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September 23, 2011


Talking about GM Crops; Swiss Freedom of Choice; Your Lifestyle and World’s Poor; No Vandalism Please



7 Tips for public biotechnology researchers to talk about GM food and crops

How scientists can reach out with social media

How would Swiss consumers decide if they had freedom of choice? Evidence from a field study with organic, conventional and GM corn bread

Got Cheap Milk? Why ditching your fancy, organic, locavore lifestyle is good for the world's poor

Vandalising GMO fields is undemocratic, illegal and immoral.

Food security

Kenya's scientists urged to engage in GM debate


7 Tips for public biotechnology researchers to talk about GM food and crops

- Sebastian Olényi, PhD Student, TU Delft - Delft University of Technology, Netherlands

1. Empower through education, but don’t expect attitude changes
The failure of the so-called knowledge deficit model, assuming that that people’s support for a technology would be growing if they know more about it, has failed in many studies. While knowledge is crucial to take an informed decision and is ethically desirable, be aware that knowledge alone is only likely to enable people to take a decision. Education in itself will result in a higher number of decided people, not change their opinion in any particular way. Still, education is important – and particularly teachers and children are important if you want to have a long-term communication strategy.
2. Be passionate and stay committed
You need to be passionate in advocating your opinion and stand up for it more than once to be heard.
3. Be credible and listen
Credibility is your most valuable asset: So don’t oversell your story by raising false hopes or making too extreme black and white statements. Advocacy for your opinion and some simplification are crucial, but saying that GM will save/destroy the world will damage your reputation and credibility. Acknowledge and discuss uncertainty and limitations. Be bold about the things you are sure about and/or you have researched yourself. Listen and interact with your audience.
4. Adapt to your audience
Don’t wrongly assume any pre-existing knowledge, but also don’t be arrogant if you have to start explaining from scratch. Frame your arguments in a broader sense – connect them with the (relevant) real world situation/challenges and explain how your research can help combating those. Think about who you are talking to and what would be particularly interesting for them. Don’t forget about their sensitivities and possible preconceptions – what might be considered normal in your profession like animal testing might not be acceptable to your audience. A science journalist with a political sciences background will have a different perspective than one who studied biology, and a local journalist will want to hear a different story than a national one.
5. Be aware of your effects
Science and politics can be connected, and people like to put you into a box. Speaking up can get you prices and facilitate access to research funding and raise your influence in the scientific community, but can also affect your funding, your position, your university negatively. Decide for yourself when and how to speak your mind. Choose your “battles and battlegrounds” wisely.
6. Use all the channels
You might not be familiar with social media, podcasts and blogs, or if you are, then it might have been a long time since you have contacted a radio journalist. Try to use as many distribution channels as possible and prioritize the ones that fit your target audience best. Adapt your message depending on the channel of communication.
7. Collaborate
Together you are stronger – don’t forget to include your communication responsibles if there are any, but also try to reach out to colleagues or partners if you have something important to say. Joint statements by more than one scientist or even by scientific, consumer, environmental or farmer organisations will always have a higher impact. However, they are also more likely to be slower and can end up in compromises rendering the communication meaninglessness, especially if a topic is politically sensitive like GM.

With input from the group, lots of literature and (the article below from Scidev.net)


How scientists can reach out with social media

- Jennifer Rohn, Scidev.net , August 11, 2011

The world needs scientists to bring science to life. Jennifer Rohn with tips on how researchers can use social media to engage new audiences.

Despite the central role science plays to our way of life, many people are not interested in science or don't understand how it works. Some choose not to believe science's findings. Others even feel it wastes taxpayers' money. Yet scientific solutions are increasingly crucial in overcoming threats to our future, be they climate change, emergent pandemics, dwindling natural resources or the struggle to maintain food security.

Scientists ignore 'the outside world' at their peril. The general public has the power to deny your funding or restrict your experiments. It's important to reach outside your laboratories, offices and field stations to engage with the wider world, to show people that science is essential and that researchers are working hard to help address important issues — that they are the good guys, not the enemy.

But scientists — even geographically isolated ones — now have a wide range of wonderful social media tools for making their voices heard. Thanks to today's communications technology, you can reach new audiences worldwide, keeping them informed, supportive and engaged.

