* Feeding the 900 Million: Let Them Eat Micronutrients
* Hugh Grant, Michael Pollan and Sonal Shah in new video
* Ingo Potrykus Wins the Bertebos Prize
* India: Public Sector Bt Cotton to be Available Commercially
* Insecticide Use on Vegetables in Ghana: Would GM Seed Benefit Farmers?
* Doomed to be Disappointed
* Gene Flow in Alfalfa: Biology, Mitigation, and Impact
* Marking the 5-Year Anniversary of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
* Charles Fantasy Farming A Mirage
* Context, Context, Context! A Delicate Empiricism For Biotechnology
* Lucrative, Cynical Business of 'Saving Africa'
Feeding the 900 Million: Let Them Eat Micronutrients
- Sharon Begley, NEWSWEEK, Sep 29, 2008 http://www.newsweek.com/id/160075
There is a good but sobering reason why "ending world hunger" has been a perennial hope of beauty-pageant contestants at least since Miss America contestants began naming that as their greatest wish: we haven't come close to doing it.
This year some 900 million people-including 178 million children under 5-are suffering from malnutrition, estimates the United Nations; every day 50,000 starve to death. As the world community scans the horizon for solutions to world hunger, it is seeing visions of amber fields of genetically modified grain. Just as the development of high-yielding rice and other crops created the green revolution of the 1960s and saved tens of millions of people from starvation, so genetically modified crops are the great hope of the 21st century.
GM crops, however, are likely to feed about as many people as Miss America. A new report by agriculture experts from 60 nations foresees "a limited role for biotech crops" in reducing world hunger. (Biotech companies withdrew from the project in protest.) The problems? Yields for GM varieties, in which genes for desirable traits are spliced into a plant's DNA, are unpredictable and often lower than high-yield varieties bred without genetic engineering. GM seeds, which are patent-protected, cost more than the poor can afford (high-yielding varieties of the 1960s green revolution are not patented). The know-how and conditions required to cultivate GM crops hardly exist in Africa or South Asia, the world's hunger hot spots, where farmers can't even eke out subsistence yields of ordinary crops.
Low-tech aid, not cutting-edge science, therefore has the best chance of both feeding the malnourished today and setting farmers on a path to growing enough to eat (and perhaps sell) tomorrow. The adage says giving a man a fish lets him eat today but giving him a fishing rod lets him eat every day; the 900 million need both fish and rods. The most beneficial and cost-effective immediate aid? Providing micronutrients-vitamins and minerals such as iodine, zinc and iron-to kids. The Copenhagen Consensus, a group of economists who take a hard-nosed look at the costs and benefits of a variety of save-the-world proposals, concluded in May that providing vitamin A and zinc supplements to malnourished infants and toddlers under 2 would cost $60 million annually. That would bring a return in lives saved, diseases averted and cognitive benefits gained of just over $1 billion. Providing iron and iodized salt would cost $286 million a year, with benefits of $2.7 billion. Doctors Without Borders is launching a campaign to provide a fortified supplement-it's a sort of spread-that is packed with the required nutrients and, crucially, does not require refrigeration.
The embrace of micronutrients represents a radical change for food aid. "For the last 40 years, there has been very little effort to figure out what works and what doesn't, or to see how we can improve the effectiveness of food aid," says Buddhima Lokuge of Doctors Without Borders. What doesn't work? Providing malnourished children with blended wheat or corn flour, as donors still do, is a near disaster: the flours typically do not contain dairy compounds (they were dropped in the 1980s, when milk surpluses in donor countries dried up) but do include soy, which inhibits kids' ability to absorb nutrients such as zinc, explains Lokuge. Another fiasco is buying food at home, as U.S. law requires, rather than where the hungry live. "Half of what you spend on food for the needy goes to transport," says Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, "so you can buy 50 percent less."
And for the fishing rod? In Africa, just 5 percent of the land that could grow high-yielding rice from the green revolution-a decades-old technology-is doing so. A big reason is soils so depleted they cannot sustain the high-yielding varieties. Fertilizer, which has soared in price in tandem with oil, is beyond the means of most subsistence farmers in Africa today. But here, too, there are low-tech answers. Planting nitrogen-fixing trees, a technique developed by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, supplies soils with that crucial nutrient. But to make it work, says Oxfam's Offenheiser, "you need institutions that provide agricultural extension services," agents who advise farmers on when and how to plant new high-yield seed varieties, and what kind of soil and how much fertilizer they require.
Such a program has worked in Sauri, Kenya, a "Millennium Village" where experts are trying to implement U.N. Millennium Development Goals, including halving the percentage of people suffering from malnutrition by 2015. In Sauri, maize production has soared from 1.9 tons per hectare in 2004 to 6.2 today. (In Africa overall, yields have barely budged in 50 years, remaining stuck at about 1 ton per hectare.) How much does that boost cost? In Sauri, which has 5,300 people, only $50,000, or about $10 per person a year.
