The whole paradigm of the genetic engineering technology is based on a misunderstanding

 Vancouver Sun April 29, 2013

Dr. Thierry Vrain Courtenay

 [ re:  Genetically modified food is welcome innovation by Lorne Hepworth President, CropLife Canada

I retired 10 years ago after a long career as a research scientist for Agriculture Canada. When I was on the payroll, I was the designated scientist of my institute to address public groups and reassure them that genetically engineered crops and foods were safe.

I don’t know if I was passionate about it but I was knowledgeable.  I defended the side of technological advance, of science and progress.

I have in the last 10 years changed my position.  I started paying attention to the flow of published studies coming from Europe, some from prestigious labs and published in prestigious scientific journals, that questioned the impact and safety of engineered food.

I refute the claims of the biotechnology companies that their engineered crops yield more, that they require less pesticide applications, that they have no impact on the environment and of course that they are safe to eat.

There are a number of scientific studies that have been done for Monsanto by universities in the U.S., Canada, and abroad.  Most of these studies are concerned with the field performance of the engineered crops, and of course they find GMOs safe for the environment and therefore safe to eat.

There is, however, a growing body of scientific research – done mostly in Europe, Russia, and other countries – showing that diets containing engineered corn or soya cause serious health problems in laboratory mice and rats.

We should all take these studies seriously and demand that government agencies replicate them rather than rely on studies paid for by the biotech companies.

The Bt corn and soya plants that are now everywhere in our environment are registered as insecticides. But are these insecticidal plants regulated and have their proteins been tested for safety?  Not by the federal departments in charge of food safety, not in Canada and not in the U.S.A.

There are no long-term feeding studies performed in these countries to demonstrate the claims that engineered corn and soya are safe.  All we have are scientific studies out of Europe and Russia, showing that rats fed engineered food die prematurely.

These studies show that proteins produced by engineered plants are different than what they should be. Inserting a gene in a genome using this technology can and does result in damaged proteins.  The scientific literature is full of studies showing that engineered corn and soya contain toxic or allergenic proteins.

Genetic engineering is 40 years old. It is based on the naive understanding of the genome based on the One Gene – one protein hypothesis of 70 years ago, that each gene codes for a single protein.  The Human Genome project completed in 2002 showed that this hypothesis is wrong.

The whole paradigm of the genetic engineering technology is based on a misunderstanding.  Every scientist now learns that any gene can give more than one protein and that inserting a gene anywhere in a plant eventually creates rogue proteins.  Some of these proteins are obviously allergenic or toxic.

Dr. Thierry Vrain Courtenay

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Collective Action to Reduce Goat Mortality – A Case Study of interventions supported by PRADAN in District Kandhamal, Odisha

This case study is the result of field visits undertaken by SA PPLPP in District Kandhamal, Odisha, where PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action) has supported goat based livelihood interventions in five of the fourteen gram panchayats of the Balliguda block.

These interventions were designed with the twin objectives of increasing household income from goat rearing by reducing mortality and morbidity, improving management and rearing practices and facilitating the establishment of community institutions and processes to ensure sustainability of these interventions.

The case study details the implementation strategy of this innovative community-centric model, with SHGs as the foundation, to facilitate access to preventive health, vaccination services and knowledge sharing on improved rearing and husbandry practices. It also documents the major challenges and learning gained, which further contributed to modifying and strengthening the implementation approach.

Author – SA PPLPP Team

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GM Crops Won’t Solve India’s Food Crisis

By Shanoor Seervai

Adil Bharucha
Dilnavaz Variava.

Earlier this month, India’s Parliamentpassed a bill aimed at delivering subsidized food to around 800 million people. While well-intentioned, the law is expensive and has raised questions about whether India produces enough food to meet demand.

Proponents of genetically modified food say GM technology will boost production to meet India’s food requirements, but critics argue that it is unsustainable, and that the main challenge is not one of production but distribution.

