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Alexander J. Stein

Economist interested in agriculture, food, nutrition, health, technology, sustainability, economic development & poverty alleviation worldwide. This is a personal account; posts are not necessarily endorsements. More at
Sep 29 '14

Unearthed: Are patents the problem? - WaPo (2014)

See on - Ag Biotech News

If you’re at… a party populated by agriculture wonks… the issue of patenting living organisms might get more of a rise than either religion or politics… patenting is a hot issue… A 1980 Supreme Court decision that allowed patents to be granted to living things kicked off the controversy.

The basic genetic materials of the things we eat have been around, and have been tinkered with, for millennia, and the idea that a new version of one of them could earn protection that would prevent farmers from saving seed and, perhaps, give the patent holder inordinate control over our food supply has raised a number of concerns. I’m going to tackle the ones that seem to worry people most.

The first is that patents allow patent holders to restrict research, and that’s true, although many of the restrictions arise from the contract that farmers sign in order to buy the seed rather than from the patent itself… there is a de facto — not a legal — protection for basic research on patented plants… Monsanto has agreements with more than 100 universities that allow academic scientists to do independent research with no oversight… That’s one reason why, despite what you might have heard, there have been hundreds of independent studies on genetically engineered organisms… 

A second concern is that patenting has driven the consolidation of the seed industry, and that is also true… Everyone I spoke to agreed that patents were a factor, although not the only factor, underlying the shift… The real question, though, is whether that’s a bad thing. Specifically, does it restrict farmers’ choices and force them to buy (and pay the higher price for) GM crops when they want non-GM, or seeds with more than one GM trait when they want only one?

There’s no definitive research that can tell us the percentage of farmers who can’t get a seed they want… It happened to Todd Leake, who grows soybeans in North Dakota… Leake is the exception. Although the widespread preference for GM seed ensures that there are often more GM choices than non-GM, farmers report a wide variety of both kinds, and an experience similar to that of Brian Scott, a fourth-generation farmer with 2,100 Indiana acres of corn, soy, popcorn and wheat. “I wouldn’t have trouble getting non-GMO seed”… 

The story of Big Ag forcing GMOs down the throats of unsuspecting farmers, ensuring that those farmers not only pay through the nose but also can’t save seed and thus have to pay through the nose again next year, is largely fiction. And it’s a story that lots of farmers find really irritating, because it makes them out to be dupes or patsies. Roundup-Ready corn and soy, which can be sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate (used to kill weeds) and show no ill effects, are widely planted because farmers want them. And Monsanto has made piles of money because it developed plants that the vast majority of farmers wanted to buy.

Had patent protection not existed, those companies might have focused almost exclusively on the one megacrop that farmers can’t save seed for regardless: Corn, a hybrid, doesn’t breed true. Patents ensure that crops like soy, for which farmers can save seed, also get attention… Improving agriculture can be an expensive proposition. Patenting means there’s a way for people and companies that invest time and money to recoup that investment…

Farmers who buy patented seed make the same decisions. If the increased seed cost and, in some cases, the inability to save seed outweigh the advantages of patented seed, they buy. If not, they don’t. They’re not dupes or patsies. 

And perhaps the single most important thing about patents is that they’re finite. Some of Monsanto’s patents have already expired and entered the public domain, and have enabled smaller companies to jump into the mix… 


Patents on life forms certainly changed the agricultural landscape. As with most complex issues, there are advantages and disadvantages to the patenting of the things we eat. On the downside, I think concerns about control of our seed supply by just a few companies are legitimate, and I hope the Department of Justice is keeping a sharp eye out. And the profit motive certainly helps ensure that, at least initially, the widely grown commodity crops will get the most attention, perhaps at the expense of some of the more healthful things we eat.

But patenting is standard operating procedure in a capitalist world, and I don’t think food is substantially different from other industries. There will be bad decisions, there will be hamstrung scientists, but there will also be innovation. We’ve got a lot of people to feed, and we need all the innovation we can get.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:

"The story of Big Ag forcing GMOs down the throats of unsuspecting farmers… lots of farmers find really irritating, because it makes them out to be dupes or patsies. Roundup-Ready corn and soy… are widely planted because farmers want them… 

Had patent protection not existed… companies might have focused… on the one megacrop that farmers can’t save seed for regardless: Corn, a hybrid… Patents ensure that crops like soy, for which farmers can save seed, also get attention… 

Improving agriculture can be an expensive proposition. Patenting means there’s a way for people and companies that invest time and money to recoup that investment…” 

» True. But for instance public investment in agricultural R&D can also be an option for improving agriculture. And one could also think about the strength of the patent protection that is needed. (How many years is optimal?) Or about compulsory licencing of GM traits for humanitarian purposes (e.g. the improving of “orphan” crops in developing countries in public research projects). In that case public-private partnerships might also be a solution, though, as long as the other legal implications are sorted out, too (e.g. excluding such third party activities excluded from the companies’ liability). 

