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January 19, 2011


Need to Communicate; Only Way to Go Green; Ease Regulations Please; Enough Foot-Dragging; Feeding of the Nine Billion


* Novel Food Technologies Need Proactive Communication, Finds Paper
* The Only Way To Go Green
* Finland: High-Level Delegation Asks Parliament to Ease Regulations on GM
* Enough Foot-Dragging On Modified Beet Study
* GM Crops Can Make The World Greener
* French Activist Sentenced and Fined
* Sustainability at Monsanto: Oxymoron?
* Feeding of the Nine Billion
* Corrected: U.S. Scientists Use Genetic Engineering to Protect Vital Cassava Farming in Africa


Novel Food Technologies Need Proactive Communication, Finds Paper

- Jess Halliday, Food Production Daily, Jan. 18, 2011
- http://www.foodproductiondaily.com/Processing/Novel-food-technologies-need-proactive-communication-finds-paper

Policy-makers should adopt a proactive approach to communication on new food technologies, with stakeholder forums and public consultation in order to tackle consumer issues early on, says a new paper.

The development of new technologies in recent decades has led to great debate on the best approach to risk/benefit communication. Industry is eager to avoid mistakes made in the introduction of genetically modified foods in Europe in the 1990s, where consumer suspicion is keen.

A new paper accepted for publication in the journal Trends in Food Science and Technology shows that there are a number of factors influencing consumer attitudes and acceptance of new technologies, such as perceived risks and benefits, knowledge, provision of information, trust, and socio-demographic factors.

But there are some steps can be taken to build acceptance even as scientists are still seeking to understand the full workings and implications of technologies proposed for food chain entry.

Josephine Wills of the European Food Information Council (EUFIC) and co-authors point out that in the past the public was seen as a passive receiver of risk-benefit information. Now, however, it is recognised that there should be a process of information exchange amongst all stakeholders.

The paper looks particularly at food irradiation, GMOs, animal cloning, nutrigenomics and nanotechnology, mapping current awareness and attitudes to each.

Wills and colleagues point out that these embody complex concepts, and “without a serious communication effort, these innovations could face a negative public reaction”.

Increased communication early on, and involvement of end-users, could contribute to transparency in decision-making and trust in public authorities, as well as the possibility of market success – but given the complexity of food risk communication “no single set of recommendations can suit all situations”.

Channels and risk mitigation
The authors suggest that a number of different channels and methods should be used to generate dialogue, including websites, festivals, exhibitions and commercialisation-like techniques.

They also say effective communication should highlight what has been done to mitigate risks, with information on risk control measures, food safety laws and regulations.

It has also been suggested that drawing attention to tangible consumer benefits of a new technology may increase purchase intention in the face of scepticism – but at the same time, perceived naturalness of foods and processing methods are well regarded by consumers, and tend to be used in advertising materials.

Wills and colleague speculate that scepticism towards emerging food technologies may make food companies reluctant to communicate any messages that may provoke negative attitudes, but they write “the roll of marketing and advertising in communication strategies for novel food technologies seems to be unexplored”.

Source: Trends in Food Science & Technology, online ahead of print, Doi:10.1016/j.tifs.2010.09.001 Consumers and new food technologies- Authors: Fanny Rollin, Jean Kennedy, Josephine Wills


The Only Way To Go Green

- Editorial, Investors Business Daily, Jan. 14, 2011
- http://www.investors.com/NewsAndAnalysis/Article.aspx?id=560009&p=1

Feed The World: Warnings of a global food shortage are cropping up in the news. This should not be happening in 2011. But while our technologies have advanced, our politics are still prehistoric.

Our world should be a land of plenty. But we're being told that global food prices are rising as supplies become increasingly tight. Analysts cite a combination of growing demand and poor weather.

Food riots in Tunisia are getting the most media attention now, but that's not the only country being affected. Argentina's soybean harvest has been diminished by hot, dry weather, while flooding in Australia has severely hurt the wheat crop Down Under.

In the U.S., inventories of corn have fallen because of weather problems, and soybean reserves, according to the Agriculture Department, are at a three-decade low. Heavy rain in Canada and Pakistan was not offset, but instead was exacerbated, by drought in Russia.

Man cannot control the weather. But famine today is as much man-made as it is a force of nature.