Read on


How would Swiss consumers decide if they had freedom of choice? Evidence from a field study with organic, conventional and GM corn bread

- Philipp Aernia, Joachim Scholdererb, David Ermena; Food Policy, In Press,

In 2005, the Swiss expressed their negative attitude towards genetic engineering in agriculture by voting in favor of a ban to use genetically modified (GM) crops in domestic agriculture. At the same time, certain GM food products remain approved but are not on offer since retailers assume that consumers would shun labeled GM food. In our study we tested this claim by conducting a large-scale field study with Swiss consumers.

In our experimental design, three clearly labeled types of corn bread were offered at five different market stands across the French and German-speaking part of Switzerland: one made with organic, one made with conventional, and one made with genetically modified (GM) corn. In addition, we tested the consistency between purchasing decision at the market stand and the previous voting decision on GMOs in 2005 by means of an ex-post questionnaire. The results of our discrete choice analysis show that Swiss consumers treat GM foods just like any other type of novel food.

We conclude from our findings that consumers tend to appreciate transparency and freedom of choice even if one of the offered product types is labeled as containing a genetically modified ingredient. Retailers should allow consumers to make their own choice and accept the fact that not all people appear to be afraid of GM food.

► Choice experiment with GM corn bread in different natural settings of Switzerland. ► Swiss consumers treat the GM product type just like any other novel food product. ► Freedom of choice increases sales at market stands. ► Consumer preferences do not necessarily reflect political preferences.


Got Cheap Milk? Why ditching your fancy, organic, locavore lifestyle is good for the world's poor

- Charles Kenny , Foreign Policy, Sept. 2, 2011

As the U.S. government starts planning budget reductions that will slash everything from defense spending to health care to bridge repair, potential cuts worth around 0.00025 percent of the value of the deficit reduction agreed on in the recent $2 trillion deal appear to have garnered outsized attention: support to farmers' markets. Those $5 million of subsidies are likely to disappear as part of cuts in the 2012 farm bill, and that is provoking much concern. The Farmers Market Coalition says the program is "a unique success story in America's agricultural policy."

Perhaps it is no surprise: With supermarket chains from Whole Foods to Safeway trumpeting their healthy produce from farmers just down the road, buying local and eating non-genetically modified organic food is surely the best thing for you and the planet. And that's something government should get behind, right?

Actually, no -- these First-World food fetishes are positively terrible for the world's poorest people. If you want to do the right thing, give up on locavorism and organics über alles and become a globally conscious grocery buyer. This should be the age of the "cosmovore" -- cosmopolitan consumers of the world's food.

Let's start with genetic modification (GM) -- where genes from one organism are spliced into those of another by scientists in a lab. Poland's agriculture minister, Marek Sawicki, recently called for an EU-wide ban on the growth or import of GM produce. But why new crops labeled GM should be more of a risk than new crops bred in the "traditional" manner -- which often involves bombarding seeds with radiation to promote mutations -- is a little unclear. It shouldn't come as a surprise that when the European Commission Research Directorate-General released a survey in 2001 of 81 studies on GM, human health, and environmental impact, not one of the studies found any evidence of harm. The World Health Organization recently confirmed that "no effects on human health have been shown" from eating GM foods.

Worries remain, though, in no small part due to the lack of major, rigorous analyses and the unwillingness of seed producers to share data. Of course, many GM crops have failed to deliver as advertised, and even in the best of cases they are certainly no panacea.

But there have also been successes -- involving significant, positive impacts on environmental and financial outcomes. For example, economists Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot of Britain's PG Economics estimated that countries that adopted GM insect-resistant cotton saw a 13.3 percent increase in the value of their 2005 cotton crop, as well as a 95 percent reduction in the use of insecticides. There is every reason to do more research and testing on both the threats and potential benefits of GM, but there's no reason to demonize it.

What about "local"? Perhaps locally grown produce tastes better to some people. And perhaps it is psychologically better to have close contact with the people who grow your food. But that doesn't make it good for the environment. For example, it is twice as energy efficient for people in Britain to eat dairy products from New Zealand than from domestic producers. It is four times more energy efficient for them to eat lamb shipped from the other side of the world than it is to eat British lamb. That's because transporting the final product accounts for only a small part of the energy consumed in the production and delivery of food. It's far better to eat foods from places where production itself is more efficient. For example, New Zealand cattle eat clover from the fields while British livestock tend to rely on feed -- which itself is often imported.

