Miracle Plants: Fallacy or New Frontier

As occurs each year, the Norm Bourlag World Food Prize Lecture was accompanied by a poster session. There were posters on a variety of subjects but one in particular caught my eye. A student had a literature review presented as a poster on the subject of whether genetic engineering can help meet food needs in Africa, titled Miracle Plants: Fallacy or New Frontier (despite being a literature review, though, she didn’t have any references listed). Her conclusions were unsurprisingly mixed, finding that genetically engineered traits would have some positive impacts but that they won’t solve all problems.

One of her conclusions concerned me greatly, and actually upset me to the point that I spoke with her and tried to gently correct her. That conclusion was that genetically engineered crops would not help with problems such as increasing food prices and decreasing food security. When I asked, she said that genetically engineered seeds were too expensive. She hadn’t encountered the NGO-corporate partnerships to provide low or no cost seed to low income farmers. She hadn’t encountered traits being developed with government funding that have the potential to be released at low or not cost. This young person could only think of traits that were developed by corporations that are too expensive for low income farmers to purchase, and could only find evidence to support this conclusion.
This says to me that we are failing to counter misconceptions about genetic engineering and that we are failing to develop and deregulate traits that can be made available at low or no cost. What can we do to remedy the situation? Scientists can continue with research that is government funded and can continue to apply for grants to fund that research, even when the granting agencies are non-responsive. However, as the World Food Prize Laureates both pointed out, it takes more than scientists to help fight hunger. It takes individuals, and in the case of genetic engineering, it arguably takes partnerships with companies who are willing to help fund research as well.
Are we really committed to getting traits like water and nitrogen efficiency, improved nutrients, and insect protection out to the farmers who can use it, the farmers for whom even a small yield boost would make a big difference? If so, what can we do? Do we need more letter to the editor? More blog posts? More positive comments to the USDA to counter negative comments that were mobilized by anti agricultural technology organizations? More calls for companies to commit to helping small farmers? More scientist-advocates working to change public policy at the national level? What do you do, and what would you encourage others to do?

Anastasia Bodnar

Written by Anastasia Bodnar

Anastasia Bodnar serves as the Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. She is a science communicator and multidisciplinary risk analyst with a career in federal service. She has a PhD in plant genetics and sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University.

83 comments

  1. Today, Vandana Shiva was claiming in a lecture that plant breeding never helped produce more food – that “Miracle seeds” never did anything. At least that’s what I gather from tom Philpott’s tweets. I’d like to see the evidence.
    I think what we need is a good example, a successful variety that does exactly what we are talking about. Golden Rice will do a lot to change perceptions, but things like Super Cassava will pack a bigger all-in-one punch with multiple traits – not just for nutrient content. The “only Bt and Roundup Ready” argument has been effective in preventing people from learning about the other traits that exist and the possibilities that are not far away. It is already false, but there needs to be a bigger narrative than virus-resistant papayas to get the information out there.

  2. The anti-nutrition improvement sentiment expressed by Shiva and others just baffles me. The thing Shiva et al completely fail to realize is that there are a lot of people who ONLY have a little grain to eat each day, if they’re lucky. The problems that are causing the lack of a healthy, nutritionally complete diet need to be solved but are so complex that it’s not going to happen overnight. We can hope that every malnourished person gets a vegetable garden. We can wish that horrible dictators will stop withholding food from their people to keep them weak. We can pray that every poor person gains the ability to purchase high quality foods. Have these things happened? No. Should we stop trying to make them happen? Of course not, but in the mean time, let’s do our best to make sure that the grain the people are getting is as packed full of nutrients as possible by providing low or no cost improved seed. The blind optimism from people like Shiva on this subject is frankly disgusting, and I’m an optimist!
    Shunning even the idea nutritionally improved crops for so long has led to us having so little research on them, whether engineered or bred, and the ones that have been developed have been pushed back and back by activists. It might not be fair for me to say so, but for every child that goes blind due to lack of beta carotene, a little blame should be placed at the feet of anti-nutritional trait activists.
    Sorry, guess I had to get a little rant out this morning.

  3. Today, Vandana Shiva was claiming in a lecture that plant breeding never helped produce more food

    Wow.
    That’ll come as news to anyone even tangentially involved in breeding, I guess all the breeding programs in the world simply involve people twiddling their thumbs and making stuff up in an effort to justify their existence. Makes you wonder how it is remotely possible that a dekalb hybrid beats a pioneer hybrid (or a pioneer hybrid beats a dekalb hybrid) under identical agronomic conditions (I’m assuming her arguement is that increased inputs and changing agronomics account for 100% of yield gains in the past 60 years (although she’s batty enough that she may simply be claiming we haven’t seen yield gains in the last 60 years))

    That conclusion was that genetically engineered crops would not help with problems such as increasing food prices and decreasing food security

    Based on them categorically helping with increasing yields in developing nations?

    When I asked, she said that genetically engineered seeds were too expensive.

    Economics fail. Even assuming corporate seeds which farmers have to buy are the only option (reality fail?). If Bob the farmer has to spend $500 more per acre on seed (astronomically high price, must be smartstax) and produces $1000 more crop on that acre (which is an approximate 50% value share, which I think sits on the high side) then in what world is this seed too expensive? Given that I’ve massively exaggerated the pricing, and that for up front investments of ~500 rupees an indian farmer can yield ~10,000 rupees more at the end of the year growing GM cotton the whole “seeds are too expensive” arguement is an exercise in making stuff up because you don’t want GM to be an option rather than because it can’t be.

    This young person could only think of traits that were developed by corporations that are too expensive for low income farmers to purchase, and could only find evidence to support this conclusion.

    I would suggest that rather than traits that are too expensive for low income farmers to purchase this young person made the assumption that these traits were too expensive for low income farmers to purchase – even looking at traits on the market right now you absolutely cannot assume that pricing in the US for instance would reflect pricing in say, Uganda – trait pricing is based on a value share model – if Bob gets a value of $1,000 per bag of seed then he might expect to pay say, $300 a bag – if Bruno can expect to make $100 a bag then his price will be $30.

    Are we really committed to getting traits like water and nitrogen efficiency, improved nutrients, and insect protection out to the farmers who can use it, the farmers for whom even a small yield boost would make a big difference?

    One would assume that as the corporate world is (Pioneer on NUE (grr – a topic I bring up with my direct manager as often as I can to try and get our project involved), Monsanto on WUE) the academic world is probably moreso. Also in the developing world we probably aren’t discussing small yield boosts (at least %age wise) – we’re talking about improving farm incomes in the region of 50-150% (based on Indian cotton and insect protected corn in Africa) – we’re talking about removing farmers from the grind of low yields and self sustenance only (in good years) to being viable economic entities who produce enough to actually be able to reinvest in their farm the next season and maintain their own productivity after an initial investment from outside.

  4. I never did get how anyone can even assume that genetic engineering is owned by corporate interests, even if the most prominent examples of it’s use are. The most common combustion engines are made by companies, but no one would claim companies own the basic principles behind the combustion engine. And I’ve never really understood why it is always go with the ‘Ah, but GE won’t solve all problems in the world’ angle. That should go without saying. It should be obvious that no technology is going to help people if it just sits on the shelf. Despite a worldwide system of interconnected communication machines, I’m left in the dark all the time because people insist on using word of mouth, but that’s no flaw of the internet, and it’s the same with GE; you can insert a gene from a daffodil into rice to make it more nutritious or a gene from a bacteria into corn to make it resist pests, but you can’t insert compassion into evil people that consider food to a valid weapon. That something is not a silver bullet is hardly an argument against just doing what you can when that’s about all you can do.

  5. Anastasia, you are asking what we can do. I think there are two things:
    1. Youngsters like you (this is a collective you for all or perhaps almost all enthusiastic Biofortified bloggers) need to get down to work and develop what will feed the world in one or two decades, no matter what these people say and write.
    2. Even if new technology that proves useful will prevail in the long run, we all need to kick back, preferably on the sites on which this kind of junk proliferates.
    Very simple arguments can be rolled out to get people (not all, admittedly) to think it over. The simplest is why would farmers buy GM seed, even from “nasty” and “ugly” multinationals (insert your favorite’s name here) if there was no benefit from it. With respect to the “only Bt and Roundup Ready” argument, one can ask why so many farmers have adopted them, why there has been so much contraband from Argentina to Brazil and Paraguay, why there was a Bt-cotton cottage industry in India…
    And since you wrote on the basis of the Norman Borlaug World Food Prize Lecture, somebody needs to ask one day this Vanadana Shiva whether she believes she would have survived the famines that plagued India before the Green Revolution (this assuming she is of modest extraction and was not borne with a silver spoon in her mouth, in which case the question would be whether she would have survived the famine riots).

  6. Part of this perception problem is the fault of the seed developers themselves.
    A perfect example of this is Monsanto and its LY038 maize. It contains elevated levels of lysine — an amino acid which is critically important in the human diet, and generally lacking in a vegetarian (human) diet.
    This could have been touted as an advance in ‘functional food’, but was advertised instead as better for cattle feed. I’m inclined to think that the biotech seed developers are frightened by consumers.

  7. Eric – I’d guess as a product increased Lysine corn really wasn’t particularly comercially viable – commercially developed GMOs will be targetted at the market they’re going to be profitable in – I’d assume that increased Lysine corn was developed specifically for the cattle feed market as it would be profitable there.
    Once you have products which you can actually market and hope to profit from as ‘functional food’ then you’ll see corporations pushing these (vistive gold soybeans and other improved oil products in the pipeline seem to be the first real opportunity to do this)

  8. Ewan,
    I discussed the lysine maize issue with a Monsanto official, and was told that the maize could, as a practical matter, appeal to consumers who are interested in increased protein, and especially, to vegetarians who generally have lysine-poor diets.
    This person said, however, that vegetarians tend to be so rabidly anti-biotech that they’d shun the product regardless of any nutritional benefit.
    I posed the same basic question to a scholar in the agro biotech field. This person pointed out that there are many people in third-world countries who are ‘obligate’ vegetarians, i.e., they’re too poor to afford non-vegetative foods. And some of them subsist on a basic diet of maize, mainly in some regions of Africa.
    Lysine maize would for these people be a significant advance. But they’re too poor to present a market opportunity to seed developers/providers, and third-world countries have such strict regulations on GM crops that it’s actually not worth the bother anyway.
    Your observation regarding ‘healthy cooking oils’ from GM soy is interesting, and disturbing.
    First off, the health dangers of various oils is mainly a matter of rumor and innuendo, with a generous splash of trade protectionism, such as the endless campaign against palm oil. But let’s assume arguendo that the health dangers of certain oils have conclusively been demonstrated.
    This means that the first GM ‘functional food’ products to reach the market will cater to consumer fears! This is not the most favorable development.
    It certainly does not bode well for the marketing strategy behind Golden Rice, which will protect against, and even reverse, VAD-related blindness. Will it be necessary to scare people into planting and consuming Golden Rice?
    Food-scare campaigns are rampant and generally ill-founded, and quite lucrative besides, but the public seems to embrace each as it comes along with no suspicion. Which does not reflect favorably on notions of ‘the educated consumer’.
    Oh well.

