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November 4, 2011


Ending Science Fiction at Ive League; Technology Can Save Us: 7 Billion Mouths, 3 Billion Acres; Arrogant Hypocrisy


End science fiction at Yale

Seven billion humans: technology has saved us before, and can do so again

GM crops cover area larger than Amazon rainforest — 3 billion acres

Crop diversity myths persist in media - Study

Saving potatoes, and starving people too — if permitted

Biotech seed hikes hopes for Brazil's corn harvest

Zimbabwe: Call for Lifting of GMO Ban On Stockfeeds

Fields of gold

Europe's opposition to GM crops is arrogant hypocrisy, Kenyan scientist warns

Video: 7 Billion: How Did We Get So Big So Fast?



End science fiction at Yale

- Patrick Cournoyer, Yale Daily News, November 4, 2011

All living things evolved from a common ancestor. Sexual orientation is not a choice. The earth’s climate is warming. These statements are overwhelmingly accepted as fact by the scientific community. Nevertheless, myths about these important issues are widespread and have dangerous outcomes. Some schools teach that intelligent design is science. Discrimination against LGBT individuals is commonplace and deadly. Complacency about climate change is the norm.

Fortunately, the Yale community usually acknowledges scientific consensus. One notable exception, however, is the case of genetically engineered crops, also known as genetically modified, GE or GM. On Oct. 26, several campus groups hosted Dan Ravicher of the Public Patent Foundation, who discussed a lawsuit he is leading against the agriculture biotech giant Monsanto.

The suit seeks to prevent Monsanto from suing farmers for intellectual property infringement if their crops were to be contaminated by traces of Monsanto’s patented genetic material from neighboring fields. While the suit, in essence, is reasonable, Ravicher tried to bolster his case by spreading myths about GE crops that are routinely parroted in the sustainable agriculture community. The falsehoods were so egregious that the scientific community must speak up.

Most environmental groups include opposition to GE crops on their list of campaigns but tend to flub the facts. Since the term refers to crops that were developed using a certain technique, it is impossible to speak of the crops themselves in general terms. Just as it is impossible to say all products of electrical engineering are dangerous or safe, it is impossible to make blanket statements about products of plant genetic engineering. There are a few GE crops in fields today, many in development now, and countless yet to be dreamed up. GE can make plants more resistant to diseases, pests, herbicides, drought or floods. It can make plants more nutritious, less allergenic or optimized for biofuels. Both sides of the debate are guilty of generalizing, referring to GE crops either as a miracle or as the scourge of the earth.

Nonetheless, it is scientifically undisputed that GE crops planted to date are no worse for the environment or for human health than the conventional varieties they replaced. There are no conceivable negative effects, even in the long term. In fact, the report card for their overall performance thus far, depending on the time and place, is a win for the environment and for farmers. Thanks to their adoption, farmers have made more money, sprayed fewer pesticides, burned less fossil fuel, and caused less soil erosion. GE opponents routinely deny these facts and assert the contrary.

The scientific consensus derives from the collective work of hundreds of scientists detailed in hundreds of peer reviewed publications. Since citing them all here would be impossible, those interested can consult a two-part review called “Genetically engineered plants and foods: A scientist’s analysis of the issue” by Peggy Lemaux, a professor of plant biology at the University of California-Berkeley, who specializes in science communication.

Ravicher used the common argument that there is no real science on GE crops because Monsanto prevents it or is in cahoots with the studies’ authors. Despite sponsoring some public research and occasionally resisting unfettered investigation of its seeds, Monsanto is not behind the studies cited in Lemaux’s review. Ravicher also claimed that in spite of offering no benefits, farmers continue to opt for Monsanto seeds because Monsanto dupes them or leaves them no options. In reality, 94 percent of farmers in the US have chosen herbicide-tolerant GE soybeans because they make weed control more efficient.

Opponents conflate risks of GE crops with tangential issues in agriculture. Wariness of Monsanto’s dominance in the seed industry is a valid concern. Expressing this by claiming GE seeds are dangerous, however, is like opposing Microsoft’s dominance by claiming PCs are bad for your health. Likewise, manifesting opposition to intensive crop monocultures by protesting GE crops is futile. The two are not necessarily intertwined. I strongly support sustainable agriculture but consider anti-GE activism counterproductive.

