* GM Report Adds Twist to Peruvian Defamation Case
* Dr. Ernesto Bustamante's Legal Defense Fund
* Will Cleverly Crafted Prose Win Over Science and Evidence?
* Corn Hybrids and Big Brother
* Plant Scientists Move Closer to Making Any Crop Drought-Tolerant
* UK: Norfolk GM Potato Trial Withstands Blight
* Don't Fear Genetically Modified Food
* Intolerant, Hysterical and Smug! How I Hate the Organic Fanatics
* Stewart Brand Proclaims 4 Environmental 'Heresies'
* Brazil's Agricultural Miracle: How to Feed The World
GM Report Adds Twist to Peruvian Defamation Case
- Zoraida Portillo, August 25, 2010 http://www.scidev.net/
'New report failed to find GM crops whose existence Bustamante challenged before being convicted of defamation'
An official study in Peru has found no evidence of transgenic maize crops in the valley of Barranca, casting doubt on earlier claims by a researcher of their illegal existence.
Those claims were central to a recent court case in which Ernesto Bustamante Donayre, a molecular biologist and vice-president of the Peruvian College of Biologists, was convicted of defamation after criticising research by Antonietta Ornella Gutiérrez Rosati — that purported to find evidence of such crops.
The existence of the official report was revealed during an international biotechnology workshop organised by Peru's National Institute of Agrarian Innovation (INIA) in June. Although it has not yet been published, SciDev.Net has gained access to it. The report examines 164 maize samples from the area, and concludes that there was not enough evidence to determine the presence of transgenic crops in the Barranca valley.
In November 2007 Gutiérrez, a biologist at the National Agricultural University of La Molina (UNALM), Peru, claimed in a newspaper article that she had found unauthorised transgenic maize in the valley. Such maize would have been illegal because any release of GM crops must have prior government approval, although the procedure is not clear as the country's biosafety regulation is still under discussion.
When Bustamante criticised Gutiérrez's study in the media, she filed a defamation case against him, leading to his conviction in 2010. Scientists have protested against the court decision. http://www.scidev.net/en/news/scientists-rally-round-convicted-peruvian-researcher.html
Since then, the Peruvian government has conducted research in an attempt to check Gutiérrez's findings. The results are presented in the report, peer-reviewed by a panel of independent international scientists. Several sources told SciDev.Net the government had come under strong political pressure and lobbying by anti-transgenic groups to prevent its publication.
But Jorge Alcántara Delgado, head of the department of genetic resources and biotechnology at INIA, denied this, and told SciDev.Net that the report would be published in the first half of September. The delay occurred because the peer-review panel were late in sending their comments, he said.
Santiago Pastor Soplin of the biological diversity division at the Ministry of Environment, told SciDev.Net that the ministry had not received the report from INIA and was not aware of its publication date. "Our institutional interpretation is that to wait two years [since the first suggested evidence of GM crops emerged] before taking samples, and more than seven months before carrying out monitoring, reveals a dangerous regulatory weakness for a mega-diverse country such as Peru," he noted.
He criticised INIA for appearing to be waiting for clear evidence of transgenic material in the crops instead of taking precautionary action "even in the absence of scientific certainty".
Rolando Estrada, a professor at National University of San Marcos, in Lima, and former director of INIA's department of genetic resources and biotechnology said although the publication delay had generated suspicion, that was "healthy" if it was because of the need for rigorous peer-review. However, he also called for periodic further assessments in the valley.
Ernesto Bustamante, who received a one-year suspended prison sentence and cannot leave Lima without the court's permission, told SciDev.Net that he hoped Gutiérrez would withdraw her complaint after the report is published. "My criticism was of her work, not of her person, and I only emphasised that it was not possible to derive such conclusions from what I feel to be shoddy science," he said.
Gutiérrez did not respond to SciDev.Net's requests for comment.
Dr. Ernesto Bustamante's Legal Defense Fund
Dr. Ernesto Bustamante's defamation case has been dragging in the Peruvian court for the past two years and he has already personally incurred an expense of $19,000 so far in legal bills, and this is expected to climb. Apparently, his opponent is being helped through funding from very well known global anti-biotech groups.
Thus, a Legal Defense Fund has been set up to help Dr. Bustamante with his expenses in the case. May I please urge all of you to kindly contribute whatever you can to help a fellow scientist in his sad plight.