  9. First off, the health dangers of various oils is mainly a matter of rumor and innuendo, with a generous splash of trade protectionism, such as the endless campaign against palm oil. But let’s assume arguendo that the health dangers of certain oils have conclusively been demonstrated.

    Well, the peer reviewed science at least appears, at first glance, to disagree with your assessment
    Mozaffarian D, Katan MB, Ascherio A, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC. Trans fatty acids and cardiovascular disease. N Engl J Med. 2006;354:1601–1613
    Motard-Belanger A, Charest A, Grenier G, Paquin P, Chouinard Y, et al. Study of the effect of trans fatty acids from ruminants on blood lipids and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;87:593–599
    Quantitative effects on cardiovascular risk factors and coronary heart disease risk of replacing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils with other fats and oils. Eur J Clin Nutr 2009;63:Suppl 2:S22-S33
    Eckel RH, Borra S, Lichtenstein AH, Yin-Piazza SY. Understanding the complexity of trans fatty acid reduction in the American diet: American Heart Association Trans Fat Conference 2006: report of the Trans Fat Conference Planning Group. Circulation 2007;115:2231-2246
    As to why high lysine corn wasn’t utilized in developing nations – from what I recall the levels of lysine aren’t that elevated (30-50% I think, having google-fu issues and lack of journal access at home) and fall within the range of lysine levels one would see in field corn normally – as such they’d only appeal to consumers interested in high protein if they didn’t understand what high protein meant (I’ll get back to this tomorrow – I’m pretty sure lysine isn’t a major amino acid in corn and as such a 40% increase probably wouldnt effect overall amino acid levels much at all (alanine & asparagine are the two major ones I can remember, probably accounting for somewhere in the region of 50%+ of all AAs, at least in terms of free amino acid pools)

  10. Meh broken post, why can’t a 4 week old tell when Dad is busy!
    Anyway to continue –

    . But let’s assume arguendo that the health dangers of certain oils have conclusively been demonstrated.
    This means that the first GM ‘functional food’ products to reach the market will cater to consumer fears! This is not the most favorable development

    Second part doesnt follow from the first – if we assume the health dangers of certain oils have been demonstrated then the first products to reach the market will deal with actual issues and not consumer fears (as I think they do)- if the differences are unsubstantiated then you’re catering to public fears (although that said as a seed company you’d be catering to other companies desires to cater to public fears – even as a Monsanto employee who believes we do try and do good I will also admit that where the mighty dollar offers enough incentive there shall we follow (if only folk wanted simple things for a premium, like glow in the dark corn)

    It certainly does not bode well for the marketing strategy behind Golden Rice, which will protect against, and even reverse, VAD-related blindness. Will it be necessary to scare people into planting and consuming Golden Rice?

    Certainly will – you scare them by telling them that without sufficient vitamin A people will go blind – what other justification for utilization of golden rice is there? Aesthetics?

  11. In all this talk about “miracle” food, one thing has been forgotten, do they matter? If you see some documentaries on Africa, you can see large markets with all sorts of different food. Of course other areas lack such abundance.
    But the local agricultural economies are undermined by EU and American subsidies to their own producers. The EU exports subsidized chickens to places like Senegal with which local producers can’t compete. America sends subsidized corn, Bt or not, to Mexico with which Mexican farmers can’t compete.
    African countries with coasts see their local waters pillaged of fish by Western and Japanese factory ships and local fishermen lose their livelihood. Adding one or more “new improved” food products, made by the West of course, will not change this plundering and not add much if anything to local sustainability.
    As to water, in many countries, the WTO has mandated that countries from Equador to South Africa privatize water companies which has led to higher prices and less access. The WTO also demands that poor countries lower their import tariffs, which has led to destruction of local economies by cheaper imported food. These tariffs are also a major source of income for these countries’ governments.
    A dramatic change in the West’s economic domination and exploitation of third world countries may well do more to feed more people and do it more efficiently than your “miracle” products, even if they work.

  12. I talked about this already in my 1st comment on this post: https://biofortified.org/2010/10/miracle-plants/#comment-13524
    Long story short, of course we need to solve the trade issues, along with a million other social and economic things that are the causes of hunger and malnutrition. Has anyone said those aren’t important? Has anyone said that genetic engineering will magically solve those problems? I don’t think so, and if anyone did, I’d stand next to you in sneering at them.
    While we’re working on those issues, what happens to the people? They continue to starve. Children continue to have stunted growth due to lack of protein. Iron deficiency continues to cause weakness and reduced ability to fight off disease. Lack of betacarotene continues to cause blindness.
    Are those problems going to be solved with plant breeding and genetic engineering? No. But if even a small number of people have access to improved grain, perhaps grain that has drought tolerance so it can survive without irrigation, perhaps grain that has nutritional improvements, then their children can grow up strong and healthy and help to pull others out of poverty.
    Let’s look at one of this year’s World Food Prize winners, Jo Luck of Heifer International. Her efforts of providing a goat here, some ducks there aren’t going to change the political factors that put those people into poverty in the first place. So, according to your argument she should just stop. What’s the point of helping at all? Perhaps all efforts to help the hungry should end and we should take the dollars that we use for that and use it to elect American politicians who will change the entire status quo. I don’t know. But in the meantime, I’m going to keep working on maize that has improved iron and donating to Heifer International.

  13. My lab works on nutritional traits with the end goal of developing traits for human consumption. But in grant applications and such we talk about potential improvement as animal feed. It upsets me but it’s hard to get people interested in human oriented traits.

  14. To put Lysine levels in perspective – according to This paper on IHP and ILP Lysine is one of the minor amino acids in corn grain accounting for 3-4% of total amino acid content, it actually surprises me that this does anything for animal feed – although I recall that rather than giving a huge boost or whatnot it was more a guarantee that your feed would come in at the high end of the scale in terms of lysine levels and therefore shouldn’t require supplements (which I’m guessing required testing of each feed lot to see whether you’d have to supplement + the cost of supplementation) – equally an increase of 30-50% (or even 100% to be quite frank) would have little or no impact on protein levels of the end grain (high asparagine is where it’s at for high protein levels, although if you’ve ever seen a kernel of IHP you’ll fast realize that there is a high yield price paid for messing with protein levels in corn kernels to any significant extent (they are miniscule as compared to ILP kernels which are pretty monsterous big – counterintuitively from looks the ILP kernels suck at germination whereas the IHP kernels germinate like crazy)

  15. “So, according to your argument she should just stop. What’s the point of helping at all? Perhaps all efforts to help the hungry should end”
    Isn’t that one of the debating fallacies that you listed when I first wrote on this blog? I didn’t suggest just stopping, much less giving the money to the politicians for change. In any event that would be peanuts compared to corporations’ donations to their candidates.
    How long do you think it will take for this research and development and commercial utilization to take before it has an effect? Maybe it would be better to tackle the politics first, I don’t know.
    I did forget one thing though. If I remember, someone mentioned palm oil. Now that is a real disaster, not because of a presumed personal danger, but because millions of acres of Indonesian forests are being cut down for palm plantations. As usual, the plantations are owned by rich companies and individuals and the workers are paid the minimum.

  16. “So, according to your argument she should just stop. What’s the point of helping at all? Perhaps all efforts to help the hungry should end”
    Isn’t that one of the debating fallacies that you listed when I first wrote on this blog? I didn’t suggest just stopping, much less giving the money to the politicians for change. In any event that would be peanuts compared to corporations’ donations to their candidates.
    How long do you think it will take for this research and development and commercial utilization to take before it has an effect? Maybe it would be better to tackle the politics first, I don’t know. I looked it up and found that there are at least 40,000 ngo’s, many of them working directly on the terrain to improve food production. That is happening now, not in an indefinite future.
    I did forget one thing though. If I remember, someone mentioned palm oil. Now that is a real disaster, not because of a presumed personal danger, but because millions of acres of Indonesian forests are being cut down for palm plantations. As usual, the plantations are owned by rich companies and individuals and the workers are paid the minimum.

  17. How long do you think it will take for this research and development and commercial utilization to take before it has an effect? Maybe it would be better to tackle the politics first, I don’t know.

    False dichotomy. You (or the world in general) needn’t do one or the other – one would hope both get done – I’d also argue that waiting for a political solution to these issues is pretty much akin to doing nothing – and that a solution which increases food security for any given area may actually provide the kick start required for political reform (probably not, but it may)

  18. Bernada, you said:

    “A dramatic change in the West’s economic domination and exploitation of third world countries may well do more to feed more people and do it more efficiently than your “miracle” products, even if they work.”

    So what is the West supposed to do? Completely pull out? Retract all financial help? You are already suggesting withdrawal of technical help. (BTW, the article was making the point that they are not “miracle” products, just another tool to use.)
    If we are to help, how would you do it without having it labeled as “economic domination and exploitation”? Should a corporation ever be involved? A government (or collection of them)? Is it even possible to extend a helping hand without these entities?
    Note: I’m not trying to be snarky here. I just want to know how you would have the problem approached.

  19. The financial and technical “help” is miniscule compared to the resources taken from the continent. But for example, the WTO could completely change its anti-tariff policy and forced privatization. Factory fishing ships could be banned from a much larger area of the sea. I don’t feel sorry for the foreign tankers and fishing boats attacked by Somali pirates who used to be fishermen. The real pirates are the developed countries.
    The U.S. could hold to its promise, along with most other developed countries, to devote 0.7 % of its GNP to development aid. For the moment it is about 0.1%
    The U.S. could pressure corporations from making sweetheart deals with African dictators whom they make rich while leaving the populations in poverty. I could go on and on.