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Sep 29 '14

How real is the concern that seed patents will turn farmers into inadvertent infringers? - Holman (2014) - UC Berkeley [pdf]

See on - Ag Biotech News

Much has been made of the supposed problem of farmers being exposed to liability for patent infringement based on the inadvertent, or even unavoidable, presence of patented genetically modified plants on the farmer’s fields. It has resulted in calls for limitations on the scope and enforceability of patents that would in all likelihood substantially undercut the ability of many innovatorsto obtain effective intellectual property protection for their products. These “reforms”would be especially problematic for agricultural biotechnology companies like Monsanto, but the repercussions could be more widespread, impacting a host of important cutting-edge technologies like synthetic biology and nanotechnology… 

Stories of farmers being sued by Monsanto after their fields where inadvertently contaminated by genetic drift are widely circulated on the Internet and in print, and appear to have been accepted by much of the public… However, it is clear from reading the judicial decisions that the Canadian judges were convinced by overwhelming evidence that Percy Schmeiser was not the victim of drift and inadvertent contamination, but rather a disingenuous and willful patent infringer… To date, inadvertent infringement based upon genetic drift or the presence of trace amounts of contaminating patented seed in a farmer’s field does not appear to have ever resulted in a lawsuit by Monsanto… 

In fact, in every case involving an allegation of patent infringement of a Monsanto seed patent by a farmer that has been addressed at the appellate level… there has invariably been compelling evidence that the infringing farmer intentionally planted infringing seeds and benefited from the patented technology… it certainly appears to be the case that in the vast majority (if not all) of the cases the farmer is at least knowledgeable of the fact that he is infringing, and in most cases there is evidence that the farmer is taking advantage of the patented technology, e.g., spraying his fields with herbicide that would kill his crops in the absence of the patented technology. For its part, Monsanto has publicly committed never “to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of [its] patented seeds or traits are present in a farmer’s field as a result of inadvertent means” … 

A critical difference between Roundup Ready and other traits like insect resistance or drought tolerance is that the value of Roundup Ready only manifests itself when the farmer performs the overt act of spraying his fields with glyphosate, which in the absence of the Roundup Ready trait would kill his crop. It would be irrational for a farmer to spray glyphosate on his field of soybeans unless he knows that at least a substantial percentage of those soybeans bear the Roundup Ready trait, and thus if it can be shown that a farmer has sprayed his crops with glyphosate, it becomes difficult for him to persuasively argue that he was not aware he is infringing, and moreover that infringement was his desired objective. As a consequence, a farmer’s protestations ring hollow when he claims that he is merely following the age-old practice of saving and replanting seeds, or of planting commodity seeds provided by grain elevator… 

The situation, however, might become more complicated in the not too distant future as advances in technology and developments in the market render it increasingly likely that lawsuits will be filed in cases where it is more difficult to prove that a farmer has taken overt action unambiguously establishing the intentional use of patented technology, or even knowledge that a patented plant is growing in the farmer’s field.

One factor that could contribute to this is the imminent expiration of the patents on the Roundup Ready trait in soybeans and the anticipated development of “generic” Roundup Ready seeds by other seed developers. In effect, for the first time generic versions of a genetically modified crop could become available to farmers. If this happens, farmer will be able to apply glyphosate to his soybeans without necessarily infringing a Monsanto patent. Significantly, no longer will a farmer’s application of glyphosate to his fields serveas evidence of knowledge or intent to infringe a Monsanto patent.

A second factor that could contribute to lawsuits under circumstances where it is difficult to establish knowledge or intent will be the increasing commercialization of patented transgenic traits that do not require a farmer to engage in any overt activity in order to experience the benefit of the technology, such as insect resistance and drought tolerance, thereby rendering it more difficult to prove that a farmer has intentionally used and benefited from the patented technology…

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Sep 29 '14

Comment on “Counting the Hungry” in the New York Times

In an opinion piece in the New York Times (Counting the Hungry), the FAO’s revisions of its estimates of the number of undernourished people were criticised. While these revisions indeed seem politically opportune (and may well be so), they may nevertheless reflect reality better than the old estimates: 

Using an entirely different approach [see references 1 & 2 below] to measure the burden of hunger (not looking at food availability but at actual health outcomes of hunger), I determined that – compared to 1990 – the burden of hunger had already been halved in 2010. My findings therefore corroborate the last revision of the FAO’s estimate. 