You may contribute by credit card or Paypal. Any amount from you would help him personally but also in fighting for science and for the freedom to speak up. The scientific community has stood behind him through a global petition (https://spreadsheets.google.com/viewform?formkey=dHJ3T2stY3VKZk5YUVhZNFd3UWdfc1E6MA&ifq) and now we can go a little further by financially helping him a little.
Please forward this email to your friends, colleagues and scientific societies.
Will Cleverly Crafted Prose Win Over Science and Evidence?
- Paula Fitzgerald. Agrifood Awareness Australia, August 24, 2010.via http://www.truthabouttrade.org/
The upcoming Federal election in Australia has provided some entertainment for the past few weeks with many promises and colourful pictorial moments emerging. Some within the media appear to have shifted from the analysis of policy to instead focussing on our politicians’ words, movements and even gestures. Such a focus can make one become slightly cynical and question both the depth of our media reporting and the lengths at which our politicians will go in presentation and the delivery of carefully crafted messages to lure voters.
Outside of the political sphere, an award for message crafting and overlooking fact must surely be due to the Greenpeace Australia team which recently issued a statement about GM wheat research and development. The title itself – “No GM in our daily bread” - was cleverly composed by their spin team. There are several ways in which it could be interpreted. On one level, it is correct to say that there is no GM wheat in our bread, as GM wheat has not been commercialised anywhere in the world. On another level however, the statement is incorrect, as ingredients from other approved GM crops (which despite their huge uptake, Greenpeace conveniently chooses to ignore) could be utilised in bread making. Finally, those of a more cynical nature may question whether the reference to “our daily bread” is supposed to have some biblical connotation, thereby drawing readers in.
Despite the catchy headline the story appears to have failed to capture any attention which is a good outcome as the narrative, albeit colourful, is short on fact. The leading paragraph reads:
“The threat of GE wheat is looming in Australia. If chemical companies succeed in progressing these trials to market-release stage, we could soon be eating polluted GE food in our breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Let’s take a careful look at this. Apparently, GM wheat is automatically a “threat” - although there is no indication as to why this is so. Australia has a strong history in wheat breeding and it is unclear as to why a continuation of this, utilising newer plant science techniques, poses any threat at all.
Following this we have the word “looming”. For me, if something is looming it is imminent. Yet, best estimates suggest that from a research and development perspective, that is, a science timeline, GM wheat is at least seven years away from commercialisation. I’m not sure about others, but if I had seven years to address all the looming issues currently on my jobs list, I could remain rather relaxed.
The next sentence implies that “chemical companies” are responsible for GM wheat trials. This statement is clearly false, as a quick click on the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator’s (OGTR) website shows such companies are not leading the GM wheat research in Australia. Plant science companies are actively partnering with publicly funded Australian R&D providers across a range of commodity sectors, and in the case of cotton, have done so for decades. In the past year we have seen a number of new partnerships develop. This includes BSES and DuPont working on improving the productivity of sugarcane, CSIRO and Bayer CropScience working on cereals, and the Victorian Department of Primary Industry and Dow Agrosciences forming an alliance to work on new plant traits and varieties. Over and above these partnerships, the OGTR website clearly shows that it is Australian scientists and research entities driving GM wheat research.
Lastly, comes that rather emotive word “polluted” – as in toxic, reactive and contaminating. All are words that Greenpeace uses to rev up the anxiety levels in people who don’t know better. Suffice to say that GM crops have now been grown, traded and consumed around the world for 14 years and have been subjected to more tests and trials than any conventionally-bred varieties of food crops. Greenpeace continues to deny this reality and the fact that the introduction of GM wheat – at its earliest in seven years time – will not have a much greater impact on our meals than current ingredients from widely used GM crops have done in recent years.
We sometimes forget that GM crops can no longer be “new”. Queues outside Apple stores in recent weeks by people wanting to be one of the first to secure a new IPad tell us that consumers do not view “new” as something that is fourteen years old! GM soybean, corn, cotton and canola now have a history in our crop production, food and feed sectors with GM soy, in particular, being widely used. Soy is used in foods including breads, pastries, snack foods, baked products, fried products, edible oil products and special purpose foods such as infant formula. It is also a valuable source of protein in animal feed rations. Over 75 per cent of the world’s soybean production is now grown to GM varieties – this is a long way from shiny and brand new!