Dilnavaz Variava doesn’t believe that GM food will address India’s food crisis. She is honorary convener for consumer issues for the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, an alliance of farmers, scientists, economists, non-governmental organizations and citizens who advocate for ecologically and economically sustainable agriculture.

Ms. Variava has worked for a range of organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund India, where she was chief executive, and the Bombay Natural History Society. She has also served on several federal government committees as well as one in Maharashtra for the development of agriculture.

Ms. Variava spoke with The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time about GM food in India. Edited excerpts:

The Wall Street Journal: Parliament’s passage of the Food Security Bill reflects the urgency of addressing the food security challenge. Would genetically modified food do this?

Dilnavaz Variava: India has enough food grain — almost two-and-a-half times the required buffer stock — and yet 200 million Indians go hungry. The problem of sufficiency is not one of production, but of economic and physical access, which the Food Security Bill attempts to address. Poverty, mounds of rotting food grain, wastage and leakages in the Public Distribution System are the real causes of food insecurity. GM food cannot address this.

WSJ: Is there evidence from other countries that GM food improves food security?

Ms. Variava: Macroeconomic data for the largest adopters of GM food indicate the opposite. In the U.S., food insecurity has risen from 12% in pre-GM 1995 to 15% in 2011. In Paraguay, where nearly 65% of land is under GM crops, hunger increased from 12.6% in 2004-06 to 25.5% in 2010-12. In Brazil and Argentina, GM food has not reduced hunger. In any event, GM does not increase yields, as the Union of Concerned Scientists established through a review of 12 years of GM in the U.S.

WSJ: How does GM food differ in quality from non-GM food?

Ms. Variava: About 99% of all GM crops have either one or both of two traits that make food unsafe: a pesticide-producing toxin (Bt) present in every cell of the plant and a herbicide tolerant trait that enables the plant to withstand herbicides used to kill weeds. While food safety regulators have cleared GM foods as safe, many independent scientists disagree. Their studies point to health risks: allergies, cancer, reproductive, renal, pancreatic and hepatic disorders. They say regulators give safety assurances based on studies which the GM industry conducts for a maximum period of 90 days on lab rats. This corresponds to a human life span of less than 15 years, which is too short for long-term health effects such as organ damage or cancer to manifest.

WSJ: In India, why did the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee call for a moratorium on field trials of GM crops in July?

Ms. Variava: The TEC majority report by five scientists from the fields of molecular biology, toxicology, nutrition science and biodiversity called for an indefinite moratorium on field trials, stating that ‘the regulatory system has major gaps.’ They concluded that the quality of information in several GM applications was far below that necessary for rigorous evaluation. They recommended a moratorium on field trials for Bt in food crops until there was more definitive information on its long-term safety, and for crops for which India is a center of origin/diversity. They also recommended a ban on the release of ‘herbicide tolerant’ crops, which are inadvisable on socioeconomic grounds in a country where farms are small and weeding provides income to millions of people.

WSJ: Does the report take food security into account?

Ms. Variava: Yes, the report notes that although India has a food surplus in production terms, one-third of the world’s malnourished children live here. It does not see GM as the answer to this.

WSJ: Does it make sense to ban even field trials of GM food?

Ms. Variava: Field trials involve open-air releases of GM. Given that rice and wheat survived their supposed destruction after field trials in U.S. and caused import bans leading to losses of millions of dollars to U.S. farmers, field trials are not harmless scientific experiments. Banning field trials makes sense until a strong biosafety and liability regime is in place.

WSJ: Isn’t India taking regulatory steps to promote the safe use of modern biotechnology, for example with the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill?

Ms. Variava: The BRAI Bill appears to be promoting rather than regulating GM. It proposes a single window clearance, with power to clear GM crops dangerously concentrated in the hands of just five people. All its other committees are merely advisory. It will overrule the constitutional powers of state governments over agriculture and circumscribe the Right to Information and legal redressal. It does not mandate long-term studies, assure labeling and post-release health monitoring, or have adequate punitive provisions. There is no mandatory consideration of safer alternatives or preliminary need assessment based on socioeconomic factors. GM crops are input intensive, requiring adequate fertilizers and timely irrigation. With over 70% of India’s farmers being small and impoverished, and 65% dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon, GM is a high cost, high debt and high risk technology for India. The BRAI Bill does not ensure caution for this unpredictable and irreversible technology.

