Drought tolerant maize provides extra 9 months of food for farming families

Mexico City, Mexico (CIMMYT) — A new study from scientists with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) shows that drought tolerant (DT) maize varieties can provide farming families in Zimbabwe an extra 9 months of food at no additional cost. As climate change related weather events such as variable rainfall and drought continue to impact the southern African nation at an increasing rate, these varieties could provide a valuable safety net for farmers and consumers.

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European court sides with Italian farmer pushing GM crops

BRUSSELS—The European Union court ruled on Wednesday in favor of an Italian activist farmer who has defied his nation’s laws by planting genetically modified (GM) corn.

In Photo: In this August 10, 2010, photo, Giorgio Fidenato holds a raw ear of genetically modified yellow corn at his office in Pordenone, northern Italy. The European Union Court of Justice has ruled on Wednesday in favor of Italian activist farmer Fidenato.

Italy has prosecuted Giorgio Fidenato for cultivating the corn on his land, citing concerns the crops could endanger human health.

But the European Court of Justice ruled on Wednesday that a member-state, such as Italy, does not have the right to ban GM crops, given that there is no scientific reason for doing so. It noted the European Commission in 1998 authorized the use of the specific maize seeds Fidenato planted, finding “no reason to believe that that product would have any adverse effects on human health or theenvironment”.

Fidenato, whose fields lie in Pordenone, northeastern Italy, became persuaded of the benefits of genetically altered crops during a visit to the United States in the 1990s, seeing that they require fewer chemicals than traditional crops and produce higher yields and profits.

But he has faced huge opposition in Italy, where many are fearful that genetically altered foods are less natural than traditional crops and could be dangerous. He has faced both fines from the government and the wrath of anti-GM activists who have destroyed his crops.

The current case dates to 2013, when Italy asked the European Commission to adopt emergency measures prohibiting the planting of the seeds, which are produced by US company Monsanto, on the basis of Italian scientific studies.

But the commission disputed the Italian studies, citing a scientific opinion by the European Food Safety Authority that there was “no new science-based evidence” that the seeds could be dangerous.

The Italian government nonetheless went ahead with a decree prohibiting the cultivation of the corn, and prosecuted Fidenato and other farmers who planted their fields with the corn in defiance.

After the ruling Fidenato expressed satisfaction with the decision, saying he and the other farmers involved in the suit finally feel as if “justice is on our side”.

Image Credits: AP Photo/Paolo Giovannini, File

-Written by Associate Press and published in Business Mirror.  See original article link here.

China approves imports of GM crops from the US

China, the world’s largest importer of soybean, has approved importation of new varieties of GM crops from the U.S.

The demand for more soybeans increased in China over the past decade because of the rise in meat consumption in the country. Thus, more supply of soybean is needed to be used as animal feed.

Chinese officials will strive to speed up the assessment of the new varieties of GM crops from the U.S. which is part of a “100-day plan” to open up trade. Last year, China approved only one variety of GM crop for import. The agriculture ministry also renewed the approvals for import of 14 other GM crops including corn, sugar beet, and rapeseed, which will be valid for three years.

Read the original news from FT.com and Scoop.

-Published in ISAAA’s Crop Biotech Update.  See original article link here.

GM crops planted in 185M ha worldwide

 

Biotechnology experts have reported increased production in 2016 in a rebound from stymied production the previous year due to regulatory barriers and persistent resistance from environmentalists.

But they insisted that progress in production—both in yield per area and total farm area planted—has spared forest lands from being invaded for farm production and has sharply cut down chemical use in farms, a potential that they hope would draw sharp interest from producers and governments.

Not only was 2016 noted for a rebound in biotechnology crop production, it also marked a spike in global production of genetically modified (GM) crops in the last two decades, and got more countries to adapt it, according to Dr. Paul S. Teng, chairman of the board of trustees of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application (Isaaa).

Last year Isaaa has noted that biotech crops were planted in 185.1 million hectares in 26 countries, which involved 18 million farmers.

“This is the fastest adapted crop technology in recent times,” the group said, citing the dominance of the developing world in the number of countries planting the GM crops.

Three developing nations—Brazil, Argentina and India—landed in the top five, with the US leading the list with its 72.9 million hectares, and Canada on the fourth spot.

The potential for wider global adaption of biotechnology would largely hinge on governments confronting the increasing urgency to find food for their people as lands remain constant and population kept multiplying.

To increase production yield per acre or per hectare of area would be likely a current arena, “even if you start with the hybrid variety”, Teng said.

Philippines top biotech grower in SEA

In the Philippines, Teng said the area planted to GM corn, for instance, has increased 16 percent to 812,000 hectares “as the country remains to be the top grower of biotech or GM crops in Southeast Asia”.

The Philippines ranked 12th as global producer of the GM corn today after it was also the first country in Southeast Asia to plant the crop in 2003, he added. The Philippine government approved its commercial production a year earlier.

