Uganda Sets Aside GM Ban to Save Banana Crops

Excerpted from The Guardian, March 9, 2011:

A typical adult in Uganda eats at least three times his or her body weight in bananas each year, more than anywhere else on Earth. Different varieties are steamed, boiled, roasted, turned into gin and beer, or simply peeled and eaten raw, such as the tiny sukali ndizi, considered by some experts to be finest banana in the world.

But in recent years a devastating bacterial disease has swept across Uganda and, to a lesser extent, neighboring countries, causing annual banana crop losses to the region of more than $500m. The rapid spread of banana Xanthomonas wilt, or BXW, which destroys the entire plant and contaminates the soil, “has endangered the livelihoods of millions of farmers who rely on banana for staple food and income”, according to an article in the journal Molecular Plant Biology last year.

On a sprawling campus outside Kampala, Wilberforce Tushemereirwe and his colleagues at the National Banana Research Program have been on a quest to defeat the disease by building a better banana. This has involved adding to the fruit a sweet pepper gene that has already improved disease resistance in several vegetables.

Laboratory tests on the genetically modified bananas have been highly promising, with six out of eight strains proving 100 percent resistant to BXW. Field tests have now started in a fenced-off, guarded plot on the edge of the campus.

Results from the trials, expected later this year, could have a strong bearing on the country’s future food security – and indeed its entire policy on agriculture. GM crops are still banned in Uganda, and the scientists had to get special permission just to conduct their tests. While acknowledging that it is a highly controversial topic, Tushemereirwe says the risk of doing nothing is too great.

If we just leave this, bananas will slowly disappear from Uganda,” he said.

Leena Tripathi, a plant biotechnologist at IITA who helped steer the project, said introducing the gene did not affect the quality of the banana and presented no health risks.

The beauty of the genetic engineering is that you can be very precise,” she said.

Other GM banana experiments are under way in Uganda, including one to fortify the fruit with iron and vitamin A.

A study by Enoch Kikulwe, a Ugandan assistant professor of international food economics at the University of Gottingen, Germany, revealed more opposition to GM crops among the elite than those in poorer villages. Most studies show that better education led to more acceptance of GM foods, he said.

But for Kamenya the farmer, the anti-GM stance was hypocritical.

Most of the people against this have choices,” he said. “Somebody who is hungry does not have a choice. GM, organic or whatever – you have to feed the people.”

World’s Farmers Favor Biotech Crops

Because of its contribution to agricultural productivity and sustainable farming, growers around the world continue to choose biotech crop varieties according to a report released today by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). 

The ISAAA report, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2010, says a record 15.4 million farmers in 29 countries are growing biotech crops on 366 million acres.  

According to the report’s executive summary,

a record 87-fold increase in hectarage between 1996 and 2010 makes biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture.” 

Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, Executive Vice President, Food and Agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), issued the following statement in response to the report’s findings:  

“The 2010 ISAAA report proves once again that the global adoption of biotech crops – especially corn, soybeans and cotton – is on the rise as more and more farmers gain access to this beneficial technology.  The productivity gains from biotechnology, for example, is enabling our world’s farmers to better feed a global population. 

“Agricultural biotechnology provides solutions for today’s growers in the form of plants that are more environmentally friendly while yielding more per acre, resisting diseases and insect pests and reducing farmers’ production costs. 

“When you look at the rising number of acres of biotech crops planted each year (366 million in 2010 compared with 330 million in 2009), and the increasing number of farmers who have chosen this technology (15.4 million in 2010 compared with 14 million in 2009), it’s obvious that biotech crops are delivering value to more and more growers around the world. 

“Ninety percent (14.4 million) of these are resource-poor farmers in developing countries.  In fact, developing countries grew 48 percent of global biotech crops in 2010.  Because of agricultural biotechnology’s contribution to combating food insecurity and problems associated with poor nutrition, it is predicted that developing countries will exceed industrialized nations in their plantings of biotech crops by 2015. 

“In the United States more than 165 million acres of biotech crops were planted in 2010, and the United States remains the top country in terms of biotech acreage.  The primary biotech crops grown in the United States are corn, cotton and soybeans, but also canola, squash, papaya, alfalfa, and sugar beet. 

“The benefits provided by agricultural biotechnology allow growers to produce more food, feed and fiber on less land, often with significant environmental benefits.  Biotechnology can help crops thrive in drought-prone areas, can improve the nutrition content of foods, can grow alternative energy sources and can improve the lives of farmers and rural communities around the globe.  

“In order to fully realize these promises for a better tomorrow, we need tocontinue to embrace scientific innovation.”  