Setting aside the colourful language, let’s examine the facts. The following table, drawn from the OGTR website, highlights the current GM wheat R&D underway in Australia. These are projects which have OGTR licences to undergo assessment in the field – referred to as field trials - many of which in their initial stages will be not much bigger than the average suburban backyard and will be conducted under strict conditions on R&D trial sites.
While some of these field trials build on R&D conducted over the last decade, others are the result of more recent work and there is also the noticeable inclusion of research to address some of our current societal health challenges, rather than the more traditional focus on agronomic improvement. That said, one should not ignore the research being done to produce wheat and barley that is more water efficient therefore producing crops that perform better in our challenging dry conditions.
Greenpeace probably won’t issue a statement to tell us that in the recent 2010 “Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology” survey conducted by IFIC (the International Food Information Council) in the United States of America, almost three quarters (73 per cent) of respondents said they would be somewhat or very likely to purchase food products – such as bread, crackers, cookies, cereal or pasta products – made with flour from GM wheat if it had been produced to “use less water, land and/or pesticides”.
The GM canola experience has taught Australia a valuable lesson and one that will stand us in good stead for future GM crops. For every GM crop there are two parts – the science (incorporating crop performance, human health and safety, and environmental safety) and secondly, and equally as important, the market and trade considerations.
Australia has demonstrated its ability to address both parts of this equation. In relation to the science, plant breeders, technology developers and seed companies have ensured the delivery of new crop varieties with good agronomic performance, tailored to both specific conditions and regions. Australia’s OGTR, considered to be the most stringent gene technology regulator in the world, has ensured that all approved GM crops pose no risk to human health and safety and the environment. And FSANZ has assessed and ensured the safety of all foods and ingredients derived from GM crops. Lastly, one that is often overlooked, the numerous entities and individuals that make up the Australian grain supply chain worked together, over a number of years, to ensure market and trade considerations were addressed prior to the commercialisation of GM canola. They have subsequently managed GM canola in the supply chain ensuring its successful commercialisation.
In 2009, Australia grew 41,000 hectares of GM canola in New South Wales and Victoria alongside other canola varieties in the supply chain. The industry introduced standards to accommodate the new GM varieties and the product was successfully grown, harvested and marketed. This same experience will be built on in the lead up to, and in preparation for, the commercialisation of GM wheat.
Last year, Australian entities – the Grain Growers Association, the Pastoralists and Graziers Association and the former Grains Council of Australia – joined with key organisations in the United States of America and Canada to launch a GM Wheat Trilateral Statement. This statement demonstrated strong support for GM wheat R&D and noted the importance of working together to address market and trade considerations. In the US, this statement was not only endorsed by grower organisations but also by the North American Millers’ Association, recognising the need for ongoing innovation in the milling industry.
So, while this narrative doesn’t have a multi-level headline, nor does it rely on colourful language and dramatic imagery – it is based on fact. GM wheat is some way from commercialisation and as those seven years draw closer, we can be confident of robust plant science, new varieties offering benefits to our farmers and consumers, and a grains industry with considerable experience to ensure a smooth path-to-market and the provision of choice in the marketplace. Let’s hope data and evidence win on the day and misguided diatribe comes a distant last. In other words, let the facts tell the story!
Corn Hybrids and Big Brother
- Bruce Walker, New American, August 25, 2010 http://www.thenewamerican.com/
The marketplace solves so many “problems” that it is amazing how often people turn to government or resort to violence to force their opinions down other people’s throats. Giorgio Fidenato, an Italian agronomist, has been developing six strains of genetically modified corn seeds which he believes are resistant to the corn borer, a pest that annually causes extensive losses to farmers. The European Union has rules which allow Fidenato to plant these particular crops, but the Italian government requires special permission from the Agriculture Ministry.
Fidenato, who cites as his inspiration U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas), has engaged in what he calls civil disobedience in planting his test crops. The Italian government has simply not created any test which his seeds could pass to be legal. The overlapping authority of the supra-national European Union and the Government of Italy — along with the vague, bureaucratic rules — is a perfect example of a process which the marketplace has been handling for hundreds of years.
The breeding of plants or animals is as old as Egypt. Although this genetic alteration of crops and livestock does not descend into the level of altering the structure of the DNA, man has for a long time been developing strains of plants and animals which serve human needs better than the old stock. In some cases, like mules, the animals do not reproduce. In other cases, the apples, the cattle, the wheat, and the chicken which are selectively bred provide mankind with more variety, more choices, and more food.