The increase in area planted to corn was equivalent to 110,000 hectares, the Isaaa said.

GM corn is the leading GM crop in the country that is already being produced commercially. Three other crops are in their research and development stages. These are the stem borer-resistant Bacillus thuringiensis eggplant, ringspot virus-resistant and delayed ripening papaya and the fortified beta-carotene golden rice.

The progression in commercial production of GM corn was ascribed to “favorable weather conditions and high local demand for livestock and feed stocks”.

The increase is also reflected in the adaption by more farmers “mainly because of better income compared to non-GM corn,” Teng added. The increase though, was slight, at 65 percent for some 406,000 farmers.

What was significant in this number of farmers, he said, was that they average 2 hectares, a size common among small “resource-poor” Filipino farmers.

The Isaaa 2016 report, which was launched in Beijing, China, early this month, said Filipino farmers earned $642 million in the period 2003 to 2015. For 2015 alone, the GM-corn planters earned $82 million. The increase in hectarage and production was accounted by the 13 approvals granted by local governments for the cultivation of GM corn.

Challenge for poor regions

Although the developing world accounts for the big number of countries adapting biotechnology, the challenge was to increase its planting to, and yield per area, on crops that they heavily import from the developed economies.

Asia, for instance, which appears consistently green in any color-coded food production map, imports heavily on soybean from countries with minimal agriculture area but are known for high yields per farm area.

The potential to catch up and cut down on imports, is emerging for the developing, or poor, regions of the world. As of 2016 there were 19 countries in the poor region adapting biotechnology, although many of them raise GM crops for food, feeds and processing, unlike Chile and Costa Rica in South America that were growing modified crops already for export.

While countries were also adapting hybrid varieties of their food crops, Teng said this may provide the step closer to adapting biotechnology, which he said “should not be clouded in fear over their effects on the environment and human health”.

Isaaa noted that countries using biotechnology for farm production were adapting to the demands of their other food sectors, such as livestock. Brazil, it said, currently the largest GM crop-producing country among developing economies, may still raise its GM-maize production, as it expects its pork- and livestock-industry expands to meet the consuming market.

The regulatory barriers put up against GM crops has pulled back production through years, and Isaaa said there had been successes in some countries, including the Philippines, which has formed a four-Cabinet level interagency regulatory body.

Dr. Vivencio R. Mamaril, acting director of the Bureau of Plant Industry, said that while this interagency body may help bring into one body the diverse issues raised against biotechnology crops, “their diverse concerns, too, could be confusing and disconnected”.

He suggested that in the case of the Philippines, “government agencies, including Congress, should establish regulations now to avoid getting preempted by the entry of GM crops, especially during the Christmas season”.

“Government should be prepared this early to handle issues like entry of GM crops,” he said.

Game changer

While the current production of GM crops is described as stymied due to regulatory barriers and ineffective responses to environment and health issues, the Isaaa said biotechnology adaption in the food production has already contributed a lot to biodiversity, better environment and livelihood to rural families.

It said the increase in crop yield per specific area compared to hybrid and traditional crop varieties earned for small farmers $167.8 billion between 1996 and 2015.

Teng said biotechnology has been contributing to the search by governments to find much higher yields per hectare and, by consequence, avoid the opening up of forest lands for farm cultivation.

In the period 2006 to 2016, the world saved 174 million hectares of forest lands from ploughing and cultivation because of the increased yield per acre or hectare of existing farm lands.

Teng added the GM crops were being developed to address specific diseases of commonly used crops, vegetables and fruits that have reduced the yields of these food items. These include the resistance of eggplants to stem borers, potatoes and apples to browning and papaya to ringspot virus.

In turn, he said, farmers have discarded expensive pesticides and saved a lot of farm income.

But the bigger beneficiary here is the environment, Teng said. The Isaaa report reveals a decline by 19 percent in the use of insecticides and herbicides, equivalent to 620 million kilograms of active ingredients of these chemicals.

And much more, he added, as fewer incidents of felled forest trees and applications of fossil fuels in chemical inputs helped the world prevent destructive carbon dioxide emissions estimated at 26.7 billion kilograms.

“It is equivalent to taking 11.9 million cars of the road for one year,” the Isaa added.

The more important also, Teng said, citing the Isaaa report, the better production yield and less use of chemical inputs have helped 18 million small farmers and their families.

“Its impact would cover an estimated 65 million people living in the poorest regions,” he said.

The Isaaa added that innovations still coming in would “revolutionize the development of new biotech crops and traits” and described this trend the “game changer” in the third decade of planting and commercialization of the GM crops.

-Written by Manuel Cayon in BusinessMirror.  See original article link here.

Image Credits: Lyn Resurreccion

China to evaluate U.S. agricultural biotechnology product

Under the new deal, China’s National Biosafety Committee will meet to assess the safety of eight products made by four major U.S. agrochemical companies.