  20. “If so, what can we do? ”
    You follow that question with a set of possible actions. The answer to all of them is “Yes.” There really is no alternative to a long-term determination to wage the good fight, in terms of spreading knowledge.
    So there is a need for more blogging, more websites, more letters to editors, more lobbying of companies and Congress and USDA, more networking among scientists through professional societies — and all of it for the long term. You keep pushing for the improvements in life until the day you stop breathing. That is the only way to approach it. You are making a good start through your blogging and networking via this website. At some point you may no longer have time for the blogging, but use online networking and professional associations to influence government and make a difference.
    As beneficial results from genetically modified crops are reported, websites should aggregate that information and keep it readily available, updated and filtered to delete the less reliable reports, and networked to other aggregators. That information needs to be easy to find and access.
    You mention being baffled by the sentiments of people opposed even nutrition improvements via genetic engineering. An old response is still valid, I think: Ideology is a great corrupter of people, often a kind of substitute for dogmatic religion. It closes minds, for various reasons that must be worthy of many psychological studies and books.

  21. Bernarda,
    You have raised a number of very important issues which cannot be brushed away with a backhand stroke. Yet most of them do not really fall within the subjects of this blog. Let me, however, make three general observations:
    1. Things which appear on the Internet, even in thousands of copies (perhaps the “even” should be replaced by “particularly” here) are not always true.
    2. The rhetoric which makes the developed world the source of all evil in developing countries is widely rolled out by two kinds of entities: those which have an axe to grind with our economic system (call it capitalism, free trade, free enterprise, whatever) and some so-called international non-governmental or civil society organisations (the two categories are largely overlapping). Their objective is not always to help the poor, but to help themselves. Take CSOs: the rhetoric enables them to reach donors in the “West” and followers in the “South” and their leaders make a living out of this.
    3. The WTO is a rules-based organisation in which decisions require unanimity. The idea that the “West” would impose certain decisions on the “South” is a hoax. Unless you have more information than I do, the WTO, for instance, certainly has not “mandated that countries from Ecuador to South Africa privatize water companies”. My own water, in France, comes from a public entity.
    But let us come back to agriculture, for which I will also offer three points.
    1. Point 2, above, is closely connected to the objectives of this blog and particularly to the very object of this blog post to the extent that the same entities are bitterly fighting the rolling out of technological solutions to the problems that plague agriculture and food production in the “South”. For example, they should not use improved seed and varieties because those are from multinationals, which are evil, etc., etc.
    2. Activists have stunningly simple arguments on complex problems. Consider chicken production in Africa. The “poulet bicyclette” (the one that comes, alive, tied on the frame of a bicycle) can hardly compete (whether or not there are subsidies for the imported ones) with its ready-to-cook counterpart. Then, if you want to have a local production important enough to feed a large city you need the whole infrastructure, from producers to slaughterhouses and fridges through transport. And you have to deal with the problem of high temperatures, a real challenge in chicken production. And also the problem of feed supply… And here we are back at Biofortified!
    3. The “this will do more than that” is a standard argument, but it is ineffective (actually, it is highly effective in ensuring that nothing is done, it keeps the argument going and activists in business…). Changing the nature of trade relations will do little to feed people. European chicken would likely be supplanted by for instance Brazilian, not local chicken, unless there is a strategic plan for which you will need the contribution of “Western” aid and investors… which brings you back to the vilified trade relations.
    “Miracle” products as they have been called in this blog do feed people! The beauty of genetics and plant breeding is that the farmer, just for the price of the seed (which may be subsidised), can produce more and/or better and/or more effectively with essentially the same amount of labour and inputs; if more inputs are required, then the extra investment is more than covered by the increased output (if it were not, the solution would not work, this is standard economics).
    Bernarda,
    You have raised a number of very important issues which cannot be brushed away with a backhand stroke. Yet most of them do not really fall within the subjects of this blog. Let me, however, make three general observations:
    1. Things which appear on the Internet, even in thousands of copies (perhaps the “even” should be replaced by “particularly” here) are not always true.
    2. The rhetoric which makes the developed world the source of all evil in developing countries is widely rolled out by two kinds of entities: those which have an axe to grind with our economic system (call it capitalism, free trade, free enterprise, whatever) and some so-called international non-governmental or civil society organisations (the two categories are largely overlapping). Their objective is not always to help the poor, but to help themselves. Take CSOs: the rhetoric enables them to reach donors in the “West” and followers in the “South” and their leaders make a living out of this.
    3. The WTO is a rules-based organisation in which decisions require unanimity. The idea that the “West” would impose certain decisions on the “South” is a hoax. Unless you have more information than I do, the WTO, for instance, certainly has not “mandated that countries from Ecuador to South Africa privatize water companies”. My own water, in France, comes from a public entity.
    But let us come back to agriculture, for which I will also offer three points.
    1. Point 2, above, is closely connected to the objectives of this blog and particularly to the very object of this blog post to the extent that the same entities are bitterly fighting the rolling out of technological solutions to the problems that plague agriculture and food production in the “South”. For example, they should not use improved seed and varieties because those are from multinationals, which are evil, etc., etc.
    2. Activists have stunningly simple arguments on complex problems. Consider chicken production in Africa. The “poulet bicyclette” (the one that comes, alive, tied on the frame of a bicycle) can hardly compete (whether or not there are subsidies for the imported ones) with its ready-to-cook counterpart. Then, if you want to have a local production important enough to feed a large city you need the whole infrastructure, from producers to slaughterhouses and fridges through transport. And you have to deal with the problem of high temperatures, a real challenge in chicken production. And also the problem of feed supply… And here we are back at Biofortified!
    3. The “this will do more than that” is a standard argument, but it is ineffective (actually, it is highly effective in ensuring that nothing is done, it keeps the argument going and activists in business…). Changing the nature of trade relations will do little to feed people. European chicken would likely be supplanted by for instance Brazilian, not local chicken, unless there is a strategic plan for which you will need the contribution of “Western” aid and investors… which brings you back to the vilified trade relations.
    “Miracle” products as they have been called in this blog do feed people! The beauty of genetics and plant breeding is that the farmer, just for the price of the seed (which may be subsidised), can produce more and/or better and/or more effectively with essentially the same amount of labour and inputs; if more inputs are required, then the extra investment is more than covered by the increased output (if it were not, the solution would not work, this is standard economics).
    Changes can be small (and yet sometimes make the dramatic difference of life rather than starvation or death) or enormous. A standard example is maize in Malawi (see for instance from October 2005 and from November 2009 (please note that the miracle is also due in part to more favorable climate conditions, and don’t give any importance to the bickering of charity representatives, they have a poor understanding of agriculture). Women farmers in South Africa growing herbicide-tolerant maize are now able to weed in one day a piece of land which required in the past a full month of backbreaking hoeing. Tanzania hopes to triple – yes, triple – cotton output by adopting GM seed (see: . Banana, Uganda’s staple, is being decimated by a fungus and genetic engineering appears to be the only effective pathway to provide a solution. And I could go on and on. To make it short, African leaders have decided to invest in agriculture, and in research and development, and the “West” (including multinational companies) assists. This is one of the soundest decisions they have ever taken.

  22. Bernada,
    I’ll leave the issue of piracy to another post, but you say above:
    “The U.S. could hold to its promise, along with most other developed countries, to devote 0.7 % of its GNP to development aid. ”
    Ok, so let’s say I automagically make this happen. Exactly what form is this “aid” supposed to take? What if these recipients determine they need advanced Ag tech to solve a local problem? Am I to rule out GM? Are we to ban the big bad corporations, even if they offer to donate the tech?
    If you are Greenpeace, then the answer is yes to both questions, and the poor in these countries are left to fend for themselves and will never gain the opportunity to become competitive. If you answer no, then you need to find a way to do so without selling out the people on the receiving end. Many of the “40,000” NGO’s you refer to above are doing just that. Complaining about the evil “West”, corporations, and dictators solves nothing. They exist. They will continue to exist. Solutions must be found which coexist in that environment. Perhaps those solutions may eventually mitigate or remove the exploitative forces at play, but real time applications designed to help now must face the reality of dealing with them.

  23. pdiff, I am certainly not against initiatives like Negroponte’s computer for 100 dollars, or the South Africa millionaire who distributes linex Ubuntu software free to everyone.
    I used to be a university teacher at an engineering school and I know many students who volunteered in their own organizations or joined others to spend their summers digging wells and installing pumps in remote areas to provide water in Africa. Others collected school materials and went there, providing the materials and working on and fixing the schools.
    Developed countries, could follow that sort of example and give aid in the form of infrastructure projects rather than just give it to corrupt governments. They could say we will build and pave these roads or build these sanitation systems or pay for so many clinics and pay the doctors and nurses. That would be a way of avoiding the dictators from stealing the money. Of course they would have to have administrative and accounting control.
    Just a couple of ideas.

  24. Andre, “Unless you have more information than I do, the WTO, for instance, certainly has not “mandated that countries from Ecuador to South Africa privatize water companies”.” Like you, I live in France and I got some of this information from documentaries shown on ARTE or France Télévisions, so I can’t give you a link.
    When you say “activists” do this or that, you are putting them all in the same basket. Actually there are many different types who do what they do for different reasons.
    You are right about the problem of Brazilian chickens maybe replacing European and that raises another problem. Shipping all products, including chickens, across the sea is a problem. It doesn’t take into account the pollution created by the ships which contribute a large part of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. This hidden cost is not taken into account.
    One example I can give you is that China ship gravestones, i.e. rocks all the way to Europe. What sense is there in that? There is little added value and Europe has plenty of rocks, and there is plenty of pollution.
    Another, Britain ships potatoes to Germany, and surprisingly, Germany ships about an equal amount to Britain(from a British documentary). I could go on about the incoherent agriculture industry, but I am already far enough off topic.

  25. pdiff, sorry, I wrote a response which disappeared and I forgot to record, so here I go again.
    I am not against things like Negroponte’s computer for 100 dollars or a South African millionaires linux Ubuntu free for everyone. I am not a Greenpeace fan, just so you know.
    I used to teach at an engineering school and many of the students created their own organizations or joined existing ones to spend their summer in African countries digging and drilling wells and installing and repairing pumps.
    Some would collect school supplies and go and distribute them to schools and fix up the schools.
    Government aid could be similar. Instead of giving money to corrupt dictators, the government could say that we will build and pave this road, or install these sanitary infrastructures, or many other projects that would be administrated and accounted by the donor.