The acceptance of myths about GE crops poses real dangers. To name a few, famine-stricken Zambia rejected food aid in 2002 because it was GE and presumed to be dangerous. Provitamin A enriched “Golden Rice” is stalled and awaiting approval when it could be preventing blindness in children. Open research of GE crops in Europe has almost vanished, not because of Monsanto, but, ironically, because anti-GE activists routinely destroy field trials.

Scores of innovations that could be solving the innumerable problems of agriculture remain unrealized. Misinformation about GE crops is common, but I expected better from a talk held at the Yale Law School. Providing a safe haven for science denialists at an academic institution constitutes a breach of academic integrity.


Seven billion humans: technology has saved us before, and can do so again


- Prof Anthony Trewavas, Telegraph (UK), 31 Oct 2011

‘The challenges facing the world as the seven billionth person is born are considerable. But humanity is up to it, writes Prof Anthony Trewavas.’

By the time you read this article, the seven billionth baby will no doubt be born. Someone, perhaps the UN, will identify the precise boy or girl who will throughout their life carry this unique identity. I wish them luck and a long life, but this will only happen if we can solve the issues that continue to press from increasing population numbers. I am an optimist and I believe everyone else should be; any balanced look at out present circumstances would give rise to optimism, temporary blips in the economy or not. The necessity for providing food for the seven billion and for the nine billion expected by 2050, avoiding famine and mass starvation and the wars which inevitably would follow are only too obvious. The consequences if we don't recognise our responsibility to the rest of the world will be dire. And yet one billion of us are badly nourished, and many starving.

The name most associated with the notion of the starving masses is that of Thomas Malthus. The 200th anniversary of his pessimistic text that saw mankind as always starving and which energised Darwin into producing "natural selection" passed in 1998. Malthus wrote at a time when the world's population was one billion. What has seen off Malthusian views, which recur with monotonous regularity, has been the ingenuity with which mankind approaches and solves necessary problems. We have evolved with superlative abilities to concentrate on and provide solutions. The reliance on evidence-based knowledge, rather than belief, myth or fantasy, was crucial in the foiling of Malthus through the centuries, and it is what will see us through beyond 2050. Since the Malthusian period two centuries ago, crop yields have increased tenfold. As each successive billion has appeared, Malthusian prophets re-emerge to cast doubt on the human condition and to regard it as in decline. But Julian Simon, Bjorn Lomborg and more recently Matt Ridley have all documented the numerous ways in which human life has continued to improve; the cost on us, and the planet, diminish, and the benefits increase. Science and technology have underpinned this progress and will continue to do so well beyond 2050.

The last time the Jeremiahs amongst us raised the Malthusian issue was in the late 1960s; if they were to be believed then, mass starvation was around the corner. What put the fly in that particular pessimistic ointment was the Green Revolution, most associated with Norman Borlaug and collaborators at research institutes in Mexico and the Phillipines. Borlaug, a US citizen and Nobel prize winner, who died recently at the age of 95, continued to work in Africa improving agriculture in his nineties; an inspiration to any one with a belief in the future of mankind. These green revolution scientists and plant breeders inserted stem-dwarfing genes into wheat and rice. The extra resources available from reduced stem growth increased seed yield. Within a few years of these seeds being released to agriculture in the late 1960s, crop yields in India, East Asia and China shot up threefold, turning some of the countries involved into net exporters of grain instead of net importers. It is easy to estimate that if agricultural technology had been frozen at early 1960s levels, cropland would have had to increase from its present 12 per cent of the planetary land surface to 25 per cent. The only land suitable for this potential expansion was tropical rain forest which would have been put to the scythe in a desperate attempt to grow sufficient food. The effects on biodiversity, climate change and ecological services would have been savaged and our survival seriously threatened. The soil we don't now use is toxic to crop plant growth, containing high quantities of aluminium.