"The boost of farm productivity has very often been the deus ex machina that triggers the long-term growth process," economist Jeffrey Sachs, president of the institute, argues in his 2008 book "Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet." Hunger stands in the way of every other development goal: malnourished children can't learn, and starving adults can't work.
Hugh Grant, Michael Pollan and Sonal Shah in new video
In a new video posted online with Google (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9I1IkbcHNE
), the chairman of Monsanto, the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma", and the director of Google's Global Development Initiative discuss creating a world that can feed itself. That is to say, two experts and a professor of journalism discuss the topic. As you might imagine, the experts offer solutions, and the third is poorly informed and insists on changing the topic.
Hugh Grant points out the importance of delivering different seeds with the different qualities most needed by farmers with different soils and climates, while Sonal Shah points out the importance of accomplishing this in the context of developing essential infrastructures.
Meanwhile, Michael Pollan challenges Monsanto to produce seeds for crops people eat, as though Monsanto doesn't do that. Pollan seems to have forgotten that in his book, he claims that Monsanto's main products--maize and soy--are the foundation of food in the most developed nations.
Pollan's suggestion that producing an abundance of food leads to hunger is so lame that it doesn't rise to the level of sophistry. He even has the gall to suggest that 'slow food' might be part of a solution for Africa's perennial hunger. (Will Chianti and checkered tablecloths do the job?) And like any other activist, he dodges off into issues of farm subsidies--though anyone who understands subsistence farming also knows that these farmers are not trying to reach an export market. They just want to feed themselves.
While an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer vaguely suggests Pollan might accept engineered crops as part of Monsanto's plan to double crop yields, the video discussion demonstrates that people like Pollan are the main culprits in modern food shortages.
Hugh Grant openly offered to make peace with the NGOs, citing the success of the Green Revolution, and Pollan spurned the offer. Grant could openly have exposed Pollan's ignorance and partisanship--but was gentle, instead. Unfortunately, this may signal that Monsanto will continue to accommodate the fundamentally corrosive influence of Green politics.
A battle should have been joined, and was not. As a result, Sonal Shah sent the clearest message.
The video runs a bit over 36 minutes. Spot the idiot. http://www.gmobelus.com/news.php?viewStory=212
Ingo Potrykus Wins the Bertebos Prize
Professor Potrykus has been a leading scientist in the development of methods for DNA transformation in plants. Through the new techniques, important hereditary characters, for instance disease resistance and improved quality, have been added to crops such as wheat, rice and cassava.
In the particular case of "Golden Rice" Prof. Potrykus and his team has engineered a rice variety to produce b-caroten. b-caroten is a precursor to vitamin A - an important ingredient to prevent blindness. Lack of vitamin A causes today blindness to numerous children in developing countries.
Professor Potrykus has been working tirelessly to resolve all the patent and legal obstacles that for several years has prevented the free use of "Golden Rice" by many rice breeding institutes and small-scale farmers".
Golden Rice - Bertebos Conference 2008 - Bertebos Conference 2008 was held in Falkenberg, Sweden, on 7 - 9 September 2008. The theme was "Golden Rice and other biofortified food crops for developing countries - challenges and potential". Key note speaker was professor Ingo Potrykus, Switzerland.
The conference was a co-arrangement between the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry and the Bertebos Foundation, residing in Falkenberg. The Bertebos Foundation has its origin in an agricultural enterprise which dates back many hundred years.
Bertebos Prize was initiated in 1996 by Brita and Olof Stenström in order to promote research, development and education within the food industry. The Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry has been entrusted by the Bertebos Foundation to elect the prize winner. The Prize consists of a diploma and 300 000 SEK (approx. 28 000 EUR).
Bertebos Prize was made possible through a gift of the Bertebos Foundation. The prize is awarded by the Academy every second year at the annual Commemorative Meeting to a person who may be found in any country and the winner is requested to have carried out research of distinguished quality and (expected) practical use within the areas of Food, Agriculture, Ecology or Animal Health.
Read more about Ingo Potrykus at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ingo_Potrykus
India: (Public Sector) Bt Cotton to be Available Commercially
- Vikas Sharma, Business Standard, September 19, 2008
After the successful implementation of Bacillus thurengiensis (Bt) Cotton (hybrid) seeds, two more genetically modified crops Bt Brinjal and Bt Cotton (variety) would be commercially available in Indian market from next year.
Revealing this information, K C Bansal from Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) said that with successful field trials of Bt Cotton (variety) and Bt Brinjal, both these crops would be commercially available in the market from 2009.
Commenting on the other crops that were in pipeline, Bansal said that trials were being conducted on crops like okra, cabbage, cauliflower, chickpea and rice and in coming future these crops would also be available in genetically modified varieties.