However, one shortcoming of the FAO’s measure is to look only at undernourished people (i.e. those who get too few calories), but to ignore people who suffer from micronutrient deficiencies (i.e. who lack essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals). The burden of this “hidden hunger” is nevertheless almost as high as the burden of (chronic) hunger. That is, many more people suffer from (chronic and hidden) hunger than the FAO estimates indicate! 

Also, as rough approximations show, the annual global cost of hunger could be as high as $2 trillion(!) in terms of foregone national incomes, i.e. if hunger was eradicated, world income would be so much higher – while addressing hunger would cost only a fraction thereof and, therefore, make hunger eradication not only a humanitarian imperative but also a sensible investment to boost overall social welfare and economic productivity.  

[1]  Stein A.J. (2013). “Re-thinking the measurement of undernutrition in a broader health context.” IFPRI Discussion Paper 1298. Washington: International Food Policy Research Institute. » Especially see Fig. 5.1 on p. 13. 

[2] Stein A.J. (accepted). “Rethinking the measurement of undernutrition in a broader health context: Should we look at possible causes or actual effects?” Global Food Security. To be published at: 

Sep 29 '14

Counting the Hungry - NYT (2014)

See on - Food Policy

The people suffering from hunger are not our relatives, friends, co-workers; they probably don’t read this paper. We don’t know them, but at the very least we ought to know how many of them there are, because policy and aid decisions depend on that number; because very often their lives depend on that number. But we don’t know, because the hunger statistics reported by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization are flawed.

Every year, around this time… the F.A.O. publishes its report on hunger — or, as it is now called, “food insecurity.” What most people remember are the numbers: whether hunger went up or down, and by how much. But hunger statistics are confusing. It is very hard to calculate with precision how many men and women do not eat enough. Most live in countries where weak states are incapable of accounting for all their citizens, and the international organizations that try to come up with head counts must use statistical calculations…

The F.A.O. makes an effort: by studying agricultural inventories; food imports and exports; the local uses of food; economic hardship and social inequality. From there it determines the estimated availability of food per capita. The difference between required and available calories gives the F.A.O. its number of undernourished people. This sounds like a sensible method, but it is entirely malleable. And so its results can be adjusted according to the needs of the moment.

This month, the F.A.O. reported jubilantly that the total number of chronically undernourished people went down to 805 million — 209 million fewer than in 1990-92. These numbers carry a particular weight: They will be the last published before 2015, when the United Nations Millennium Development Goals are supposed to be completed. According to the report, these new numbers show that the organization’s aspiration “of halving the proportion of undernourished people in developing countries by 2015 is within reach.”

This sounds like great news, but it’s not so simple. According to the development goals, the rate of hunger in 1990 is the one that’s supposed to be halved. But that 1990 number has been adjusted several times, usually making the current numbers look more favorable by comparison.

It’s a long story. At the World Food Conference in Rome, in 1974, when Henry A. Kissinger famously stated that “within a decade, no child will go to bed hungry,” F.A.O. experts estimated that the number of hungry people in developing regions was close to 460 million, and that in 10 years it could reach 800 million. That prediction was close: In a 1992 report, the F.A.O. stated that there were 786 million hungry people in 1988-90. It was a dramatic increase, a serious blow.

In that report, the F.A.O. revised its previous calculations, saying that its statistical method had been wrong. Now, the F.A.O.’s experts said, they believed that in 1970 there weren’t 460 million hungry people in the developing world, but more than twice that number, 941 million. This, in turn, allowed them to say that the 1989 figure of 786 million did not represent a dramatic increase but, in fact, a decrease of 155 million: quite an achievement.

The changes kept coming. In 2004, the F.A.O. said that the number of undernourished people in developing regions had reached 815 million. This would have seemed like a disappointing increase from the 786 million figure. But in that same report, the F.A.O. revised its 1990 numbers once again, and stated that in 1990 there hadn’t been 786 million but rather 823 million hungry people…

In the F.A.O.’s 2011 report, the number of hungry people in the developing world in 1990 was 833 million… Then it was 980 million in the 2012 report, after the F.A.O. experts revised their methodology once again. By 2013, those 980 million hungry people had become 995 million… 

It is possible to assume that statistical methods — factoring in new population, caloric and economic data — may be much better now than 30 years ago. It is harder to imagine that they have changed so much in the last three years as to add more than 160 million people… You could say they are just numbers, abstractions; they wouldn’t really matter much if they were just bad propaganda figures. The problem is that they are, in fact, canonical figures: the kind that are used to determine funds and priorities.