The green revolution had its critics, although none suggested sensible alternatives. The heavy dependence on fertiliser, particularly nitrate and phosphate, for green revolution crops was something that will give cause for concern in the future. Easily mineable phosphate, an essential element in all life and required for good crop yields, is diminishing and may run out in 40 years' time; we will probably have to salvage it from human waste. And the most efficient way of using the Haber Bosch process to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonium nitrate for fertiliser uses natural gas, ie methane. Shale gas will tide us over this particular hump, but the long-term consequence may be steep rises in price as less efficient ways using carbon dioxide are required. But if there is a message for today, Luddite objections to technological progress can really threaten mankind's survival particularly when there is no valid reason for objection to the science involved. The importance of evidence-based knowledge as the foundation of all policy, where it is applicable, cannot be over-emphasised.

The solutions this time round have to be different. We have to double agricultural yield on the same area of ground; agricultural efficiency has to rise steeply just using the 12 per cent of the lands surface as at present. A variety, a portfolio, of approaches is envisaged. The buzzword this time is sustainable intensification. This umbrella term envisages the following. First, a requirement to prune waste, both in the agricultural and human food chains respectively. Crops lost to pests and diseases have to be further diminished. Second, there has to be better use of existing knowledge in all parts of the world. Many tropical crops lack any simple genetics for example. Third, dietary attitudes need to be influenced to reduce meat consumption. Most fish will have to be farmed sustainably. Fourth, yield gaps must be closed on under-performing land. The average wheat yields in Africa, for example, still hover around one quarter of that obtainable in Europe. New traits must be inserted into these crops and this will require biotechnology.

Norman Borlaug was instrumental in the setting up of demonstration farms in some African countries and showing that fourfold increases in yield could be obtained with good seed quality and water storage. While Africa also needs infrastructure improvements so that farmers can get crops to market in good time, this is currently the continent where some of the largest increases in population are still present. So an African green revolution is certainly called for. There is a race against time but the race always brings forth the best in creative mankind. The challenge is to try to balance supply and demand sustainably, to ensure adequate stability at an affordable price in a world of changing climate. We will most certainly prevail.

All these approaches will require investment in research and sadly the provision of money for agricultural research has declined in recent decades. This will have to be reversed. The research portfolio will include biotechnology and genetic manipulation (GM) as central to success. GM technology can do things that conventional breeding cannot do. Current GM crops increase yields and decrease losses from pests and diseases. There is a pressing need to develop GM crops that can be substantially resistant to drought and salinity and both will appear soon. About 15 per cent of the Earth's arable land is under GM crops in some 29 countries, and half is to be found in low-income countries.

All human activity contains costs and benefits: there is no perfect technology. The costs of maintaining the present excessive precautionary stance on GM to the next generation are destructive of the benefits that they will need and are already evident. The debate over GM as far as scientists are concerned is over. It is time to move on.

• Prof Anthony Trewavas is a plant physiologist and molecular biologist at the University of Edinburgh

GM crops cover area larger than Amazon rainforest — 3 billion acres


Three Richard Dijkstra, Western Farm Press, Nov. 4, 2011

* On Friday, Nov. 4, a farmer will put a seed in the ground and make agricultural history: He (or she) will plant the world’s 3 billionth acre of GM crops.
* Farmers are switching to GM crops because yields rise; costs fall.
* Genetically-enhanced crops are better for the environment because they promote no-till approaches that conserve soil.
* Without biotechnology, we wouldn’t be able to come anywhere close to supplying the world’s demand for food.

As winter approaches in the United States and the rest of the northern hemisphere, here in the southern hemisphere it’s springtime. That means we’ve started planting. And sometime on Friday, Nov. 4, a farmer will put a seed in the ground and make agricultural history: He (or she) will plant the world’s 3 billionth acre of GM crops.

We don’t know exactly where it will happen, so there won’t be any fireworks or parades. It could be in my country of Brazil. It will almost certainly be in South America where an early planting season is now underway. We’re confident about the timing because Truth about Trade & Technology, an American non-profit group, has kept track of the world’s biotech-crop acreage for years, based on official reports from governments around the world.

All this counting up has produced a very, very large number.