The perverse melding of activist environmentalists — who think nothing of trespass and physical destruction in pursuit of their “cause” — and those bureaucrats dependent upon the agitation of rabid environmentalists, creates an environment in which creative exploration of the benefits of more sophisticated genetic development is regarded as somehow dangerous and evil.
No one is really suggesting that the corn which Senor Fidenato intends to grow will poison people or cause a mass catastrophe. Instead, the busybodies assert that the public will be misled by product labeling. Even the European Union acknowledges that there are no real scientific reasons for regulating and excluding genetically modified foods. Still some parts of Europe — France, Austria, and Germany — have declared that they are G.M.O.-free zones (countries with no genetically modified organisms.)
What is even more bizarre is that three-quarters of the corn, soybeans and sugar beets — all very substantial and important food crops — in the United States are already genetically modified. Not even the most doctrinaire environmentalists in America have been able to push politicians into banning these genetically modified crops. (Although a federal judge in San Francisco has enjoined further planting of genetically modified sugar beets until the environmental impact was further studied.)
One concern noted in Italy is that genetically modified plants, like tomatoes, may drive out specialized varieties, which are an important niche market in Europe. No one seems to realize that these very specialized crops which Italian farmers grow now are “genetically modified” through patient labor and that if the new tomatoes taste better than the old tomatoes, then the rationale for keeping out the new, better products loses relevance.
Meanwhile, Fidenato may be facing fine and even imprisonment for the Orwellian “crime” of illegal planting. Farming and ranching are among the oldest labors of man. The progressive improvement of the quality and variety of food has been considered a noble undertaking, and the processes used to reach that goal have seldom merited government oversight. Today, however, under the guise of "environmentalism" – a favorite theme of the Nazis – thuggish mobs enter the farmland of other people and destroy their crops while bureaucrats ponder which types of corn can be planted and which cannot.
Plant Scientists Move Closer to Making Any Crop Drought-Tolerant
'New research builds on breakthrough discovery at UC Riverside of synthetic chemical pyrabactin'
RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Drought-tolerant crops have moved closer to becoming reality. A collaborative team of scientists has made a significant advance on the discovery last year by the University of California, Riverside's Sean Cutler of pyrabactin, a synthetic chemical that mimics a naturally produced stress hormone in plants to help them cope with drought conditions.
Led by researchers at The Medical College of Wisconsin, the scientists report in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology (online) on Aug. 22 that by understanding how pyrabactin works, other more effective chemicals for bringing drought-resistance to plants can be developed more readily.
Abscisic acid versus pyrabactin
Plants naturally produced a stress hormone, abscisic acid (ABA), in modest amounts to help them survive drought by inhibiting growth. ABA has already been commercialized for agricultural use. But it has at least two disadvantages: it is light-sensitive and costly to make.
Pyrabactin, on the other hand, is relatively inexpensive, easy to make, and not sensitive to light. But its drawback is that, unlike ABA, it does not turn on all the "receptors" in the plant that need to be activated for drought-tolerance to fully take hold.
Lock and key
A receptor is a protein molecule in a cell to which mobile signaling molecules – such as ABA or pyrabactin, each of which turns on stress-signaling pathways in plants – may attach. Usually at the top of a signaling pathway, the receptor functions like a boss relaying orders to the team below that then proceeds to execute particular decisions in the cell.
Each receptor is equipped with a pocket, akin to a padlock, in which a chemical, like pyrabactin, can dock into, operating like a key. Even though the receptor pockets appear to be fairly similar in structure, subtle differences distinguish a pocket from its peers. The result is that while ABA, a product of evolution, can fit neatly in any of these pockets, pyrabactin is less successful. Still, pyrabactin, by being partially effective (it works better on seeds than on plant parts), serves as a leading molecule for devising new chemicals for controlling stress tolerance in plants.
Cutler explained that each receptor is equipped with a lid that operates like a gate. For the receptor to be activated, the lid must remain closed. Pyrabactin is effective at closing the gate on some receptors, turning them on, but cannot close the gate on others. The researchers have now cracked the molecular basis of this behavior.
"A key insight from the current work is that this difference is controlled by subtle differences between the receptors in their binding pockets," said Cutler, an associate professor of plant cell biology in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences and one of the members of the research team.
He explained that in a receptor where the gate closes, pyrabactin fits in snugly to allow the gate to close. In a receptor not activated by pyrabactin, the chemical binds in a way that prevents the gate from closing and activating the receptor.