While the Bt cotton (variety) Bikaneri Narma would be marketed by Indian Council of Agricultural Research(ICAR), the Bt Brinjal would be marketed by Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company).
Commenting on the success of BT cotton hybrid in India, Bansal said India's cotton production was largely stagnant till 2001, but within six years of launch of genetically modified cotton, Bt cotton, India's cotton production has doubled, making it the second largest producer and third largest exporter of cotton in the world.
Bansal maintained that increase in the number of farmers adopting Bt cotton could easily be gauged by the fact that seed companies in India have sold around 27 million packets of Bt cotton hybrid seeds worth over Rs 2,000 crore during the current season. Bansal maintained the success of Bt cotton should be replicated in other crops as well.
He revealed that in over 60 countries, research was underway in over 50 fruits, vegetables, field crops and other plants to help increase crop production. Bansal added research in biotechnology could increase crop productivity to help meet rising farmer and consumer needs globally and in India.
Also growing adoption of genetically modified crops could contribute to achieving the UN's Millennium Development Goal of helping to reduce poverty and hunger by 50 per cent by 2050. According to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), for over a decade, biotechnology has improved crop productivity and increased crop yields, and has the potential to increase productivity by another 25 per cent world-wide to help farmers feed the burgeoning population.
Insecticide Use on Vegetables in Ghana: Would GM Seed Benefit Farmers?
- Daniela Horna, Melinda Smale, Ramatu Al-Hassan, José Falck-Zepeda, and Samuel E. Timpo; IFPRI Discussion Paper No. 785 August 2008 http://www.ifpri.org/pubs/dp/ifpridp00785.asp
Abstract: Tomato, cabbage, and garden egg (African eggplant, or Solanum aethiopicum) are important crops for small-scale farmers and migrants in the rural and peri-urban areas of Ghana. Genetic modification has the potential to alleviate poverty through combating yield losses from pests and diseases in these crops, while reducing health risks from application of hazardous chemicals. This ex ante study uses farm survey data to gauge the potential for adoption of genetically modified (GM) varieties, estimate the potential impact of adoption on farm profits, and highlight economic differences among the three crops.
Farmers' expenditures on insecticides are below the economic optimum in all three crops, and the estimated function for damage abatement shows that insecticide amounts are significant determinants of cabbage yields only. Nonetheless, yield losses from pests and disease affect insecticide use. A stochastic budget analysis also indicates a higher rate of return to vegetable production with the use of resistant seeds relative to the status quo, even considering the technology transfer fee for GM seed. Non-insecticide users could accrue higher marginal benefits than current insecticide users. Comparing among vegetable crops with distinct economic characteristics provides a wider perspective on the potential impact of GM technology. Until now, GM eggplant is the only vegetable crop that has been analyzed in the peer-reviewed, applied economics literature. This is the first analysis that includes African eggplant.
Download full report at http://www.ifpri.org/pubs/dp/ifpridp00785.asp
Doomed to be Disappointed
- Prof V. Moses, Financial Times, September 16
Sir, No doubt there is a ritual that you have to follow. Is that why you had to mention (report, September 12) the "extreme disappointment" of Friends of the Earth at the recent European Union study that found genetically modified foods safe because, they said, it ignored controversy among the scientific community about the risk posed by GM organisms?
They would probably be equally disappointed if the European Union were to suggest that the Earth is a sphere: there is still controversy about that, too, as you can see from the website of the Flat Earth Society.
V. Moses, Chairman, CropGen, London SW1, UK
Gene Flow in Alfalfa: Biology, Mitigation, and Potential Impact on Production
This Special Publication describes the biology and agronomic practices in alfalfa that should be considered in developing coexistence strategies to allow growers to have choices, specifically between genetically engineered (GE), conventional, and GE-sensitive markets in the United States. These strategies are based on science and are a direct extension of well-established coexistence principles routinely used by seed growers.
The management practices currently being used by growers of Roundup Ready alfalfa seed are presented as an example of strategies developed by the alfalfa seed industry that allow coexistence of different production systems. Chair: Allen E. Van Deynze, Seed Biotechnology Center, University of California, Davis. SP28, September 2008, 30 pp. $18.00 (plus shipping).
Ensuring Genetically Modified Technology Safety: Marking the 5-Year Anniversary of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
- Ulrika Nilsson The Daily Green Sept 20,
Last week marked the fifth anniversary of the entry into force of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The anniversary was a milestone in the global effort to ensure the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms (LMOs), commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), resulting from modern biotechnology. At present nearly 150 countries are parties to the Protocol.
In a congratulatory message on the occasion of the anniversary, Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the UN, stated that the Protocol is "among the world's key international environmental instruments" and "seeks to ensure that modern biotechnology is developed and applied in an environmentally sound manner, thus enabling humankind to derive maximum benefits while minimizing the potential risks to the environment and human health."