This is not conscious corruption. It’s a symptom of an institutional culture that has to prove it is achieving important progress. The 1990 change justifies the United Nations’ efforts and jobs, as much as it quiets our consciences. And it has a double economic effect: It convinces donors that their money has been fruitfully invested, and it justifies the reductions of these investments. International food aid, after peaking at $5.5 billion in 2008, decreased to $4 billion in 2012… 

So maybe next time, when we are told that hunger is being defeated, it would be wise to keep asking where and how and whose. After all, these figures help define the lives of hundreds of millions — wait, how many hundreds of millions? — of the victims of persistent hunger, the greatest outrage of our time.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:

While the “revisions” of the FAO’s estimates of the number of undernourished people seem politically opportune (and may well be so), they may nevertheless reflect reality better: 

Using an entirely different approach [1,2] to measure the burden of hunger (not looking at food availability but at actual health outcomes of hunger), I determined that — compared to 1990 — the burden of hunger had already been halved in 2010. My findings therefore corroborate the last revision of the FAO’s estimate. 

However, one shortcoming of the FAO’s measure is to look only at undernourished people (i.e. those who get too few calories), but to ignore people who suffer from micronutrient deficiencies (i.e. who lack essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals). The burden of this “hidden hunger” is nevertheless almost as high as the burden of (chronic) hunger. That is, many more people suffer from (chronic and hidden) hunger than the FAO estimates indicate! 

Also, as rough approximations show, the annual global cost of hunger could be as high as $2 trillion(!) in terms of foregone national incomes, i.e. if hunger was eradicated, world income would be so much higher — while addressing hunger would cost only a fraction thereof and, therefore, make hunger eradication not only a humanitarian imperative but also a sensible investment to boost overall social welfare and economic productivity.  

[1]  Stein A.J. (2013). “Re-thinking the measurement of undernutrition in a broader health context.” IFPRI Discussion Paper 1298. Washington: International Food Policy Research Institute.

» Especially see Fig. 5.1 on p. 13. 

[2] Stein A.J. (accepted). “Rethinking the measurement of undernutrition in a broader health context: Should we look at possible causes or actual effects?” Global Food Security. To be published at:

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Sep 28 '14

Regulation of genetically engineered crops in India: Implications of policy uncertainty for social welfare, competition, and innovation - Kolady & Herring (2014) - Canadian Journal of Agricultural …

See on - Ag Biotech News

India is the regional leader in research and development (R&D) in agricultural biotechnology (agri-biotech) in South Asia. Commercialization of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton – the first and only commercial genetically engineered (GE) crop in India – in 2002 was preceded by illegal cultivation and diffusion of unapproved cultivars, raising serious questions of the state’s regulatory capacity.

Bt eggplant, the first GE food crop to get approval for environmental release in 2009, has not yet been commercialized. An indefinite moratorium on its commercialization was imposed by the Minister of Environment and Forests in 2010.

We examine the regulatory framework in India and use the cases of Bt cotton and Bt eggplant regulation to examine the types and sources of nonmarket failures associated with the regulatory policy. We also analyze the demonstrated and likely effects of regulatory uncertainty on social welfare and development of the agri-biotech industry. We adopt implementation analysis to suggest policy options worth considering to address the nonmarket failures of regulatory policy.


Genetic engineering technology has to date mainly succeeded in increasing agricultural productivity by reducing crop loss from biotic stress and increasing farmers’ net income by reducing costs of production. Products in the genetically engineered (GE) research pipeline offer potential to address pressing issues such as nutrient-use efficiency, nutritional improvements through bio-fortification, drought and salinity tolerance, pathogen resistance, and, further out on the horizon, photosynthetic efficiency of crop plants… 

Development of a regulatory framework for GE and its products began in 1975 in Asilomar, California, when the scientific community realized the potential benefits and risks of recombinant DNA (rDNA)/GE technology… Regulatory policies are intended to address the potential market failures such as negative externalities in the form of potential adverse effects on biosafety and environment. However, the regulatory uncertainty prevalent in the European Union (EU), the United States, and emerging economies raises the question whether the existing regulatory structure is adequate to assure public safety without discouraging innovation and affecting socially optimal outcomes…

There are the two general approaches to regulation of GE crops and products: substantial equivalence (SE) and the precautionary principle (PP). The SE approach measures whether or not GE crops or foods show more variation in measured health and nutritional characteristics as compared to samples of non-GE conventional counterparts. A substantially equivalent product is deemed to be as safe as its conventional counterparts.