How big is 3 billion acres? It’s bigger than the Amazon rainforest. It’s bigger than all of Brazil. It’s big enough to say with absolute certainty that biotechnology is now a thoroughly conventional variety of agriculture.

Farmers are switching to GM crops because they make so much sense.


Crop diversity myths persist in media - Study


- University of Illinois, November 2, 2011

The conventional wisdom that says the 20th century was a disaster for crop diversity is nothing more than a myth, according to a forthcoming study by a University of Illinois expert in intellectual property law.

Law professor Paul Heald says overall varietal diversity of the $20 billion market for vegetable crops and apples in the U.S. actually has increased over the past 100 years, a finding that should change the highly politicized debate over intellectual property policy.

“The conventional wisdom, as illustrated in the July 2011 issue of National Geographic, holds that the last century was a disaster for crop diversity,” he said. “In the mainstream media, this position is so entrenched that it no longer merits a citation.”

To support their conclusions, Heald and co-author Susannah Chapman, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Georgia, studied thousands of commercially available varieties of 42 vegetable crops from 1903 to 2004, as well as varieties of apples from 1900 to 2000.

“When we began this study, we started with the assumption that every year we advanced in the 20th century there would be fewer and fewer varieties offered for sale commercially,” Heald said.

But when the researchers went to Washington to study varieties available in historical commercial seed and nursery catalogs, they were surprised by what they found as they worked through the years 1900 to 1930.

“There was no evident sign of decline, so we decided to step back and take a snapshot of 1903 and 2004, two years where others had collected full data on all important vegetable crops,” Heald said. “We came to this with the exact same preconceptions as everyone else, but we couldn’t ignore facts that were smacking us in the face.”

According to Heald, the reason no one questioned the conventional wisdom of a crop diversity crisis earlier is that the narrative “resonates so completely with assumptions made in all the socio-biological fields.”

“Humans generally cause significant environmental damage, so this false notion of waning crop diversity fits an accepted narrative,” Heald said. “It reconfirms what people already believe, and that belief is certainly bolstered by people’s casual observations about lack of diversity in the supermarket.”

Heald says the lack of choice in the fruit and vegetable section of grocery stores creates the impression that there’s a diversity crisis.

“Since we don’t see the diversity, it must not be there,” he said. “It fits in with a narrative of bad environmental news. There’s no doubt the 20th century was a bad century for the environment, so it must also have been a bad century for crop diversity. But it turns out this is one area in the last century that was pretty good. So all these factors bundled together led to a consensus that was never questioned and never really explored systematically until now.”

According to the study, 40 percent of the diversity gains the researchers found were from imports, but only 3 percent of gains could be traced to patents and less than 1 percent from biotechnological innovation.

“The influx of immigrants from South America and Asia have really brought a lot of new germplasm into the U.S.,” Heald said. “Seeds stored in suitcases and purses can move around the world without anyone knowing or the government playing any significant role. On the other hand, government stimulus, like patent law, plays a role in only 3 percent of diversity gains, with biotech innovation constituting less than 1 percent.”

In the debate between economists who believe that patent law is essential to increasing plant diversity through innovation, and anthropologists and ethno-botanists who believe that patents destroyed plant diversity in the 20th century, Heald says the study demonstrates that both sides are wrong.

“The story of vegetables and apples in the 20th century is a story of markets working without government intervention, so it’s really a confluence of liberal and conservative dogma,” he said. “You see immigrants, off-the-grid seed savers, small farmers and local gardeners preserving and innovating. They create what appears to be a very efficient market for diversity in the absence of significant legal regulation.”

The study also includes the caveat that corn may be the exception to the influence of the patent system, as federal property rights play a more prevalent role in the ubiquitous crop, as well as with soybeans and cotton.

“The interesting question is, ‘Why do firms patent these new strains of corn?’ ” Heald said. “Some agricultural economists would say that patents allow a firm to capture a certain segment of the market, but people who study varieties of patented corn say that it’s more of a phenomenon of defensive patenting, where you patent something because you don’t want to be sued by someone else when they try to patent the exact same thing. Since patent suits can be expensive, it’s easier and safer to patent what you produce.”