Zimbabwe, for instance, was once considered the breadbasket of Africa. It exported wheat, corn and sugar cane across the continent and beyond. But the country's agriculture industry has been destroyed by a Marxist government that has seized privately owned farms in the name of "land reform."

Under the regime of Robert Mugabe, the annual corn harvest shriveled from more than 1.5 million tons in 2000 to 500,000 tons in 2003. By 2010, production was still around 600,000 tons. Wheat production also collapsed, from 309,000 tons in 2000 to 27,000 tons in 2003. Last year it was roughly 18,000 tons.

Over a short period, Zimbabwe went from being a net exporter of food to a country dependent on international handouts. The once-fertile nation is in a perpetual man-made famine, where more than 2 million go hungry in a population of 11.4 million.

Less known is the story of Malawi. Earlier this decade, kleptocrats within the government sold off the nation's grain and kept the profits for themselves. Governments promote famine in more passive ways as well. Another African nation, Zambia, declined food aid, mostly corn, from the U.S. in 2002, even though it was facing a famine that would affect nearly one-third of its people.

Why? Because America was offering genetically modified food, and it was the country's policy — based on Europe's unfounded fear of such products — to reject it.

Four years later, Friends of the Earth publicly asked governments in the hungry African countries of Ghana and Sierra Leone to recall U.S. food aid that contained genetically modified rice. Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa set the wrong tone in 2002 when he called the food offered to his famished nation "poison" and "intrinsically dangerous."

Such foolish statements could be passed off as ignorance, but what do we say about wags in the developed world who have named genetically modified crops "frankenfood"? They are spreading a fear and superstition about genetically modified foods that doom humans to suffering and even death.

Through genetically altered organisms, which pose no health problems to humans, farmers are able to plant seeds that grow into crops which are resistant to drought, cold weather, insect damage, herbicides and disease. Nutrition can even be improved through genetic modification.

Genetically modified crops have another significant advantage: They can produce more per acre than is possible with conventional crops. Norman Borlaug, the agronomist who launched the Green Revolution through his decades of biotech work, believed that genetically modified food crops would stop world hunger. He was eventually able to coax sixfold yields from some crops.

When he died in 2009, Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations World Food Program, put Borlaug's work in context: He had "saved more lives than any man in human history."

Some say Borlaug actually saved as many as a billion lives. Yet genetically modified foods are looked on with skepticism and are still banned by governments.

Given that we have the technology to grow larger crops on smaller parcels and fly fresh food around the world to where it's needed in a matter of hours, the obstructionism is inexcusable. We need policymakers who are as advanced as today's technology.


Finland: High-Level Delegation Asks Parliament to Ease Regulations on Growing Genetically Modified Plants

- Helsingin Sanomat, Jan.19, 2011
- http://www.hs.fi/english/article/High-level+delegation+asks+Parliament+to+ease+regulations+on+growing+genetically+modified+plants/1135263159290

More than 300 doctorate-level scientists urge MPs not to base decision-making on hearsay but on scientific facts. An exceptionally large and authoritative group of scientists handed a petition to Parliament on Tuesday.

The petition requests that the Members of Parliament base their decisions in the lawmaking process regarding genetic modification on scientific facts instead of on hearsay and rumours.

According to the assembled professors, the current legal undertakings aim to censor scientific freedom. The petition had been signed by 557 people, of whom 312 had a doctorate level degree and of whom 210 served at least in the role of adjunct professor in the academic hierarchy.

The signatories include 140 professors, three research directors, seven university deans, nine research institute directors, 12 university lecturers, two university chancellors, plus a member of the Academy of Finland.

The petition was handed to a group of MPs consisting of members of the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry and the Environment Committee by a ten-strong delegation of Finland’s top plant breeding experts.

According to the signatories, Finland and the EU have gone too far in setting limits to the development of genetically altered plants without basing this on scientific arguments.

In practice, the scientists' main concern is the pending government bill that deals with the conditions under which the production of genetically modified starch potato could commence in Finland.

According to those handing in the petition, the majority of the researchers in the field are quite unanimous for example in their view that the suggested 18 to 30-metre safety zones between the genetically modified potatoes and other varieties are unnecessary. In an interview situation organised in connection with the handing in of the petition, the ten researchers present were concurrent that the safety zone could be limited to three metres as has been applied in Sweden.

