs More From Less
* West Africa: ECOWAS Plans Common Regional Biosafety Regulation
* From Superseeds to Mutant Tomatoes
* Food Safety of Proteins in Agricultural Biotechnology
* Global Food and Farming Futures
* The Future of the Global Food System
* In Communicating about Nano and GMOs, Do the Frames or the Facts Matter?
* Time magazine: What's So Great About Organic Food?
China Urged to Allow Modified Crops
- UPI, August 23, 2010, http://www.upi.com
Beijing -- A top Chinese agricultural adviser is urging the government to loosen restrictions of genetically modified crops to mitigate future food shortages. China Daily reported Monday that Zhai Huqu, president of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, asked government to allow for more genetic crop development.
"Making technical preparations for transgenic technology is very necessary for China," he said. China has given approval for production trials for pest-resistant rice and corn, which would allow the two strains to be commercially sold in three to five years, if the trials turn out well.
China already imports a combined 50 million of tons of soybean meal and soybean oil each year, the bulk of which comes from countries where some genetic modification is allowed. Currently, however, importing genetically modified seeds for food crops is prohibited in China.
Keven Eblen, president of Monsanto China, said his firm is "working to get --- approvals in China" for genetically modified seeds. "We are here in China to try to find the best products for China's soil type, climate and environmental conditions," he said. Environment groups, such as Greenpeace, oppose the production of genetically modified crops, concerned that tampering with Mother Nature could lead to long-term problems.
Others say transferring disease-, drought- or pest-resistant genes from one plant's genetic make-up to other crops could help reduce food shortages and famine.
Keeping Tabs on the Next Generation of Transgenic Crops
- Crop Science Society of America, August 23rd, 2010
'Scientists Develop Framework to monitor second-generation transgenic crops'
MADISON, WI, – A team of government and university crop scientists from across Canada has developed a scientific framework for monitoring the release of second-generation genetically modified crops. The framework is designed to assess the risks of novel genes entering wild populations.
First-generation genetically modified (GM)/transgenic crops with novel traits have been grown in a number of countries since the 1990’s. Most of these crops had a single gene that allowed them to tolerate herbicide application, giving them an advantage over wild species.
Second-generation transgenic crops are now being tested in confined field trials around the world. Some of these traits will allow crops to tolerate environmental stress such as drought, cold, salt, heat, or flood. Other traits being developed may lead to increased yield or lower nutrient requirements, or increase tolerance to disease and pathogens.
With novel traits from first-generation transgenic crops now being discovered in the wild, notably in wild canola in Canada and the U.S., accurately estimating the environmental impact of these new crops is becoming increasingly important.
The team of scientists - Hugh Beckie, Linda Hall, Marie-Josée Simard, Julia Leeson, and Christian Willenborg – used drought tolerant canola as a model crop to develop their post release monitoring protocol. The review and interpretation article was published in the September-October 2010 edition of Crop Science, a publication of the Crop Science Society of America.
Before crops with new traits can be released, the developer must conduct an environmental risk assessment on the crop. According to the authors, these trials are generally too small to uncover the uncertainties inherent in the second-generation crops before they are released. The post monitoring procedure the research team developed is designed to provide additional risk management.
Concrete steps are outlined for each of the four phases of the framework – (1) defining the problem; (2) project management and monitoring procedure; (3) implementation; and (4) regulatory decision.
Using drought-tolerant canola as a case specific-example of how to use the framework, the researchers identified several potential environmental risks associated with cultivation of this crop. The primary concern was increased of invasiveness wild, self-perpetuating populations, and hybridizations between transgenic crops and weedy relatives. Also identified was backcrossed progeny in non-cropped disturbed and natural areas next to transgenic fields, resulting in loss of abundance or biodiversity of native plant species.
One of the most important aspects of proper monitoring is the sampling design, specifically, appropriate site replication and sample size. The researchers detailed a statistical analysis to be able to detect effects of a specific magnitude.