But to become a player in the corn market, you may need as big of a patent portfolio as the competition, Heald says.

“There’s also the sense – and this has been borne out in other industries, such as computer technology – that you want to create this huge arsenal of patents that you can wield as a big club in the market,” he said. “If that’s true, then, ironically, it may be inefficient to have patent protection, if the public gets too much of this sort of game-playing and legal jockeying.

“So the interesting question is, do you really need patent protection to stimulate new kinds of corn? That, of course, is going to turn on how expensive it is to create a new strain, and how easy to appropriate the technology.”

Heald’s study will be published in the University of Illinois Law Review.


Saving potatoes, and starving people too — if permitted


- American Council on Science and Health, November 1, 2011

Despite European consumers’ longstanding aversion to genetically modified (GM) food products, BASF, the world’s largest chemical company, is making headway toward European Union approval of a genetically modified potato.

BASF has submitted its Fortuna potato for E.U. approval of its commercial cultivation and human consumption. This potato has been modified to resist late blight, an extremely damaging potato disease that's responsible for the loss of about 20 percent of the world’s potato crop every year. The same fungal infestation was responsible for the calamitous Irish potato famine of the 1840s that led to a mass exodus from Ireland. The Fortuna potato could make great strides toward preventing damage to current world potato crops and helping to feed the world’s ballooning population.

The approval process for GM products in Europe, however, is notoriously slow, as their population has been frightened into believing that there is some sort of toxicity in genetically-engineered products, especially food. It took 14 years before a GM potato product received approval in 2010, even though it was targeted only for industrial starch production, not human consumption.

ACSH supports BASF’s efforts to bring this important modified potato to the market. ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross notes, “The E.U. is particularly opposed to GM foods, calling it “Frankenfood” out of fear and superstition whipped up by activist groups, especially Greenpeace. All of this is spurred by an ignorance of the actual risks and important benefits of genetic modifications, as well as the misguided advocacy of special-interest groups against anything that has been genetically modified. Over the 16 years of biotech agriculture, comprising millions of tons and acres, not one instance of adverse effects has been detected — not in humans, animals, or the environment.”


Biotech seed hikes hopes for Brazil's corn harvest

- Agrimoney (UK), Nov. 4, 2011


Genetically modified seed, and a green light from soybean sowings, have put Brazilian corn farmers on course to break their harvest record by an even bigger margin than had been thought, with exports to approach an all-time high too.

The US Department of Agriculture's Brasilia office hiked to 64m tonnes its forecast for the Brazilian corn crop, the world's third-biggest, in 2011-12, putting it well ahead of the current record, of 58.6m tonnes, set four years ago.

The upgraded figure was also well ahead of the USDA's official estimate, of 61.0m tonnes, as well as the Brazilian farm ministry, Mapa, forecast of 59.0m tonnes.

It also kept Brazil ahead of the European Union in the production league. The EU lifted its estimate for its own harvest by 2.9m tonnes to 63.7m tonnes, following reports of better-than-expected yields in the west of the bloc, notably in France and Italy.

However, a Brazilian upgrade was justified by high corn prices, which were "causing producers throughout the country to dedicate more land to corn production, causing some to shift from other, less profitable commodities such as edible beans and wheat", the USDA staff said in a report.

Soybean signal
Farmers' prospects for raising sowings of the grain had been improved by the rapid start to the soybean planting season, signalling an early harvest of the oilseed and a timely seeding of follow-on winter, or safrinha, corn.

The completion of corn sowings early in the calendar year is important for ensuring corn is well developed ahead of potential winter frost, as damaged crops in June this year. In Parana, a major safrinha corn state, soybean sowings have finished in some areas, according to regional officials, meaning farmers should start harvest in January.

Michael Cordonnier, at analysis group Soybean and Corn Advisor, said: "Farmers are very pleased with this early completion of soybean planting because this is the main area in Parana where the safrinha corn will be planted after the soybeans are harvested "On-time corn planting is essential for good safrinha corn yields."