WSJ: What would economically and environmentally sustainable agriculture for India look like?

Ms. Variava: A World Bank commissioned study found that agro-ecological approaches and not GM provide the best solution to the world’s food crisis.In March 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food also reported that small scale farmers could double food production within 5 to 10 years by agro-ecological farming.

An Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India study for West Bengal found that organic farming could increase net per capita income of a farmer in the state by 250%, lead to wealth accumulation of 120 billion rupees ($1.9 billion), generate exports worth 5.5 billion rupees ($87 million) and create nearly two million employment opportunities over five years.

In Andhra Pradesh, Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture was started in 2005-06. It promoted ecologically and economically sound agriculture with state government and World Bank support. About 10,000 villages with one million farmers practice non-pesticidal management on over 3.5 million acres. Pesticide use in the state has decreased by more than 45%. Net income increases were 3,000 to 15,000 rupees per acre, in addition to meeting a household’s food needs.

Shanoor Seervai is a freelance writer based in Bombay. Like India Real Time on Facebook here and follow us on Twitter @WSJIndia.

Local seeds best bet against climate change


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A paddy field at Pannaikudi in Madurai district. Photo: S. James
The HinduA paddy field at Pannaikudi in Madurai district. Photo: S. James
They need less water, no fertilizer and hardly any care or attention

Climate change has spawned debate as well as initiatives such as planting saplings, cultivating kitchen gardens, household energy conservation and so on.

At the grassroots level, a few farmers are doing their bit to preserve traditional and local varieties of seeds.

“These farmers are commonly called ‘Custodian farmers’. They preserve traditional seeds and make sure that they don’t disappear amongst the variety of hybrid seeds available in the market which farmers prefer because of the promise of high yield,” says M. Palanisamy, Programme Director, Rainfed Farming Development Programme at the Dhan Foundation in Madurai.

The need to preserve traditional and local varieties of seeds that are gradually disappearing is all the more because they do not need much water or chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow. They can withstand the rigors of climate change and its harsh side effects.

True to the term ‘custodian farmer,’ R. Jeyaraman from Adhirangam in Tiruvarur has preserved 63 types of traditional paddy. “These traditional paddy varieties, unlike the ones used at present, do not need much water,” he explains.

Mr. Jeyaraman has distributed the paddy varieties to farmers from Kerala, Karnataka, Orissa and West Bengal. Among the paddy varieties he has preserved are seeds that need only 60 to 180 days to grow.

“Another factor that most farmers today struggle with is that their crops need constant care and attention, especially before harvest. What they don’t realize is that many of these traditional varieties need only a short span of time to grow and can be harvested easily,” Mr. Jeyaraman says.

While hybrid varieties enjoy brisk demand, the promise of high yield often diverts attention from the side effects.

“When rainfall is extremely scanty, it is impossible to plant most new varieties of seeds,” A.P. Alagarsamy from Pallapatti in Dindigul district points out.

With climate change affecting the conditions under which these farmers are forced to work, the need for such traditional varieties which can withstand harsh climatic conditions is growing.

“Traditional varieties of paddy that can withstand floods for as long as a month and torrential rain are the kind of seeds we need to preserve,” said Syed Ghani Khan, a farmer from Mandya in Karnataka.

“With traditional paddy types from Thailand, Burma and Indonesia, I hope to preserve many more traditional seeds through cross pollination,” he adds.

Hybrid seeds and the other varieties that are distributed also have a shorter lifespan that results in the quantity of yield gradually decreasing as years go by.

“Seeds from the hybrid crops cannot be sown directly. The farmer is forced to go back to the centres after his crop is harvested to buy the seeds again and has no control over the price,” says Mr. Palanisamy.