The authors concluded that post release monitoring, through a comprehensive, pragmatic and science-based framework, can effectively address the greater uncertainties in the environmental risk assessment of these second-generation vs. first-generation transgenic crops and thereby enhance environmental protection and security of the food supply.
The full article is available for no charge for 30 days following the date of this summary. View the abstract at https://www.crops.org/publications/cs/abstracts/50/5/1587.
In the Fields of Italy, a Conflict Over Corn
- Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times, August 23, 2010
VIVARO, Italy — Giorgio Fidenato declared war on the Italian government and environmental groups in April with a news conference and a YouTube video, which showed him poking six genetically modified corn seeds into Italian soil. Last week, Giorgio Fidenato, who had planted genetically modified corn, stood amid stalks that had been trampled by antiglobalization activists.
In fact, said Mr. Fidenato, 49, an agronomist, he planted two fields of genetically modified corn. But since “corn looks like corn,” as he put it, it took his opponents weeks to find his crop.
The seeds, known as MON810, are modified so that the corn produces a chemical that kills the larvae of the corn borer, a devastating pest. Yet while European Union rules allow this particular seed to be planted, Italy requires farmers to get special permission for any genetically modified, or G.M., crop — and the Agriculture Ministry never said yes. “We had no choice but to engage in civil disobedience — these seeds are legal in Europe,” said Mr. Fidenato, who has repeatedly applied for permission, adding that he drew more inspiration from Ron Paul than Gandhi.
The World Trade Organization says that general bans on genetically modified crops constitute an unfair trade barrier, because there is no scientific basis for exclusion. But four years after a W.T.O. panel ruled that European Union policies constituted an illegal “de facto moratorium” on the planting of genetically modified seeds, some farmers, like Mr. Fidenato, and seed producers like Monsanto complain that Europe still has not really opened its doors.
It is true that a small but growing number of European countries, including Spain, Portugal and Germany, now allow some cultivation of genetically modified crops. But only two genetically modified seeds (MON810 and the Amflora potato seed) out of dozens on the global market have made it through the European Commission’s laborious approval process, a prerequisite for use.
What is more, some areas of Europe have declared themselves “G.M.O.-free zones,” or free of genetically modified organisms. France, Austria and Germany specifically ban MON810, saying they believe that it could harm local crops. In Italy, a Kafkaesque approval process in which the Agriculture Ministry has never established the requirements for success, makes genetically modified crops a nonstarter.
Such foot-dragging reflects passionate public opposition to the crops in many parts of Europe, even as more than three-quarters of corn, soybeans and sugar beets in the United States are genetically modified. Though the science is at best inconclusive, there is a widespread conviction in Italy that genetically altered foods and crops pose dangers to human health and ecosystems.
After Mr. Fidenato’s provocation, investigators did genetic testing to identify the locations of the offending stalks in the sea of cornfields that surround this tiny town. Officials seized two suspect fields — about 12 acres — and declared the plantings illegal. Greenpeace activists surreptitiously snipped off the stalks’ tassels in the hope of preventing pollen from being disseminated.
On Aug. 9, 100 machete-wielding environmental activists from an antiglobalization group called Ya Basta descended on Vivaro and trampled the field before local police officers could intervene. They left behind placards with a skull and crossbones reading: “Danger — Contaminated — G.M.O.”
Giancarlo Galan, who became agriculture minister in April, called the protesters “vandals,” although he did not say he would allow genetically modified crops. But Luca Zaia, the previous agriculture minister and president of the nearby Veneto region, applauded the rampage, saying: “There is a need to show multinationals that they can’t introduce Frankenstein crops into our country without authorization.”
Over the past decade, genetically modified crops have been a major source of trade friction between Europe and the United States.