Biotech boost
Further Brazilian farmers - flush with cash from a profitable 2010-11 harvest and backed with price certainty having sold 30-40% of their next crop forward - are investing in measures to improve performance.

"It appears that producers are using their increased profits and forward contracts to invest largely in better seed varieties - stacked-trait biotechnology varieties, in particular - fertilizer, agrochemicals, area, and in logistics," the USDA office said.

The bumper harvest was set to lift exports to 11.0m tonnes, 2.5m tonnes higher than the official USDA forecast, and a rise of nearly 20% year on year.

The downside to the spread of genetically modified seed was the potential bar this would place on exports to the European Union, which has attempted to keep the technology at arm's length.

"As Brazil adopts new seed varieties developed through biotechnology, Brazil will share the biotechnology market restrictions, mostly in shipping to the EU, shared by other large-scale, modernised agricultural producers," the report said.

Key report ahead
The estimates come ahead of the USDA's next flagship monthly Wasde report on world crop supply and demand, which many traders have forecast rises in forecasts for Brazilian soybean, if not corn, estimates.

Illinois-based broker Allendale on Tuesday forecast a rise of 1m tonnes to 74.5m tonnes in the department's figure for the Brazilian soybean harvest, but said that "we feel USDA is correct in its South American corn production estimates".

Separately, USDA staff in Buenos Aries kept at 19.5m tonnes their forecast for Argentine corn production in 2011-12, the same as the department's official estimate.


Zimbabwe: Call for Lifting of GMO Ban On Stockfeeds


- The Herald ( Harare, Zimb.), 4 November 2011

THE ban on genetically modified stockfeeds is negatively impacting on the poultry and pig sectors, Mr Mario Beffa, chairman of the Livestock and Meat Advisory Council has said.

Speaking at a workshop on the constraints affecting the two sectors in Harare on Tuesday, Mr Beffa said there was urgent need to lift the ban on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to boost the availability of stockfeeds.

"The relevant authorities need to make considerations on the GMO ban because it is making the availability of stockfeeds difficult since you know that our farmers are failing to meet the demand," said Mr Beffa.

According to reports by agricultural economists, Dr Jackqueline Mutambara and Dr Chrispen Sukume, GMO stockfeeds are cheaper than non-GMO and substituting the latter for the former would make the sectors viable.

"GMO soya and maize are cheaper than non-GMO soya and maize and substituting the latter for the former in pig diets will reduce the price of feeds currently constituting 85 percent of the total cost of production in pigs.

Sustainable Development
"This will reduce the cost of raising pigs and thus improve on the profits," Dr Mutambara said.

Representatives from the two sectors have since formed a task force that will engage the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Science and Technology to deliberate on the issue of the GMO ban on stockfeeds.

Apart from the GMO ban the sectors are also facing high import tariffs on production of raw materials and inputs and the excessive illegal poultry and pig imports.

"There should be a clampdown on illegal poultry imports because they are affecting us seriously," Lunar Chickens chief executive, Mr Edwin Mushangwe said.


Fields of gold


- Lezette Engelbrecht, ITWeb (South Africa), 31 Oct 2011

‘Will drought-proof maize and biofortified bananas help combat world hunger or create new problems?’

Rachel, a farmer in rural Uganda, sits on the floor sorting through the pile of sweet potatoes she has harvested from the plot outside. She hacks away at an earthy lump with a machete until it's reduced to the size of an egg, placing it carefully on a separate pile and starting on the next one. So it continues, until the initial heap of root vegetables is whittled away to several large marbles that will make up the family's dinner.

This is necessary because Rachel's family isn't the first to get a taste of the sweet potatoes – that privilege belongs to the weevils infesting the crop, which means any potatoes gathered are riddled with tiny grooves where the insects have bored their way through.

- cut-

One initiative working in this area is the Sweet Potato Action for Security and Health in Africa project, a five-year initiative aimed at improving food security and livelihoods on the continent.

With the B&MGF providing major funding, one of the programme components focuses specifically on developing weevil-resistant sweet potato varieties – something which would see Rachel spending a lot less time hacking her harvest to pieces.