China will evaluate eight pending U.S. agricultural biotechnology product applications, potentially opening the door for sales by Dow AgroSciences, DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto, and Syngenta.

According to a news source, China agreed to conduct the evaluations as part of an agreement unveiled by the White House on May 12. The two countries reached the trade deal after a meeting in April between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

U.S. officials have prodded China for years to speed up its lengthy process for deciding whether to approve the import of new genetically modified (GM) crops. It typically takes six years to win Chinese clearance of a GM variety, twice as long as other major nations take.

Under the new deal, China’s National Biosafety Committee will meet to assess the safety of eight products made by four major U.S. agrochemical companies.

Dow AgroSciences is seeking approval for its corn and soybean seeds, while Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer have each applied to sell a GM corn variety in China. Monsanto makes four of the products pending approval, including herbicide-tolerant corn, soybeans, and two alfalfa varieties that have been under review for nearly six years.

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), an industry trade group, wants to make sure China lives up to its commitment.

“The ultimate test of success will be for China to follow its process and quickly approve the eight pending biotechnology applications and establish a synchronized, timely, and predictable process going forward,” says Joseph Damond, senior vice president for international affairs at BIO.

Published in BioSpectrum India.  See original article link here.

Use of high-yielding GM varieties will allow farmers to export corn

The government should promote the use of higher-yielding genetically modified (GM) seed varieties to boost corn output and enable farmers to export, according to an executive of Monsanto Philippines Inc. (MPI).

MPI Country Commercial Lead Rachelle Lomibao said expanding the use of modern technology will help the government achieve its goal of exporting corn in the near future.

“If you just increase the yield average per hectare then you don’t have to increase the number of hectares to be planted with corn. You just increase productivity per hectare and that’s not impossible,” Lomibao told the BusinessMirror on the sidelines of the company’s media launch of a new hybrid corn seed variety on Monday.

However, the MPI executive said the use of hybrid-corn seed varieties alone is not enough to turn the Philippines’s dream of exporting the crop into a reality.

“It’s not just about the seeds; it has to be accompanied by a lot of factors: fertilization, right agronomic practices, right management of water and right management of diseases and pests,” Lomibao said.

The Department of Agriculture (DA) earlier said the Philippines will achieve a “historic feat” this year by exporting corn due to a surplus in output.

However, Lomibao said she doesn’t see this happening this year.

“We may not be able to export this year due to the gap between the supply and demand,” she said.

Latest data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) showed that the country’s self-sufficiency ratio on corn declined to 91.35 percent in 2015, from 93.12 percent
recorded in 2014.

On Monday MPI rolled out Dekalb 6999S, a hybrid corn seed variety, which has a potential yield of 13.6 metric tons per hectare (MT/ha), more than triple than the country’s average yield of 4 MT/ha.

“Based on our trials it has a potential yield of as much as 13.6 MT/ha. This variety can be used both for wet and dry seasons,” MPI Marketing Lead Pam Valenzuela told reporters in a news briefing on Monday.

“This variety is what we need to reduce the gap between what is currently being produced and the demand,” Valenzuela added.

Dekalb 6999S contains Genuity, a Monsanto trait technology that makes the crop resistant to pests, such as corn borer, earworm and cutworm, according to MPI. MPI also said its latest product is protected against weeds due to its Round Up Ready component.

When asked if the MPI’s latest seed variety could withstand extreme weather condition such as drought, Lomibao said, “it will thrive.”

“Dekalb has been known to have a germplasm that is really resilient against drought. Our previous variety the Dekalb 6919 survived when planted during the last time we had El Niño,” she said.

“The germplasm, which is drought-tolerant used in 6919, is the same with that of Dekalb 6999S. We are confident that with Dekalb 6999s farmers can still be accorded with an optimum yield through our hybrid [seeds],” she added.

Lomibao also disclosed that there are several hybrid corn seed varieties currently in the pipeline.

-Written by Jasper Y. Aracalas in BusinessMirror.  See original article link here.

Jasper Emmanuel Y. Arcalas is a graduate of the UST Journalism School (Batch 2016). He currently covers agribusiness for the BusinessMirror. He joined the news outfit in August 2016.

Agricultural biotechnology crucial for feeding world population

Crop production science and innovation led to new technologies that averted a predicted global starvation catastrophe – By Murray McLaughlin

Sarnia – It took until 1800 for the world population to reach one billion people. The second billion was reached in only 130 years (1930), the third billion in less than 30 years (1959), the fourth billion in 15 years (1974) and the fifth billion in only 13 years (1987).

During the 20th century alone, the global population grew from 1.6 billion to over six billion people.

In 1970, there were roughly half as many people in the world as there are today.

In The Population Bomb (1968), Paul Ehrlich writes: “The world, especially the developing world, is rapidly running out of food … in fact the battle to feed humanity is already lost in the sense that we will not be able to prevent large-scale famine in the next decade or so.”