  26. Andre, I also responded to you, but my post disappeared. Here we go again.
    You say, “The WTO is a rules-based organisation in which decisions require unanimity. The idea that the “West” would impose certain decisions on the “South” is a hoax. Unless you have more information than I do, the WTO, for instance, certainly has not “mandated that countries from Ecuador to South Africa privatize water companies”.”
    I live in France as you do, and I got this information from documentaries that were shown on ARTE or France Télévisions, so I don’t have a link. Do you think they were lying? There were even violent street protests in Equator. Besides water in South Africa, the WTO demanded privatization of electricity. So now there are underground groups that reconnect poor homes that cannot pay higher bills.
    Your point about Brazilian chicken is well taken, and it is imported to Europe, as if there wasn’t enough chicken there already. One cost of shipping anything isn’t taken into account: pollution. Shipping is one of the largest contributors to C02 production. Reducing shipping would be a good idea. One example, China ships gravestones, i.e. rocks to Europe, including France, as if there weren’t enough rocks in Europe, and there is little added value to this product.
    Another example, in a documentary on British TV I found out that Britain exports potatoes to Germany, and that Germany exports about the same amount to Britain. What sense is there in that? If I find the titles of these programs, I will post them.

  27. Back to the thread subject. I read the following article and will just cherry-pick a couple of quotes about things I didn’t know about Bt corn. “Bt Corn and European Corn Borer”.
    http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/cropsystems/dc7055.html
    “The average benefit for this period, $17.24 per acre, was very close to the national estimate of Bt value, but returns varied considerably between endemic and outbreak years (Table 1). During the endemic years, the yield protection offered by Bt corn barely covered the price premium for seed, currently $7 to $10 per acre. During outbreak years, yield savings were four to five times the added seed cost ($28 to $50 per acre). The bottom line: Do not expect an economic return every year or in every field. As with any type of natural resistance, Bt corn only delivers an economic benefit when European corn borer outbreaks occur. Unfortunately, no predictive tools for European corn borer outbreaks are currently available.”
    “# Plant non-Bt corn refuge(s) to protect 20-30% of the European corn borer larval populations from exposure to Bt Cry proteins. Plant non-Bt corn at a similar time and in close proximity to Bt corn. In corn-soybean production areas, where corn is the primary refuge, at least 20-30% of the corn acreage should be non-Bt corn. Where spraying of non-Bt corn is anticipated, increase the refuge size to 40%.
    # Continue to use an IPM approach for all pests, as Bt corn is just one tool for European corn borer management. Other insect pests such as cutworms, wireworms, white grubs, seedcorn maggots, seedcorn beetles, corn rootworms, aphids and mites are unaffected by Bt corn. When designing scouting priorities, consider that Bt corn performance against other caterpillars, such as southwestern corn borer, stalk borer, armyworm, corn earworm and fall armyworm, may vary among events.”
    The EPA has required management plans, but have they been carried out? I have my doubts considering the revolving door between Washington and interested companies, but that is another subject.

  28. Not sure what you make of the quotes – essentially Bt seems to be a good idea regardless (barely covering costs is still covering costs) unless you can guarantee that you will have really low yields and that the price of corn will be really low and that there’ll be little or no infestation that year – even in a worst case yield/price scenario you still stand to recoup more than 2x your investment in the trait. Are you offering tacit approval of Bt in this instance? (either way this is worth checking out to see more on economic benefits of Bt corn)
    On the revolving door arguement, I generally see this as pretty fallacious in any regard – who do you employ in a regulatory capacity?
    People who know the field, or people who dont? – I’d assume people with knowledge of the field.
    How do you get to know the field? – by either working for a government agency or a company that interacts with a government agency
    Are you so loyal to previous employers that you’d act unethically to benefit them? – I know I’m not, and know I wouldn’t be in future, and have colleagues who have moved from Monsanto to Pioneer who have no such desire to continue helping Monsanto (dunno anyone yet who has moved to government, but I have practically no experience with regulatory) – there is a risk of conflict of interest when folk own a lot of shares in a biotech company, but to extrapolate that this necessarily means nefarious acts are going on requires quite a leap of faith I feel.

    The EPA has required management plans, but have they been carried out?

    Categorically yes – the contract a grower signs with Monsanto stipulates stewardship of the crop which includes refuge requirement – I’m assuming you’re aware of Monsanto’s reputation for contract enforcement? Also there is a push in the industry at the moment to release reduced refuge products – products with multiple modes of action which therefore don’t need quite the refuge – where would be the benefit for farmers if refuge wasn’t utilized? Why pay more for a bag of seed to reduce a refuge that you don’t use anyway? On top of this there is also the whole refuge in a bag concept (Pioneer and Monsanto are both pushing this, I think Pioneer is gonna hit the market first although they use a 2 bag system compared to Monsanto’s one bag system – this may actually make for an interesting comparison by someone not involved with either company (looking at Karl and Anastasia here) as both companies claim their product is the better in terms of simplicity (obviously I’ll side with big M here…) – which would be an utterly pointless product if refuge wasn’t utilized.

  29. When I woke up this morning I found your three posts held for moderation by the blog, but I also see you registered. 🙂 I removed one duplicate, but the others aren’t quite so identical to your new comments, so I left them in.

  30. Ewan, I am sorry but you mistake changing jobs for the revolving door. But it wouldn’t surprise me that one company sends one of its employees to another to spy on them. I wonder if headhunter companies even consider that when they recruit.
    As to the revolving door, that refers to going to a company whose activity one in the government is supposed to control, and back again. For example which I posted on another site onegoodmove. The owner of the site is very pro-GMO’s, but many of the commentators are not. You might go there if you don’ just want to preach to the choir.
    “Michael Taylor’s travels through the revolving door between Monsanto and the government which has now led him to be named food safety “czar” at the FDA.
    In a previous stay, Taylor, ” In 1994, Taylor ended up writing the rBGH labeling guidelines that prohibit the dairy industry from stating that their products either contain or are free from rBGH. Even worse, to keep rBGH-milk from being “stigmatized” in the marketplace, the FDA ruled that the labels of non-rBGH products must state that there is no difference between rBGH and the natural hormone.8
    According to journalist Jennifer Ferraro, “while working for Monsanto,Taylor had prepared a memo for the company as to whether or not it would be constitutional for states to erect labeling laws concerning rBGH dairy products. In other words, Taylor helped Monsanto figure out whether or not the corporation could sue states or companies that wanted to tell the public that their products were free of Monsanto’s drug.” 9″
    Then there is Margaret Miller, “Monsanto was required to submit a scientific report on rBGH to the FDA so the agency could determine the growth hormone’s safety. Margaret Miller put the report together, and in 1989 shortly before she submitted the report, Miller left Monsanto to work for the FDA. Guess what her first job was? Strangely enough, to determine whether or not to approve the report she wrote for Monsanto! The bottom line is that Monsanto approved its own report. Miller was assisted by another former Monsanto researcher, Susan Sechen.”
    http://www.smart-publications.com/articles/view/lies-and-deception-how-the-fda-does-not-protect-your-best-interests/
    Maybe the GM stuff is safe, but I think you can see why many people are skeptical. The independence of the deciders is questionable.”

  31. Ewan, I forgot to mention more recent activities. Michael Taylor went back to Monsanto and now he has gone back to the FDA as the so-called food safety czar, where he is now.

  32. Ewan, I am sorry but you mistake changing jobs for the revolving door. But it wouldn’t surprise me that one company sends one of its employees to another to spy on them. I wonder if headhunter companies even consider that when they recruit.

    No I mistake changing jobs for changing jobs. Who do you want to employ in your company – people who know the industry and have experience, or people who do not?
    On Taylor – that case actually doesn’t appear to be too underhand, just appears that he understands the situation

    Even worse, to keep rBGH-milk from being “stigmatized” in the marketplace, the FDA ruled that the labels of non-rBGH products must state that there is no difference between rBGH and the natural hormone

    what’s worse about that? There is no difference between rBGH and the natural hormone, there is no safety difference between milk from rBGH treated cows and not – this should be clearly indicated when making claims which could be viewed as concerning the safety of the product.

    “while working for Monsanto,Taylor had prepared a memo for the company as to whether or not it would be constitutional for states to erect labeling laws concerning rBGH dairy products. In other words, Taylor helped Monsanto figure out whether or not the corporation could sue states or companies that wanted to tell the public that their products were free of Monsanto’s drug.”

    Again – he knew what he was talking about, he had legal expertise in the area, seems like a good candidate to be involved in other matters in that area.
    If the Miller story is true then I can see that it would indeed raise a good deal more skepticism and rightly so – I personally don’t feel that company connection is what drove the approval (as the product is safe) but do see that having the person who worked on the product be the one who approves it is an ethical minefield which should have been avoided by the FDA.
    I fully understand why people are skeptical of GM food safety – I fully expect them to be – if more people were truly skeptical about the whole issue then it would be less of an issue than it currently is, because, in my opinion, a skeptical perusal of the data surrounding GM food safety can have only one conclusion – all commercialized GM foods on the market are safe.

  33. Oh and on the whole onegoodmove thing… I do still have to work y’know (and the formatting on the site in IE makes it impossible to read any comment thread that gets more than 3 or 4 comments deep (ie intersting))

  34. Bernada:

    “Maybe the GM stuff is safe, but I think you can see why many people are skeptical. The independence of the deciders is questionable.”

    Couldn’t agree [[Seralini”Academic Researcher”Greenpeace]] more.
    You said above we shouldn’t stereotype activists. Yet we see questionable actions and motivations by many of them. I think you can see why many people are skeptical. Likewise, not all government regulators or corporate employees are corrupt (We’re still evaluating Ewan R 😛 ).
    I do believe that the caution and wary attitude you express are well placed, but should be applied to all sides at all times. Which is why, as a data person to a teacher, I suggest we let the data speak for itself and ignore the messenger. If the data are well conceived, and they tell us that rBGH is repeatably equivalent to “natural” hormones, then that’s that. End of story. It doesn’t matter what the source of the data was or what the agenda of the provider was, only what the data actually say.