The PP approach demands that no unanticipated risk will result from approval of a GE crop or product: the assumption is that there are “unknown unknowns” … PP is a moral and political principle that puts the burden of proof on those advocating for new policies or actions. They must show that there will be no severe or irreversible harm to the public. In this logic, the absence of scientific evidence of potential harm cannot, by itself, be used to justify new technologies… the PP allows arbitrary and capricious decisions about what unanticipated risks should be avoided. PP typically advantages mobilization of concern about change without a comparative treatment of alternatives—that is, the risks of continuing with the status quo… 

Ideally, in terms of a social welfare function, regulation of any technology would reach some threshold of acceptable risk—balanced with benefits—for a whole society… 

In a world of uncertainty, risk is of necessity a social construction. Policies toward risk are justified by findings of science—transparent, replicable objective results. But science is not helpful in establishing risk until some procedures establish a hazard and, optimally, a probability distribution of said hazard. Science cannot assess uncertainty, nor determine appropriate risk preferences in the face of uncertainty. At the individual level, these are matters of cognition and personal attitudes toward risk aversion. For a whole society, in technology subject to collective risks and externalities—nuclear power, for example—coding of risk is of necessity a political decision. Some technologies rise to the level of arousing risk perceptions large enough to provoke legislation, surveillance, and control, and others do not. Agri-biotech has aroused a global movement organized around precautionary logic premised on hypothetical risk.

For investors and producers contemplating economic decisions, the SE principle offers clear criteria, whereas the PP leaves room for great uncertainty… This is true because “risk” in the case of agri-biotech has
not been established; instead, the sector is characterized by pervasive uncertainty… 

Many firms do not consider the direct R&D costs associated with Bt technology to be a significant entry barrier (Pray et al 2005). However, long delays in the regulatory process, high costs associated with regulatory processes, and regulatory uncertainty act as entry barriers for many domestic firms and public sector units to enter the technology market… 

Delay in regulatory approval and abandoning of GE product development due to prohibitive regulatory costs can cause social welfare loss in terms of forgone benefits to society. Adoption of Bt eggplant is expected to reduce pesticide expenses by US$343/ha for hybrid growers and US$140 for OPV growers; most of these potential reductions would come from highly toxic chemicals. Given that there are 1.4 million farmers growing eggplant over 0.5 million ha in India, the annual benefits in terms of reduced pesticide expenses alone, assuming 100% adoption of Bt technology by eggplant growers, would have been US$101 million… 

Interactions with industry stakeholders suggest that moratorium on commercialization of Bt eggplant is affecting their overall R&D investments and research portfolio… 

We have identified the types and sources of nonmarket failures associated with regulatory policy. It is evident from our analysis that a decentralized and ad hoc regulatory system, susceptible to political intervention, can create formidable barriers to the introduction of new technologies, resulting in large social welfare costs… 

There is strong evidence demonstrating the positive impacts of Bt cotton technology on cotton yields, farmers’ net income, and rural farm economy in India. Nevertheless, some civil society organizations and some media have claimed rural distress and farmer suicides
in connection with GE crops, as well as additional risk to consumers.

Risk dominates benefit in regulation of transgenic agricultural crops in India, as in many countries. One result has been the unsettling of established science-based regulation and subsequent institutional instability in the regulatory system. The power of nonmarket determinants of regulatory outcomes became apparent in the rejection of India’s first GE food crop (Bt eggplant)… We have identified the types and sources of nonmarket failures associated with the regulatory policy in India. 

One consequence has been increased uncertainty and enhanced estimates of costs of regulatory compliance on the part of actors potentially interested in bringing biotech crops to market. Our analysis shows that the derived externalities of an uncertain regulatory
process are substantial, affecting both growth and pace of innovations in the industry. 

Results from our analysis show that the moratorium imposed on commercialization of Bt eggplant in 2010 is affecting overall R&D efforts in the agri-biotech sector in India, especially by domestic firms and public sector organizations. This uncertainty affects innovation and competition in the industry as a whole, with detrimental effects on smallholder farmers of the kind so clearly demonstrated by the same technology—indeed the same gene—in cotton.

The agro-economic success of Bt cotton was widely expected to predict similar results for Bt eggplant. Field trial results and data from nine years of testing the Bt eggplant as mandated by regulatory statutes confirmed this potential. Yet the regulatory structure’s provision of an administrative chokepoint proved more powerful than these findings and projections. The subsequent regulatory delay imposed on Bt eggplant has significant social costs in terms of forgone benefits to the society, including a damper on growth of the sector.

Investment decisions in plant-breeding R&D are sufficiently over-determined, and the data too scattered, to allow firm conclusions that parse contribution of different causal factors…. Our analysis demonstrates the need for a science-based, predictable and transparent regulatory framework with credible institutional staying power, stable rules, and measurable criteria of compliance. Some policy options that could reduce nonmarket failures in development of agri-biotech in this way are evident, but the choices are political, and hence themselves highly unpredictable.