And why shouldn't developing countries strive to be the world's breadbasket? Again, there may be transport costs in flying fresh produce from southern Africa to Europe or the United States, but you save all of the heating, lighting, and construction costs associated with hothouse produce grown in the gloom of a European or North American winter. It is good news that Gambia managed to increase its fruit and vegetable exports to the European Union by 25 percent over the past 10 years -- to 123,000 tons. We shouldn't be kicking the legs out from under such efforts in a misguided attempt to build an Arcadia under glass.

And the environmental benefits of organic in terms of lower energy costs and less pollution? Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, estimated that we would need 5 billion to 6 billion additional cows to produce enough natural fertilizer to sustain our current crop production -- which, of course, would increase the demand for forage crops and thus the need for agricultural land. Meanwhile, weed-killing herbicides allow for no-till farming. When you don't plough, you don't erode topsoil nearly as much -- so it doesn't end up being washed into rivers, leaving behind a dust bowl.

Whether organic is as efficient as conventional farming -- in terms of land yield, energy, or labor productivity -- depends on the place and the crop. But even organic sympathizers report that the average land yield in the industrial world is about 8 percent lower on organic farms than on conventional ones. And it only takes a trip to the local supermarket to understand there's a considerable price premium to be paid. Organic milk costs as much as twice the regular kind, for example. The practices of industrial-scale U.S. producers like Stonyfield Farm, which dries organic milk from those energy-efficient New Zealand producers into powder in order to ship it to its plant in Londonderry, New Hampshire, where it's turned into yogurt, keep organic dairy prices climbing even higher.

That lower agricultural efficiency really matters. Because what we definitely know is that, compared with the unsubstantiated health risks of GM or the illusive health benefits of organic crops, there are undoubtedly health risks to not having enough -- or enough variety -- to eat. There are still as many as 1 billion people worldwide who are malnourished; and many are living on around a dollar a day. The best way to help poor people eat well is to make healthy food cost less. But the more agricultural land we divert into lower-efficiency organic production, the higher the price of all food will climb. On test farms, organic production has been shown to be at least as efficient as conventional farming -- and considerably more productive than the average efficiency seen on farms in the developing world. But until that's widely replicated outside agricultural research stations, organic is no friend to the world's poorest consumers.

And all this misguided, parochial Luddism is having a real effect on the ability of producers in low-income countries to climb out of poverty in an environmentally sustainable manner. Most of the world's poorest people are farmers. Many live in water-stressed environments on fragile land. Herbicides and GM crops may be an important part of the story when it comes to raising their productivity. But 15 years after GM crops were first planted commercially, Kenya, South Africa, and Burkina Faso are the only sub-Saharan African countries that have authorized the planting of any GM crops. That's partly because European aid agencies have funded consultants to design regulatory systems based on the restrictive model adopted in Europe. And European NGOs have also threatened African governments that their agricultural exports to Europe would suffer from significantly reduced demand if they were planted even in the vicinity of GM crops.

So how should you eat as a responsible global citizen? Consume less meat and oppose Western farm-subsidy programs -- especially if they focus on livestock. Campaign against U.S. biofuel programs, which divert corn into grossly inefficient energy production. Embrace further testing and analysis of GM crops.

Encourage public funding of research and intellectual property laws that ensure that poor farmers are not priced out of the potential benefits of GM seeds. Spend only on organic food that is as energy- and land-efficient as conventional production. And be a smart consumer: Local produce grown out of season and meat raised on imported feed isn't friendly to you, the environment, or the developing world.


Vandalising GMO fields is undemocratic, illegal and immoral.

- PRRI, www.pubresreg.org.

The world is facing very daunting challenges. Over 1 billion people are malnourished, often resulting in chronic diseases and premature deaths. Agriculture burdens the environment through pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation, ploughing and conversion of natural habitats. This situation will be compounded by the further growth of the world population. By 2050 the world will have to produce 70% more food, feed, fibre and biomass on a smaller agricultural area and under the stress of climate change

Farmers will have to produce more with less impact on the environment to meet these challenges, i.e. there is an urgent need for “sustainable intensification”. Farmers need crops that give more yield per hectare, that make better use of water, that are less dependent on pesticides and fertilisers, that have enhanced nutritional value, etc.