"These insights suggest new strategies for modifying pyrabactin and related compounds so that they fit properly into the pockets of other receptors," Cutler said.
Impact of pyrabactin
According to Cutler, pyrabactin has paved the way for manufacturing new molecules that activate or turn on receptors.
"For it to be a good agriculture chemical, however, it needs to turn on more receptors by fitting into their pockets," he said. "If a derivative of pyrabactin could be found that is capable of turning on all the receptors for drought tolerance, the implications for agriculture are enormous. The current research is an important step on the way to what is likely to be the next big result: an ABA-mimicking chemical that can be sprayed on corn, soy bean and other crops."
The discovery of pyrabactin by the Cutler lab was heralded as a breakthrough research of 2009 by Science magazine. In the current research, Cutler collaborated with Brian Volkman and his research group at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and helped guide critical questions.
"Specifically, we performed genetic experiments that helped us pinpoint which amino acids in the receptors are critical for pyrabactin to either work or not work," Cutler said. "We also identified reasons for why one receptor is sensitive to pyrabactin while a neighboring receptor is not."
UK: Norfolk GM Potato Trial Withstands Blight
- Michael Pollitt, Eastern Daily Press August 26, 2010 http://www.edp24.co.uk
A trial plot of genetically-modified potatoes at Norfolk's John Innes Centre has withstood five days of intense late-blight infection.
Scientists spotted blight last week on the small trial plots of potatoes at Colney, which include GM resistance genes taken from wild relatives.
The initial results, after less than a week of late blight, appear to indicate that one plot of Desiree with a GM resistance gene, has stood up to the disease pressure.
However, scientist Prof Jonathan Jones, who has been leading the three-year trial involving 192 GM potato plants, stressed that it was far too early to jump to conclusions.
“I'm pretty happy with the indications but I'm also cautious because we have not done any proper analysis of the data. First impressions appear to show that one of the two genes tested has conferred a degree of protection on the plants.”
“We'll be looking into the reasons why. We have got quite a bit of analysis to do,” said Prof Jones, group leader at the JIC's Sainsbury Laboratory.
He said that the trial, which was given official clearance by Defra, was to assess the resistance of GM potato lines to naturally-occurring strains of late blight.
The scientists planted the eight-inch high Desiree potatoes in six blocks, each of four rows of eight in an area about the size of two pool tables. Other conventional potatoes, Maris Piper, were planted as a control alongside the plots.
Prof Jones said that impact of the disease was “visually obvious” on the ordinary potato varieties. He said that all the potatoes from the trial plots, which had been planted inside a three-metre high metal fence costing about £20,000 to protect them from opponents of GM crops, would not enter the food chain. “Our licence stipulates that all the potatoes must be destroyed,” he added.
The initial results indicated that one of the GM trial plots, MCQ1, had not withstood the disease pressure. "But the other, VNT1, which confers resistance to the widespread and destructive new “superblight” Blue 13 strain in the laboratory, looks fine," said Prof Jones.
All the potatoes, which were planted outside in the first week of June, had been grown in a greenhouse until the official permission for the trial had been given.
Scientists screened wild potato relatives to look for natural resistance, which was identified. Two different resistance genes were then cloned and introduced into potato variety Desiree for the three-year trial. The public-funded trial programme aims to assess effectiveness against last blight, which costs farmers an estimated £3.5bn worldwide each year.
Don't Fear Genetically Modified Food
- Dr. Joanne Stolen, Summit Daily News, August, 24 2010 http://www.summitdaily.com/article/20100825/COLUMNS/100829905/1078&ParentProfile=1055
'The promises of plant hybridization and biotechnology'
Here in America we often see poor dietary choices and unhealthy lifestyles. More and more Americans are becoming obese, which is defined as increased food intake, non-healthful foods and physical inactivity. The average percentage of obese individuals is 30 percent. Colorado was one of two states to have obesity levels of less than 20 percent. At the same time, millions of Americans struggle to obtain sufficient food. Worldwide — in Asia, Africa and Latin American countries, over 500 million people are living in poverty. Every year, 15 million children die of malnutrition. Much of this is tied into increasing populations, degradation of the environment and poor agricultural practices
Today we are in the forefront of food science and technology. The study of plant genomics can identify gene combinations that lead to significant innovation in agriculture and the production of raw materials for the “4 F's”: food, feed, fiber and fuel. There is hope that an interdisciplinary approach such as molecular plant breeding and a new knowledge of genome structure and function may be able to help improve agriculture in the 21st century.