* The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) report, Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2010and accompanying materials are posted at

Don’t Panic Over Biotech Alfalfa

The Atlantic published a piece authored by James McWilliams, Associate Professor of history at Texas State University and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

The USDA’s recent decision to (re)deregulate genetically modified (GM) alfalfa has sent a shock wave of panic through the organic foods industry because organic farmers (who produce between .5 and 1 percent of the nation’s alfalfa) believe their product could be contaminated by gene flow from GM seed.

Dr. Dan Putnam, a forage expert at UC-Davis, explores rates of contamination based on alfalfa crop distance, types of pollinators, and adjacent systems of production (i.e., seed-to-seed, hay-to-seed, and hay-to-hay). In a 2008 study evaluating the chances of a Roundup Ready alfalfa seed crop contaminating a non-Roundup Ready hay crop (the seed-to-hay scenario), Putnam found that when the crops are a modest 160 feet apart the rate of successful gene flow from GM seed crop to non-GM hay crop was a mere 0.25 percent. (Hay-to hay, rather than seed-to-hay, is the most common situation – but the chances of contamination in that scenario appear to be even lower.)

Even if one-fourth of 1 percent seems too much, Putnam notes that the figure is an overstatement. In his study he purposefully allowed the non-GM hay crop to go to seed – something that must happen in order for pollinators (bees or leafcutters) to cross-pollinate from the GM seed crop. In the real agricultural world, however, a farmer growing alfalfa hay would almost never allow this to happen, thereby radically reducing the chance of contamination. Writing in The Progressive Farmer, agriculture reporter Chris Clayton notes, “Hay is often cut multiple times each year before flowering occurs.” So the GM seed pollen, should it wander into a neighboring field, would have nothing to grab onto.

There’s more. Let’s say that the non-GM hay did flower and produce seeds. Two more unlikely events would also have to happen in order for successful contamination to occur. 1) There would have to be simultaneous flowering between seed crop and hay crop in order for cross pollination between GM and non-GM to happen. And 2) If that rare coincidence took place, the seeds in the hay field contaminated with GM pollen would have to fall and germinate on-site rather than being carried afield by a puff of wind.

Purists will argue that a “low level of risk is not enough.” But seeking a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to contamination denies the reality of floral life. Pollen moves.

With a contamination possibility that’s less than 1 percent, we are not looking at a scenario in which GM alfalfa is going to overtake its organic counterpart.  I think it’s perfectly reasonable for organic alfalfa farmers to accept the extremely low chance of GM contamination as the cost of doing business in the modern world.

AAAS Meeting to Feature Session on GM Crop Regulations

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will hold its annual meeting in Washington, D.C. this week, February 17-21, hosting nearly 8,000 attendees for symposia, lectures, seminars, workshops, and poster sessions that cover every area of science, technology, and education.

A symposium titled GM Crop Regulations: Safety Net or Insurmountable Obstacle?will be presented on Friday, February 18.

This session will address the two prime reasons why fresh market and specialty GM foodstuffs are not on grocers’ shelves:

First, the regulatory system in place is not sufficiently science-based and is too costly to be justified for small-market crops. Two speakers will discuss success in bringing safe and highly productive transgenic crops to farmers, whereas others will highlight research presently under way to provide fruits, vegetables, and other foods that benefit consumers by being more environmentally friendly, healthier, and more enjoyable to eat.

Finally, the obstacles to commercialization of such foods under the present array of complex and costly regulatory hurdles at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will be presented, along with suggestions for using scientific principles to streamline current regulatory systems while providing ample assurances to consumers regarding the safety of new GM foods.

Scheduled speakers include:

  • Nina Fedoroff, Pennsylvania State University
    Why We Need to Craft Science-Based Regulations for GM Crops and Animals in the United States
  • Roger Beachy, U.S. Department of Agriculture
    The Success and Safety of Transgenic Crops and Foods
  • Drew L. Kershen, University of Oklahoma
    The Present Regulatory Systems, Their Complexity, and Costs
  • Hector Quemada, The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
    Challenges in the Development of Transgenic Crops by the Public Sector
  • Alan McHughen, University of California
    Whither “Orphan” GM Specialty and Small Market Crops?
  • Elizabeth A. Grabau, Virginia Tech, Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology and Weed Science;
  • Ralph Scorza, USDA-ARS-AFRS
    A view from the trenches: Challenges in bringing GM crops to the market place

Let’s Restart the Green Revolution

The Wall Street Journal ran another editorial related to the coexistence issue, this one on the heels of last week’s USDA announcement to deregulate biotech alfalfa, and the pending announcement on sugar beets: 

FEBRUARY 2, 2011

Food prices are up, and output and productivity is falling behind. Not enough attention is being placed on regulation-induced stagnation.

