Tag Archives: biotechnology

What Is Important In Iowa? Food!

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With so much political noise coming from Iowa in the last few days, one curious bit of news went almost unnoticed: a Chinese citizen pleaded guilty to the charge of stealing corn seeds on behalf of a biotech company in Beijing. Why would corn seeds be of such interest to China?  The answer came from an article shared on Twitter.  This piece on the battle between China and the US to control the global food supply was a revelation.

It provides details of how the theft was uncovered and the offenders caught and also reveals what motivated this act :” Despite its remarkable landmass, China simply can’t grow enough food to feed itself, particularly now that the country’s burgeoning middle class has acquired an appetite for meat. (Most corn in China is used as feed for livestock.) Water shortages and lack of arable terrain have forced their government to buy between two and five million metric tons of American corn annually, approximately 94 percent of all corn imported into China each year.”  In its efforts to throw off their dependence on US food production, China is pursuing a plan to grow more at home, and a crucial tool in this effort is high yielding seeds, hence the interest in insect resistant bt corn.

Further, while the theft was set up by a Chinese company, it seems to have the tacit approval of the Chinese government. The matter was treated by the FBI as one of national security: “The federal government, thereby, has implicitly acknowledged that it considers agricultural products both an asset and a weapon in a long-range geopolitical chess match with China, a resource of near-military value and importance, one that must be protected by all available means. By that logic, those Chinese nationals stealing corn are spies, no different—and, indeed, perhaps more important—than those who swipe plans for a new weapons system.”

The place of corn as a weapon in international political strategy is not new, as we learn from the narrative; the development of hybrid seeds to maximize output was part of the strategy to outperform the collective farms of Russia and China. In a time of growing population and climate uncertainty impacting food production, the use of agricultural biotechnology to ensure food security remains crucial.

If international policy matters seem somewhat removed from our daily reality, there is another aspect which is easier to recognize: who is working in the fields to grow all this corn (among other crops)? It is usually an immigrant farm worker, perhaps living here without legal papers, filling in the vacuum of labor created by an ageing farming population and urban migration of young people. They are a crucial part of food production but how does the system treat them? Can we demand a just food system yet ignore farm workers? For while the candidates may talk about sending people back and local residents might resent the influence of a very different culture in their midst; they are both constrained by the need for labor to grow the crops which fill plates at home and in the world.

Food is not just about what we eat, it shapes the world in ways that might not always be evident. There are often no simple and easy solutions. All the more reason why we need to debate the issues with patience and honesty.

(Image Courtesy: “Fresh Corn Cobs” by foto76 at freedigitalphotos.net)

What Is the EU Policy on GMOs?

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In forums across social media, opponents of  agricultural biotechnology often argue: “Ask why would Europe ban it?” But has the EU really banned GMOs? And what impact does this have on Europe?  A recent piece in the New York Times laments the turning away from science that forms the basis of the EU policy on GMOs. In April, following a decision from the European Commission allowing member countries to ban the cultivation of  GMO foods, 19 countries have so far announced that they would implement the ban. Does this mean the end of the road for GMO crops in Europe? Actually, no! Some countries are still open to adopting and growing genetically modified crops.

Romania was a leading cultivator of GMO maize before it joined the EU in 2007 and, being aware of the potential of this technology is seeking to expand further. Portugal and Spain also continue to grow genetically modified maize.

So some countries are continuing to weigh the benefits and follow the science in their policy toward cultivation of GMO crops. But what about genetically modified feed for livestock? In 2013, the EU imported about 35 million tonnes of GMO soybean to feed its livestock.  Nothing has changed there and not much is said about the apparent contradiction in allowing GMO feed while opposing the cultivation of crops.The European Parliament has just rejected a proposal to allow member countries to take individual decisions in banning GMO food and feed, insisting that the EU take a decision as a whole so the validity of the individual country bans appears unclear.

The ramifications of EU policy go beyond its borders. It impacts the adoption of new technology in African countries which are hesitant to adopt policies that would put them at odds with their traditional trading partners in Europe. If there is no possibility of selling crops in a market with robust profits, there is less motivation to pursue new technologies. Some indications of change here are encouraging as Tanzania and Uganda move toward adopting a science based position.

Interesting fact sheet on EU GMO policy is here.