What is a genome? A genome represents the entirety of the individual genes that make up the genetic code of an individual, like a brick building where genes are the individual bricks in the building. More than ever, this is an era in science characterized by understanding the basic mechanisms of life, and natural systems. This is due to the rapid advances in computers, and currently research is being done on many of the essential food crops such as rice, wheat, corn, potatoes and soy beans.
Rice is the primary source of food for more than 50 percent of the world's population. It is the second-most consumed cereal grain and provides more than one-fifth of the caloric intake of people around the world. The rice genome was one of the first cereal crops sequenced. Currently, scientists have identified forms of genes that confer fungal and bacterial resistance, as well as genes that make rice tolerant to environmental stresses.
Golden Rice is a transgenic variety of rice, with genes for the synthesis of beta-carotene taken from the daffodil and inserted into the genome of a strain of rice. Beta -carotene is extremely important to us as it is the most efficient precursor of retinol (vitamin-A). Deficiency of vitamin-A causes dry skin, dry eyes, dry mucous surfaces, retarded development and growth, sterility in males and night blindness as well as other types of irreversible blindness. Every year, at least a million children die weakened by vitamin-A deficiency, and about three million go blind.
Plant geneticists also have produced corn with increased levels of beta-carotene. Soybean not only accounts for 70 percent of the world's edible protein, but also is an emerging plant used for biodiesel production. Soybean is second only to corn as an agricultural commodity and is the leading U.S. agricultural export. Most soybeans grown today are genetically modified and have increased yield, drought and heat resistance.
New research can lead to new strategies for improving freezing tolerance in wheat, which provides more than one-fifth of the calories consumed by people around the world. Research is also being done to develop therapies for fighting diseases caused by fungi and other microorganisms in wheat. Another important benefit of some biotech crops is they allow farmers to use no-till farming practices. This reduces soil erosion by up to 90 percent and also the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by farm fields.
As many of us know, the first exciting wave of biotechnology — one which promised us disease- and pest-resistant crops, abundant foods with fewer chemical inputs and better environmental stewardship — slowed to a crawl with the problems of product development and regulatory burden. This made it difficult for those in sciences, and in the private sector to deliver on the promises the early ‘80s and through the end of the century.
Ever since Golden Rice was produced, there has been an incessant, increasingly polarized public debate over the pros and cons of not just Golden Rice, but all GM crops and organic produce. Websites contain voluminous daily arguments, some of them being quite venomous. Reactionary groups burned down science labs, and destroyed plants. Most of the comments were more generic about how scientists should stop “messing with” our vegetables.
Needless to say, most of the commentators, and the general public, didn't understand that, for instance, the tomatoes in their backyards already are a product of plant breeding — whether it was done in a lab or by selecting varieties over years or decades to produce desired traits. Underlying this unfamiliarity with the science was the unfounded fear that the public's right to decide whether or not to eat genetically modified organisms was taken away. In the current decade we are coming to grips with the reality that science must focus on solving the “grand societal challenges” we face as a global society.
For more than 20 years, the people in the academic science community and in the private sector have struggled with how to deal with the lack of acceptance of agriculture biotechnology, and the challenge of bringing new biotech products to market.
One thing is clear: We need to take the mystique out of science, especially biotechnology, and allow the public to see research as beneficial to society in a world where food scarcity is an ever-growing crisis.
Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution.
Intolerant, Hysterical and Smug! How I Hate the Organic Fanatics
- Susan Hill, Daily Mail (UK), August 24, 2010
One net of four lemons - £1.23; one net of four ORGANIC lemons - £2.49. One pint of semi-skimmed milk - 89p; one pint of ORGANIC semi-skimmed milk - £1.20.
These price differences incensed me so much the other day that I spent an hour going round the small supermarket in a town near my home in the Cotswolds filling two trolleys with identical items, one organic and 'eco-friendly', the other non-organic and what you might call 'normal'.
When I had filled my trolleys, I went into a corner of the shop and worked out the cost of each. The organic trolley was £93.72. The other £66.30.
If you embrace the organic faith, the first thing that happens is that you lose your sense of perspective and your ability to read any facts Now, a difference of almost a third is a big difference. How can many ordinary working families afford to pay such a lot extra for their shopping trolley week in, week out?