How was this global starvation catastrophe averted?

One element high on the list is innovation. Crop production science and innovation led to new technologies that produce more per acre and more per crop inputs.

Dr. Norman Borlaug was an American agronomist known as “the father of the Green Revolution.” Borlaug developed new varieties of wheat that were planted around the world and had tremendous yield responses. His approach was adopted by other scientists to improve other crops. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply. Borlaug is often credited with saving over a billion people from starvation.

With new technologies based on Borlaug’s research, the successes continue. Biotechnology is a new set of tools that enhance crop breeding for new plant traits. Products from biotechnology have shown tremendous improvement since first provided to farmers in 1995. Biotech-bred crops allow farmers to reduce pesticide use, and improve quality and yields with reduced input costs. Biotech-enhanced crops are now grown by 18 million farmers, most of them in developing countries.

In Canada, corn, soybeans and canola are grown using biotechnology (often referred to as genetically-modified organisms or GMOs). All are designed to reduce pesticide use while improving yields. In 1940, corn varieties yielded 25 to 40 bushels per acre. Now, with hybrids and biotechnology, yields are typically 150 to 200 bushels per acre.

GMOs have helped Canadian farmers manage production costs, increase yields and provide safe, nutritious food to the world’s consumers. There is tremendous experience and knowledge about the safety and benefits of GMO crops, based on years of development, testing and production.

The predictions of major hazards, by critics of GMO, have not materialized. GMO crops have played a vital role in improving world agricultural food production per capita. And this will be an ongoing need as the world’s population heads to 10 billion people later this century.

Biotechnology in agriculture production should be embraced the same way we have embraced innovation in medicine, transportation, communication and any number of other sectors. Biotechnology will continue to help reduce global poverty.

We need more people like Borlaug. Through research, science and innovation, he helped ensure we have the necessary tools for a healthy future. Biotechnology will be an important part of that future.

Dr. Murray McLaughlin is an adviser to and former executive director of Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, based in Sarnia, Ont., and a former Saskatchewan deputy minister of agriculture.

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GMOs, food and pesticides 101: No chemical “flood” and yields are rising

Has the growing of GMOs led to a “flood” of pesticide use as critics contend?

You see such claims rampant on advocacy sites. “Herbicide and Insecticide Use on GMO Crops Is Skyrocketing, and Rubber-Stamped Approvals Now Usher in Next-Gen GMOs,” screams a headline on natural product huckster Joseph Mercola’s eponymous website. Such statements are a staple during GMO labeling ballot initiatives–and they are effective. Who would want to embrace an innovation if it ended up doing more harm than good.

That’s just not what the data show. Moreover, the single minded obsession–focusing on pesticides as having the most environmental impact in modern agriculture misses the big picture and distracts from tackling far more serious ecological challenges.

Opposition by environmental groups to recent USDA approvals of new herbicide tolerant biotech crops underlines a strange aspect to the debates about how to lower the environmental impact of agriculture. Earlier this year, Food and Water Watch predictably came out againstMonsanto’s new glyphosate and dicamba tolerant soybeans, claiming that it would lead to more resistant weeds and massive problems with pesticide drift.

This approval follows that of 2,4-D tolerant soybeans and corn, billed as the next generation of herbicide-tolerant crops to tackle glyphosate (Roundup)-resistant weeds. Dicamba-tolerant soy and cotton are simply the latest example of USDA’s allegiance to the biotechnology industry and dependence upon chemical solutions. This continues the disturbing trend of more herbicide-tolerant crop approvals taking place under President Obama’s watch.

In 2014, the Environmental Working Group warned the nation that hundreds of thousands of American school children would newly be at risk to a toxic weed killer.

There are 5,532 American schools within 200 feet of farm fields that may soon be blanketed with massive amounts of a toxic defoliant linked to Parkinson’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and reproductive and immune system problems.

That’s the finding of a new EWG analysis that shows that hundreds of thousands of children across the country will be at risk of increased exposure to the harmful chemical compound 2,4-D if the Environmental Protection Agency approves a new weed killer mixture called “Enlist DuoTM” created by Dow AgroSciences (a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical Co.).

That apparently doesn’t worry the EPA. But if these rural schools were full of plants rather than children, the agency would be concerned.

(Andrew Kniss, Associate Professor, Weed Biology & Ecology at the University of Wyoming, took a look at the claims about drift for dicamba and 2,4-D and the risks to schoolchildren — they don’t really hold up.)

The big thing that stands out in the debate between advocates of technologically progressive agriculture and the opponents of technological agriculture is the persistence of the idea that the use of pesticides is still a major problem, if not the central environmental impact of agriculture, that needs to be addressed. This is unfortunate. It’s just not accurate. It’s a cul-de-sac in the discussion about how to improve the environmental footprint of agriculture. It’s a distraction from the addressing the major environmental impacts.