  35. Your argument can be summarized “don’t try to solve the symptoms, solve the root problem”. So, I do not think it is a slippery slope to ask if you include other forms of aid such as Heifer International as useless when, according to you, it is the root problem of global politics, etc that needs to be solved, not the symptoms of those problems. My suggestion of trying to elect US politicians to change policies might not be an option that you would prefer, but that’s not a slippery slope either, that’s just a difference in opinion on how to solve the big problems.
    After reading your subsequent posts, it seems that you don’t think all forms of aid should be thrown out, but I do wonder why you think improved seeds shouldn’t be part of that aid. If engineers doing projects is ok, and low cost computers are ok, and importing animals is ok (since you didn’t say anything negative about Heifer International I’m assuming you think it is ok), then why are improvements in plant-based agriculture not ok?
    We have, for example, orange maize with high levels of beta carotene that was developed through breeding. That trait can be bred into locally adapted varieties and seeds can be provided at low or no cost to farmers who are already growing maize. Please explain to me how this is a bad thing.
    Then let’s look at Golden rice, which also has high levels of beta carotene except that the trait in this case was created with genetic engineering because there simply isn’t the genetic variation in beta carotene production in rice to breed for the trait. Now that the trait exists and has been shown to work well, that trait (just like with orange maize) can be bred into locally adapted varieties and provided at low or no cost to farmers who are already growing rice. Please explain to me how this is a bad thing.
    As for how long these things take – the answer is that it all depends on the trait. For both breeding and genetic engineering the process can take just a few years to decades. Difficulties with breeding include trying to find germplasm that has enough genetic variability to start an artificial selection program and then trying to breed the improved trait into the lines you want it in, which isn’t easy for a trait that is affected by many genes. Difficulties with genetic engineering include finding an appropriate gene to use and “formatting” it properly so that it will express in the plant where and when you want it to. And on top of development time, of course, we have the regulatory process for each individual country when you want it to be grown. I think that’s a problem of the regulatory process, which needs to be streamlined and made to be more science based, but that’s another subject.

  36. Bernarda,
    1. If you are a believer in altermondialisme or want to be indoctrinated, watch Arte’s broadcasts on topics of current interest. I have no patience for this kind of attitude; it is generous and forward and outward-looking on the surface, but terribly self-interested, disconnected with reality and narrow-minded in reality.
    2. The problem of water supply is a perfect example. How generous from us, sitting in front of our TV set, to be upset at these local politicians who sell out public services to the private sector. But what do you do if you are a mayor, and of course want to be re-elected, if your water network is antiquated and leaking everywhere and/or you need to make major investments to guarantee water quantity, quality and safety to a growing population, if your prices have no bearing with real costs, if people do not pay, etc.? You farm out… and, if you are a demagogue, you blame the WTO. If you are a journalist with a ‘leftist’ agenda, you blame the WTO anyway (and, of course, the World Bank and the IMF).
    Note that I am writing this with some bitterness. I have been actively involved in my working life in civil service unionism. I am a believer in public services; unfortunately I am not sure I am still mainstream on that.
    And, once again, no, the WTO is not involved in decision-making as to whether certain services are to be provided by either public or private entities. And, by the way, water will NOT be privatised in Quito, Ecuador.
    3. Of course, I agree with you on the fact that there are disinterested and genuinely committed ‘activists’. But these do hardly appear on your computer screen, and the word ‘activist’ is probably not the best choice for designating them.
    4. Hidden costs of transport and incoherent economic behaviour are a well-trodden line of argument, but one has to look into the rationale of what is being done before passing judgement. The documentaries are very good at flagging real or perceived oddities – that pleases viewers and readers – and incapable of proposing workable alternatives. The cost of shipping a full cargo half round the world, even in terms of CO2 emissions, may be much lower than the cost of transporting the same by truck over a few hundred kilometres. Since you referred to gravestones, I can also mention the humble paving stones. If one were to open a quarry in Europe, guess who would be up in arms against it! Did you get an explanation for the potato shipments between Britain and Germany? For wheat, there are reciprocal flows stemming from the need for special qualities.

  37. Bernarda, If I may, I’d like to comment about your remarks about Africa. They are very one-sidedly anti-western. The Africans I know, actual flesh and blood people, are very critical about their own countries’ institutions and I never hear them complain about the western exploitation that dominates your remarks.

  38. I agree, there are some interesting discussion there but they are impossible to read. The problem (at least this time!) isn’t IE, as I’ve the same problem on Safari and Firefox.
    One other thing, though, is the repetition. I try but there are only so many times that I can explain certain things.

  39. I think we all have the problem of repetition, I know I do, and on different subjects not just the ones focused on here. At times, I just have to stop.

  40. Anastasia, I think we all have the problem of repetition, I know I do, and on different subjects not just the ones focused on here. At times, I just have to stop.

  41. ARTE is has two government owners, France and Germany, both for the moment run by rightist governments. It would seem that the network would be more careful about what it broadcasts than say one that is run by one private corporation, although ironically for “altermondialisme”, the program by the private network TF1, Ushaia, better fits your description.
    Now one doesn’t know what to expect with the state run networks France Télévisions as it is now controlled by a very rightwing president à la Berlesconi.
    As to American television which is mostly privately owned, what kind of information does one get from them, and there are always Republicans who want to eliminate the publicly owned network PBS.

  42. Andre, what is wrong with having “an axe to grind with our economic system”? That is a legitimate political position, or are we just to accept things as the way they are, that the system we have is the only possible one?

  43. Charles, I have known students from around the world as the school I taught at had a quota of places for foreign students from Africa to China. Of course in a sense they were privileged in their own countries just to have the chance to come to that school.
    Mostly they didn’t talk about politics for obvious reasons like coming from repressive countries, but a few would and there were a variety of opinions. I would see them every week for a year or two, so I could get to know them. Those Africans that you know, why are they in America?
    Have you talked to Nigerians, part of whose coast is permanently polluted by off-shore drilling, i.e. the Gulf situation repeated over and over?
    Have you read African writers, and there are many, who criticize the West? One non-African, but of African descent, you could read is French Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth.

  44. Bernarda,
    What is wrong in my view is having an axe to grind with our economic system AND using developing countries as the battlefield. Arguing, in developing countries, against the use of modern plant varieties – be they ‘conventional’ or GM, pure line or hybrid – because the person’s or entity’s ideology sets it against free enterprise (best expressed as Monsanto hate) and profit. Fighting the distribution of donated seed in Haiti because the person’s or entity’s philosophy (or even commercial interest) is for organic farming. Even fighting the distribution of emergency – yes: emergency – food relief on the ground that it could be GM (epitomised in “better dead than GM-fed”).

  45. Bernarda, I know some Africans because here in Massachusetts, some local churches have adopted ties to churches in Africa. I’m not a member of any church, but I trust this kind of avenue of direct charity more than I trust the NGOs. We’ve funded high school educations, a hospital, and a weekly food distribution for AIDS orphans.
    Let me give you a very poignant example of a wretched African institution. The Anglican Church bishops in Kenya have forbidden their parish churches from accepting aid from American Episcopal churches, because the Africans are opposed to American tolerance of homosexuality. The American community churches still aid their African co-religionists, but they do it discretely, by funneling aid through other channels.

  46. Charles, I know Kenya having been there a couple of times and know that religion is rather strong in the country. I was even given a Bible by a friend.
    In an earlier post, I gave examples of aid I know about which does not come from church affiliated groups. There is a site, which I have seemed to have lost, which gives an evaluation of the percentage of money spent on action by ngo’s compared to their collections and administrative costs. It shouldn’t be hard to find.
    There are both church ones and secular ones that are highly rated. As a non-believer, I prefer to give to secular ones.

  47. The whole revolving door thing was brought up in the comments here, and I have a related question. I’m pursuing a career in biotech regulation with the USDA. In order to be a good regulator, I’m hoping to find regulatory or policy related internships with a company that produces products of biotechnology that need to go through the regulatory process and with an NGO that often gets involved in the process, like Union of Concerned Scientists or a more local NGO like Leopold Center to learn about both of their points of view. Unfortunately, due to time constraint and lack of paid internships from most NGOs I will probably end up having more experience (although more means like a 6 month internship) with industry. Does that make me part of the revolving door? Does that make me a shill or whatever? I just feel like I should get some experience in the field before taking a role in government. It will make me better able to do my job, but I do worry about what people will think – although I don’t know if it matters what people think. As it is, I’m already called a shill and worse even though I’ve never had anything to do with industry to date.

  48. Bernarda, I’d like to make a case to you that your attitude toward GMOs is, on balance, working against the things you clearly care about.
    Let me start by stipulating as a general principle that the word natural, by itself without further discussion, is not a synonym for good, and unnatural, by itself without further discussion, is not a synonym for bad. Innovations are usually in some sense unnatural but they can be either good or bad, on a case by case basis, or some combination of both. Put aside your instinct to distrust what is unnatural.
    Second, I want you to distinguish the process by which plants are genetically transformed using biotechnology, from the resulting plant . I think it’s basic common sense that the process doesn’t matter if the result is OK.
    There are ignorant supporters of the GMO process who claim that it is safe and precise. That’s nonsense. The process is usually so disruptive that most of the specimens are damaged beyond viability. The only plants that matter are the ones that not only survive the GMO process but are tested and evaluated to show that (a) they have the desired trait, and (b) other important plant traits have not been disrupted. It’s a fact that once a GMO transformation has been effected, the complete genetic sequence of the plant can be obtained and we can make sure that no other genes have been affected. Otherwise the plant is discarded. At that point, the surviving retained GMO plant is like a plant that resulted from some other breeding technique, whether unnatural, like gamma ray exposure or treating with colchicine, or natural like sexual crossing, or any of a wide range of other breeding tricks.
    It is the testing and evaluation of a new kind of plant that makes it safe for food, for the environment, or for any sociological effects. It seems impossible to avoid the truth that GMOs are actively evaluated much more thoroughly than plants resulting from other breeding technologies. That still leaves the possibility that they are not evaluated thoroughly enough, and my attitude would be that ideas for extra evaluation ought to be taken seriously — but there’s a fundamentally unfair situation when the one breeding technology that has been evaluated most thoroughly is the one singled out for the most suspicion.
    Now I want to switch attention from the plants themselves to the campaign to discredit them. I contend that this campaign has seriously harmed the world in ways that I believe you care about. If I mentioned all the ways, this post would be far too long. Let’s take just a few.
    The one almost sure to get your agreement is when there’s a famine and the anti-GMO radicals make it impossible to deliver food relief to the victims. Similarly, if the anti-GMO campaign continues to delay golden rice indefinitely, that’s a bad thing. If locally important crops like banana cannot be saved from pathogens like the black sigatoka fungus because of an anti-GMO campaign, that’s a bad thing. A reflex opposition to GMO technology, even when it is the most promising solution to a real and serious problem, is outright stupid and harmful.
    I expect a little more resistance when I say that GMOs have saved a huge amount of energy by reducing tractor use, and have retained carbon in the soil by reduced ploughing, and have reduced pesticide use. I expect the resistance because there have been propagandists saying the exact opposite. But I am confident of the truth of these assertions.
    There’s one phenomenon that has drawn very little comment. By drawing the attention of good people like yourself toward the GMO controversy, other important needed progress has been neglected. While Greenpeace has been concentrating on eliminating GMOs, more countries have developed nuclear weapons, and more coal fired electric generating stations have been put into operation.
    For example, since the mid-seventies, ecologists and diplomats had been making steady progress in developing international conventions to deal with the problem of invasive species. But in 1992, the entire effort was captured by anti-GMO radicals and since that time, the international diplomatic effort in dealing with invasive species has been limited only to international movement of living modified organisms, e.g. seeds. This is stupid for three separate reasons. First, it ignores a real problem doing great and demonstrable harm now, by directing attention to a hypothetical that has never done any demonstrable harm. Second, the likelihood of GMO plants doing extensive harm is minuscule because farmed plants are almost never adapted to the wild.* Third, it has driven away the support one would normally expect from nations like the US and Canada. I, for one, find it hard to be lectured about protecting biodiversity by the representatives of a country that insists on its right to do “scientific whaling”.
    * In fact, the only “harm” even seriously credible is a “harm-by-definition”. The organic agriculture movement has declared that any transgene present in a crop will automatically make that crop non-organic, without the nuisance of actually showing a problem.