Among other things, Parties to the Protocol have to take measures to ensure that LMOs being moved from one country to another are handled, packaged and transported in a safe manner. Shipments of LMOs must be accompanied by documentation that clearly identifies them, depending on the intended use of the LMOs. There are different requirements for LMOs intended for direct use as food, feed or processing (LMOs-FFP) such as cotton or soy, for LMOs destined for contained use and LMOs for intentional introduction into the environment such as live fish or seeds.
Information about LMOs, including identification details of specific LMOs, can be accessed through the Biosafety Clearing-House (BCH), an information-sharing mechanism established by the Protocol. The BCH is essential for the successful implementation of the Protocol.
Over the past five years, remarkable progress has been made towards the implementation of the Protocol. For example, the governing body of the Protocol has adopted more than 60 decisions elaborating tools and mechanisms to facilitate the effective implementation of the Protocol. These include operationalization of the BCH, establishment of a compliance committee, development of a capacity-building action plan, establishment of a roster of biosafety experts and a decision to work towards an international regime on liability and redress for damage resulting from the transboundary movements of LMOs. In a press release for the fifth Anniversary, Ahmed Djouglaf, the Executive Secretary to the Convention on Biological Diversity, stated that "the achievements made under the Protocol in such a short period clearly demonstrate the commitment and determination of the world community to realize the objective of the Protocol."
In a statement during the anniversary, Wolfgang Koeler, the current president of the governing body of the Protocol, urged Parties, other governments and all stakeholders to re-double their efforts to ensure that the Protocol is implemented fully. He urged them to uphold the spirit of cooperation that has underpinned the Protocol process to date and to continue collaborating actively to build the necessary capacities and to mobilize adequate financial, technical and other resources for the effective implementation of the Protocol.
Charles Fantasy Farming A Mirage
- Paul Collier, Deccan Herald (India), August 28, 2008
'Organic farming will feed only affluent angst but not hunger, whereas GM crops can.
In response to 19th-century industrialisation, the British aristocracy rediscovered medieval chivalry. The romantic fashion was in part comic: jousts, castles and armour. But it had darker consequences; the privileging of honour over intelligence, which became the bedrock vision of the English gentleman, had its apotheosis in the heroic stupidities of the first world war. Now, in response to modern agriculture, the aristocracy, with Prince Charles in the vanguard, has rediscovered organic farming. Organic peasant produce is a luxury - you will find Duchy Originals, the prince's crested brand, in the better supermarkets; and the lifestyle is for sale in his attractive model village of Poundbury. But my concern is its darker consequences. Organic peasant agriculture is a solution for the angst of affluence, but not hunger. Its apotheosis is the ban on GM crops.
The origin of the ban was the BSE scare, whose cause was the capture of health regulation by the farming interest. Across Europe the national pressures for agricultural protectionism duly had British beef banned. BSE had nothing to do with GM, but it set the precedent: "genetically modified" food, became "Frankenfood", an experiment on consumers.
Although Monsanto has undertaken never to market a seed that is incapable of reproducing itself, there is a widespread belief that farmers will be trapped into annual purchases of "terminator" seeds from a monopolist. Prince Charles represents an important additional constituency of opinion. His loathing of GM reflects his broader opposition to scientific-commercial agriculture.
The GM ban has three adverse effects. It has retarded productivity in European agriculture; grain production could be increased by about 15 per cent were the ban lifted. More subtly, because Europe is out of the market for GM technology, the pace of research has slowed. GM research takes a long time to come to fruition, and its core benefit - the permanent reduction of global food prices - cannot fully be captured through patents. European governments should be funding this research, but it is entirely reliant on the private sector. Private money for research depends on the prospect of sales, so the ban has not only blocked public research; it has reduced private research.
However, the ban has terrified African governments, (with the exception of South Africa) into banning GM. They fear that growing modified crops would shut them out of European markets. Because Africa banned GM, there was no market for discoveries pertinent to the crops that Africa grows, and so no research. In turn, this has led to the critique that GM is irrelevant for Africa.
Africa cannot afford the GM ban. Its cities, fed by imports, need global prices to be low. Without cheap food the children of the urban poor will be malnourished. Africa's farmers, broadly self-sufficient, need higher productivity. Productivity per acre has stagnated, so rising production has depended on expanding the area under cultivation.
On the horizon is climatic deterioration due to global warming. The semi-arid parts will get drier and rainfall variability will mean more droughts. In southern Africa, the staple food: maize, is likely to become unviable.
It is conventional to say that Africa needs a green revolution. The reality is that the green revolution was based on chemical fertilisers. With the rise in fertiliser costs, any green revolution will perforce not be chemical. What African agriculture needs is a biological revolution. This is what GM offers, if only sufficient money is put into research.