Curing the chemical hangover of the post-war era

The disconnect mostly comes from the chemical hangover from the unfortunate excesses of industry during the 1950s, 60s and into the 1970s. DDT, PCB’s, a raft of dangerous food colorings and additivespulled from the market, Love Canal and similar incidents left people with the unshakeable feeling that everything causes cancer and technological progress might be more trouble than it’s worth.  People have a much better handle on that dismal chapter of history than they have on the reforms and innovation that came after. With creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air and Water Acts, regulation has become much tighter. Meanwhile, scientists began working in earnest to create pesticides that were more effective, while making less impacts where they weren’t supposed to. Environmental watchdog groups have worked hard to make sure that they do.

There are other reasons for the disconnect. There is a notable lack of incentives for both environmental groups and agri-chemical companies to trumpet the progress that’s been made in lowering the toxicity and reducing the collateral damage of pesticides. Another source of disconnect is the way organic farming has been marketed or perceived, falsely, as pesticide free. Pesticides as an environmental impact are often played up by organic advocates and advertisers as a way of highlighting the alleged benefits of organic agriculture.

All of these threads have come together to make a widespread lack of understanding about how modern pesticides are much safer and less toxic than earlier generation chemicals. Many pesticides have been banned in recent decades and those that have been approved are much more targeted in the way that they work. Following the uproar over DDT (deserved or not), scientists have made degradibility a central priority, so today’s pesticides are far less persistent in the environment. We’ll get to all that, but let’s start by laying out the major impacts of agriculture.

Agriculture’s biggest impacts

The discrepancy between the actual environmental impact of pesticides versus how they are perceived was brought home last summer with the publication of “Leverage points for improving global food security and the environment” in the journal Science by a group of University of Minnesota scientists. What’s the sustainability picture?

research_reports

The environmental impacts highlighted include water use and irrigation; nutrient leaching and eutrophication due to excess nitrogen and phosphorus; land use, especially tropical deforestation; and greenhouse gases, especially N2O but also carbon and methane. If you look at the research on the environmental impacts of food production by researchers like geophysicist Gidon Eshel of Bard College (Michael Pollan’s go-to source on these matters) you will find a similar set of concerns and the same absence of pesticides as an environmental concern.

When you really dig into the research on the hierarchy of ecological impacts, pesticides represent a drop in the sustainability bucket when compared to land use, water use, pollution and greenhouse gases. In fact, it may seem counter-intuitive but, pesticides can play a substantial role in mitigating the damage associated with many of those other factors. Pesticides allow for us to grow more food on less land, limit the wasting of fuel and water, and help curb erosion and run-off.

In conversations however, I continually find myself engaging people promoting practices that result in major compromises on land and water use, water pollution and greenhouse gases in exchange for the potential to decrease pesticide use. This is getting the calculations and priorities on environmental impacts exactly backwards.

What you should know about pesticide use in 2016

What’s changed about pesticide use since Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic book that ignited people’s concerns about the environmental downsides of pesticides? It’s true that pesticides, when misused, still pose risks to farm workers, and a few pretty nasty pesticides are still in use. For instance, chlorpyrifos, an insecticide has been linked to developmental issues in the children of farm workers. Methyl bromide, a soil fumigant has been linked to ozone depletion and cancer risk for farm workers * These are important challenges, but their use is decreasing while the use of more targeted and less toxic chemicals steadily increases.

Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate insecticide, perhaps the most problematic class of pesticides. Organophosphates are nerve agents, and the way they kill bugs also works on animals and humans. The good news is that the use of organophosphates has been steadily declining over the past three decades as this chart in Science shows.

getting-safer

In the last few years, agriculture expert and writer Steve Savage has done great work breaking down common misconceptions about pesticide use. In a post using the California grape industry as a typical example, he shows how the profile of pesticide use has dramatically improved over the years. Contrary to campaigns by environmental groups and anti-GMO activists that talk about a “flood” of “toxic pesticides” unleashed since the beginning of the biotech era, the data show usage shifting dramatically away from Category II (moderately toxic) and Class III (slightly toxic) towards Category IV (practically non-toxic) and the almost complete abandonment of Class I (highly toxic) pesticides.

trends

This pattern is repeated across almost all grain, fruit and vegetable farming. In another post putting pesticide use into greater context, Savage shares two key charts.

california-pesticide

The chart above underscores that today’s most prevalent pesticides are relatively benign from a human health perspective: more than 60% of the pesticides used in California are classified as Category IV (relatively non-toxic) and another 20% are Category III (slightly toxic).

Savage goes on to compare the amount of pesticides used in California in relation to the toxicity of substances that we popularly consider safe or even good for us.

relative-toxicity

Nearly all the pesticides used in California are less toxic than caffeine or aspirin, with only 3% by acreage more dangerous than your favorite morning pick-me-up or your favorite pain reliever. More than half are less toxic by weight than vitamin C.