My little experiment confirmed what I always suspected - that organics are for the rich. This doesn't apply only to food. What about organic cotton bed linen, eco-friendly floor cleaner, organic dog biscuits? All of it costs a lot more.
The rich can, of course, afford to indulge their organic fads. They are the ones who fall for the hysterical hype about organic being better, more nutritious, more likely to make you live longer and not poison you with all those awful chemical pesticides that non-organic food is supposedly soaked in.
But ordinary people have got far less money and a lot more sense. Just as rich celebrities usually fall for daft religions and alternative everything, so naturally they fall for the religion of An Organic Existence. If you embrace the organic faith, the first thing that happens is that you lose your sense of perspective and your ability to read any facts, especially scientific facts, that run contrary to your beliefs.
So with the fervent belief that organic food is more nutritious comes the blindness which prevents you from accepting properly conducted scientific investigations, like the one reported in the Daily Mail last year. After lengthy trials, the Berlin-based consumer watchdog Stiftung Warentest concluded that organic food has no health, taste or nutritional advantages over conventionally manufactured or harvested food. But you could scream that in their ears all day - the organic religionists will not listen.
If you can't justify organic foods on nutritional grounds, surely they are less harmful because they're not stuffed full of toxic pesticides which damage health? Er, no. The old powerful weedkillers are now banned on all farms. Meanwhile, modern versions are strictly regulated, don't harm the soil and residues in food are undetectable. It seems the EU's safety regulations aren't all bad. But again, try to explain this to the organic fanatics and it's like talking to a brick wall.
Now, that's fine. People believe what they want to believe. I am a Christian and as a result a lot of people think that I'm a nutter. But with the organic brigade, as with many converts to other religions, it doesn't always stop there.
They want to convert the rest of us to their faith - forcibly if necessary. You listen to a fervent organic believer and it's like listening to someone off to the Crusades. Now, don't jump to the conclusion that because I know that 'organic' is a con and a rip-off, I want everyone to die of pesticide poisoning, the earth to become barren and animals to suffer. I don't.
I always buy free-range eggs and meat, not because they taste better or are more nutritious - sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. It's because of the way the animals are treated. Their welfare ought to concern everyone.
And I was pleasantly surprised when I did a price comparison on free-range eggs and chickens, and on normal versus free-range bacon. On the eggs, there was 2p difference per half-dozen; on the bacon, 6p per pack.
That's not so much and it's worth forgoing a few pence to cover the cost, once you know how battery animals are treated. The benefits of free-range may be non-existent to us, but to the hens and pigs they are everything. The benefits of organic seem to be non-existent to anyone.
I asked a neighbouring vegetable grower if he had thought of converting to organic. Yes, he'd looked into it. It takes three years to change over to organic methods and get the seal of approval from Organics HQ. It is very labour intensive, pests flourish and yields are much smaller. 'The benefits of free-range may be non-existent to us, but to the hens and pigs they are everything. The benefits of organic seem to be non-existent to anyone'
Since the recession, the bottom has dropped out of the organics market. Shops once allocated long stretches of shelving to organic produce. Now, they have shrunk or even vanished - except, of course, in stores where the rich live.
The rich who buy only organic products are telling us they are morally superior, that they have tender consciences and hug the planet on a daily basis.
So why can't they widen their concern and get real? After all, we will only eliminate hunger and gradually increase the life-expectancy of the world's poorest if we produce food on a massive scale, with all the benefits of modern fertilisers and pesticides.
While many mothers struggle to feed their young families at all, the rich indulge theirs in expensive organic-only babyfoods - some of which, when tested, were found to have fewer nutrients and minerals than the non-organic sort. Devoted poorer mothers know they should provide fresh fruit and vegetables for their children - yet find it hard enough to pay for the regular sort, never mind organic. The price of five bananas in my supermarket today - (special offer) £1. Price of five organic bananas - £2.39.
Yet the propaganda about organic everything is constantly pumped out, so that parents are made to feel guilty and inadequate. They are told that because they are not giving their families organic food, their children will be allergy-prone and stunted from ingesting pesticides.
And that's before they're told that they are harming/polluting/ shortening the life of Planet Earth and helping to wipe out biodiversity.
Those who can ill afford to pay an extra £2.39 for five bananas make huge efforts to do so to in order to assuage their consciences, which have been pricked by the rich organic-fanatics who cannot face scientific facts because it's against their new religion.
Yes, organic might be a matter of faith - and some doctors would say that if you believe the medicine is doing you good, it really works.