Both the United States Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Agency say that there is no scientific evidence that eating MON810 corn is dangerous. But there is greater disagreement on how genetically modified plants affect ecosystems and whether traditional and genetically modified crops can be kept apart to avoid what organic farmers call “contamination” of traditional crops by modified plants or genes. Seed or pollen can travel with the wind or on farm equipment or truck tires, sometimes for hundreds of miles.
This issue is particularly sensitive in Italy, whose farmers rely heavily on specialized organic and heritage crops, like hundreds of varieties of tomatoes. Crops contaminated with genetically modified material can lose its organic designation. Farmers worry that plants with tailor-made survival genes will over time displace tastier traditional varieties.
Greenpeace has called the European Union’s judgment to accept MON810 as safe “fundamentally flawed,” noting, for example, that the chemical that kills corn borer larvae could also harm butterflies that land on the plants. Even in the United States, reservations linger. This month, a federal judge in San Francisco revoked permission for further planting of genetically modified sugar beets, saying that the Agriculture Department had not adequately assessed the environmental consequences; 95 percent of the sugar beets in the United States are genetically modified.
Faced with a W.T.O. judgment on the one hand and a reluctant public on the other, the European Commission has tried in recent years to walk a middle ground. It requires countries to establish procedures for separating traditional and modified crops, like maintaining certain distances between fields. Recent proposals give regions increasing latitude to deny entry to such plants if they provide scientific proof that the seeds could harm the environment, however.
But groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation say that studies used to justify excluding genetically modified crops do not pass muster.
Here in Vivaro, farmers are divided about the issue, said Luca Tornatore, Ya Basta spokesman and an astrophysicist from Trieste, Italy, noting that his group’s “blitz” did not allow much time for talking with local people.
Residents may not know much about the science of genetically modified crops, but they are quite familiar with the corn borer larvae; they tunnel into ears of corn, allowing funguses to fill the holes in their wake. Some of the funguses produce mycotoxins that can end up in places like the milk of corn-fed cows and have been associated with serious health problems, including cancers.
Some farmers spray insecticides on the crops to prevent the boring, but it must be applied at just the right moment and leaves chemical residues as well as an odor in the air. Others simply sell the corn in bulk, ignoring the problem, said Mr. Fidenato, displaying an ear from a field that was alive with worms and covered with patches of white fuzz.
If the Italian government does not relent on the genetically modified seeds, he warned, he commands an army of farmers across Italy who are prepared to plant MON810 to force its hand.
But it is not clear that the battle of Vivaro will have a quick victor. Jail time or at least fines are expected for Mr. Fidenato (illegal planting) and Mr. Tornatore (trespassing and destroying private property).
Agronomist Gives Italy an Earful
- Health Facts and Fears, American Council On Science And Health http://www.acsh.org/
A coveted seat at the ACSH Dispatch table goes to agronomist Giorgio Fidenato for standing up to environmental groups and the Italian government. In April, Fidenato held a press conference and uploaded to YouTube a video showing him planting six genetically modified corn seeds in Italian soil after repeatedly being denied permission to use GM crops.
“We had no choice but to engage in civil disobedience — these seeds are legal in Europe,” Fidenato tells The New York Times, which notes Fidenato says he “drew more inspiration from Ron Paul than Gandhi.” (Who knew Ron Paul was so big in Italy?)
After Fidenato’s provocation, Italian food police performed genetic testing to identify the offending cornstalks. But before authorities could act, more than 100 machete-wielding environmentalist activists trampled the field Aug. 9, leaving behind placards with a skull and bones reading “Danger — Contaminated — G.M.O.”
The corn — Monsanto’s MON810 seeds — is genetically modified to combat the corn borer larvae that burrow tunnels into corn ears, leaving space for dangerous fungi to grow. Now Fidenato faces jail time or at least fines for planting it, the Times reports.
“As ACSH trustee Dr. Henry Miller has written, this is a pattern of vandalism that is taking place primarily throughout Europe against researchers. It’s not just a one-off incident,” says ACSH Jeff Stier. “There are other examples where vandals have interfered with scientific advances. Obviously he’s not doing a scientific study, he’s just trying to use the crop, but it’s part of an overall theme.”