What drives the perception disconnect?

Savage also lays out the interesting story about what has contributed to the reduction in pesticide use and what forces are in place conspiring to keep these achievements something of a public secret. It’s worth quoting at length.

  • The Environmental Movement: becoming visible after the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962, a broad coalition of NGOs, politicians and academics drove the awareness and impetus for the creation of regulatory bodies such as the EPA (est. 1970) which began to regulate pesticides. In a variety of ways these groups have continued to be an important voice that puts pressure on regulators to deal with additional issues as they arise through advances in the sciences of human and environmental toxicology. However, you won’t hear these groups talking about how much things have improved. They tend to focus on the next issue rather than on past progress, even if they could take some real credit along with the rest of the “team.”
  • The Major AgroChemical Companies: These players have been investing hundreds of billions of dollars over decades to discover, evaluate, and commercialize new pesticide options. Their search has been for products that work better, which are more selective, and which can meet ever more sophisticated health and environmental standards. Without this investment, between pest resistance development, new pests and regulatory constraints, farmers would never have been able to accomplish the sort of productivity gains that have been seen. These players are actually constrained by the EPA from talking about new products as being safer than the older ones. They also usually have a mixed portfolio of newer and older products. Besides, in an anti-business climate their messaging is typically ignored.
  • Government Regulators: If you step back and look at what agencies like the US EPA have accomplished over the decades, it is rather impressive. On the whole, the EPA has done its job in a way that is science-based and free from excessive political influence. As is probably the fate of any such regulator, the various “sides” on issues are all going to be unhappy with something about your decisions or bureaucratic procedures. Honestly, the EPA does not seem to have the skill or orientation for public promotion of what they have achieved (although this summary is pretty good). In any case the political Right tends to want to get rid of the agency, and the Progressive Left seems to think that they have all been “bought-off.” I have some direct experience with EPA staffers and a window on their process through friends who serve on advisory panels. This system isn’t perfect, but it deserves a great deal more respect than it gets.

Pesticide use commands inordinate attention from the general public because they are seen as “unknown” and “scary”. The fears play into the well known inability of humans to to distinguish harm from risk. Even the mere mention of the word “chemical” can touch off an extreme psychological and irrational reaction. Yet most fears are simple run of the mill chemophobia. Synthetic chemicals are automatically considered more harmful than natural chemicals, although synthetics are often specifically developed to be better targeted and less toxic. The general public tends to think just the opposite–the “natural fallacy”.

It’s the same reason we fear shark attacks more than slipping in the shower or driving when tipsy despite the fact that our bathrooms and drinking and driving are thousands of times more treacherous than swimming in the ocean. As consumers we are almost completely insulated from any serious health risks when it comes to pesticides. The residue levels in food, based on decades of empirical data, is mostly infinitesimal, and dropping.

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 4.28.55 PMChemophobia has been used as a major wedge among agriculture warriors, used as a political football in the culture war between organic and conventional agriculture. Pesticide use, while not absent from organic farming, is perceived as the most visible difference that sets organic apart. It’s a perceived sustainability advantage (but not really, in fact). When you dig below the surface at the organic impact of various farming types, however, organics fairs less well. On concerns like carbon, methane, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, organic farming is less sustainable. Thus, much is made about synthetic pesticides, despite their relatively minor environmental impacts.

How biotech crops have impacted pesticide use

Insect resistant crops, corn and cotton that produces produce proteins toxic to pests, have been pivotal in reducing insecticide. While that impact is well documented, it’s less well known. Here’s the most recent USDA report on the issue:

Farmers generally use less insecticide when they plant Bt corn and Bt cotton. Corn insecticide use by both GE seed adopters and nonadopters has decreased—only 9 percent of all U.S. corn farmers used insecticides in 2010. Insecticide use on corn farms declined from 0.21 pound per planted acre in 1995 to 0.02 pound in 2010. This is consistent with the steady decline in European corn borer populations over the last decade that has been shown to be a direct result of Bt adoption.

insecticide-use

Even farmers who didn’t adopt Bt corn benefited from the reduction in pests
Borrowing again from the infographic from Science, we can see how the use of soil applied insecticides plummeted as Bt corn planting became more widespread .

bt-uptake

Here’s use in corn broken out by insecticide.

insecticeide-way

The decrease is due to the effectiveness of Bt crops as well as a virtuous cycle, notesGrist food and agriculture writer Nathanael Johnson:

When I started asking about environmental effects, several experts who take a critical view of GMOs pointed me to an entomologist at the University of Arizona named Bruce Tabashnik. Yet Tabashnik was surprisingly upbeat: So far, he said, insect-resistant plants have been a clear win for the environment. “Because of them, we’re running the pesticide treadmill in reverse,” he said.

