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Seedy research restriction / Global food security

1.A seedy restriction on research - Clive Cookson
2.GLOBAL FOOD SECURITY - Some thoughts for Hilary Benn, DEFRA and FSA - Dr Brian John

EXTRACT: The issue has so far received remarkably little public attention. Insect scientists are beginning to speak out against the restriction but many are afraid to do so because they rely on the companies to provide seeds for their research, SciAm says.

Imagine pharmaceutical companies trying to prevent medical researchers comparing patented drugs or investigating their side-effects - it is unthinkable. Yet scientists cannot independently examine raw materials in the food supply or investigate plants that cover a lot of rural America.
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1.A seedy restriction on research
Clive Cookson (Science Blog)
Financial Times, August 11 2009
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c548253a-860e-11de-98de-00144feabdc0.html

Leafing though the latest Scientific American, I am struck by an editorial attacking the agricultural biotechnology industry. Like the FT, SciAm believes genetically modified crops, used wisely, can improve farm productivity and reduce pollution - but the magazine is furious with their producers for allegedly stifling independent research into their products.

The problem is that Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta and the rest of the agbio industry impose user agreements that forbid use of the seeds for any independent research. Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails.

They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. Perhaps most importantly, they cannot examine whether the GM crops have unintended environmental side-effects. Only studies approved by the seed companies see the light of a peer-reviewed journal.

The issue has so far received remarkably little public attention. Insect scientists are beginning to speak out against the restriction but many are afraid to do so because they rely on the companies to provide seeds for their research, SciAm says.

Imagine pharmaceutical companies trying to prevent medical researchers comparing patented drugs or investigating their side-effects - it is unthinkable. Yet scientists cannot independently examine raw materials in the food supply or investigate plants that cover a lot of rural America.

SciAm calls on the agbio companies to remove immediately the research restriction from their end-user agreements. It also says the US Environmental Protection Agency should require, as a condition of approving new seeds, that independent researchers have unfettered access to all products on the market. As the magazine's editors say: "The agricultural revolution is too important to keep locked behind closed doors."

[Scientific American editorial here
http://www.gmwatch.org/component/content/article/11311-scientific-american-condemns-restrictions-on-gm-research ]
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2.GLOBAL FOOD SECURITY
Some thoughts for Hilary Benn, DEFRA and FSA

by Dr Brian John
12 August 2009

Hilary Benn seems to think that GM crops and foods in the future will help to feed the starving millions, and increase global food security.  One wonders where he gets this idea from, and whether he is really so naive as to believe it.  

For a start, real global food security in the future must be linked to diversity in food supplies, the maintenance of local food production for local food consumption (reducing food miles and holding up nutritional value), a large geographical spread in food production capacity, and local food sovereignty (1). There must also be inbuilt resilience, and a capacity to adapt quickly to the manifestations of global climate change.

Diversity and security of supply are linked together in the global food industry just as they are in the energy industry.  A food industry which is controlled by fewer and fewer corporations, using fewer and fewer staple crops which are ill-adapted to local circumstances, in which seed saving is not permitted, in which patents are claimed and awarded for traditional crop varieties, and which is dependent upon greater and greater inputs of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, is neither diverse nor secure.  It is simply unsustainable.  

And it is cynically self-serving and even monopolistic, suiting only the multinational biotechnology corporations and those countries which have adopted monocultures and the western industrialized style of agriculture.  To foist GM technology on nations that do not want it, do not need it, and cannot afford it, is simply to impose a new model of biotech colonialism or corporate feudalism.  The recent IAASTD Report saw all of this, and warned against it.  The UK Government signed up to the Report, and yet in its mad promotion of GM, it now appears to want to consign the Report to the scrap-heap.

The following points are expanded from recent submissions relating to the proposals for GM wheat.  The points are just as relevant for existing and future GM food crops as well:

1. Traditional versus GM foods?
Traditional food crops are vital for meeting the nutritional needs of many societies, and many of them have deep religious significance for the cultures that depend on them. The three staple crop plants (wheat, rice and maize) account for two-thirds of the diet of the world's population. Over centuries of cultivation, farmers have developed a tremendous diversity of varieties, many of which are adapted to the soil and climate conditions of certain regions of the world. These locally-bred varieties are critical to ensuring local food supplies during times of weather-related disasters, and in the future as we see the full effects of global warming. Farmers and public scientists have worked collectively with this diversity to develop varieties adapted to local conditions and suited to relevant markets.  

Multinational seed companies have played an insignificant role in fundamental seed development anywhere in the world.  If GM varieties are introduced on a large scale across the world, and replace traditional varieties,  there will be profound negative social and cultural effects, and global food security will be greatly diminished.