The U.N.’s food price index has hit an all-time high. Food price hikes are widely understood to be a trigger of Egyptian upheavals in a country that imports a large share of its grain. Some blame Ben Bernanke. Some blame the Chinese for gobbling up too much of the world’s resources. Not enough attention is focused on the forces of stagnation loose in our world. Agricultural output has been falling behind population growth for almost two decades, and so has productivity.

In a small way, consider the Obama Agriculture Department’s decision last week to throw up its hands and finally permit the planting of bio-engineered alfalfa.

Alfalfa is the country’s fourth biggest crop. Roundup Ready soybeans and corn, modified to resist the weedkiller glyphosate (known by the trade name Roundup), have been in the market for a decade. Roundup Ready alfalfa raised no new issues, and yet in 2007 a court found a wholly new excuse to block planting. The USDA hadn’t produced an “environmental impact statement” to consider the economic impact on “organic” alfalfa growers.

To be sure, these growers were about to be inconvenienced. The bio-engineered trait would likely turn up in their crops. The standard of genetic purity they need to meet to satisfy their health-food customers would become that much harder.

But organic alfalfa represents about 1% of the market. Functionally, it is not different from bio-engineered alfalfa. Only the label is different. “Organic” alfalfa is fed to “organic” cows so consumers can splurge on milk that says “organic” on the label.

Shoppers have every right to indulge themselves in this fashion, and farmers to make a buck meeting their need. But should other farmers be stopped from planting a new seed just because it would complicate their niche marketing strategy? When the gauze of environmental correctness is peeled away, the battle here isn’t about much more than keeping organic alfalfa (also known as hay) cheap so organic dairy operators will be less tempted to substitute another feed.

A similar lawsuit threatens to halt planting of Roundup Ready sugar beets, which account for nearly half of U.S. sugar production. Perhaps the best answer, brutal as it might seem, was offered by a beet farmer in Oregon. He told NPR that since the engineered beet had been found to be safe, if a neighboring farmer has “organic” customers who prefer to believe otherwise, “it would be in his interest to educate them.”

It’s too bad when change upsets somebody’s livelihood, but these lawsuits seek to award organic farmers a civil right not to have their high-end, advertising-created market segment disturbed by industrial progress. Tom Vilsack, the Obama agriculture secretary, twisted and turned for weeks trying to reconcile the interests of organic and mass-market alfalfa farmers. In the end, he gave up and made the right decision: The organic farmers will have to adjust to a reality that has shifted a little bit against them.

The world needs more such decisions.

When some hear the word “regulation,” they imagine government rushing to the defense of consumers. In the real world, government serves up regulation to those who ask for it, which usually means organized interests seeking to block a competitive threat. This insight, by the way, originated with the left, with historians who went back and reconstructed how railroads in the U.S. concocted federal regulation to protect themselves from price competition. We should also notice that an astonishingly large part of the world has experienced an astonishing degree of stagnation for an astonishingly long time for exactly such reasons.

Greece has destabilized the entire European monetary system because its government borrowed more than it could afford. But the flipside is an economy that can’t afford its debts because it has been buried under anticompetitive rules, guilds and monopolistic privileges that make enterprise all but illegal.
A few hundred miles to the south, Egyptian protestors clamor for “freedom” when American television reporters are present. But “food” has been the chant across North Africa since before the beginning of the year, in Algeria, where several protestors were killed, and in Tunisia where an autocrat chose to make his exit.

These upheavals got their start in a telling way. A street vendor in central Tunisia set himself afire as a protest after being harassed by police for trying to make a living selling vegetables without a permit. The nature of the modern regulatory state everywhere is to be hard on those trying to do anything new. In this way at least, the quaking North African regimes have been thoroughly modern.

BIO Applauds USDA Decision to Deregulate Biotech Alfalfa

 The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced January 27th that it will fully deregulate a variety of biotech alfalfa (so called “Roundup Ready” or “RR” alfalfa, which is genetically engineered to tolerate the herbicide glyophosate).  

This decision comes after a comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS)conducted by USDA analyzed the potential environmental impact of RR alfalfa, and concluded that it is safe and does not represent a plant pest risk.  

Jim Greenwood, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), issued the following statement in response to the USDA announcement:  

“Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s decision is based on sound science and two decades of regulatory precedent.  Most importantly, this announcement restores the principle of farmer choice and allows growers to move forward with decisions about spring planting. 

“This action also supports President Obama’s pledge to support science-based decision-making and to steer away from policies that create barriers to economic growth.  In order to increase jobs, grow the industry and bring new products to market, the U.S. government’s regulatory review of biotech products needs to be more efficient. 