The pesticide treadmill describes a problem that consistently occurs in agriculture. It goes like this: Eventually, insects evolve resistance to an insecticide, so the farmer starts using more sprays or something more toxic. But this can kill all the critters in the fields — not just the pests, but also the predators that eat the pests. Then the problem gets much worse. As time passes the farmer becomes more and more dependent on chemicals as the only means of pest control, using larger amounts, or more severe poisons, and getting less benefit.

But transgenic insect-resistant crops have turned this process around, Tabashnik says. These plants produce proteins from a widespread bacterium known as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) that only harm a narrow set of insects. Bt itself is widely used as an insecticide, mostly by organic farmers. Because the Bt-producing crops kill some key pests, farmers spray less insecticide to control those pests. This allows beneficial insects to survive. With more insect predators there’s less need for insecticides, and when farmers do spray, the insecticides work better.

The link between Bt crops and the decrease in insecticide use is unequivocal. The numbers on herbicide use are less dramatic and the picture less stark–until you dig deeper. Glyphosate use has increased and total pounds of herbicides are up a little or down a little depending on what data is cited. But the real story is the the most toxic herbicides  have fallen by the wayside.

Let’s take a look at the second and third most popular herbicides from the pre-biotech era. Prior to 1996, alachlor was the second most popular herbicide after atrazine. Alachlor is banned in Europe and strictly regulated in Australia. It presents some health risk to humans.

use-by

The third most heavily used herbicide prior to 1996 was cynazine, basically atrazine plus cynanide. it was an herbicide that caused birth defects in animals. It has disappeared from the market without a ban from the EPA.

use-by-year

So, the odd thing is that even though preservation of soil is a major goal of the Environmental Working Group and clean water is a major goal of Food and Water Watch, both groups put a lot of time and energy into opposing pesticides and biotech crops when biotech crops have helped to improve the profile and impact of pesticide use, while improving soil conservation. The role that glyphosate and other herbicide tolerant crops have played in the adoption of conservation tillage should be something both groups could get behind. Conservation tillage reduces erosion, water use, and fertilizer run-off. Those are all big ticket environmental impacts, made possible in many cases by an herbicide that with a lower toxicity than table salt, and applied fairly sparingly. Just between corn and soybeans, we are talking about 100-150 million acres of conservation tillage.

adopters

Pesticides in a world of trade offs

There is still room for improvement. Pesticides do get misused, especially in developing countries without strong regulations and little public spending on ag education and training. They can harm wildlife and pollinators. Farm workers need stronger protection.

But the single minded focus by many on pesticides ignores that we live in a world of trade offs and producing the most food on the least amount of land, with the least amount of water, the least amount of erosion, the least amount of fertilizer runoff, and the least amount of greenhouse gases is a larger, more important set of goals. Those goals can often best be advanced through smart use of some fairly non-toxic tools.

* Use of methyl bromide in the U.S. is currently only allowed in strawberry production under an “critical use” exemption to the Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion. That exemption ends in 2017.

-Written by Marc Brazeau in Genetic Literacy Project.  See article link here.  Marc Brazeau is an independent food and agricultural writer.  He blogs at Food and Farm Discussion Lab. Follow Marc on Twitter @realfoodorg.

Facing Climate Change, Tanzania Can’t Afford to Fear GM Crops

LAST WEEK, TANZANIA planted its first ever genetically modified crop—a drought-resistant white corn hybrid. Government researchers will spend the next two to three years monitoring the plants for safety and effectiveness at growing in perilously dry conditions. It’s a notable milestone, given the nation’s longstanding lack of enthusiasm towards biotechnology. But as much as Tanzania’s turnaround is unique to its particular politics, history and culture, it’s also part of a quiet regulatory reversal in Africa. Other countries facing climate change-fueled food insecurity are beginning to bet on biotech.

Until last year, Tanzania was a very difficult place to even think about owning a genetically modified crop product, let alone growing one. Under a “strict liability” law adopted in 2009, anyone involved with importing, moving, storing or using GM products could be sued if someone else claimed the product caused them harm or loss. And that broad definition went beyond personal, it included environmental damage. Effectively, it was a regulatory blockade.

“Tanzania has been a nightmare, with that strict liability clause,” says microbiologist Jennifer Thompson, who is on the board of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. “Until last year we had never bothered to apply for field trials there because we knew it was such a lost cause.” AATF manages the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, which developed the GM maize (another word for corn) hybrid for Tanzania.

The repeal’s timing was no coincidence. In the last 18 months, unusually high temperatures and a brutal El Niño have punished many parts of Africa with drought. Ethiopia, 400 miles to the North of Tanzania is currently experiencing its worst water shortage in 30 years. South Africa just emerged from its worst drought since 1904. According to the World Health Organization, at least 30 million people in Southern and Eastern Africa will be affected by the water shortages this year.