According to researcher Jussi Tuomisto from MTT Agrifood Research Finland, studies show that even 18-metre safety zones would reduce the size of arable area at Finnish potato farms by ten per cent.,The signatories’ main common concern, however, was that “because of false information” the MPs might end up banning genetic engineering of plants in Finland altogether.

According to the professors, the vast majority of the plant breeding researchers understand the benefits of genetic modification, but in the public eye the arguments by “a couple of Turku-based adjunct professors” regarding the harmful effects of the technology have received an unreasonable amount of weight.

These biologists argue that the chemical suppression of weeds will become more difficult when the genetically modified varieties’ tolerance to weedkillers spreads from them to the actual weeds.

According to the professors, such fears are hugely exaggerated. Of the world’s arable area, one tenth - an area five times the size of Finland - is already being cultivated with genetically modified crops, but the spreading of resistance to chemicals between the plant species has not been detected, the delegation pointed out.

University of Helsinki Plant and Forest Breeding Professor Teemu Teeri pointed out that “the petition is not for or against anything, but simply a request that only scientific arguments would be used as criteria in the decision-making process.”

According to Teeri, the most common misconception among the public at large is that the use of genetic manipulation techniques would be somehow more dangerous than the traditional techniques used in plant breeding. “Today’s genetic plant breeding is thousands of times more pure than the old-fashioned plant breeding techniques”, added adjunct professor Jussi Tammisola.


Our Voice: Enough Foot-Dragging On Modified Beet Study: Do it, but hold Michigan sugar industry harmless this year

- Editorial Board, The Bay City Times January 16, 2011
- http://www.mlive.com/opinion/bay-city/index.ssf/2011/01/our_voice_enough_foot-dragging.html

Michigan’s sugar beet industry — the farmers, their suppliers and the sugar makers who employ hundreds — are about to suffer for federal foot-dragging and an environmental lawsuit over genetically modified seeds. That cannot be allowed to happen.

But unless the U.S. Department of Agriculture acts with uncharacteristic speed in the next few weeks, it might. The Ag Department has lollygagged for far too long in the legal battle over modified beets that have taken the sugar beet industry by storm.

The problem is Roundup-ready beets, a modified crop developed by Monsanto Corp. to resist the herbicide. The USDA approved the beets for use in 2005; by 2008 Michigan farmers readily adopted their use. Now, 98 percent of Michigan sugar beets are the genetically altered variety. But in 2008, just as Michigan farmers were realizing the increased yields from the new beet type, an environmental lawsuit was filed, claiming the USDA never performed a proper environmental impact statement on the Roundup-ready beets.

In September 2009, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White of San Francisco overturned the USDA’s deregulation of the modified beets. A year later, he banned the planting of modified beets until the USDA had completed an environmental study. That study, unfortunately for beet growers, workers and processors, could take two to three years. It’s beyond time for the federal government to conduct, much less complete, that study.

The groups suing for the environmental report say they fear what genetically altered crops such as beets would do to the environment, and to organically grown crops from the same plant family as sugar beets — table beets and chard, for example. Before anyone goes pooh-poohing fears of cross-pollination from genetically modified beets — or corn or cotton or soybeans — consider: We all should know what we are getting into when we take plants developed in the laboratory and grow them out in the wide open.

The USDA should have conducted an environmental impact study of the modified sugar beet variety long ago. It should have looked ahead when the suit was filed in 2008 and started the study. It should have taken a cue from the 2009 ruling and from the ban late last summer on planting any more modified beets.

Meanwhile, here in the heart of Michigan sugar country, our industry waits. What seed can farmers use? Can they get the seed they need? Will it arrive in time for planting?

In early December, a comment period ended on a USDA environmental assessment that might allow partial deregulation of modified beets for planting this year. But as beet-planting season of late March and early April approaches, we have yet to hear what interim regulations the USDA proposes for beet farmers.
One of the options, approval for the beets under USDA restrictions, would allow farmers to plant the genetically modified seeds this year, and possibly next, until the study is completed sometime in 2012. That is the solution we prefer.

Farmers and sugar beet experts say there is no longer enough unmodified seed available to plant all the sugar beet acreage needed. That, and lower sugar yields from the old seed could result in a 20 percent reduction this year in U.S. sugar production, some sources say. And that might mean sugar prices would rise, and imports needed to fill U.S. demand.