Earth Needs More From Less
- Rod Smith, Stock & Land, Aug, 22 2010 http://sl.farmonline.com.au/
Multiplying the world's population by its consumption of food does not equal a healthy planet - the multiplication result is not balanceable or sustainable, according to Dr. Jason Clay, senior vice president at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
"We need to use less to produce more ... to restore the planet," he said in remarks to the Cattle Industry Summer Conference last month in Denver, Colo, US. He was one of three speakers who addressed beef production's environmental footprint (Feedstuffs, Aug. 9).
Clay laid out a scenario in which the world's increasing population forces more and more habitable land into agricultural/food production every year and said this "has to be changed, and we can do that by intensification."
He noted that in 40 years, the world's population will increase 33 per cent - from almost 7 billion people today to more than 9 billion - incomes will triple and food consumption will double. Clay said 70pc of the world's population will live in cities, and "we need to address this" because the "impacts" people and food production/consumption have on the land and water "that are acceptable today with 6.8 billion people will not be acceptable with 9.1 billion people."
"We will have to get better" at producing more food with fewer resources, he said. Clay said agriculture's footprint on the Earth must be "frozen" but emphasised that this doesn't mean decreasing or "not expanding" production; rather, agriculture/food producers need to become increasingly more efficient.
Accordingly, he said producers must adopt advanced genetics, management practices and technology and emphasised that "we cannot abandon modern genetics and technology."
Indeed, Clay said WWF, in the interest of the health of the planet, has backed off its previous anti-genetic modification position.
Since producing any product, including any food product, will have an impact on the planet, it's critical that producers identify the metrics they will use to "measure" their progress toward becoming more efficient, he said.
West Africa: ECOWAS Plans Common Regional Biosafety Regulation
- Emeka Anuforo, Abuja, The Guardian (Nigeria), August 18, 2010 http://www.guardiannewsngr.com/
THE Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission is currently developing a common biosafety regulation in line with the national biosafety laws and regulations for the sub-region.
The African Union (AU), on its part, has developed a model biosafety law to assist member-states make their safety laws. This model contributed to the development of Nigeria National Biosafety Bill. The Director General of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Prof. Bamidele Solomon, told The Guardian that Africa as a continent had embraced modern biotechnology.
Solomon also disclosed that the national biotechnology bill has been passed at the House of Representatives on Tuesday, July 20, 2010 to give legal backing to the agency and its operations. “The draft bill arrived at the National Assembly in January 2009 and it has passed through second reading, public hearing, collation and retreat sessions at the House of Representatives. I am very glad to inform you that this bill has been passed at the House of Representatives. It was passed on Tuesday, July 20, 2010.
“NABDA is an agency of the Federal Government, under the aegis of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology. It was established in 2001 as an institutional framework for implementing the National Biotechnology Policy. Our specific mandates are to coordinate, promote and regulate all biotechnology activities in the country with a view to making available this cutting-edge technology for the promotion of a healthy environment, ensuring national food security and providing affordable health care delivery as well as the alleviation of poverty.”
Solomon added that the programmes of the agency are structured in line with the international standard bearing in mind the development of local technological contents.
He explained that the Federal Government has taken appropriate steps to ensure that Nigeria becomes a key global participant in the biotechnology revolution for the benefit of all Nigerians because it was convinced that biotechnology is a cutting-edge technology that will drive the 21st century’s global food, health, industrial and environmental sectors.
“Biotechnology is a package of techniques that employ organisms, or parts of organisms to make or modify products, improve plants and animals, or to develop microorganisms for specific applications. These techniques usually aim at enhancing production and use of goods and services for the benefit of mankind.
“It employs molecular biology and genetics to create improved medicines, agricultural and industrial products. Biotechnology is currently, making much impact in the areas of agriculture, health care, industries and environment. However there are several ethical and social issues of importance to be considered in the national biotechnology development.”