As was already recognised in the Earth Summit in 1992, this immense challenge cannot be solved by conventional approaches alone, but requires the involvement of new technologies such as modern biotechnology. Molecular techniques such as genetic engineering are not miracles that will solve all problems, but they are essential tools.

Since 1992, there has therefore been an immense effort in biotechnology research, in particular in the public sector, to develop crop plants with improved resistance to insects, fungi, viruses, and bacteria; crops that are tolerant to drought, heat, saline and herbicides, crops that have enhanced nutrition, etc. This research is conducted in many research institutes all over the world.

Since 1996, over one billion hectares of genetically modified crop varieties have been grown in over 30 countries across the world by over 15 million farmers, most of which small holder farmers. The aggregated results from the use of these crops, comparing to the conventional varieties replaced, show there have been significant yield gains, equivalent to 60 million additional hectares of land, pesticide reductions of 350 million kg of active ingredient, significant reductions in fossil fuel use and also of mycotoxin contamination.

Despite these results, the genetically modified crop varieties that are available to farmers are limited to primarily soy beans, maize, cotton and rapeseed with improved insect resistance and/or herbicide tolerance.

In addition, over the last few years much of the public research effort on other crops and traits has slowed down and sometimes even come to a halt. The main reasons for this reduction in public research are the increasing regulatory hurdles and vandalising many GMO field research trials by activists.

Increasing regulatory hurdles

In addition to the socio-economic and environmental benefits experienced from the use of GM crops, the experience with 25 years of research from many thousands of field trials combined with over 15 years of commercial planting of GM crops worldwide shows that there are no verifiable reports of adverse effects of GMOs on human health or the environment. Despite this, there has not been any fine tuning of the procedures in Europe, such as simplified procedures or exemptions of GM crops that are unlikely to have an adverse impact on human health and the environment. On the contrary, the regulations seem to get more cumbersome and also bans have been installed in some European countries, all without scientific justification.
Vandalising GMO fields by activists.

Field trials are essential to biotechnological research to verify performance and safety.

Scientists accept that there are permit procedures for field trials and that there are mechanisms for appeal by third parties. However, there are increasingly cases that when safety assessments, procedures and appeals have resulted in permissions for field trials, activists vandalise the field trials, sometimes with the use of threats and violence.

Such actions are undemocratic, because they trample the democratically adopted permit procedures for field trials. Activists are not above the democratically adopted laws. It is therefore disheartening and disappointing that some politicians, including an MEP, have publicly praised such actions as signs of ‘public courage’. Such criminal damage and threats made towards approved research and the persons involved, disrupts innovation and research that is designed to address the important challenges of food security and environmental protection. Actions taken to destroy research and threaten researchers should instead be seen as the illegal and immoral acts they are.

What makes this vandalism particularly painful are the false justifications presented and the unwillingness to talk with the scientists who conduct this research or with the farmers who wish to include these crops for example in their integrated pest management approaches. In fact, some activists are even prepared to disrupt meetings of farmers and scientists who do believe that GM is an important tool to combat the challenges of the future.

The organisations and public sector scientists listed below call upon those activists to abandon their destructive actions and invite them to have instead an open, civilised debate, to discuss with each other the reasons for the development of specific GMOs, the wish of farmers to have the freedom of choice to grow the crops they believe fit best in their farm management systems, the concerns of the activists about specific GMOs and/or GMOs in general, and the consequences of not applying modern biotechnology. People interested in holding such a debate are invited to send their interest to: info@pubresreg.org.


Food security

- Andre Louw, Business Day (South Africa), Sept 19, 2011

‘Agricultural innovation needs to be encouraged in a responsible manner and not strangled by a bureaucratic regulatory system’

MORE than 200 years ago, the political economist, Thomas Malthus, predicted that population growth would eventually exceed the world’s ability to feed so many people. The challenge today is to feed additional billions, and this can be done only through encouraging agricultural innovation.