2. Where are the GM miracles?
The remarkable achievements in plant breeding that farmers and scientists have managed over generations have not involved genetic modification or patenting. While farmers and conventional breeders continue to lead the way in innovation, there are currently no genetically engineered traits in the pipeline that promise basic agronomic improvements. Salt-tolerant and drought-tolerant GM varieties have been promised for decades, and they have still not appeared. In reality, the only GM traits for which approval has been sought are for herbicide tolerance and for the production of toxins designed to kill certain plant pests. Neither of these two traits (HT or Bt) is designed to increase yields, but to simplify crop management.  In other words, GM is nothing more than a "convenience technology" designed to minimise farm labour requirements in an industrialised system of agriculture.  It contributes nothing to feeding the world

3.  Contamination and Control.
GM is a direct threat to global food security on the grounds that it can and does lead to contamination of seed varieties.  More than 10 years of experience with GM crops has exposed an ongoing record of high levels of irreversible contamination through cross-pollination and inadequate GM seed and harvest handling.  Coexistence is impossible. GM poses a decisive threat to organic farming, and also damages the production of literally thousands of crop varieties bred specifically for local conditions. Moreover, the introduction of GM staple crops would put the seed supply in the hands of a small number of multinational corporations, as has happened with the introduction of GM soybeans, GM maize and GM canola. During the recent food crisis, these companies used their oligopolistic positions to dramatically increase the prices of seeds and agrochemicals. Farmers planting conventional (non-GM) crops were less affected by these price increases because they were free to save seeds and had access to public varieties. Monsanto, the world's largest producer of GM seeds, increased its profits by 120% in 2008. It should also be noted that since the introduction of GM crops in 1996, the number of people going hungry in the world has ballooned from an estimated 800 million to over 1 billion.  There are signs that farmers who are "trapped" into GM crop production by "technology use agreements" have reached the limit of their tolerance with Monsanto and the other seed patent owners, and now plan to increase their acreages of wheat, barley and peas, crops for which there are no GM varieties and where plant breeding is primarily in the public sector. Monsanto brutally enforces its patents on GM seeds, and those farmers who grow them seem to operate in a climate of fear rather than mutual respect.

4.  Where are the yield increases?
There is no evidence to substantiate the claim that GM crop varieties increase yields, and it is now established that where there are apparent yield increases, those are down to conventionally bred traits which are packaged together with GM traits.  The "best" varieties are used for GM plant breeding, and their non-GM isolines are then cynically taken off the market by the corporations that own them and control the seed catalogues.  Seed merchants and seed catalogues have been bought up by the biotech corporations on a large scale, and thousands of good, locally-adapted seed varieties have been wiped off the catalogues as a part of the GM promotion strategy.  Consequently GM varieties developed in one environment are sold into many other environments for which they are ill-adapted; it is therefore not surprising that they under-perform.

5. High inputs, high costs.
Plant breeders and farmers in the West have for too long narrowly focused on economies of scale, ease of management, and higher yields. This has resulted in higher input costs and lower net income for farmers. Higher yields have come at a high cost economically, as well as environmentally, because high yielding crops tend to require more fertilizers and chemical inputs in a capital-intensive system of agriculture. Improved crop quality is more likely than bigger yields to provide higher realized net incomes for farmers. Higher quality food staples can be achieved efficiently and accessibly through conventional plant breeding, and this is where support for research needs to be concentrated.  The push for high-input, high-cost GM farming as a solution to global hunger issues is patently absurd, since it takes no account of the massive income inequalities that exist across the world.  Are Syngenta and Monsanto going to give their patented GM varieties away to the poor and the hungry?
You must be joking........

5. GM propaganda and scientific fraud.
Notwithstanding the propaganda of the biotech industry, genetic modification is a highly imprecise technology in which every breeding "success" is matched by many thousands of failures.   GM crops are inadequately regulated by governments that rely on corporate data rather than public, peer reviewed science. Scientific fraud is rife. Complex questions relating to the effects of GM crops on soil health, non-target insects, and human health remain understudied and effectively "blocked" by the GM patent holders. In February 2009, 26 top US corn scientists sent a statement to the US Environmental Protection Agency asserting that independent research is being thwarted by industry technology/stewardship agreements. Researchers simply cannot obtain the GM seed and reference materials that they need for their experiments. So corporate control over seeds is matched by continued scientific uncertainty. Additionally, research has indicated very strong public rejection of GM food. Commercial GM crops have so far been limited to crops used primarily for animal feed, oil and fibre and have thus not been subjected to national labelling requirements in many countries. After almost twenty years of GM hype, there is not a single GM food crop that is cheaper, safer, tastier, more nutritious, or more popular with the public than the good old-fashioned varieties created through conventional breeding.

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So WHY does Mr Benn, and the UK government, persist with this irrational and even bizarre belief that GM has something valuable to offer?  I think we probably all know the answer to that question..........

Brian John

Note:  (1)   Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food -- rather than the demands of markets and corporations -- at the heart of food systems and policies. It defends the interests and rights of generations to come.