He stressed that the agency was promoting biotechnology activities that positively respond to national aspiration on food security, job/wealth creation, affordable health care delivery and sustainable environment.
“The intense debate over agricultural biotechnology and its applications focuses mainly on hypothetical risks and questions related to value, safety and impact, agronomic, economic and environmental. However, the last 10 years have seen many of these questions put to rest. Numerous studies and evidence-based fact finding missions have shown that biotechnology-derived products have been proven to be economically viable, environmentally sustainable and as safe as their conventional counterparts. Properly integrated into traditional farming systems, biotechnology applications could make a difference in improving food security in Africa and other developing countries at large,” he stressed.
From Superseeds to Mutant Tomatoes
- Robin Finn, New York Times, August 20, 2010 http://www.nytimes.com
Woodbury, N.y. - Zachary B. Lippman, who favors hemp sandals, baggy khakis and an overgrown 5 o’clock shadow, is tending 40,000 tomato plants this summer, including 80 heirloom variants. He is in the second phase of his discovery of a genetic intervention that turns the average tomato plant into a bionic fruit factory. An international patent is, as the saying goes, pending.
“If I had a million dollars, I’d start a seed company tomorrow,” said Dr. Lippman, 32, a scientist with a hunch that the world is insatiable when it comes to tomatoes.
Dr. Lippman did his postdoctoral research on plum tomatoes in Rehovot, Israel, in conjunction with two top geneticists and mentors, Dani Zamir and Yuvel Eshed. (Their breakthrough research was published online in March in Nature Genetics.) Now working with his own team at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, he has been ramping up his efforts to decode the fruit-making process. In June, he published a pet project, the DNA sequence of the currant tomato — the wild ancestor of them all — online at the Sol Genomic Network, a database containing research on the nightshade family, of which tomatoes are a member.
Simply put, his achievement is this: By manipulating a single copy of a mutant gene, he can make a tomato plant increase its yield by half and simultaneously sweeten its produce. With a handful of his superseeds, a bag of cow manure and a sunny patch of dirt, someday any gardener may be able to do the same.
Told that his research — harnessing the phenomenon of hybrid vigor to harvest endless tomatoes — sounded like a pyramid scheme, Dr. Lippman played along. “I’m going to be in jail for committing tomato Ponzi,” he said, gently flicking a ladybug off his sleeve.
Dr. Lippman is farmer in chief of two greenhouses at the lab’s genome research center in nearby Woodbury, four acres of leased farmland in Riverhead, and a couple of acres at the Nature Conservancy’s Uplands Farm Sanctuary in Cold Spring Harbor. The lab hired him two years ago to expand his research into yields of tomato hybrids and various other plants, and he isn’t slacking; he smells of tomato plants, acrid and earthy, with a whiff of petunia and marigold for balance. His face is, no coincidence, tomato-hued from so much time in the fields.
Off duty — he lives on campus in Cold Spring Harbor with his wife, Shira, a dentist, and their four children — he hoards the seeds from every choice-looking fruit and vegetable he buys at the local Stop and Shop. For Dr. Lippman, a geneticist with a genuine food fascination, today’s experiment could be tomorrow’s salad. “I’ve been grilling a lot of peppers this summer,” he said. Peppers, with only a single fruit per stem, are a future challenge.
An assistant professor at the lab who earned a doctorate from the Watson School of Biological Sciences there in 2004, Dr. Lippman was chagrined when, the day after his team’s research was published, a group of scientists spotted him and yelled, “Hey, Zach, nice tomatoes!” “I don’t think they take tomatoes that seriously here,” he said, “but I’m doing something that I deem important. I don’t feel the need to justify it.”
He definitely has no need to plead his case before Bruce Stillman, the president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which has invested nearly $1 million in greenhouses alone. “This is a result that screams out, ‘Hey, look at this!’ It’s extremely interesting and potentially of huge commercial value,” Dr. Stillman said.