(Image Courtesy: “Soybean in Glass” by Teddy Bear (Picnic), freedigitalphotos.net)

Kenya, Scotland, India: GMO crops in the news

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Big developments in the agricultural biotechnology world in the past few days:

First, Scotland announced it would ban the cultivation of GMO crops. This follows the recent EU policy change allowing member states to make their own decisions regarding the use of biotechnology. Given that no GMO crops are currently being grown in Scotland, this is symbolic. It would be interesting to know if they will stop importing GMO feed for livestock as well.

 Kenya announced that the ban on GMO crops would be lifted in two months. The ban was put in place in 2012 as a reaction to the now retracted Seralini study. Scientists had been pushing for the ban to be lifted, pointing to the potential benefits of biotechnology particularly in view of the disease affecting maize, the main crop.

In India, activists announced their decision to oppose the possible approval and introduction of GMO  mustard. Mustard oil is a traditional and healthy cooking medium. Currently, India is unable to meet consumer demand for mustard oil and has to import from abroad. The GMO mustard seeds are expected to increase yields and meet domestic demand, in the process farmers incomes would also rise. The research was funded by the government but approval is likely to be a slow process due to the unfounded fears surrounding this technology.

Interesting times ahead……

(Photo credit: Trains @Glance™ !!! / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA)

The Chipotle Saga

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Much has been written about Chipotle’s recent GMO policy announcement, most of it amazingly sane and factual. This is quite a change from the reflexive aversion to anything GMO that the media often comes up with. It is cheering to think that the fog of hysteria is slowly lifting to let the facts shine!

  • Here are some interesting reads on this:
  • From The Washington Post
  • From the Iowa Farm Bureau
  • From a farmer who raises pigs
  • From NPR who can’t take it seriously
  • From Quartz who point out that all corn is genetically modified so what about the tortillas?

 

(Image Courtesy: tsunamistudio at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Happy Harvests with a Second Green Revolution?

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Today is the Bengali New Year, so Happy New Year dear Readers! This calendar dates to a phase in our life when we we moved in tandem with harvesting and planting. Many of us have moved to towns, other states or even across the globe but the day is still marked for the diaspora with Facebook and Twitter wishes and much nostalgia for the sweets which are such an important part of the memories of past celebrations.

For the farmer of course, it is more than a matter of fun, the harvest determines his future and that of his family. The Green Revolution brought bumper harvests and cause for celebration to many and now there is the possibility of a second revolution bringing better times. And so this post is to celebrate a farmer who participated in both, was an active adopter and participant in research and is a strong believer in the benefits of science for agriculture. The International Rice Research Institute celebrates him with this story.

(Image Courtesy: Worakit Sirijinda at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The Tower of Label: What We Do Know

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This is a somewhat delayed post, and I almost did not write it, but then it sort of kept going around in my mind and I just had to put it down. It all started when I realized that it was the middle of December and my to do list to prepare for the holiday season was untouched. And though the chilly days were calling out for soup, the only thing that was likely to be simmering in my home, given the mountain of unfinished tasks, was me. So I ventured into the soup aisle to pick up a few options for back up.

Since I usually do not buy soup I was again amazed at the variety of options, somewhat overwhelming, really! Within moments, though, this became a real time experiment to see how much information is already on the cartons or cans and how much of it is accurate or, useful.I see so much about the labeling debate on social media, here was the opportunity to see it in action. Consider the first example, in the image above: it said, “natural” which, while vaguely comforting , does not give any real information at all. Although, some consumers might confuse this with “organic” or “sustainable” though there is no evidence that it si either of those things.

In the second category were the soups which came with volumes of information:

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“New”, “No GMO” (so, conventionally grown corn but not organic I suppose), “No MSG”, “All Natural” “Low in fat and calories” and “No Cholesterol”, that is quite a lot to, well, process! Pressed for time, surrounded by kids asking for treats, not many of the shoppers around me were actually reading the carton at all. “What soup do you want?” they would ask and into the cart would go the choices that were voiced. The one criterion that they did stop to consider? the price. “Let’s get one of those, they are on sale” was frequently heard. This was interesting to me and bore out what many believe: the push for labeling is less about information and more about marketing. Just as labeling spiked the prices of  GMO related products in Europe,  forcing them off the supermarket shelves, the same would be seen in the US were mandatory labeling to be introduced, and this would give a huge advantage to other players in the market notably the organic producers.