While new techniques may rid farmers of the weevil scourge, it doesn't change the fact that their diets are often extremely limited in nature.

In countries where a single crop makes up the majority of the population's food intake, vitamin and mineral deficiencies are rife. The lack of simple micronutrients sees more than 10 million children under the age of five die each year, due to diseases that could have been prevented through better nutrition.

According to the World Health Organisation, dietary vitamin A deficiency also causes 250 000 to 500 000 children to go blind every year, and compromises the immune systems of approximately 40% of children under five.

In an attempt to stem the spread of this preventable but crippling phenomenon, numerous research projects are busy investigating ways to boost the nutritional content of staple foods.

One of the major projects being funded by the B&MGF is the HarvestPlus alliance, a global grouping of research institutions working together to develop high-yield crops for improved nutrition. It focuses on staple foods consumed by most of the world's poor living in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Funding is spread across several initiatives, including the BioCassava Plus programme, Africa Biofortified Sorghum Project, the ProVitaMinRice project (Golden Rice) and the National Banana Research programme in Uganda.
Pest control

Why not create a weevil-resistant sweet potato using biotechnology?
Communities are beginning to see the benefits. HarvestPlus' orange-fleshed sweet potato variety, for example, which contains 50% of the daily vitamin A requirement, has been introduced with great success in Uganda and Mozambique. The B&MGF reports that a study of more than 24 000 households in the two countries found vitamin A intake among young children, older children, and women as much as doubled in homes that grew these new varieties.

While the outcomes are promising, there are still various issues muddying the waters of agricultural biotechnology. Crops can be fortified either through conventional plant breeding or using methods that alter their genes – and the latter has received much negative attention over the years. While the orange sweet potato uses traditional breeding techniques, the Golden Rice and BioCassava Plus crops are genetically modified.

Critics of gene transfer between species argue it could have a negative impact on people's health and the environment, and that further testing is needed before these foods are made available to the public. Opponents also point to the possibility of transgenic crops creating 'super weeds', if genes from the modified crop make their way into other plants. Organic farmers worry about genes spreading to their crops through pollination, while consumer scepticism about 'franken-foods' remains, with groups rejecting GM foods on ethical or religious grounds.

Kent noted in a Nature report earlier this year that "anything that involves biotechnology involves a level of controversy”. He added, however, that the approach needs to be “open and data-focused", and that the B&MGF was working to produce the data required for the two GM crops to meet safety regulations.
Future fruit

In 100 years' time, most of us will be eating GM bananas, papaya and other crops.
Major international groups, including the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation, have recognised the key role biotechnology can play in tackling health and hunger issues, but also stress the need for continuing investigation into potential risks.
But for many countries in the developing world, the threat of widespread hunger often trumps the need for extensive testing, with millions in a desperate condition. As climate change increases the strain on agriculture, so the focus on finding viable solutions intensifies. One potential answer is a new crop aimed at alleviating the effects of extensive, crippling drought.

The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) initiative is a five-year project which hopes to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties through various biotechnology breeding techniques. Also funded by the B&MGF, the long-term goal is to make this modified crop available royalty-free to small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.
As the main food source for more than 300 million people in Africa, maize is vital to survival on the continent. However, maize crops suffer from frequent droughts, leading to widespread hunger, as seen in the recent drought in the Horn of Africa.
Led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, Wema is undergoing field trials in Kenya, Uganda and SA, with plans for the first hybrids to be available after six or seven years of research and development.

The United Nations announced that the global population is set to hit seven billion at the end of October, fuelling concerns about feeding an already starving world.
With one billion people estimated to go hungry each day, this rise in numbers coupled with global economic difficulties is likely to worsen the situation.
While the world produces enough food to feed everyone, many people do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food, says the UN.
As climate change sees the battle for control over resources intensify, the poor majority faces an even greater challenge when it comes to ensuring sustainable food supply.

The project hopes to grow bananas with higher levels of pro-vitamin A, vitamin E and iron, as the banana variety most commonly grown in Uganda is low in these nutrients. Given each Ugandan eats an average of 1kg of bananas daily, a fortified version could go a long way to reducing deficiencies.