We are still on the first GM generation: single-gene transfer, in which a gene that gives one crop an advantage is isolated and added to another. But even this stage offers the credible prospect of important gains. Maize can be made more drought resistant, buying Africa time in the struggle against climatic deterioration. Grain can be made resistant to fungi, reducing the need for chemicals and cutting storage losses.
Europe can afford romanticism, but the African poor cannot. The return to organic peasant agriculture is an appealing fantasy with disturbing consequences. The GM ban has already persisted for 12 years: how much more hunger must be endured before it is faced down?
(The writer is Director, Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University.)
Context, Context, Context! A Delicate Empiricism For Biotechnology
- Lenny Moss, Nature Biotechnology 26, 991 - 992 (2008)
BOOK REVIEWED - Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering
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Might the genome of the sloth be a potential goldmine for finding cures for youthful hyperactivity? While this proposition will strike some as a sardonic reductio ad absurdum, for many others it will simply resonate with widespread contemporary understanding and expectations. Although much of the upshot of comparative genomics has been to reveal the surprising fungibility of genetic parts across kingdoms and phyla and the concomitant significance of developmental (or 'systems') context, these insights have yet to be consolidated into a new 'vision' of nature or of the organism1. If this insightful new book receives the attention it deserves, the sloth may well become the poster child for just such a new vision.
The moral of Holdrege and Talbott's story is that biological context is important. The sloth owes its slowness to systematic properties such as a very high ratio of retractor to extensor muscles (good for hanging but poor for supporting one's weight), to a low overall ratio of muscle to body mass, to its reliance upon ambient temperature to regulate its rate of metabolism and to an unusually large and perennially full stomach that obviates the experience of hunger. Contrary to any gene-for-slowness concept, it is unlikely that so much as a single gene of the sloth is in and of itself a cause of slowness such that it could not equally well contribute to a 'fast' life-form given a different context.
Too much of the public debate about biotech has been merely a shallow volley between those working two sides of what amounts to essentially the same street-the gene-tech boosters and/or self-styled 'transhumanists' on the one side and the pious bioconservatives on the other. To the extent to which both sides share the same, largely tacit, reductionist vision of the organism, Holdrege and Talbott proffer a plague upon both their houses. Jürgen Habermas2 and Bill McKibben, for example, have both targeted the consequences of 'programmed' enhancements, of things such as musical or athletic ability in one's children. Where Habermas has helped himself to the idiom of genetic determinism to decry the potential loss of the self-determining symmetry conditions he takes to be requisite to moral autonomy3, McKibben has set his sights on questions of personal authenticity. A mother, for example, who programs talent for the piano into her daughter "robs her daughter forever of the chance to make music her own authentic context-or to choose something else." Likewise for McKibben, a monk who had been programmed for piety "--would be, for all intents and purposes, a robot." But, as Holdrege and Talbott point out, "if this is true-if we are, in this mechanistic sense, creatures of our DNA-then we are robots in any case. An entity that can be programmed is already an automaton. That's what it means to be an automaton. What difference does it make whether 'chance events' programmed us, or whether someone in a lab coat did? If, as McKibben insistently repeats, a twiddled bit of DNA substitutes for your meaningful self, then so too does an untwiddled piece of DNA." So much for the bioconservative 'critique' of biotechnology.
For those seeking practical implications, the best the book has to offer are to be found in the early discussion of genetic engineering and agriculture. The targets are attempts to treat phenotypic outcomes as narrowly isolatable phenomena with better solutions to be found in thinking ecologically and systematically at every relevant level of analysis. Tweaking a single pathway in the sugar metabolism of the potato, for example, resulted in altering the production of not just one metabolite but of 88 different substances. Engineered boosting of carotene production unpredictably also resulted in producing a dwarf tomato. The dangers of techno-fix tunnel vision in addressing the problems of world hunger have been articulated for at least 30 years, but perhaps some of these lessons need to be periodically rehearsed. The benefits of vitamin A-enhanced 'red' rice can only be assessed in a context that includes both the symbolic significance of white rice on the Asian family table as well as the presence or absence of requisite amounts of fats and proteins in the larger diet necessary for putting increased amounts of vitamin A to metabolic good use.
On the positive side of the ledger, the benefits of thinking contextually can be seen in low-tech breakthroughs in integrated pest management that manage to deliver more for less. In lieu of herbicide-resistant, genetically engineered strains of crops meant for use in herbicide-intensive monocultures, 'push-pull strategies' that combine pest attractor plants on the periphery with leguminous pest-repellent plants in the center can not only spare local ecologies from the onslaught of glycophosphates but even help with nitrogen fixation. Similarly, agricultural experiments in China have identified the complementary effects of interplanting different strains of rice that synergistically reduce fungus-promoting ambient moisture while promoting plant-immune response.