Internationally, there are three main factors threatening food security. The first is not new and is in line with the Malthusian theory of population growth. The world population is currently close to 7-billion and is expected to reach 9- billion in 2050. In the next 15 years, the number of people in sub- Saharan Africa is expected to increase by 43% to 1,93-billion, despite the effects of HIV/AIDS and other health issues. -cut_-

There are a number of tools available to African farmers to help increase food productivity. These include farming methods. In the future, genetic modification and other applications of modern biotechnology will, in all likelihood, play a substantial role in addressing the problem of increasing productivity under less than ideal climatic conditions. Useful GM products might include crops with drought tolerance, salinity tolerance, or products with quality traits such as oranges and sorghum with high vitamin C or A, or peanuts and wheat with no aflatoxin or allergenicity problems.

To date, South African farmers and consumers have been able to benefit from advances in agricultural technology due to the institutional infrastructure created by the pre- and post-democratic governments through investment in public research institutions, education and training of scientists and the establishment of guiding policies, legislation and regulatory authorities.

Due to a sound scientific background, South African authorities were, for instance, able to assess the permit applications for general release of GM cotton, maize and soybeans in a responsible and scientifically rigorous manner. As D eputy Agriculture Minister Pieter Mulder said this year, both SA and Africa require funding for scientific research to further inform the GM debate.

However, more recently it seems as if the regulation of genetically modified crops in SA has become more a bureaucratic hurdle than an enabling environment. For instance, getting approval for a basic permit to do confined "test of concept" trials with GM products has become a frustrating and expensive endeavour — not only for private companies but also for public research entities. Whether this is a result of lack of capacity or lobby group influence is not clear.

What is clear is the potential damage this could do to South African food production and food security.

The Bric countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are reportedly reconsidering their investment opportunities in SA to the benefit of other African countries. Similarly, research entities may consider other African countries for their investment in agricultural research, development and capacity building. This is a reality South African consumers cannot afford.

Food security in SA, and arguably in the region, depends on continually increasing crop yields per hectare and improved nutrition. Agricultural innovation, the "creative responses" suggested by Malthus, has so far kept scarcity at bay.

This innovation needs to be encouraged in a responsible manner and not strangled by a bureaucratic regulatory system.

Louw is Professor of Agribusiness Management at the University of Pretoria.


Kenya's scientists urged to engage in GM debate

- Maina Waruru, SciDev.Net , 19 Sep 2011

There has been fierce debate at a high level about allowing the import of GM maize to improve food security, and some politicians have claimed that GM foods are harmful.

"Our research institutions have experts who can educate the public and save them from dangerous propaganda," said Songa. With the Horn of Africa faced with severe drought and crippling food shortages, he said scientists should inform the public of alternative options. "We [scientists] must no longer be cowed into silence as our people face starvation year in year out while politicians make wild allegations," he said.

Songa was speaking at the fellowships awards ceremony for African Women in Agricultural Research and Development last month (18 August). He said scientists feared being seen to contradict ministers and policymakers.

Shaukat Abdulrazak, head of the National Council for Science and Technology (NCST), told SciDev.Net that scientific bodies such as the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) and the National Biosafety Authority must educate the public, but stressed that this should be about the drawbacks of GM crops as well as their benefits.

"Scientists have a responsibility to link science with society. They must be proactive and inform the public on the pros and cons of GM technology. They must engage politicians and provide facts and figures for them," he said.

Abdulrazak said that although scientists have been commenting on GM organisms (GMOs), it has been mainly within their 'comfort zone' — classrooms and conferences. "When scientists engage in public debate there is a suspicion that they are interested in politics," he said. He said that Kenyans are yet to have confidence in the ability of their scientific institutions to deal with the pressure from abroad to introduce GM foods.

But Shem Wandiga, managing trustee at the Centre for Science and Technology Innovations in Kenya, which is associated with UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), said that rather than fearing to enter the GM debate, scientists are avoiding "unnecessary controversy".

Wandiga said that the civilised approach would be for governments and policymakers to seek the opinion of scientists, which would then be given in a "sober manner". "But when politicians shoot from the hip like they have been doing in this case, then we do not want to get sucked into the mess.

"It is not that Kenya lacks scientists that can give advice but when there are vested interests, like in the GM maize importation, then we do not need to get involved," he said.