Dr. Lippman had his “aha moment” in Israel, where he sifted through thousands of varieties of the humble plum tomato — and occasionally dodged missiles during the Lebanon conflict. “We joked that it counted as our military service,” he said.
He produced a strain of hyper-productive tomato seeds through his manipulation of a “flower power gene” known as S.F.T. (single flower truss), the “command gene” that tells plants when and how many flowers to generate. He is fixated on the potential of plant genetics to radically improve the yield not only of plum tomatoes but of boutique melons and mass-produced crops like soybeans.
“If this technology can be transferred to other species, it could be quite valuable, and that’s what Zach is working on now,” Dr. Stillman said. Dr. Lippman’s parents, who do not garden, still live in Milford, Conn., where he grew up; he became interested in crop yields by working summers at a local farm during high school (where he grew a 620-pound pumpkin). As an undergraduate at Cornell he had his first exposure “to the genes that make extreme-sized fruits,” he said.
His crossing kit, a plastic box crammed with gadgets and a couple of green peppers whose seeds he intends to extract and study, serves as his briefcase. In it are a No. 5 tweezers, labels, string, a face mask (transplanting gets dusty) and a 20-year-old wood-handled pollinator that originated as a frog dissector but has been customized by having its needle-nose tip pounded flat. Finally, there is his pedigree list, which keeps track of the genetics of each plant and which bears a resemblance to a copy of The Daily Racing Form after it has been scrutinized and embellished with crib notes.
“The lifeblood of genetics is being able to pedigree,” he said, “but all we’re really doing is figuring out what Mother Nature and/or God have already done for us in a slow way, and we’re trying to understand and accelerate the process in a kosher way. No genetically modified tricks.” He pointed to an ungainly bush, the progenitor of all domesticated tomatoes. “Currant tomatoes: basically just a bag of seeds waiting to be dispersed,” he said, squashing one to prove his point.
This summer’s most successful hybrids will produce at least 20 pounds of tomatoes per plant; seeds from the best of the bunch will be added to his personal stash of superperformers. But the experiment is not just about the harvest; it’s about controlling the flower-making process. Some plants will grow wispy and sterile, like the sad-looking mutant sequestered in a pot in the greenhouse for extended observation.
“We call him Wiry,” said Dr. Lippmann, who refers to his plants in the masculine gender, even petunias. He seems baffled by an accusation of sexism. “Technically they’re all hermaphrodites,” he said. “I don’t know why I call them ‘he’ and ‘him,’ I just do.” Some things defy scientific explanation.
Food Safety of Proteins in Agricultural Biotechnology
- A new book by Bruce G. Hammond (Editor), Hardcover, Amazon.com $173.95, 320 pages, CRC Press, ISBN-10: 0849339677
Comprehensively addresses how toxicology testing of proteins should be accomplished and how protein safety assessments should be carried out. Beginning with a background on protein biology, the book delineates the fundamental differences among proteins and small molecular weight chemicals that impact their safety assessment. It discusses the life cycle of proteins and explains why some protein toxins exert toxic effects and others do not.
Drawing attention to the increasingly popular insect-protected Bt crops, contributions provide a detailed history of the safety assessment and environmental impact of these crops and answer many safety questions. The editors include the safety assessment process developed for enzymes, one of the earliest applications of proteins in food processing and production. The book addresses protein pharmaceuticals, focusing on the unique challenges of testing protein therapeutics in humans. It summarizes the food safety issues and controversies surrounding the use of bST to increase milk production in dairy cows.
This unique volume also provides nuts and bolts information on conducting safety tests such as how to confirm that an introduced protein does not fit the profile of known allergens, how to carry out dietary exposure assessments for proteins introduced into food crops, and how to use sources of food consumption databases that are available internationally. It provides four case studies on the safety assessment of proteins of different structure and function to be introduced into biotechnology-derived agricultural crops. The final chapter is a review and distillation of the previously presented information on protein safety assessments and provides strategies for the safety assessment of future biotech products under development.