I was pleasantly surprised by the third category, the cartons with minimal information:

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“Gourmet Bisques” is all it said and named the soup. Just for that it did get my vote and, subsequently, came out at the top of the taste test of all the soups I got that day. When I ask around, most people say they pick the flavors they like and keep in mind the price, that is all. Of course, there are those who will not buy anything but organic ( and those soups were in the organic aisle, easily sorted for their convenience). Since that label already exists, it is hard to understand why another label needs to be added.

But, of course, one must consider the pro-label point of view. And that is where this piece  is so insightful. The writer believes in the “right to know” and sets out to research whether costs would really go up in a prohibitive way if labeling was mandatory. A survey of work in this area does support the position that costs would rise: to the farmer,  the state and of course, the consumer. Added to the dollars and cents price, there would be a larger price to pay. If rising costs lead to the substitution of GMO ingredients with non-GMO ones, there would be a decline in the research and development of GMO technology and this is crucial. GMO technology is not simply about yield or profits, it also offers the ability, for instance, to combat malnutrition by fortifying foods that people eat daily with essential nutrients. The most famous example of this is Golden Rice which can be used to prevent deaths from Vitamin A deficiency. Equally crucial is the potential of biotechnology in developing drought resistant or flood and salinity tolerant varieties of crops which would be able to combat the challenges of a changing climate. The choice of GMO  crops also has other environmental consequences which are often overlooked, discussed here.

Ultimately, the writer decides that the right to know, while important, has to be considered in conjunction with the realization that while some have the luxury of choice, for others, even the right to eat is an uncertain one. A show I was watching recently had the now familiar scene, where the server recites the provenance if each item in the menu to the diner. After describing in glowing terms the grass fed beef, the carrots and broccoli from the local farm “only x miles from here”, when the server kept it short with the “fresh asparagus”, the irritable diner snapped back “That’s it? You expect me to eat my dinner without any clue about the early life and upbringing of the asparagus?” Our world includes this diner and also the one who will go to bed hungry with no asparagus at all, and our policies need to work for both of them.

What if we were provided information like this: “This crop was grown using biotechnology which meant that less cropland was required to grow it and some land could be left for conservation. It  requires less pesticide use making it gentle on our planet and on our farm workers. This is a variety that was developed to grow with less water so we could conserve our shrinking water reserves. It is fortified with a nutrient that will prevent a common deficiency and ensure better health for children.”Now, that is a label which would have my support.

The Problem With Solutions to “Feed the World”

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It seems like everywhere on social media there are pieces on meetings and  conferences to discuss the challenge of “feeding the world”. There are lots of lists of solutions, assertions that this innovative project from Country Y is the perfect answer, it just needs to be replicated across the globe and then objections that this would completely destroy the food heritage of Country Z and should be abandoned. At first, it appears to be just a muddle, but the debate is intense and sometimes severely combative: scientific research is targeted and destroyed and websites dedicated to scientific communication are hacked and prevented from functioning.

Perhaps it might be helpful to take a closer look at the question to begin with: at issue here is the intent to tackle global hunger and malnutrition, with population still rising and arable land in short supply, and all this in a time of probably the biggest challenge humans have faced: climate change. Often the aspects of the food system which get the most prominence in the media are those of individual consumers: so consumers in one part of the world might vote to ban GMO crops but how do we justify this to parents who are watching their children struggle and suffer from Vitamin A deficiency but have no access to Golden Rice. The food system debate touches everyone so solutions have to be evaluated in that context as well.

Sometimes we hear the argument that our ancestors did this/did not do that so we should continue to follow that path or return to it. Certainly we can carry forward the knowledge of the past but the future is not a replication of what we have lived through and needs different approaches. Small farms existed before the growth of agribusinesses but that should not preculde the idea that big farms as well as small ones can participate together in creating and being a part of a better food system. Faced with altered growing conditions, can we adopt ways to conserve water in rice farming as well a technique that can help plants process excess salt and flourish? There is no reason why we cannot do both, other than the desire to maintain entrenched positions.

Another source of controversy arises from viewing climate change as solely related to the environment, and the effort to nurture and conserve nature is in opposition to agriculture. Worsening air quality hurts our health but also impacts the productivity of our crops.  So cleaner air brings even more benefits than we might have considered earlier. Agriculture does not have to mean the end of habitats and indigenous plants. Conserving nature can work with the goal of sustaining people as these successful projects show.

That so many lists of solutions are available is great but we cannot stick to one or the other set of answers. The clock is running against us on climate change and we need to use the best tools possible.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)