All because the USDA, the agency that, among other duties, is supposed to enable and protect the U.S. food supply, has yet to perform an environmental study that should have been completed years ago when the modified beets were deregulated.

To prevent even more economic hardship in our sugar-growing region, one of the hardest-hit areas in the nation during this Great Recession, the modified beets should be allowed to hit the dirt with the spring thaw.

The USDA should pave the way with rules and restrictions. The courts in scheduled February hearings should give the OK. Plus, that study should be done.

And, as any economic sector should, the U.S. sugar beet industry ought to hope for the best — that modified beets present no risk — but prepare for the worst.
Sow a seed crop for old-fashioned, unmodified beets. Just in case.


GM Crops Can Make The World Greener

- Rog Wood, Herald Scotland, Jan 17, 2011

‘Genetically modified crops could bring huge increases in crop yields and reduce farmers’ carbon output.’

At last the fog of the EU’s muddled thinking on genetic modification and cloning is beginning to clear.

Last week’s seminar in Brussels on genetically modified (GM) produce was another small step forward in the debate. A leading US expert, Professor Martina McGloughlin of the University of California, outlined the benefits of GM products to both farmers and the environment. She told delegates pesticide use was reduced by 15.4%, insecticide use by 90% and fuel use went down by 20 gallons per acre. The reductions in carbon emissions are equivalent to removing six million cars from the roads.

Ms McGloughlin stated that crops with nitrogen efficiency genes were already in the pipeline and would be available in other countries within two years. She also claimed that the new variety of blight-resistant potatoes which used two genes from wild potatoes could save potato farmers more than £3 billion by the reduction in spraying.

I have recently studied GM crop technology in Argentina and China and, having spoken to many plant breeders around the world, I can confirm all those claims to be true. Yet while much of the rest of the world is enjoying the benefits of modern science, our SNP-led Scottish Government remains steadfastly opposed to allowing GM crops to be planted in Scotland. Luddites!

Elsewhere in the world there are new crop varieties resistant to all kinds of pests, or with better root structure that enables them to tolerate drier growing conditions, an increasing problem for some in this era of climate change.

Scientists have already delivered major improvements in crop yield. Over the past 30 years world grain production has increased 60% on 6% less land. Most plant breeders I have spoken to firmly believe that as GM technology improves and new varieties come on stream it should be possible to double crop yields with 30% fewer inputs by 2030. With the world’s population predicted to keep on growing, that awesome potential for increased output will be welcome news to all but the insane.

While all of the advances being made by the plant breeders using GM technology are to be welcomed, and European farmers will eventually be allowed to use them like their counterparts around the world, there is one great advance to be made that is rarely talked about by geneticists – the development of perennial cereal crops.

Imagine the savings and the benefits to the environment. Cereals that only require to be sown once every five or six years rather than annually would be the ultimate breakthrough!

Arguably the worst thing an arable farmer does to his valuable land is plough it. That operation and follow-up cultivations uses a lot of fuel and degrades soil structure. Some arable land, like the light, sandy soils of the Pampas in Argentina, lend themselves to no-till systems where the land is sprayed with glyphosphate (Roundup) before the seed is direct drilled. Other types of soil with limited amounts of stone can be sown without ploughing by using minimum tillage systems – but if we could develop perennial varieties of cereals then we really would have a major breakthrough in crop husbandry.

Of course there is one good reason why the idea of perennial cereal varieties may remain a pipe-dream for the foreseeable future – why should plant breeders bother? After all, they recoup their massive investment in developing new varieties from the royalties they charge on seed grown under licence, or multiplying and selling their own seeds.

To protect their income they have even developed the so-called “terminator” gene where second-generation seed is sterile and won’t germinate. That prevents frugal farmers using their own farm-saved seed and forces them to buy fresh seed every year from the plant breeders.

Perhaps it’s time for an international breeding programme, jointly funded by all the member states of the EU to develop perennial cereal varieties? The science is there, all we lack is adequate government funding, independent of commercial considerations by plant breeders, and real commitment.


France: GMO Grapevines in Colmar: the judicial system recognises the right to research

- INRA Press release, Jan 17, 2011

The individual who, acting alone, destroyed a GMO trial belonging to INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, in September 2009, has just been even more heavily condemned by the Court of Appeal in Colmar (Alsace) on 17th January 2011: a one month suspended sentence, 50,000 euros in damages, and a confirmed fine of 2000 euros. This penal decision comes over and above the fact that the legality of this test has been reconfirmed by the administrative justice system.