By all means, eat organic because you think it tastes better; sometimes it does. Believe it is more nutritious if you must and that non-organic is junk. It's a free world.
Just don't make others who can't afford your organic faith feel bad about it.
Video: Stewart Brand Proclaims 4 Environmental 'Heresies'
The man who helped usher in the environmental movement in the 1960s and '70s has been rethinking his positions on cities, nuclear power, genetic modification and geo-engineering. This talk at the US State Department is a foretaste of his major new book, sure to provoke widespread debate.
Since the counterculture Sixties, Stewart Brand has been a critical thinker and innovator who helped lay the foundations of our internetworked world
Brazil's Agricultural Miracle: How to Feed The World
- The Economist, August 26 2010 http://www.economist.com
'The emerging conventional wisdom about world farming is gloomy. There is an alternative'
THE world is planting a vigorous new crop: “agro-pessimism”, or fear that mankind will not be able to feed itself except by wrecking the environment. The current harvest of this variety of whine will be a bumper one. Natural disasters—fire in Russia and flood in Pakistan, which are the world’s fifth- and eighth-largest wheat producers respectively—have added a Biblical colouring to an unfolding fear of famine. By 2050 world grain output will have to rise by half and meat production must double to meet demand. And that cannot easily happen because growth in grain yields is flattening out, there is little extra farmland and renewable water is running short.
The world has been here before. In 1967 Paul Ehrlich, a Malthusian, wrote that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over--- In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.” Five years later, in “The Limits to Growth”, the Club of Rome (a group of business people and academics) argued that the world was running out of raw materials and that societies would probably collapse in the 21st century.
A year after “The Limits to Growth” appeared, however, and at a time when soaring oil prices seemed to confirm the Club of Rome’s worst fears, a country which was then a large net food importer decided to change the way it farmed. Driven partly by fear that it would not be able to import enough food, it decided to expand domestic production through scientific research, not subsidies. Instead of trying to protect farmers from international competition—as much of the world still does—it opened up to trade and let inefficient farms go to the wall. This was all the more remarkable because most of the country was then regarded as unfit for agricultural production.
The country was Brazil. In the four decades since, it has become the first tropical agricultural giant and the first to challenge the dominance of the “big five” food exporters (America, Canada, Australia, Argentina and the European Union).
Even more striking than the fact of its success has been the manner of it. Brazil has followed more or less the opposite of the agro-pessimists’ prescription. For them, sustainability is the greatest virtue and is best achieved by encouraging small farms and organic practices. They frown on monocultures and chemical fertilisers. They like agricultural research but loathe genetically modified (GM) plants. They think it is more important for food to be sold on local than on international markets. Brazil’s farms are sustainable, too, thanks to abundant land and water. But they are many times the size even of American ones. Farmers buy inputs and sell crops on a scale that makes sense only if there are world markets for them. And they depend critically on new technology. As the briefing explains, Brazil’s progress has been underpinned by the state agricultural-research company and pushed forward by GM crops. Brazil represents a clear alternative to the growing belief that, in farming, small and organic are beautiful.
That alternative commands respect for three reasons. First, it is magnificently productive. It is not too much to talk about a miracle, and one that has been achieved without the huge state subsidies that prop up farmers in Europe and America. Second, the Brazilian way of farming is more likely to do good in the poorest countries of Africa and Asia. Brazil’s climate is tropical, like theirs. Its success was built partly on improving grasses from Africa and cattle from India. Of course there are myriad reasons why its way of farming will not translate easily, notably that its success was achieved at a time when the climate was relatively stable whereas now uncertainty looms. Still, the basic ingredients of Brazil’s success—agricultural research, capital-intensive large farms, openness to trade and to new farming techniques—should work elsewhere.
Plant the plains, save the forests
Third, Brazil shows a different way of striking a balance between farming and the environment. The country is accused of promoting agriculture by razing the Amazon forest. And it is true that there has been too much destructive farming there. But most of the revolution of the past 40 years has taken place in the cerrado, hundreds of miles away. Norman Borlaug, who is often called the father of the Green Revolution, said the best way to save the world’s imperilled ecosystems would be to grow so much food elsewhere that nobody would need to touch the natural wonders. Brazil shows that can be done.
It also shows that change will not come about by itself. Four decades ago, the country faced a farm crisis and responded with decisive boldness. The world is facing a slow-motion food crisis now. It should learn from Brazil.