“The innovations brought about by agricultural biotechnology over the years allow growers to produce more food, feed and fiber on less land, often with significant environmental benefits.  Biotechnology can help crops thrive in drought-prone areas, can improve the nutrition content of foods, can grow alternative energy sources and can improve the lives of farmers and rural communities around the globe.  

“We welcome the Secretary’s commitment to expand U.S. agriculture, to keep pace with the latest scientific developments, and to take into account the needs of all producers and all types of production. We hope this will help pave the way for new technologies in the pipeline.”  

Unlocking the Economic Potential of Biotechnology

By 2050 population growth is expected to translate into a 70 percent increase in global demand for food. Add the estimated 27 percent decline in global productivity expected due to climate change, and it is clear that the demand for food production will become more critical in the coming decades.

Countries that depend on rain-fed agriculture will be especially vulnerable. Crop models for Sub-Saharan Africa have indicated that in 2050, average rice, wheat, and maize yields will decline by up to 14 percent, 22 percent, and 5 percent, respectively.

But there are rays of hope as we go towards 2050. The potential for agriculture in Africa is great. African countries can use their own experiences, indigenous knowledge and traditional methods, as well as the many talents of their people to adopt and adapt the best of what science has to offer in new technologies.

An essential lever for raising agricultural productivity is increasing investments in science and technology. An important lesson of the 1960s “Green Revolution” was that agricultural research could contribute decisively to spurring agricultural growth. Countries that simultaneously adopted the technology and increased their investments in agricultural research have maintained and even accelerated their rate of productivity and growth. New technologies – like biotechnology, conservation tillage, drip irrigation, integrated pest management, and new multiple-cropping practices – have improved the efficiency and productivity of agricultural resources over the last decade. Around the world some 14 million small and resource poor farmers in the developing world have already benefited from biotechnology crops.

In a 2008 survey of the global impact of biotech crops, the global net economic benefits to biotech crop farmers was $9.2 billion dollars, divided roughly equally between developed and developing countries. In South Africa, for example, biotech maize, soybean, and cotton are estimated to have enhanced farm incomes by $383 million dollars. In other areas of the world, the technology has changed the lives of farmers and raised incomes in a matter of years. In India, conservative estimates for small-scale farmers have indicated that the use of biotech cotton has increased yield by 31 percent, decreased insecticide application by 39 percent, and increased profitability by 88 percent, equivalent to $250 U.S. dollars per hectare. With the advent of enhanced tools, such as drought-resistant corn and disease-resistant bananas, those who have paved the way for the technology will reap even further economic benefits.

African researchers are already working on the next generation of biotech crops that will have a wider array of benefits for farmers, like drought tolerance, nitrogen-use efficiency, and salt tolerance to help address shifting environments due to climate change. But second generation biotech crops will go beyond benefits to the farmer. Work is underway in crops, like cassava and rice, to increase their vitamin, mineral, and protein content, benefitting the consumer as well.

So we know what technology can do. The question is what has been keeping it out of the hands of those who could benefit from it? In many cases misinformation has made people fear a process and its products. However, the real obstacle is the lack of functioning regulatory systems that would allow countries to make their own decisions about the safety of these products. Biotechnology-produced crops have been assessed for safety in all regions of the world – from the European Union to Japan to Brazil to Burkina Faso. Not to adopt biotechnology because of unfounded claims after more than 15 years of safe use and proven benefits would be to unnecessarily narrow an African farmer’s agricultural potential. It is one of the tools, which, when paired with the right incentives, can enable Africa’s farmers and businesses to close the productivity gap.

But those incentives must have political will behind them. Technology alone is not the answer. To make use of the potential of biotechnology, science-based regulatory systems must be established. I call upon those who have the ability to do so to put in place such sound policies, based on science, and to take full advantage of what investment in agricultural science and technology can do for African farmers and economies.

Several African countries have already adopted the policies and regulatory frameworks needed to support the responsible and safe use of biotechnology. I applaud their courage and foresight to move forward. With increased political will, strong research support, and biosafety policies and regulations that empower the use of the technology, African countries can revolutionize their agricultural sector. What’s more, they can squarely look those in the eye who maintain that crop technology leads to lost markets, and ask them to explain why the expanding economies of the world are exactly those that are developing and using biotechnology.

To those who fear monopolies and multinational ownership of the food supply, I say promote competition, don’t stifle innovation. It is clear that economic growth will be achieved by those countries that are innovators in agriculture and that take the leap of faith needed to invest in their farmers, which is an investment in their future.