Already obliged to pay a 2000 euro fine in November 2009, the person responsible declares that he destroyed the research site of the Institute because no public debate was possible on these GMO grapevines, contesting the interest, the methods and the scientific range of this experiment, the objective of which was to find new means to fight against the fanleaf virus, a major disease for grapevines.

The fanleaf virus is a viral disease of grapevines that causes a drop in production (up to 80%). It affects approximately 60% of grapevines in France with damage evaluated at between 350 and 850 million euros per year. This test area in Alsace was built in cooperation with a local monitoring committee (CLS), made up of local politicians and representatives of winegrowers, unions and associations. Primarily composed of people who objected to GMO in principle, and wanted to find answers to the reality of the risks and benefits linked to the use of this type of technology, the monitoring committee took a demanding stance on the methods of the experiment, guaranteeing its non-commercial nature.

When the individual concerned appeared in the first instance in November 2009, the administrative tribunal of Strasbourg cancelled the test authorisation delivered by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2005, saying that it did not respect European Law. However, the Nancy administrative Court of Appeal, in a ruling on the 10 January 2011, has just re-established the legality of the test, notably regarding:

* the conditions for monitoring the test, which had been clearly explained in the contested ministerial authorisation;

* the destruction of all the genetically modified material that was foreseen at the end of the research;

* the disinfection of the ground of the area of land concerned, and the destruction of the worms carrying the fanleaf virus, which were also programmed.

Over and above this, the Court also considered that the public's right to information had been respected via a public consultation and the creation of the monitoring committee. Finally, the court reminded those concerned of the general interest of the experiment: * competitiveness of the agricultural sector, representing a certain public interest; * which does not represent a risk for the environment.

INRA is waiting for the next appearance in the Colmar Magistrates' Court of the sixty volunteer reapers who definitively destroyed the experiment in August 2010.


Sustainability at Monsanto: Oxymoron?

- Josh Gelfand, Triple Pundit, January 18, 2011


Monsanto, known and sometimes criticized for their role in the proliferation of genetically modified crops in the US and the world, has released their 2010 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report. The company, accused by some as “poisoning the world’s food supply,” monopolizing the seed market and even contributing to rural suicides in India, is lauding their sustainability efforts. Having greatly increased food production in much of the world, the company argues they are reducing hunger and providing a greater livelihood for farmers. The following is a brief analysis of their report.

As members of the UN Global Compact (UNGC) they elected to build their report around the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) which has become a standard for reporting due to its simple, self-assessed and standardized approach. Monsanto chose to use the GRI guidelines, but elected not to officially report to GRI or receive any external assurance on their reporting. Given the lack of 3rd party verification, some readers will question the claims in the report. Just like a building that can be built to LEED standards without certification, a report doesn’t have to be 3rd party verified to be true. However, the independent assessment shows stakeholders that a company has committed to sustainable progress and transparency and we don’t have that assurance here. To their credit, Monsanto does report on a solid 44 total performance indicators, 33 of which are considered “core” indicators by GRI. It’s a good start.

Monsanto indicates in their GRI G3 Index that they are reporting on 15 of the 25 total environmental indicators. They go into some very good detail on their consumption and output assessments regarding energy, water, waste and emissions, including their progress over the prior 3 years. Some of these numbers are quite impressive. They’ve reduced their energy consumption, water use, water waste (discharge), emissions and raw materials consumption overall from 2007-2009 (all of those except for water saw an increase in 2008 but a decrease to below 2007 levels in 2009). Strangely, and without any explanation beyond the graphed metrics on an efficiency scale, they show efficiency decreases in every category measured, which include energy consumption, raw material consumption, direct GHG emissions, indirect GHG emissions, fresh water consumption, chemical oxygen demand (greatest decrease in efficiency), acidification emissions, eutrophication (phosphates to surface water), photochemical oxidant creation (VOCs), and waste shipped offsite. None of these metrics are explained and no reason is given for the decreases in efficiency (or increases in inefficiency, depending on how you read the graphs), some to below the 2000 benchmark levels. However, the level of transparency is refreshing, though clearly incomplete.