The first field trial began in Australia in 2009, with biofortification methods being tested on Australian Cavendish bananas. Dale said the aim is to develop the technology in Australia, and transfer the techniques, but not the actual plants, to Ugandan scientists for application to their local bananas.
If successful, the project will provide major benefits to all countries in East African that grow the highland bananas, said Dale.

Promising as these developments are, the agricultural biotechnology industry still faces myriad legitimate challenges, from health concerns to regulatory delays. But with news last week that the global population is set to hit the seven-billion mark, nutrient-boosted, pest-resistant and climate-tolerant supercrops may just be the breakthrough needed to finally help poor farmers reap what they sow.


Europe's opposition to GM crops is arrogant hypocrisy, Kenyan scientist warns


- David Derbyshire, The Observer (UK), 22 October 2011

Kenya has approved the cultivation of GM crops but critics say there is strong grassroots opposition to this in Africa. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Europe's opposition to genetically modified crops is robbing the developing world of a chance to feed itself and could threaten food security, a leading African scientist warns.

Dr Felix M'mboyi of the Kenya-based African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum has accused the European Union of indulging in "hypocrisy and arrogance" and called on development bodies within Europe to let African farmers make full use of GM crops to boost yields and feed a world population expected to reach 7 billion by the end of the year.

M'mboyi's emotive language comes in the run-up to a major food conference in London supported by the biotechnology industry. It follows signs that some African governments are softening their opposition to crops that are genetically engineered.

Last year Kenya passed a Biosafety Act allowing commercial cultivation of GM crops, becoming the fourth African country to explicitly legalise GM crops

However, opponents of GM food said the technology had failed to live up to its promises. GM could actually reduce food security by narrowing the variety of crops grown while making farmers more dependent on multinational companies such as Monsanto and Dupont, they said.

M'mboyi, a former agricultural adviser to the Kenyan government, will make the keynote speech at the Crop World Global conference at the end of this month. He said: "The affluent west has the luxury of choice in the type of technology they use to grow food crops, yet their influence and sensitivities are denying many in the developing world access to such technologies which could lead to a more plentiful supply of food.

"This kind of hypocrisy and arrogance comes with the luxury of a full stomach," he said.

Some GM crops have been tested on a small scale in Africa. But governments are reluctant to introduce them commercially because they fear export bans from EU markets. M'mboyi will tell the conference, organised by the British Crop Production Council, that GM should not be ruled out and should be part of the mix along with conventional and organic production.

GM crops are grown in 29 countries on 3.7bn acres of land. While the US is by far the largest producer, about 48% of the world's GM plants are grown in developing countries.

Last week 20 food and conservation groups in developing countries reported that genetic engineering had failed to increase the yield of any food crop – but had increased the use of chemicals and growth of superweeds.

Mike Childs, head of climate for Friends of the Earth, said: "He's plain wrong if he says the EU are dictating what Africa can and cannot do. There is a strong grassroots movement against GM in the developing world largely because, where GM crops have been introduced, they have overpromised and underperformed.

"The solution to feeding Africa doesn't start with GM technology and certainly not with the GM crops that are being peddled by the big multinational companies like Monsanto."

Duncan Green, head of research at Oxfam, said GM crops were not the answer to ending hunger. Some would tie farmers into buying seeds and pesticides from western suppliers and would threaten the tradition of seed swapping practised by 80% of African farmers. "When you talk to people in developing countries about how to increase yields, GM comes pretty low down the list," he said.



Video: 7 Billion: How Did We Get So Big So Fast?

- Excellent short (2 min) video with superb graphics. View it!

It was just over two centuries ago that the global population was 1 billion — in 1804. But better medicine and improved agriculture resulted in higher life expectancy for children, dramatically increasing the world population, especially in the West.

As higher standards of living and better health care are reaching more parts of the world, the rates of fertility — and population growth — have started to slow down, though the population will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

U.N. forecasts suggest the world population could hit a peak of 10.1 billion by 2100 before beginning to decline. But exact numbers are hard to come by — just small variations in fertility rates could mean a population of 15 billion by the end of the century.