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Sep 28 '14

Fumonisins in conventional and transgenic, insect-resistant maize intended for fuel ethanol production - Bowers & Munkvold (2014) - Toxins

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Mycotoxins in maize grain intended for ethanol production are enriched in co-product dried distiller’s grains and solubles (DDGS) and may be detrimental to yeast in fermentation. This study was conducted to examine the magnitude of fumonisin enrichment in DDGS and to analyze the impacts of insect injury, Fusarium ear rot severity, and fumonisin contamination on final ethanol yield.

Samples of naturally-contaminated grain… were fermented and DDGS collected and analyzed for fumonisin content. Ethanol yield… was unaffected by fumonisins… and was not correlated with insect injury or Fusarium ear rot severity. Ethanol production was unaffected in fumonisin B1-spiked grain with concentrations from 0 to 37 mg/kg.

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) maize often has reduced fumonisins due to its protection from insect injury and subsequent fungal infection. DDGS derived from Bt and non-Bt maize averaged 2.04 mg/kg and 8.25 mg/kg fumonisins, respectively…

Under significant insect pest pressures, DDGS derived from Bt maize hybrids were consistently lower in fumonisins than DDGS derived from non-Bt hybrids.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:

Fumonisin is a mycotoxin, a group of mould-related toxins that can cause poisoning in livestock and humans. If GM maize reduces mycotoxin levels, this seems to be a clear consumer/health benefit… 

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Sep 28 '14

Weed control changes and genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops in the USA 1996-2012 - Brookes (2014) - GM Crops & Food

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Crops that have been genetically modified (GM) to be tolerant to herbicides have been widely grown in the USA since 1996. The rapid and widespread adoption of this technology reflects the important economic and environmental benefits that farmers have derived from its use (equal to $21.7 billion additional farm income and a 225 million kg reduction in herbicide active ingredient use 1996-2012).

During this time, weed control practices in these crops relative to the ‘conventional alternative’ have evolved to reflect experience of using the technology, the challenges that have arisen and the increasing focus in recent years on developing sustainable production systems.

This paper examines the evidence on the changing nature of herbicides used with these crops and in particular how farmers addressed the challenge of weed resistance. The evidence shows that use of the technology has resulted in a net reduction in both the amount of herbicide used and the associated environmental impact, as measured by the EIQ [Environmental Impact Quotient] indicator when compared to what can reasonably be expected if the area planted to GM HT crops reverted to conventional production methods.

It also facilitated many farmers being able to derive the economic and environmental benefits associated with switching from a plough-based to a no tillage or conservation tillage production system. In terms of herbicide use, the technology has also contributed to a change the profile of herbicides used. A broad range of, mostly selective herbicides has been replaced by one or two broad-spectrum herbicides (mostly glyphosate) used in conjunction with one or two other (complementary) herbicides.

Since the mid 2000s, the average amount of herbicide applied and the associated environmental load, as measured by the EIQ indicator, have increased on both GM HT and conventional crops. A primary reason for these changes has been increasing incidence of weed species developing populations resistant to herbicides and increased awareness of the consequences of relying on a single or very limited number of herbicides for weed control. As a result, growers of GM HT crops have become much more proactive and diversified in their weed management programmes in line with weed scientist recommendations and now include other herbicides (with different and complementary modes of action) in combination with glyphosate, even where instances of weed resistance to glyphosate have not been found.

The willingness to proactively diversity weed management systems in the GM HT crops is also influenced by a desire to maintain effective weed control and hence continue to enjoy the benefits of no tillage and conservation tillage. Nevertheless, despite the increase in herbicide use in recent years, the use of GM HT technology continues to deliver significant economic and environmental gains to US farmers.

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Sep 28 '14

Can Technology Get Agriculture Out of its Climate Hole? - Nature Conservancy (2014)

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The projections jump around, but the essential warning they are sending us is the same: agriculture is in a hole and the world needs to double food production over the next generation or Bad Things Will Happen.

How Bad? We’ll be living in a world where climate change bites just as agricultural demand spikes. Yields could level out or fall as climate stress increases, rising seas will salt the fertile river deltas and extreme weather events will wipe out crops. All leading to political tensions and increased pressure on natural resources which in turn will lead to… well, you get the not-so-pretty picture.

Ironically, one of the reasons global agriculture is in its current hole is the success it had in clambering out of its last one… A couple of generations ago, there were similar worries that rising population would outstrip global agricultural production. The Green Revolution was the response, a technological revolution that successfully ramped up production but also bred one perverse consequence: complacency among governments and societies, which came to believe the food supply was a solved problem… 

The collective complacency, though, has had serious consequences: the decline of public funding for agricultural research, and the running down of rural extension services across the world. Farmers are doing just fine, the conventional wisdom says, when it comes to food production. They don’t need as much support. Let market mechanisms take the lead… Well, climate change is finally (and fortunately) breaking that complacency down. All around the world, it is dawning on governments and others that climate change has very direct implications for the world food system.