Global Food and Farming Futures
- John Beddington, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, Sept. 27, 2010. p365:2767;
Food is an essential part of all our lives. Following productivity increases in the Green Revolution, food prices in major world markets have been at a historical low in recent decades. Analysis from the Government Office for Science shows that by 2050, this situation is set to change significantly. The global population will have increased by nearly a third to nine billion, and diets will have changed with increasing affluence, leading to a much increased demand for food. At the same time, the food supply may be threatened as agriculture will have to compete with industry and municipal uses for energy and water. Climate change will also have adverse impacts on production in some areas.
The challenge is not only to increase food production, but to do so in a way that is sustainable, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and preserving biodiversity. In addition, as demonstrated by the 2006–2008 food price spike, we must make the food system more resilient to volatility, both economic and climatic. A further challenge is that of ending hunger; currently around 1 billion people are hungry, and we must work to ensure that this number decreases rather than increases in the future.
Meeting these challenges will involve social and political solutions as well as those based on the natural sciences. The need for action is urgent given the time required for investment in research to deliver new technologies to those who need them, and for political and social change to take place. For this reason, the Government Office for Science has, with the assistance of leading stakeholders and experts, undertaken a Foresight study on the future of the global food and farming system. The papers presented in this special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B are reviews of the major drivers of change in the global food system looking out to 2050. They are intended to be accessible to experts in other fields.
While the individual papers are each important, they are of greatest value when brought together. Although a single journal edition cannot comprehensively cover the whole of the global food and farming system, I hope readers will find that the papers presented provide a significant and useful resource that attracts broad interest.
Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, Head of the Government Office for Science, UK
The Future of the Global Food System
- H. Charles J. Godfray et al.+ http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/365/1554.toc
Although food prices in major world markets are at or near a historical low, there is increasing concern about food security—the ability of the world to provide healthy and environmentally sustainable diets for all its peoples. This article is an introduction to a collection of reviews whose authors were asked to explore the major drivers affecting the food system between now and 2050.
A first set of papers explores the main factors affecting the demand for food (population growth, changes in consumption patterns, the effects on the food system of urbanization and the importance of understanding income distributions) with a second examining trends in future food supply (crops, livestock, fisheries and aquaculture, and ‘wild food’).
A third set explores exogenous factors affecting the food system (climate change, competition for water, energy and land, and how agriculture depends on and provides ecosystem services), while the final set explores cross-cutting themes (food system economics, food wastage and links with health).
Two of the clearest conclusions that emerge from the collected papers are that major advances in sustainable food production and availability can be achieved with the concerted application of current technologies (given sufficient political will), and the importance of investing in research sooner rather than later to enable the food system to cope with both known and unknown challenges in the coming decades.
In Communicating about Nano and GMOs, Do the Frames or the Facts Matter?
- Matthew C. Nisbet on August 20, 2010, bFull blog at http://bigthink.com/ideas/22955
When attempting to communicate effectively with the public about a science-related debate, which is more important, framing the message or conveying science-based facts about the topic? A forthcoming study (Word) at the Journal of Communication by Northwestern University researchers James Druckman and Toby Bolsen sheds new light on this long standing question.
As I will be highlighting at this blog, previous research consistently finds that the public typically form opinions in the absence of factual information, instead relying on mental short-cuts based on personal experience, values, and the selective presentationor framing--of an issue.
Frames influence perceptions and decisions because they focus on just one dimension of a complex topic over another, in the process communicating why an issue matters, why it might be personally relevant, and why a related action might lead to specific benefits or risks.