One may well wonder why a book published in 2008, ostensibly about biotechnology, while giving some attention to methods and approaches in agriculture, would say nary a word about such distinctively 21st-century biotech issues as embryonic stem cells. Biotechnology surely must at least tacitly assume a ready vision of the nature of the living organism. And in practice when, for example, it constructs a cow as a kind of recombinant 'bioreactor', biotechnology enacts a vision of the nature of the organism. Holdrege and Talbott never meant to provide a detailed examination of the state of the art(s). It is the tacit, yet efficacious, vision associated with the assumptions of a reductionist genetics that they are interested in leading us beyond. Living organisms are irreducibly normative systems-susceptible of doing better or worse, of flourishing or not4. Understanding how material entities can be normatively (that is, adaptively) self-organizing, in the absence of comfort-food concepts such as that of the 'genetic program', is a challenge that even few contemporary philosophers have found the intestinal fortitude to face. While we in the age of 'systems biology' may well all agree in principle that we need to capture the full complexity of the organism in order to understand the contingent and changeable role of its parts, these are hollow words in the absence of an ability to perceive the distinctive full-bodied presence, or as Holdrege and Talbott would prefer-meaning- of a particular kind of living being.
Once upon a time there was a German Romantic poet and an accomplished scientist named Goethe who believed that our aesthetic intuitions of nature, coming from the nature of the natural beings that we are, could provide our sciences with cognitive resources and guidance. Under the heading of a 'delicate empiricism' the authors ultimately offer a well-written and engaging attempt at reconstructing just such a context-sensitive approach to biology that can be relevant to our contemporary needs. I would strongly encourage the adoption of this book as core reading for all incoming biotechnology, bioethics and philosophy of biology students alike, albeit with a minor twiddling of the title to that of Before Biotechnology.
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1. Moss, L. Philosophy of Science 73, 930-946 (2006). | Article |
2. Habermas, J. The Future of Human Nature (Polity Press, Oxford, UK, 2003).
3. Moss, L. New Formations 60, 139-149 (2007).
4. Moss, L. Detachment, genomics and the nature of being human. in New Visions of Nature: Complexity and Authenticity (eds. Drenthen, M., Keulartz, J., Proctor, J.) (Springer International Library of Environmental, Agricultural and Food Ethics, New York; in press).
The Lucrative, Cynical Business of 'Saving Africa'
- Chido Makunike,CHEETAH INDEx, 21st September 2008. http://business.africanpath.com:80/article.cfm?articleID=76208
A few weeks ago Prince Charles of England caused a furore with his comments against the global trend towards industrial agriculture, and against gene modification in particular. He instead advocates organic farming as being more environmentally responsible and safe.
His remarks elicited all the usual reactions to what has become a very emotive issue in some circles. Those who already agree with his views took the opportunity of Charles' high-profile support to be a little smugger in their beliefs. Those who disagree with his views took the opportunity of responding to him to restate their reasons.
A lot of heat was generated in this latest flare-up of the bitter, long-running 'agro-ideological' debate, but little or no new light shed. Once again it became obvious that the respective positions and the bitter differences are only partially about increasing the world's agricultural productivity and reducing food insecurity. The passionate counter-accusations are not primarily out of concern for feeding the world's starving, but are due to fundamentally different viewpoints about humankind's place in the natural order.
On one side are those to whom the world and its environment are primarily resources at the disposal of humankind. How they are used should depend primarily on what is technically feasible and in humankind's best interests at any given time. For them, things like gene-modification are evaluated mostly on the basis of parameters like financial cost and benefit, technical feasibility, quantifiable material results (yields, pest-resistance, etc).
On the opposite side are those who do not accept that humankind necessarily sits at the top and center of the natural world. They instead position humankind as just one of many species and factors whose interests need to be counter-weighed in deciding what is or is not permissible. For those who think this way, gene-modification cannot be justified simply on the basis that it is technically doable, or even only on the basis that it can produce results that are beneficial to humankind.
Even if such results (higher crop yields, drought-tolerance, pest-resistance, etc) were proven beyond doubt, most people in the latter group would still oppose the technology on the grounds that gene modification is unwarranted interference with the very essence of life. For them it is an example of humankind going a step too far in tampering with that essence. As things stand now, there is a lot of controversy over whether these touted benefits of genetic modification are in fact 'real,' and if so, whether they justify the costs and the fears of many about unknown harmful effects, now or in the future.
Many of both the protagonists and the antagonists of gene modification hold their views on ideological, religious and other grounds that do not easily stand the test of objective scrutiny. But they both find it in their interest to deny or downplay the religious, ideological, commercial and other bases' of their positions. Instead, both sides claim be mainly motivated by high, noble-sounding humanitarian ideals.