Climate stress depresses production and yields, unless farmers can manage it successfully. They have managed it in the past… but the projected temperature rises over the next century have no precedent in human history over so short a period. There are clearly risks. Can technology help us mitigate and adapt? 

Maybe. Think about what an agricultural landscape could look like in 2030: 

* Small drones hovering over fields would be a common sight, monitoring and analyzing everything from micro-level soil conditions to pollinator density.

* Fertilizer would be applied in precisely measured doses, in carefully chosen places at certain times only — helping produce higher yields than possible today but using half as much fertilizer, with all the attendant environmental benefits of that reduced application.

* Automated machinery would plant, till and generally manage crops, ensuring precisely the right distance between plants and delivering the best possible water regime for them.

* Seeds planted would be adapted to the micro-conditions of where they were planted to maximize yield, but would also be adapted to cope with climate stresses. Some would be genetically modified to add nutrients and vitamins… 

Everything I have described above already exists somewhere, but the elements haven’t (yet) been put together into a single package… The agriculture of the future will be all about alternatives and trade-offs, and technology can now lay those out as never before… It is dangerous to assume this future will happen automatically, however.

Technology has yet to prove it can deliver on its promise and make agriculture climate-smart… And truly climate-smart agriculture will depend on a lot of things besides technology: more diversified crop portfolios, better integration between grazing and cropping, and so forth.

There are also crucial historical differences… The most important is that the Green Revolution was public sector innovation. It was developed in an international research centre… and specifically aimed at Mexican peasants… at Punjabi peasants. There was no food crisis in the 1960s and 1970s because countries like Mexico and Pakistan got the agricultural technologies they needed.

Today, the crucial question in getting to climate-smart agriculture is whether technologies developed in California can be adapted to Kenya. All the technological ingenuity in the world is useless if farmers in Mexico and the Punjab… can’t afford the privately funded technologies… It is in sorting out this complicated public/private, rich world/poor world farming nexus that solutions to managing the impact of climate change on farming will be found.

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Sep 28 '14

Playing tag with sugars in the cornfield - Max Planck (2014)

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Armyworms deactivate a maize chemical defense by reattaching a sugar in the opposite configuration. 
Sugars are usually known as energy storage units in plants and the insects that feed on them. But, sugars may also be part of a deadly game of tag between plant and insect… Grasses and crops such as maize attach sugars to chemical defenses called benzoxazinoids to protect themselves from being poisoned by their own protective agents. Then, when an insect starts feeding, a plant enzyme removes the sugar to deploy the active toxin… scientists have now discovered why this defensive strategy fails to work against Spodopteralarvae.
When the researchers examined the frass of these pests − pests that cause enormous crop damage −, they found the toxin with sugar still attached. After the plant removes the sugar, the insect reattaches it but in the opposite stereochemical configuration. In contrast to the original plant compound, the new substance can no longer be cleaved by the plant enzyme to generate the toxin. Attaching the sugar in the opposite configuration turns out to be a very simple but effective detoxification strategy which explains the success of Spodoptera species. 

Plants usually defend themselves against insect feeding by producing toxins or deterrents. However, many insects have become adapted to plant defenses and can feed on plant tissues containing toxins or deterrents without the expected negative effects. Insects overcome plant defenses by the rapid excretion, sequestration or detoxification of toxic substances. Not only have such adaptations contributed to the vast diversification of insects in the course of evolution, they also support the success of agricultural pests specialized on certain crop plants that jeopardize crop yields every year.

With the abundance of maize grown throughout the world, it is not surprising that the crop has many insect pests, including larvae of the genus Spodoptera. In North and South America, the fall armyworm Spodoptera frugiperda  is an important maize pest causing considerable damage. Like all cereals and other members of the grass family, maize plants defend themselves with chemistry. Leaves of young maize plants contain large amounts of a benzoxazinoid called (2R)-DIMBOA-glucoside. The plant also produces an enzyme active in caterpillar guts which cleaves DIMBOA-glucoside to release the sugar. The free DIMBOA formed as a result causes many insects to die or cease growing, but not the fall armyworm… 

Caterpillars of the fall armyworm and two other Spodopteraspecies deploy a gut enzyme that catalyzes the attachment of a sugar to the toxic free DIMBOA. The sugar group is reattached in a mirror-image orientation (forming a (2S)-DIMBOA-glucoside) so that the plant enzyme cannot remove it a second time… The elegance of such a mechanism comes from its simplicity, yet it saves the insects from being poisoned

“If we can better understand how much this gut enzyme has helped the fall armyworm to become such a dangerous pest on maize, we may be able to use this to our advantage by impairing this insect enzyme and restoring the full defensive potential of maize against these pests,” says Daniel Giddings Vassão… 

The Max Planck scientists now want to identify the enzymes and the encoding genes that are responsible for the detoxification process in the fall armyworm. They also want to look for equivalent enzymes in related species and compare these. DIMBOA is only one member of the vast variety of toxic benzoxazinoids found in grasses. If the researchers can obtain a more comprehensive picture of how benzoxazinoids are metabolized in pest insects, they may be able to design better strategies to reduce pest damage.