It is in this context that nations like Tanzania are rethinking their GM food crops positions. Maize is the main food source for one out of every four Africans, and droughts hit it hard. While WEMA has also been developing and distributing non-GM drought-resistant hybrids, so far they have proved to be less efficient than the engineered version. At present only South Africa, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Sudan grow GM crops commercially, but that is likely to change in the next few years.

In January and March of this year (respectively), Malawi approved confined field trials for insect-resistant cowpea and a genetically modified banana being evaluated for resistance against the Bunchy Top Virus that decimated banana crops in the region last year. Uganda also approved field trials of a cooking banana variety engineered with Banana Bacterial Wilt resistance in March. Kenya granted a conditional approval for Bt maize performance trials in February.

“It’s really exciting, because until the crop is in the ground this is all just talk,” says Pam Ronald, a plant geneticist at UC Davis whose own work with flood-resistant rice resulted in a variety now being grown by 5 million farmers in India and Bangladesh. “Farming everywhere in the world is empirical. But you can’t see how useful something is until it’s actually in a field somewhere. And that takes leadership that is going to make decisions based on science and the needs of farmers rather than an abstract ideology imported in from developed countries.”

She’s talking about the EU, and its hard line stance against GM crops. That imported ideology gets promoted by opposition groups backed by European dollars; The Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity, the country’s loudest opponent of GMOs is comprised of 19 partner organizations, 11 with roots in Europe. Economics play a role, too. Trade laws allow EU countries to ban cultivation of GMO crops within their borders (would you want to grow something other people won’t eat?).

Also in less overt ways. When talented Tanzanians leave their homes to access higher education abroad, they leave a void in homegrown biotechnology. As of 2015, Tanzania’s top academic institution had fewer than 20 staff with backgrounds in the agricultural sciences and only one staff member in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (according to its website). In that research vacuum, multinational corporations come in as Plan B.

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (a partner organization of the Tanzanian Alliance for Biodiversity) is opposed to the GM trials. “There are many other ways that Tanzania can produce its own food,” wrote Million Belay, an organizer for the Alliance. Data seems to prove otherwise: According to the FAO, 32 percent of Tanzanians are currently undernourished. And in a country where 80 percent of the population are subsistence farmers, that implies that millions of people are not able to grow enough food to feed themselves.

Philbert Nyinondi understands why so many Tanzanians might be distrustful of GM crops. As his country’s coordinator for the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology, he has been traveling Tanzania for the last few years (no easy feat—it’s twice as big as California!) talking to farmers and organizing workshops with local leaders and policy-makers about bringing the benefits of biotechnology to their farm fields. “With a controversial topic like GM, one will not simply trust a text message or a statement heard on the radio, especially when it goes against people he or she has been working with over the years who are against the technology,” he says. “We have the strongest base of GM opponents in the East Africa region. Unless you physically reach out to communities to present a case, you cannot push past challenges like the low levels of scientific understanding among the general public.”

Which is why he believes this new maize is so important. Yes, Monsanto donated the drought-tolerant genetic traits to the project. But with a royalty-free licensing agreement in place, the drought-resistant corn, like all WEMA maize hybrids, was developed specifically to suit local conditions and will be made available to smallholder farmers through local seed companies at an affordable price—pending successful trials. That’s as close to a homegrown GM crop as anything else that’s ready in Africa right now. And it’s this convergence of local GM solutions coming online at a time when climate change impacts are really starting to be felt on a daily basis that has tilted the balance of power away from the luxury of caution and toward the urgency of feeding not 9 billion people by 2050, but millions of people now.

And it’s also important to not trivialize the weight of history here; if you’d spent hundreds of years having white people showing up in your country telling you what gods to believe in, what clothes to wear, and yeah, what crops to plant (not to mention slavery, genocide, and warmongering), you’d be wary too.

-Written by Mega Molteni in Wired.  See article link here.

Confined field trial of GM maize MON810 starts in Vietnam

The Agricultural Genetics Institute of Vietnam and Pioneer Hi-Bred Vietnam Company Ltd. cultivated seeds of GM maize event MON810 for confined trial on March 17, 2016 in Van Giang district, Hung Yen province. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development approved the trials in January 2016.

Representatives from different agencies were present during the start of the confined field trials, including Department of Biodiversity Conservation (Vietnam Environment Administration, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment); Department of Science, Technology and Environment (MARD); Biosafety Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development; Department of Agriculture and Rural Development of Hung Yen Province, Divisions of Agriculture and Rural Development, Natural Resources and Environment and Experimental Station of Van Giang district.

GM maize MON810 has improved trait to resist attacks of corn borer. MON810 seeds were planted on 1,368.4 square meters of land at the Van Giang Experimental Station, Lien Nghia commune, Van Giang district, Hung Yen province.

The original article in Vietnamese is available at the Vietnan BCH Portal.

-This article is published in ISAAA Global Knowledge Center’s CropBiotech Update.  See article link here.