Both also try very hard to portray themselves as having arrived at their respective positions purely by a process of evaluating the scientific evidence. Yet they look at the same 'evidence' but come up with very-different-from-each-other (and now entirely predictable) 'conclusions' on whether GM technology is 'good' or 'bad.'
Obviously, both sides have every right to base their support or opposition to GM technology through their respective religious-ideological or other prisms. But it would be more respectable for either side to honestly and unapologetically admit that this was the main basis for their positions.
Generally, greater allowances are made for views held on religious-ideological foundations. Even when one disagrees with any such views, one not only accepts the right of people to hold those views, it is also accepted that they generally fall outside the realm of being debated on the basis of 'objective' criteria that can be presented as pro or con 'evidence.'
For religious views, and to a lesser extent ideological views, it is generally considered enough for those views to be held on the basis of nothing more than, 'I hold these views because this is simply what I believe.' One is not required to provide logical or scientific evidence (nor is it possible to do so) for one's religious beliefs in the same way that one is required and able to 'scientifically' show, even merely with one's fingers, that 2 + 2 = 4. Two plus two is scientifically, objectively, provably four. There is no such objective test of evidence required for one's religious views, and often the same 'allowance' is given for ideological views.
Lately we have begun to increasingly hear, 'We support/oppose genetic modification because it is in the best interests of the poor, starving, helpless Africans.' To these basic pillars of the opposing positions are then added environmental, agronomic, economic and other arguments in support of or in opposition to the technology.
For example, one side says GM crops have higher intrinsic yields and/or greater pest-resistance. But even straightforward parameters like this that would seem easily measurable are the source of great controversy between the two sides.
And even in those cases where the anti-GM side were to reluctantly concede higher yields and/or greater pest resistance in a particular GM crop, they would still oppose the technology on the basis of the costs (environmental, financial, health, etc) at which those benefits were achieved. This is an example of how the argument can ostensibly start off being on strictly objective/quantifiable grounds, to then being more on philosophical/ideological grounds which are very difficult to referee or reconcile.
For the pro-GM side, even when they are not able to refute one or another concern of their critics about the technology, they are likewise simply not going to concede the validity of those concerns. Those concerns are either simply dismissed or downplayed.
Listening to both sides, one has no sense that there is any body of pro or con evidence of any type that could make either side change or even just modify their views. And yet keeping one's mind open to at least the possibility of changing one's position is one strong element of proof that the position is dependent on more than just 'faith.' Having an immutable faith may be considered a virtue in terms of religion, but it is difficult to see faith as being an acceptable basis for being pro or anti genetic modification. Yet this is the reality of the 'faith' of many people in regards to their support for or opposition against GM: they will hold on to their particular position almost regardless of what the 'evidence' shows because 'evidence' has little or nothing to do with why they hold that particular position.
How does all this affect the on-going debate about how best to achieve improved agricultural productivity and food security for Africa?
It does so by severely distorting Africa's ability to debate the issues and make decisions on what it decides is best for it. Africa's decision-making process is being unduly influenced either way by external agro, environmental, academic or corporate interests on either side. For Africa, on how this debate is settled rests the lives of millions of people. For these various external interests, their pro or anti passion is for reasons much further removed from what is in Africa's best agricultural and food interests.
For ideologues on either side, Africa provides a great testing ground for their beliefs and pet theories. Various donor organizations stake their very existence on "we are saving Africa" so there is turf to be passionately defended. 'Saving Africa' has become a lucrative, high-stakes and sometimes very cynical business. Those involved jealously defend whatever position their particular organization or interest group has locked itself into, regardless of whether that position is ultimately best for the claimed 'poor, helpless, starving' African beneficiaries or not.
Many academics, researchers and activists of various types far and near have earned themselves reputations for being 'Africa experts.' There are books, papers, project and grant proposals to be written peddling one's expertise on 'how to save Africa.' Once a particular position has been adopted, it must be defended at all costs. Data from the field on the workability or otherwise of a proposed intervention is not always analysed on its objective merits, but through the prism of whether it fits the pre-staked religious-ideological position or not.
The result has been thousands of 'projects' and 'expert recommendations' over the decades that often have very little to do with what Africa needs, and a lot to do with the interests of the various promoters. Even projects that have been good on paper and well-intentioned often flounder and fail to achieve the hoped for objective for the intended beneficiaries because the external 'experts' (who also hold the purse strings) have not been willing to adjust a project's written parameters to better suit the conditions on the ground.
Paul Collier, an Oxford University academic and one of the many 'Africa experts' that crawl out of Western institutions (curiously, no African is ever allowed to wear the mantle of 'Africa expert,' it must always be a Westerner) came out swinging against Charles' outburst with his own outburst. He argued that industrial agriculture and genetic engineering are particularly needed in Africa because of its pressing agricultural problems. A few weeks later David King, recently retired scientific advisor to the UK government, accused Western NGOs of keeping Africa poor by discouraging the uptake of modern agricultural techniques. He said they promote and effectively romanticise low-productivity subsistence traditional agriculture.