  49. Charles, I just have one friendly correction. I agree that it’s nonsense to say that the process of genetic engineering is precise (at least not as currently practiced, though things are changing) but I don’t think it’s inherently unsafe. At a minimum, it is as least as safe as if not more safe than mutagenesis and tissue culture (see Microarray analyses reveal that plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene insertion, 2008).
    You said: “The process is usually so disruptive that most of the specimens are damaged beyond viability.” That isn’t the case in my experience using either gene gun or Agrobacterium. I’ve transformed a variety of species, from Arabidopsis to carrot to tobacco to corn, plus a few bacteria, and everyone’s done just fine, growing up to reproduce with viable seed. I’ve also done tissue culture and mutagenesis of multiple species, and that’s where troubles came about. Mutants so damaged that they barely live and plants that simply can’t recover from tissue culture. Of course, the plants I’ve worked on amount to a small sample size, but it’s enough for me to say that genetic engineering methods, random insert placement and all, are safe for the plant. The biggest problems that I’ve had are with the gene insert itself – from silencing to multiple copies to rearrangements.
    Anyway, a very important tool in any plant breeder’s tool box is the backcross. With both genetic engineering and mutagenesis there may be unintended genetic changes and unintended epigenetic changes. With backcrossing those unintended changes are replaced with unchanged genetic material from a non-mutant or non-GE parent. So, for example, if a gene gun event produces one desired insertion where it doesn’t interrupt any other genes and one undesired insertion where it interrupts an important gene. By backcrossing with selection, the desired can be kept while the undesired is lost.

  50. Anastasia, the revolving door refers to people who have a good deal of responsibility, even decision-making, in the government or company. Lower level employees are not really concerned.
    However, as I mentioned earlier, it wouldn’t surprise me that a company takes a promising employee and arranges for him/her to be head-hunted by a competing company for industrial espionage, or even the government. That employee may continued to be secretly paid by the original company or guaranteed a good post later on by, among other ways, let’s say reverse head-hunting.
    Of course that is all from my imagination.

  51. Charles, thanks for the your time you took in writing so much. I will be much shorter. The use of GMO’s will necessarily reduce biodiversity, if only only of commercial plants. Only so many plants and differing species of the same plant can be doctored.
    As to golden rice, how many different species of rice will be treated? Or is it to be that one size fits all? A few years ago I read an article that Cambodia went to Paris to get ancient Cambodian rice seeds which were more suited to their environment. French explorers over the centuries have collected millions of samples from all around the world.
    Maybe no demonstrable harm has been noticed, at least for now. GMO’s have only been around for about 30 years. I remember the first time I heard about genetic manipulation was with a company called Genetecs(something like that)in the late seventies. I think it is a bit hasty to say that chances are “miniscule” or “almost never” that farm plants adapt to the wild. Apparently with corn that has already happened in Mexico.
    If there is a disease danger to bananas, of course it is important to try to find a solution. But as to the economy, the U.S. is pushing for the EU to open up its banana market to U.S. corporation controled plantations in Central America, which would destroy a large part of the economies in Caribbean islands which EU rules were created to protect. All that would mean for the consumer in Europe is a few cents less for their bananas.
    Are all types of bananas affected by the pathogen?
    Why are there famines despite different efforts to aid such areas? It is largely due to the economic system which has altered the agricultural societies in poor countries. Now richer countries, particularly from the far east like Korea and China are buying or leasing land, the best they can get, to grow export crops and create minimum employment.

  52. use of GMO’s will necessarily reduce biodiversity, if only only of commercial plants. Only so many plants and differing species of the same plant can be doctored.

    How will GMOs reduce biodiversity? Transgenes are introgressed into commercially relevant germplasm in increasing nubmers every year from their release – an individual trait may initially appear in only a small number of germplasms but over time this increases to 50-100+, also given the licensing arrangements on traits the capacity for variety number with transgenes in them is essentially the same number as the number of available varieties – once an event is approved for use it is relatively easy (for breeders at least, the process still baffles me somewhat) to shift it around into whatever germplasm you want – which explains the commercial success of current GM traits.

  53. Ewan, I think you answered your own question.
    “Transgenes are introgressed into commercially relevant germplasm in increasing nubmers every year from their release”
    Someone chooses what is commercially “relevant”.
    “once an event is approved for use it is relatively easy (for breeders at least, the process still baffles me somewhat) to shift it around into whatever germplasm you want”
    Whatever germplasm the company wants.
    Why was there the potato blight famine in Ireland in the 19th century, because of monoculture. Today, potato farmers in the Northwest of the U.S. have to use increasing amounts of pesticides because they basically grow one species of potato, that which McDonalds wants for their fries and what the public has come to expect as a “good” potato”, though there are hundreds of varieties. You don’t get much choice in the supermarket.
    The large majority of U.S. milk cows are Holsteins. If a pathogen attacked them, there would be a major problem, which is why there are scientists that are saving sperm from other species and inseminating cows so there will be a potential alternative.

  54. Ewan, I think you answered your own question.
    “Transgenes are introgressed into commercially relevant germplasm in increasing nubmers every year from their release”
    Someone chooses what is commercially “relevant”.
    “once an event is approved for use it is relatively easy (for breeders at least, the process still baffles me somewhat) to shift it around into whatever germplasm you want”
    Whatever germplasm the company wants.

    Which equates to whatever germplasms the farmers want (ie farmers determine what is commercially relevant – whatever offers them the best ROI), which equates to a massive variety of germplasm suited to the various growing conditions, expected yields, expected pathogens, normal weather conditions etc etc. Monsanto licenses traits to literally hundreds of seed manufacturers – each of these seed manufacturers has their own germplasm(s) into which they put the trait, the trait is licensed to big players and small players alike – if you equate varieties with species (which is what I assume you’re doing) then your monoculture arguement falls apart – farmers aren’t planting a single variety (not even on a single farm generally) but picking and choosing between hundreds of varieties.

  55. Ewan, excuse me, but it is no longer the consumer, in this case farmers, who decide, it is the industrial producers. Even as an ordinary consumer, try to find something different at the supermarket.
    Monsanto not only licenses, it owns dozens or maybe hundreds of seed companies around the world. So it remains that there will be a reduction of diversity.
    Not all varieties of a species are susceptible to the same pathogens.

  56. Bernarda, it’s truly saddening to read your reply. I started with the assumption that you would recognize how some of the anti-GMO propaganda has led to the frustration of goals which I’m sure you share. You don’t seem to have even given that any consideration.
    Instead, you replied with comments and questions that leave me feeling hopeless.
    The use of GMO’s will necessarily reduce biodiversity … How on earth does adding a new gene to a gene pool reduce biodiversity? It does the opposite, by definition. (I see from your reply to Ewan that you think that the new genes are only spread into a crop species when corporations choose to do the spreading. Anti-corporate sentiment notwithstanding, it’s still MORE variation in the gene pool, not less.) And you have completely ignored my point, which is that the anti-GMO campaign is responsible for stopping in its tracks the international effort to control invasive species. Read about Nile carp in Lake Victoria and then come back and tell us whether that was worth keeping a herbicide resistance gene out of Europe’s sugar beets.
    As to golden rice, how many different species of rice will be treated? A large number of varieties could become available. Like any other GMO, once the genes are in the species gene pool, conventional crossbreeding is able to cross them into any sexually compatible variety. Bernarda, the first vitamin-A enriched rice was developed fifteen years ago. It still hasn’t helped a single person avoid vitamin A deficiency and the delay, and the disease cases resulting from that delay are because of the anti-GMO movement. Poor people who could have been healthy are blind. You have to hate this!
    I think it is a bit hasty to say that chances are “minuscule” or “almost never” that farm plants adapt to the wild. Apparently with corn that has already happened in Mexico. It absolutely has not happened in Mexico. There is no wild corn, anywhere, and there never will be. You are probably referring to GMO corn crossbreeding with Mexican farmed corn. There’s some doubt whether this happened at all, but assuming that it did, it’s an example of “harm-by-definition”, not actual harm.
    If there is a disease danger to bananas … Bernarda, I gave you the name of the disease. Why do you write “if”? A GMO solution exists. Instead of learning about this,
    you just dragged up some unrelated complaint about US corporations. A concern about the abuse of power by corporations is justified. But you don’t have to let that concern be the anti-GMO movement’s hook used to draw you into reflexive opposition.
    By the way, two comments about bananas: (1) Do you think bananas are a natural crop? They don’t have seeds. The reason they don’t have seeds is that they have three sets of chromosomes, not two, a genetic distortion much more violent than anything like GMOs. (2) Do you realize how many applications of fungicide are used to bring you a banana? Wouldn’t it be a good thing if bananas could resist the fungus diseases with less fungicide? Is it so important to avoid GMOs that you would prefer to have the fungicide usage increase, year by year, as is now happening?
    Why are there famines … ? You are changing the subject to avoid discomfort. There are famines and the short term emergency thing that decent human beings do to aid famine victims is to send them food. There have been repeated cases in whichGMO opponents, like the aforementioned Ms. Shiva, have interfered with getting food to famine victims as part of their anti-GMO campaigns. This has to make you uncomfortable!

  57. Ewan, excuse me, but it is no longer the consumer, in this case farmers, who decide, it is the industrial producers. Even as an ordinary consumer, try to find something different at the supermarket.

    The farmers categorically decide which varieties will be used and which won’t. Seed producers offer a multitude of varieties to farmers. Farmers choose those varieties which perform for them. Those traits which prove to be in demand are the traits which breeders strive to improve upon, traits which are not wanted aren’t improved upon. Any company which isn’t producing what the farmer wants is going to go south fast.
    In terms of the discussion about GMOs and varietal selection at the supermarket – I’m not sure this even belongs in this debate – given that all the different varieties of corn and soy at least will end up at the grain elevator where varietal differences are meaningless (other than improved oil varieties which I’m assuming get separated at the grain elevator) – when talking about selection of varieties available you need to be looking at seed manufacturer catalogues (or whatever they use) available to farmers, not what appears on the supermarket shelf.