With that said, there is room for improvement in Monsanto’s next CSR report.

One of the primary issues with this report is the definition of sustainability that Monsanto relies on to set the parameters of their intentions. They make it clear that the single most important thing they have to accomplish – for sustainability – is to increase crop yields. Increasing yields of the staple crops of corn, soy, cotton and canola is vital, since they repeatedly emphasize that the yield of these crops will need to double by 2030 in order to keep up with the projected 9 billion Earthlings that will inhabit the planet by then. These statements are followed by the claim that they will increase these yields while simultaneously decreasing crop impact on land use, water use, energy use, soil loss and climate per unit of production.

It is hard to argue with this approach, after all they are considering human sustainability and meeting the needs of future generations. Human sustainability is central to their report; they highlight individual farmers, special projects in developing countries, and often refer to growing populations. They also talk extensively about philanthropic efforts, including the donation of 130 tons of hybrid corn and vegetable seeds to Haiti after last year’s devastating earthquake. However, there are many in the sustainability realm who would argue vigorously with Monsanto’s definition of sustainability. A truly transparent report would acknowledge how this definition differs from the norm and why.

The biggest elephant in the room of this report was the fact that those business practices which cause the activists so much grief went largely unmentioned. CSR reports are at best transparency documents, and it’s difficult to trust a report that ignores negativities and lauds positive impacts, including framing certain unsustainable practices as “responsible,” like increasing yields through monoculture. The stakeholder engagement section of the report, which spans 10 pages, fails to mention any type of engagement with the groups who oppose or are negatively affected by their practices. This section discusses their philanthropic efforts and some good projects, like protecting biodiversity in sections of Brazil and partnerships with organizations like The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society on conservation projects in the Mississippi River basin. These are all laudable activities and rightly celebrated in this report. But to include these examples and not mention how Monsanto has (or has not) engaged with stakeholders that have been directly hurt by their control over the seed market, actions that have elicited attention from US Attorney General Eric Holder and concern from the Obama Administration, is missing much of the purpose of CSR: that of transparency.

There are a few GRI indicators that specifically reference negative impacts: number and volume of spills or incidents of non-compliance with environmental regulations; incidents of regulatory non-compliance regarding product responsibility (health and safety, labeling, marketing and fines levied); incidents of non-compliance and anti-competitive behavior regarding society. None of these issues are addressed in the report. The GRI G3 index of these indicators refer the reader to the company’s 10-K form, a 187 page financial document filed with the SEC – not exactly the easiest form to sift through to find indications of non-compliance. This information should be summarized in a CSR report.

The report is heavy on commitments, many of which are impressive and commendable. Their efforts are highlighted by a number of case studies on specific projects, including efforts to increase cotton yields in Burkina Faso by 30% while reducing pesticide use by 50%, as well as a program to reduce waste and water use at a French supplier. They discuss at length their efforts to help developing countries answer agriculture challenges, and they rightfully extol their efforts to reduce child labor within their supply chain around the world, especially in India where they reduced the percentage of child labor from 20% in 2004 to 0.15% in 2009.

They do a commendable job breaking down their commitment to the UN Global Compact Principles and what they are doing to achieve and satisfy the principles. While their commitments are rather vague, so are the principles, and this is one of the first times I’ve seen this type of breakdown in a report.

All in all, we’re pleased to see Monsanto continuing their participation in the CSR report fray, despite the fact that their reporting practices could use some work.

Readers, what do you think? What’s the best path to sustainability for a monolith like Monsanto?


Feeding of the Nine Billion

- Matt Ridley, Times (UK), January 14, 2010
- http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/feeding-nine-billion

The person who tips the world population over seven billion may be born this year. The world food price index hit a record high last month, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Bad harvests in Russia and Australia, combined with rising oil prices, have begun to cause shortages, export bans and even riots. Does starvation loom?

No. Never has the world looked less likely to starve, or our grandchildren more likely to feed well. Never has famine been less widespread. Never has the estimated future peak of world population been lower.

It is true that the world population may pass seven billion some time in the next twelve months, but the rate of growth is decelerating. World population is now growing at just over 1% a year, down from roughly 2% in the 1960s. The actual number of people added to the world population each year has been dropping for more than 20 years.