Jegannath Raja from Rajapalayam district has preserved and aggressively marketed two varieties of mango — ‘Mohandas’ and ‘Potllama.’

“The two traditional varieties are fast disappearing and I managed to preserve them and spread awareness of how these varieties can be used to generate income in rain-starved areas since they do not need much water to grow,” says Mr. Jegannath.

He has preserved over 2,000 traditional varieties of fruit, though not all are income-generating.

“While I have preserved a number of seeds to safeguard them, I encourage farmers to buy only a few varieties that are traditional and promise high yield,” he says.

With the importance of preservation and conservation of these traditional and indigenous seeds, there is a need for live genetic resources or nurseries to facilitate studies and spread awareness among farmers.

“Farmers should set apart a portion of their land for cultivation of traditional seeds. With live genetic resources, or maintaining nurseries rather than seeds, it will be easier for farmers to choose varieties and see the benefits for themselves,” said R. Adinarayanan, a faculty member at the Tata Dhan Academy.

The farmers were recently honoured at the Madurai Symposium 2013, organized by the Dhan Academy, and given the ‘Custodian Farmer’ awards for their contribution to biodiversity conservation.

“God has given us the resources we are using now and it is our duty to conserve them and pass them on to posterity,” says Mr. Syed Ghani.

Payments for environmental services and market-based instruments: next of kin or false friends?

The emergence of market-based instruments (MBIs) in the field of ecosystem services has been spectacular but still lacks a clear conceptualization. Terms are overused and abused in discourses, and contrasted policy instruments are referred to as market-oriented albeit with few characteristics in common. Realities on the ground differ substantially from attractive yet misleading propositions supported by public and private discourses. Both advocates and opponents to these approaches thus propose arguments poorly relying on facts and fueling confusion. Payments for environmental services (PES) have flourished and constitute the emblematic and perfect example of a policy instrument that proves more complex and polymorphous than usually acknowledged. Born from the promises of spontaneous agreements between beneficiaries and providers of services for their mutual interest, it has been viewed by most analysts as a popular MBI. We challenge this view by confronting 73 peer-reviewed articles to a typology of MBIs.

Residential Proximity to Methyl Bromide Use and Birth Outcomes in an Agricultural Population in California

Background: Methyl bromide, a fungicide often used in strawberry cultivation, is of concern for residents who live near agricultural applications because of its toxicity and potential for drift. Little is known about the effects of methyl bromide exposure during pregnancy.

Objective: We investigated the relationship between residential proximity to methyl bromide use and birth outcomes.

Methods: Participants were from the CHAMACOS (Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas) study (n = 442), a longitudinal cohort study examining the health effects of environmental exposures on pregnant women and their children in an agricultural community in northern California. Using data from the California Pesticide Use Reporting system, we employed a geographic information system to estimate the amount of methyl bromide applied within 5 km of a woman’s residence during pregnancy. Multiple linear regression models were used to estimate associations between trimester-specific proximity to use and birth weight, length, head circumference, and gestational age.

Results: High methyl bromide use (vs. no use) within 5 km of the home during the second trimester was negatively associated with birth weight (β = –113.1 g; CI: –218.1, –8.1), birth length (β = –0.85 cm; CI: –1.44, –0.27), and head circumference (β = –0.33 cm; CI: –0.67, 0.01). These outcomes were also associated with moderate methyl bromide use during the second trimester. Negative associations with fetal growth parameters were stronger when larger (5 km and 8 km) versus smaller (1 km and 3 km) buffer zones were used to estimate exposure.

Conclusions: Residential proximity to methyl bromide use during the second trimester was associated with markers of restricted fetal growth in our study.

Key words: birth outcomes, birth weight, fumigants, methyl bromide, pesticides, residential proximity

Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate

Developing and developed countries alike need a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a “green revolution” to a “truly ecological intensification” approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers. We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management, which recognizes that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services (e.g. water, soil, landscape, energy, biodiversity, and recreation) UNCTAD’s Trade and Environment Review 2013 (TER13) contends.