    Monsanto not only licenses, it owns dozens or maybe hundreds of seed companies around the world. So it remains that there will be a reduction of diversity.

    How so? There may be a reduction in diversity in terms of who you get the product from, but a reason to purchase small seed companies is to utilize the germplasm of that company to increase the diversity from which you can produce hybrids – Monsanto’s purchase of multiple seed companies has no bearing on whether or not other independant seed companies exist and insert traits into their own proprietary germplasms – this occurs, GMOs have no impact on diversity (unless you look at GMO compared to non-GMO isoline as being different, in which case each new variety to which a trait is added increases diversity, meaning that in a world where all varieties had a GM and non-GM counterpart you’d have at least a 100% diversity increase (probably more if you assume different trait stacks – VT Double, VT triple and smartstax as a trait grouping would increase diversity 3 fold)

    Not all varieties of a species are susceptible to the same pathogens.

    Which is one reason why seed companies offer a multitude of varieties – and why traits are inserted into many different varieties rather than just plopping it into a single germplasm and expecting it to perform.

  58. Ewan, “Farmers choose those varieties which perform for them.”
    No they don’t. They choose those they can sell, especially to the big buyers like McDonalds and frozen food king McCain.
    What are “improved oil varieties”? Does that mean they have more Omega-3? And how can you assume they are separated?

  59. Charles, “you just dragged up some unrelated complaint about US corporations”. No I haven’t, I have repeated made the economic argument. If one solves the banana problem, that won’t mean anything to the Caribbean islanders who are ruined by U.S. policy.
    I am not changing the subject in talking about famines; I thought that that was one of the arguments for developing GMO’s.

  60. Ewan, “Farmers choose those varieties which perform for them.”
    No they don’t. They choose those they can sell, especially to the big buyers like McDonalds and frozen food king McCain.

    I was under the assumption we were discussing GMOs still, but even under your broader categorization yes farmers choose varieties which will perform for them – if the market demand is such that only a single variety is profitable to grow then that’s how it will go. Assume that by perform for them I mean those varieties which maximize profit.
    In terms of corn and soy this end user demand driven varietal skewing essentially goes away – corn and soy, once it gets to the grain elevator, isn’t partitioned by variety unless the elevator deals with specific higher value grain (I think high lysine & altered oil content grains fall into this category – as farmers are paid a per bushel premium for these products I would have to assume there is a separation from the run of the mill grain and it would make sense that this takes place at the elevator (as it would be impossible to do so afterwards)) – as such farmers will pick varieties which give the best economic return, if you’re prone to drought you’ll look for a drought resistant variety, if your average yield is 110 Bu/Ac you most likely won’t pay a premium for a hybrid with max yields in the 250’s, likewise if you can hit mid 200 Bu/Ac on a yearly basis you probably won’t be planting anything other than top elite genetics to ensure you utilize the productivity of the land you’re using. If you’ve got a bunch of disease pressure you’ll go with hybrids that have some resistance, if you’re in an area with a bunch of insect pressure you’ll go with traited varieties (which also fit all your other requirements), Northern Corn growers will pick from a totally different pool of hybrids than western or corn-belt growers due to different growing conditions etc etc ad infinitum – your allegation that farmers don’t choose which varieties to use categorically does not apply to any of the crops currently grown commercially with GM traits (although I’m not 100% sure on sugarbeet – there may, or may not, be limited varieties here – anyone know?) not even once you go further afield and look at something like cotton in India.
    Improved oil varieties would be Omega-3 containing soy (which afaik isn’t actually available yet and so may not be pertinent to the discussion) and vistive soy beans (for reduction/elimination of trans-fats in end product oils – bred in and GMed in traits exist in this line if I remember right)

  61. If one solves the banana problem, that won’t mean anything to the Caribbean islanders who are ruined by U.S. policy.

    I’m trying to make the point to you that by allying with the anti-GMO extremists you are preventing some things from happening which I think you would like to happen.
    In the case of bananas, you are facilitating the perpetuation of a farming technique that depends on large and ever increasing amounts of fungicide. If you don’t want to think about that, it is easy enough to find some other bad aspect of banana culture, like greedy corporate abuse. No political or economic system or policy will protect banana plants from fungal devastation. Science can.

  62. I remember Anastasia saying that she gets tired of repeating herself, and so do I. So, let’s look at this from another point of view.
    I went to primary and secondary schools in California back when they were still quite good. At university I first studied science and math, but I didn’t have the concentration and enthusiasm necessary. Still, I got two degrees and I understand the scientific method.
    So I have a relatively good education. If you have trouble convincing someone like me, how will you do it for rest of the population. In the U.S., 50% of the people don’t even accept evolution. Europe, which has a better educated public, including in science, and where evolution is not even a controversy(I just use this as an example, not to start another subject), has stricter rules on the use of GMO’s than the U.S.
    It should seem easier to convince those Europeans, but that isn’t the case. Of course there are anti-science fanatics there too, but they are mostly so-called “animal rights” defenders.

  63. Bernarda – I’m from Europe, your painting of the anti-science brigade in Europe as mostly animal rights defenders categorically doesn’t match my personal experience there – from before the commercial release of GM crops there was rabid anti-GM sentiment (which is why I got into molecular genetics and why aged 16 I thought Monsanto would be an awesome place to work(it is btw), social rebel that I was) – level of education in other topics really has no bearing on whether or not someone will accept GMOs as good technology – Europe may be stronger in terms of belief in evolution, but that is predominantly because anti-evolutionary thinking is driven by fundamentalist religion which (touch wood) doesn’t have a very strong foothold in Europe anymore (most succesful European export from 1700-1900) – the whole continent is still addled with woo-soaked thinking (homeopathy for instance is covered on the NHS in the UK) which one shouldn’t think would be the case in a nation which is better educated in science right?
    The reason for the anti-science rules in Europe being tighter is particularly because they have more anti-science fanatics, they channel their resources differently is all – anti-science in the US is predominantly about teaching fairy tales in science classes and really doesnt have strong political backing – in Europe the debate is predominantly around environmentalism (which GMOs automatically get cast as the bad guys – due in part to the anti-corporate sentiment of the greens) and the political clout of the movement is a lot higher given that there isn’t a bipartisan system in most countries meaning that politicians who run on the green ticket actually get elected and have a direct influence on legislation – doubtless these are all educated people, but they have an ideology which trumps their education in terms of GMOs – the landscape is such that you cannot be a ‘green’ and support GMOs (in much the same way as you can’t be a politican in the US without kowtowing to sky-fairies and the like)

  64. There isn’t a link on the blogs, there is on the forums however (which is awesome as my html-fu has failed me at least once and been recovered with a quick edit)

  65. If you have trouble convincing someone like me, how will you do it for rest of the population.

    Bernarda, I agree with you. I had been assuming that a big part of opposition to GMO biotechnology is due to people having been given wrong information, and that they would change their minds when they were given the right information. But that doesn’t seem to be true. You are the self-identified case in point.
    I’d like to be able to ask you why a mountain of facts on one side of the question does not outweigh, in your mind, the unsupported hypotheses and discredited stories on the other side. But before I could reasonably ask you that question, we would have to resolve an apparently endless list of disagreements about what’s true and what’s false, and what’s honest and what’s deceptive.
    Take for example this:

    I think it is a bit hasty to say that chances are “minuscule” or “almost never” that farm plants adapt to the wild. Apparently with corn that has already happened in Mexico.

    Of course it never happened in Mexico. Corn cannot survive as a wild plant. Move that “fact” from the doubt pile to the mountain.

    Today, potato farmers in the Northwest of the U.S. have to use increasing amounts of pesticides because they basically grow one species of potato …

    But Monsanto tried to introduce a new variety of potato called Newleaf, with a Bt trait, so that less insecticide would be needed. Your anti-GMO allies successfully campaigned against it by threatening the fast food chains with boycotts and picketing if they used this perfectly safe and environmentally friendly potato. By any reasonable standard, this “fact” belongs on my side of the argument. It’s another case in which the thing you want, less insecticides used on potatoes, was prevented by the anti-GMO campaign.
    And so it goes on.

  66. Ewan, as far as I know, there are no “greens” in the British parliament. Maybe I’m wrong. I live in France where there are. You say, “in Europe the debate is predominantly around environmentalism (which GMOs automatically get cast as the bad guys – due in part to the anti-corporate sentiment of the greens)”.
    Anti-corporate sentiment is a legitimate political position. I often see the word “ideology” thrown around, in the case mostly against those who are anti-corporate and anti-GMO’s.
    “doubtless these are all educated people, but they have an ideology which trumps their education in terms of GMOs”. It is as if pro-corporate or pro-GMO’s can’t be an ideology.

  67. Ewan, as far as I know, there are no “greens” in the British parliament

    This may be true – I was under the impression however that the UK did have greens in the European parliament (unchecked fact though so may be out) – regardless the green agenda has a far bigger political impact in Europe than in the US (this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – if it remained science based)
    <blockquote.Anti-corporate sentiment is a legitimate political position.
    Indeed it is. Making stuff up because of your anti-corporate sentiment is however not a legitimate position and is the issue I have with the anti-GMO rhetoric of anti-corporate environmentalists.

    It is as if pro-corporate or pro-GMO’s can’t be an ideology.

    It could be, and can even legitimately be – but when your ideology makes you ignore the science, or make it up (which emphatically is the case for anti-GM but not so for pro-GM in my experience) then ideology becomes a bad thing.

  68. Bernarda, I really appreciate you sticking around for conversation. Thank you.

    If you have trouble convincing someone like me, how will you do it for rest of the population.