This deceleration took demographers by surprise. As recently as 1980 many were still forecasting that the current century would see 15 billion people and rising. Only in 2002 did the United Nations realise that its models were wrong to assume that birth rates would not drop below 2 children per woman in many countries. Now the UN estimates that the population will most probably peak at 9.2 billion in about 2075 before starting a slow decline. Population quadrupled in the twentieth century; it will not even double in this.

Everywhere, the fall in the birth rate is dramatic. Countries like Iran and Sri Lanka now have total fertility rates below two children per woman. Bangladesh is now down to 2.7 from 6.8 in 1955. Nigeria's birth rate has halved. These `demographic transitions' are proving as predictable as they are mysterious. They seem to happen because women stop fearing their babies will die, and because they move to cities, get educated, get access to birth control and get richer. In other words, the causes are benign; coercion, of the kind so many `experts' have long urged, is neither necessary nor helpful.

As for food prices, that `record high' is nothing of the kind - if you take inflation into account. Food prices are up in real terms since 2000, but they are still about 30% below the level in 1980 and 85% down since 1900. In terms of wages, the decline has been even steeper.

Despite a doubling of the population, global food production per head is 30% up on what it was in the 1950s.

Besides, the current spike in food prices is caused by prosperity, not desperation. Newly-rich Chinese and Indians are eating more meat, boosting demand for grain to feed livestock. Meanwhile still-rich Americans and Europeans are indulging their farmers and green activists by taking food and turning it into motor fuel, a policy that pushes up food prices, hurts taxpayers and encourages habitat destruction.

You can bet your farm that all over the northern hemisphere farmers are planting more acres this winter - that's the effect high prices always have (and spare a nod of gratitude to speculators, whose antics bring forward those extra plantings). So food prices will drop again.

Farm yields have been marching upwards for decades and will continue to do so. In the past sixty years, the total harvest of the big three crops that provide the bulk of our calories - maize, wheat and rice - has trebled, yet the acreage planted has hardly changed.

This trend is going to continue partly thanks to low-tech changes already in the pipeline. Helped by Chinese investment, improved transport to get African crops to market with less waste will make a big difference. As will tractors, which boost production by 25% or so - because they free the land for human food that would otherwise be needed to feed bullocks or horses.

African farmers will start to use much more fertilizer, as western farmers do, which makes it possible to sustain yields without exhausting the soil. A few years ago environmentalists argued that fertiliser would soon run short, because it is made using natural gas, a fossil fuel. But the discovery of how to extract abundant shale gas has turned that argument on its head: there are probably many decades' worth of natural gas now available to make fertilizer.

There are high-tech changes afoot too. Maize and rice that have been genetically modified to resist pests and use less water, soybeans with better amino acid balance for pig food, wheat that can resist rust - all these are coming. Benighted Europe may reject these GM crops for superstitious reasons but surely not for long. The environmental benefits alone are now stark: GM crops can be pest resistant without the use of sprays that kill harmless insect bystanders.

The more yields increase, the more land can be set aside from food production for reforestation and national parks. This is happening already. National parks are expanding steadily, and land that was once farmed is being returned to forest, especially in countries like Britain and America. That is a huge contrast to a century ago, when farming kept up with population only by expanding into new areas of steppe, pampas and prairie.

Don't forget another factor. Carbon dioxide levels in the air are rising. CO2 is a raw material that plants use to make sugars, which is why many greenhouse owners pump CO2 over their crops to boost production. The results of more than 600 experiments with rice, wheat and soybeans exposed to the sort of carbon dioxide levels expected by 2050 (an extra 300 parts per million) all show remarkably consistent 30+% increases in yield. And the higher the CO2, the less water a plant loses in absorbing it, so water stress will improve too. Plus, if global warming happens, it is likely to produce more rainfall, so that regions like the Sahel will continue to become greener, as it has in recent decades.

For all these reasons food production will probably continue to rise faster than population in the decades ahead. There will still be price spikes caused by bad weather or foolish policies, and there will be challenges: policies that encourage innovation cannot be taken for granted. Yet so long as trade is free and innovation flourishes, by 2050 it is easily possible that we can feed nine billion people with more and better food from less land.


Corrected article now posted:

U.S. Scientists Use Genetic Engineering to Protect Vital Cassava Farming in Africa
Published: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 2:46 PM EST 691 Views
Author: Ann Delphus