The NGOs who oppose most aspects of high-inputs modern agriculture and champion various types of low-inputs agriculture have not directly taken on their high-profile detractors, but their standard arguments are well known. These include the un-affordability of agro-chemicals for most small-scale farmers, their environmental effects and so on.
In the course of my work I am privileged to regularly visit farms of all types in various countries. Across Africa, a disheartening feature of small-scale farming is its back-breaking manual nature, the dependence on poor and declining soils with low use of organic or inorganic fertility enhancers. The farmers are disproportionately the old, as most of the young have flocked to the cities to look for mostly non-existent jobs. Women who have many other family and social responsibilities are the main tillers of the land. All these and countless other factors contribute to the sadly low output of African farming.
I am upset when I hear various types of 'experts' from afar grandly speak in categorical, simplistic terms about what 'The Solution' is to these complicated problems.
Hybrid seeds, fertilisers and other 'inputs' definitely help to dramatically increase yields. But for the decades that this has been known, no one has yet come up with an abiding model of how to consistently and affordably avail these inputs to the poorest farmers. Until such a model can be put into place, it is simply a waste of time for the many fat cats and bureaucrats in governments, research and teaching institutions and various other 'experts' to tout this as 'the solution' for Africa's agriculture as if there were a magic wand for achieving it.
Until such a model is finally in place, it is obvious that poor farmers can benefit greatly from simple interventions like how to increase their yields with a range of low-inputs techniques. They have the additional advantage of avoiding the environmental and economic costs of high-inputs agriculture. But don't tell me that 'the total solution' for the poor African farmer's soil fertility problems is the use of compost and manure! It would be great if sole dependence on these natural, environmentally-friendly soil-fertility enhancers were possible and realistic on a country-wide level, but it simply is not.
Here are just some of the reasons why it is absurd to think that they can be 'the solution' for Africa's agricultural productivity problems: Not everyone has animals, manure and compost are labour intensive, not everyone has the means to carry them to their fields and spread them, etc,. They are best suited to garden crops immediately around households, but they are extremely difficult to regularly, consistently apply for the fertilization of field crops like maize, millet or sorghum.
Natural fertilisers are great resource that should be encouraged even where synthetic fertilizers are used, but there are many situations where it is simply not practical to solely depend on them. And even when readily available, particularly for field crops, relieving the sheer exhausting drudgery and inefficiency of much of African farming will remain one strong incentive for the use of fertiliser when it is available and affordable.
When I hear someone condemn fertiliser as if it is an intrinsically 'evil' chemical, I immediately suspect the person is a well-paid NGO worker based in a cushy office somewhere, not someone whose livelihood depends on un-mechanised small scale rural farming.
So here is one example of why the 'either/or' stances of both sides are ridiculous. Hybrid seeds, agro-chemicals would greatly help African agricultural productivity, but they are way out of the range of reality for most African farmers. This can only be more so with GM crops, before we even tackle their many other controversies. On the other hand, 'natural' or agro-ecological farming has many benefits and is more accessible to small-scale farmers, but many aspects of it are also difficult to apply in many situations.
For me this abbreviated, simplified example of the pros and cons of both sides immediately suggests that it is necessary to evaluate each situation on its own merits, and to then make the best, most realistic compromise solution for that situation. That best solution might fail one or another test of ideological purity, but what we are trying to achieve is to get Africa to feed itself, not to neatly fulfil the pet theories of academics, NGOs, the World Bank, 'donors,' corporate interests or any others!
It is ridiculous that the ideologues of both sides of this debate pretend not to see the flaws along with the good points of the respective production models they champion. They sell their models to us as if we must adopt them 'whole' and unchanged, if we choose to adopt them at all. We are effectively told that if we do not also swear to adopt the ideological and other baggage that accompanies one or another intervention whose parts we think might serve our interest, we will burn in hell eternally! And perhaps even more scary, 'if you do not completely accept this model of your development that we are selling you, we will withhold donor aid from you!'
Oh boy, say that to pitifully donor-dependent Africa and we surrender and accept all kinds of crap models of 'development.'
The solutions required for Africa's agriculture problems are as many, nuanced and complex as the problems. It is neither desirable nor realistic to rigidly rule in or out any of the range of interventions that are available, but that are not necessarily easy to implement for a host of reasons.
What this means is that inevitably, a different range of farming solutions will be required for different parts of Africa. That range will depend on factors encompassing the economic, climatological, agronomic and many others.
Africa should beware of 'experts and saviours' with their own cynical agendas offering unrealistically, narrowly-packaged 'solutions' based on interests far removed from our welfare.