TER13 highlights that the required transformation is much more profound than simply tweaking the existing industrial agricultural system. Rather, what is called for is a better understanding of the multi-functionality of agriculture, its pivotal importance for pro-poor rural development and the significant role it can play in dealing with resource scarcities and in mitigating and adapting to climate change. However, the sheer scale at which modified production methods would have to be adopted, the significant governance issues, the power asymmetries’ problems in food input and output markets as well as the current trade rules for agriculture pose considerable challenges.

TER13, entitled Wake up Before it is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate was released on 18 September 2013. More than 60 international experts have contributed their views to a comprehensive analysis of the challenges and the most suitable strategic approaches for dealing holistically with the inter-related problems of hunger and poverty, rural livelihoods, social and gender inequity, poor health and nutrition, and climate change and environmental sustainability – one of the most interesting and challenging subjects of present development discourse.

Agricultural development, the report underlines, is at a true crossroads. By way of illustration, food prices in the period 2011 to mid-2013 were almost 80% higher than for the period 2003-2008. Global fertilizer use increased by 8 times in the past 40 years, although global cereal production has scarcely doubled at the same time. The growth rates of agricultural productivity have recently declined from 2% to below 1% per annum. The two global environmental limits that have already been crossed (nitrogen contamination of soils and waters and biodiversity loss) were caused by agriculture. GHG emissions from agriculture are not only the single biggest source of global warming in the South, besides the transport sector, they are also the most dynamic. The scale of foreign land acquisitions (often also termed land grabbing) dwarfs the level of Official Development Assistance, the former being 5-10 times higher in value than the latter in recent years.

Most important of all, despite the fact that the world currently already produces sufficient calories per head to feed a global population of 12-14 billion, hunger has remained a key challenge. Almost one billion people chronically suffer from starvation and another billion are mal-nourished. Some 70% of these people are themselves small farmers or agricultural laborers. Therefore, hunger and mal-nutrition are not phenomena of insufficient physical supply, but results of prevailing poverty, and above all problems of access to food. Enabling these people to become food self-sufficient or earn an appropriate income through agriculture to buy food needs to take center stage in future agricultural transformation. Furthermore, the current demand trends for excessive biofuel and concentrate animal feed use of cereals and oil seeds, much too high meat-based diets and post-harvest food waste are regarded as given, rather than challenging their rational. Questionably, priority in international policy discussions remains heavily focused on increasing industrial agricultural production, mostly under the slogan “growing more food at less cost to the environment”.

The strategy recommended to developing countries of relying on international markets to meet staple food demand, while specializing in the production and export of ‘lucrative’ cash crops has not produced the intended results, because it relied on low staple food prices and no shortage of supply in international markets, conditions that have drastically changed since the turn of the century. Globalization has also encouraged excessive specialization, increasing scale of production of few crops and enormous cost pressure. All this has aggravated the environmental crisis of agriculture and reduced agricultural resilience. What is now required is a shift towards diverse production patterns that reflect the multi-functionality of agriculture and enhance close nutrient cycles. Moreover, as environmental externalities are mainly not internalized, carbon taxes are the rare exception rather than the rule and carbon-offset markets are largely dysfunctional – all factors that would prioritize regional/local food production through ‘logical’ market mechanisms – trade rules need to allow a higher regional focus of agriculture along the lines of “as much regionalized/localized food production as possible; as much traded food as necessary”.

Climate change will drastically impact agriculture, primarily in those developing countries with the highest future population growth, i.e. in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Against this background, the fundamental transformation of agriculture may well turn out to be one of the biggest challenges, including for international security, of the 21st century. Much slower agricultural productivity growth in the future, a quickly rising population in the most resource-constrained and climate-change-exposed regions and a burgeoning environmental crises of agriculture are the seeds for mounting pressures on food security and the related access to land and water. This is bound to increase the frequency and severity of riots, caused by food-price hikes, with concomitant political instability, and international tension, linked to resource conflicts and migratory movements of starving populations.