Understanding and applying research on framing is particularly relevant to engaging the public on emerging issues such as nanotechnology and genetic engineering, but it also applies to communicating about entrenched policy debates such as climate change. For example, in a recent study I conducted with Ed Maibach and colleagues, we find that when climate change is re-framed as a health problem rather than an environmental one, this re-interpretation is evaluated favorably and positively by a broad cross-section of Americans. A frame in essence switches the train of thought for an audience, leading to a different set of attributions and conclusions.
Framing is an unavoidable aspect of human communication. There is no such thing as unframed information. On science-related issues, this idea is difficult to grasp for some advocates and scientists who still view communication through the lens of what scholars call the deficit model which assumes that opinion formation is a direct consequence of knowledge (or alternatively ignorance). If the public only better understood the facts of a scientific topic they would more likely view the issue as scientists do and controversy would go away.
There is no question that deliberate decisions to selectively frame an issue can be used to deceive, but they can also be used to more effectively explain and engage audiences, boosting interest, attention, and learning. As an example, in a recently published book chapter, I discussed the audience research approach that the National Academies used in framing the structure of a report on the teaching of evolution in schools (PDF).
A second example is our recent research on the potential to re-frame climate as a health problem. Not only does this new focus likely increase personal significance and relevance among Americans but it also communicates about objectively real and scientifically well-documented health risks that the public should know about. It also starts to promote greater attention to adaptation policies and strategies--such as evacuation procedures, water and agricultural sanitation policies, improved housing, cooling stations during heat waves, and new transportation infrastructures-- that are needed to protect people and communities and that also result in healthier and higher quality lives.
Frames vs. Facts on Nano and GMOs
The forthcoming study by James Druckman and Toby Bolsen provides new understanding and data on how frames influence public perceptions and decisions about emerging areas of science. Later today, I will post an interview with Druckman about his research. In the rest of this post, I discuss and provide background on the study.
Druckman and Bolsen were interested in understanding whether the inclusion of facts--specifically reference to the findings of a scientific study---added additional power and influence to the framing of nanotechnology and genetically modified food.
These issues--like many science debates--are often debated and talked about in terms of benefits and risks, typically in very general terms without much reference to actual scientific research. Does providing more precise information about scientific findings relative to benefits and risks matter to public judgments or are more general assertions what really drive perceptions?
Importantly, Druckman and Bolsen also wanted to know whether after a frame was set on an issue, how did subjects then interpret information about scientific studies on the topic? Were subjects open to re-considering their views or did they interpret the studies as fitting with their pre-conceived opinion?
On election day in 2008, Druckman and Bolsen assembled 20 teams of students to conduct exit polls of 621 voters in the Chicago region, querying voters on their perceptions of carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and genetically-modified foods (GMOs). For the interviews, voters were randomly assigned to separate frame and issue conditions.
Takeaway: Whether it is politics or science, audiences rely heavily on information short cuts to reach judgments. As part of this process, research finds that how a particular message "frames" or selectively defines an issue strongly shapes public judgments. On science topics, frames of reference that make general assertions about benefits and risks often dominate debate. A forthcoming experimental study involving as subjects exit voters in the 2008 election looked at whether specific reference to the findings of scientific studies made a difference to the influence of risk/benefit frames about nanotechnology and GMOS.
More generalized frames--absent direct reference to scientific findings--were found to be more impactful than frames that included such detailed emphasis. Scientists, their organizations, and many advocates dedicate significant resources to emphasizing scientific findings with the goal of engaging the public or quelling controversies. For the wider public--who are generally unmotivated to pay attention to this type of detailed scientific emphasis--a more effective strategy is to rely on generally framed messages about benefits or values that while scientifically accurate do not feature technical details.
Druckman, J. & Bolsen, T. (in press). Framing, Motivated Reasoning, and Opinions about Emergent Technologies. Journal of Communication.
Maibach, E., Nisbet, M., Baldwin, P., Akerlof, K., & Diao, G. (2010). Reframing climate change as a public health issue: an exploratory study of public reactions BMC Public Health, 10 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2458-10-299
What's So Great About Organic Food?