    I hadn’t thought about it that way, but you’re right. And that worries me. There is one point that changes things a bit, though. I hope I can be earnest and honest here.
    I get the impression from your arguments here that there are a lot of problems in aid, agriculture, the world economy, and so on that you are concerned about. I am also concerned about these things. I think (and I know I might be interpreting your words incorrectly so please let me know if this isn’t the case) that you are connecting these problems to genetic engineering as if they were all sort of symptoms of other problems. A different but related argument would be to say that genetic engineering is part of monoculture type farming. The thing is, they aren’t really connected.
    When I look at genetic engineering, I see a tool, just like any other plant breeding method. That tool can be used as part of the current system of industrial agriculture, international trade that doesn’t respect non-G8 countries to say the least, and the over-capitalization that plagues just about everything so that private funded research in a variety of subjects is just about extinct. That tool can also be used in a very different way to provide nutrition and even a little profit to small farmers, to produce useful materials such as biodegradable plastics, to develop farming methods that require fewer inputs, and more.
    The big question seems to be who is developing the seeds.
    At this time, we have a few very large companies using genetic engineering in ways that they think they can make a profit. We previously had more small companies involved in both breeding and genetic engineering but those companies have been bought out in large numbers by their larger competitors. Governments around the world (except for China, it seems) have pulled away from agricultural research so few research dollars are spent on breeding, genetic engineering, or anything else ag related in both the US and Europe. Small start up companies that exist in just about every aspect of our economy do not exist in plant breeding and particularly don’t exist in genetic engineering in part because of non-science based regulations.
    Anyway, we haven’t seen the consumer oriented traits that have been promised since genetic engineering first started. The reason isn’t that they aren’t possible or that they wouldn’t work. The reason is that market forces, in large part driven by anti-science rhetoric, have prevented the development of traits like improved nutritional traits. To understand genetic engineering, we can’t just look at Roundup Ready and Bt. We have to look at what has been developed and what can be developed when we don’t have profit as a motive. Another option is to look at what is being developed in partnerships between NGOs and corporations so the full abilities and resources of the company are available to produce a product that will make money from sales to farmers in affluent countries while also helping small farmers who desperately need help – like WEMA.
    Let’s look at Golden Rice. From the beginning, the argument from opponents has been “we don’t need Golden Rice, we need poverty reduction and diverse diets”. I don’t think any proponent of Golden Rice would disagree that poverty reduction and diverse diets are the goal – they’d just add that it makes sense to do what we can to help while we’re working on the longer term solutions.
    Earlier, I asked if you think improved seeds shouldn’t be part of aid, along with things like engineers building wells, and low cost computers, and gifts of animals from Heifer International, and I am still wondering. To restate from an earlier comment:

    We have, for example, orange maize with high levels of beta carotene that was developed through breeding. That trait can be bred into locally adapted varieties and seeds can be provided at low or no cost to farmers who are already growing maize. Please explain to me how this is a bad thing.
    Then let’s look at Golden rice, which also has high levels of beta carotene except that the trait in this case was created with genetic engineering because there simply isn’t the genetic variation in beta carotene production in rice to breed for the trait. Now that the trait exists and has been shown to work well, that trait (just like with orange maize) can be bred into locally adapted varieties and provided at low or no cost to farmers who are already growing rice. Please explain to me how this is a bad thing.

    One example of seeds working to help people right now is the flood tolerant rice that Pam Ronald worked on. Long story short, researchers found a gene in a wild rice variety that seemed to confer flood tolerance. Pam genetically engineered the gene in to rice to see if flood tolerance was achieved – and it was! They then painstakingly bred the gene from wild rice into a variety of locally adapted varieties for Bangladesh and the Philippines. Field trials were done to show farmers how the rice fared next to local varieties without the flood tolerance trait and famers were offered free seed if they wanted it. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what can be done.

  69. I agree that an anti-corporate ideology is a valid ideology to have but it does happen to be an ideology that is misused and used inconsistently a fair amount of the time.
    It seem that the anti-corporate ideology is frequently only used when people find it convenient and when they can define it to fit their personal needs and desires. Let’s be anti-Monsanto but go buy seeds from Burpee. Let’s be anti-Walmart but go shop at Target. Let’s get mad at Nestle for marketing infant formula in places where clean water isn’t available but buy other Nestle products. Let’s sneer at non-organic packaged foods but happily buy organic packaged foods. And on and on.
    A consistent anti-corporate ideology wouldn’t argue against genetic engineering but would argue against corporate control of genetic engineering – and similarly against corporate control of anything else. A consistent ideology would, I think, argue for more publicly funded research to ensure that the people control at least some of the technology and products.

  70. Anastasia,
    “A consistent anti-corporate ideology wouldn’t argue against genetic engineering but would argue against corporate control of genetic engineering – and similarly against corporate control of anything else. A consistent ideology would, I think, argue for more publicly funded research to ensure that the people control at least some of the technology and products.”
    I basically agree with you and I am against corporate control in, I guess, all fields. There may be exceptions, but I don’t see them. I am not against GM research, particularly for medicine, but I don’t think that GMO’s for food production can have a big impact on feeding people, at least for the foreseeable future. Mostly it is used for big producers. Forests are cut down in Brazil and Paraguay for producing GM soy, in addition to small farmers being forced off their land.
    As I understand it, many of the pharmaceutical products marketed by private companies were originally developed by government sponsored research at the NIH and universities and I definitely am in favor of that sort of research. I wonder if the government and universities get a fair price for their inventions. They could also demand price controls for their use.

  71. Anastasia, thank you for putting up with me. I don’t wish anyone here ill, and maybe I have got some to think outside the box and maybe even hone their arguments for their benefit and against my viewpoint.

  72. but I don’t think that GMO’s for food production can have a big impact on feeding people, at least for the foreseeable future.

    While admittedly GM cotton isn’t a food it has had a massive positive impact on small farmers in India – I look forward with interest to see how GM food crops fare in India when/if they get approved (while Brinjal failed spectacularly to get approved due to what essentially amounted to anti-GM lies I think that Bt corn may well be slated for release there in the near future)

    Forests are cut down in Brazil and Paraguay for producing GM soy

    Perfect example of conflating the technology with the evil which would be done with or without the technology – if forests are being cut down to produce Soy, they’re being cut down to produce soy, not GM-soy per-se – I was also under the impression that in Brazil at least (I wasn’t aware Paraguay had the regulatory framework in place for GM production – I’ll check that once I get to work) the bulk of soy production is done in the cerrado and not in the Amazon basin (and as a side note Monsanto Brazil does a lot of fine work helping farmers manage natural resources in an effort to prevent deforestation – I’ll see if I can get a linky for that also)

    Mostly it is used for big producers

    I’m not sure this is the case, although it depends how you define big producers and I guess whether you look at things in terms of numbers of customers or acreage (and it’d vary nation to nation) – approximately 50% of US farms are family owned (and something in the region of 90%+ are owned by anything up to family corporation and excluding what one would consider a mainstream corporation (although the distinction here is blurry – USDA data)) most adopters of GM tech in India are very small scale.
    Anastasia – I think rather than being concerned about the consistency of anti-corporate ideology (ones ideology could be anti-monsanto and pro every other corporation, this would still be a perfectly acceptable position – providing you stick to the truth) with regards to who you do and don’t support the focus should be on the evidenciary support you put forward for your stance particularly when attempting to curtail the activities of the subject of your ire – if you’re just making stuff up and lying about facts presented by others (as occured over on the GM crops thread about the ISAAA report) then this is ideology run amok (which is why I approached that with a tad less finesse than this discussion – I may not agree with Bernarda but in general that’s not because she’s rampantly making things up to support her view (I’d second Anastasia’s thanks for sticking with this by the by)

  73. That’ll learn me to post at 6:30am – paraguay does have a regulatory framework in place and does cultivate GMOs – aren’t I glad I couched that in terms which allowed for a quick redaction!

  74. Ewan, I try to be sure of my sources by referencing mainstream or responsible sites. I can still make mistakes.
    As to Paraguay, from what I have read is that they had an anti-GMO policy but traders from Argentina illegally exported, smuggled if you like, GM soy to Paraguay. By the time the government found out, GM soy was so widespread that they had to create laws regarding it.

  75. Forests are cut down in Brazil and Paraguay for producing GM soy, in addition to small farmers being forced off their land.

    Bernarda, here’s another example of an anti-GMO myth that justifies your doubts about GMOs, but which, on re-examination, can be moved across to the mountainous pile of pro-GMO facts.
    First of all, until about 2003, GMOs were illegal in Brazil. But GMO soybeans were widely planted in Rio Grande do Sul, a Brazilian state that borders Argentina. The seeds were smuggled in. Something similar happened in Paraguay. Rio Grande do Sul didn’t and doesn’t have any rain forests.
    Europeans don’t want GMO soybeans, but they do want soybeans. Therefore they began importing non-GMO soybeans from Brazil*, creating a demand for devoting more land to soybean production. If any rainforests were destroyed to plant soybeans, you can attribute that to the European preference for non-GMO soybeans.
    After the socialist President Lula Da Silva took office in 2003, he got legislation passed to legalize the GMO soy. Something similar happened in Paraguay.
    But the connection of soybean growing to rainforest clearing is very indirect. The soils of the rainforest are very poorly suited to soybean growing. What happens is that when pasture land is converted to soybean farms, since there is still a demand for cattle some cattle ranchers clear the rainforest for grazing land. So, it’s unfair to place the blame for loss of rainforest on the soybeans, GMO or otherwise, but on the people who still want their steaks and hamburgers.
    * In one of the most bizarre episodes of the whole history of GMO politics, European importers began bringing Brazilian soybeans to Europe, knowing full well that they were GMO, but relying on the fact that GMO soybeans were illegal in Brazil, until Monsanto began insisting on collecting a royalty on the cargoes of soy grown from smuggled seeds.

  76. Ewan, you are right about the use of homeopathy, which is quite inexplicable. As American writer from the 19th century, Ambrose Bierce, said in his “Devil’s Dictionary”(a must read): homeopathy, A theory and practice of medicine which aims to cure the diseases of fools. As it does not cure them, and does sometimes kill the fools, it is ridiculed by the thoughtless, but commended by the wise.
    Another weird thing is that I see people buying scratch cards for a lottery. They often ask for several different cards even though their chances are the same with each.

  77. In my footnote of the last post I wrote “

    In one of the most bizarre episodes of the whole history of GMO politics, European importers began bringing Brazilian soybeans to Europe, knowing full well that they were GMO, but relying on the fact that GMO soybeans were illegal in Brazil, until Monsanto began insisting on collecting a royalty on the cargoes of soy grown from smuggled seeds.


    I relied on my memory, but I haven’t been able to find a source to back it up.

  78. homeopathy, A theory and practice of medicine which aims to cure the diseases of fools.

    I’ll be adding this to my list of quotes to use with my mother (who is totally on board with evolution while at the same time perfectly willing to believe 10 impossible things before breakfast)

  79. I never read anything like that and, in actual fact, can hardly believe it given the hysteria carefully nurtured by NGOs, and influential people like journalists, politicians and militant – oops! Independent – researchers. The big issue of royalty collection was on soymeal from Argentina.

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