Original article:

Alexander J. Stein's insight:

Key quote: “plants defend themselves with chemistry” » all natural… 

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Sep 28 '14

The biggest proponents of GMO labeling in Oregon launch their first ads - WaPo (2014)

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The group that has raised the most money in the fight over labeling genetically modified foods in Oregon launched its first ads… The Yes on 92 campaign, the largest proponent of Oregon’s labeling measure, is behind the pair of ads… So far, the Yes on 92 campaign has raised $1.9 million in total campaign contributions, largely from organic goods industry heavyweights, such Dr. Bronner’s and All told, groups supporting the measure have raised about $2.6 million. The No on 92 campaign… has raised about $1 million.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:

Key quote: “organic goods industry heavyweights” » In a multi-billion food market it’s probably a good investment for the organics industry to spend a few million dollars to spread fear of the products of its competitors. Given that these “conventional” products are on the markets since two decades already, have been safety assessed in thousands of studies, and can generally be produced more efficiently (which is good for the environment and consumers’ grocery bills), fear tactics might be one of the few options that are left to the organics industry to gain market shares and to boost their own profits… And for this approach to be successful it is secondary if the labeling proposition succeeds or not — as long as enough consumers are unsettled and buy more organics. (Which might even lead to worse overall nutrition if consumers have less grocery money left to buy e.g. enough fruit and veggies…) 

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Sep 28 '14

Plant engineered for more efficient photosynthesis - Cornell Chronicle (2014)

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A genetically engineered tobacco plant, developed with two genes from blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), holds promise for improving the yields of many food crops.

Plants photosynthesize – convert carbon dioxide, water and light into oxygen and sucrose, a sugar used for energy and for building new plant tissue ­– but cyanobacteria can perform photosynthesis significantly more quickly than many crops can.

“This is the first time that a plant has been created through genetic engineering to fix all of its carbon by a cyanobacterial enzyme… It is an important first step in creating plants with more efficient photosynthesis”… 

Crops with cyanobacteria’s faster carbon fixation would produce more, according to a computer modeling study… Producing more crops on finite arable land is a necessity as the world’s population is projected to pass nine billion by 2050.

Though others have tried and failed, the Cornell and Rothamsted researchers have successfully replaced the gene for a carbon-fixing enzyme called Rubisco in a tobacco plant with two genes for a cyanobacterial version of Rubisco, which works faster than the plant’s original enzyme.

All plants require Rubisco to fix carbon during photosynthesis. Rubisco reacts with both carbon dioxide and oxygen in the air, but when it reacts with oxygen, a plant’s rate of photosynthesis slows down, leading to lower yields.

In many crop plants… Rubisco is less reactive with oxygen, but a trade-off leads to slower carbon fixing and photosynthesis, and thus, smaller yields. The Rubisco in cyanobacteria fixes carbon faster, but it is more reactive with oxygen. As a result, in cyanobacteria, Rubisco is protected in special micro-compartments (called carboxysomes) that keep oxygen out and concentrate carbon dioxide for efficient photosynthesis.

In previous research, Lin, Hanson and colleagues inserted blue-green algae genes in tobacco to create carboxysomes in the plant cells. In future work, the researchers will need to combine genes for cyanobacterial Rubisco with genes for carboxysomes in the tobacco’s chloroplasts, the site in the cell where photosynthesis takes place…

Original article: ;

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Sep 28 '14

Oceans crucial for our climate, food and nutrition - FAO (2014)

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Better management of the world’s ocean resources is crucial to ensuring food global security, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said… Ten percent of the world’s population depends on fisheries for their livelihoods, and 4.3 billion people are reliant on fish for 15 percent of their animal protein intake… for small island development states, the contributions of ocean resources to nutrition, livelihoods, and development are especially significant. Secretary Kerry emphasized that “we need to do a better job of protecting our ocean’s fish stocks, which play a critical role in economic security for millions of families and in food security for millions more.”

According to the latest edition of FAO’s The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report, the fisheries and aquaculture sector is facing major challenges, ranging from harmful fishing practices to weak governance and poor management to the scourge of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Beyond its negative effects on the status of fish stocks and the environment, IUU fishing brings with it very high monetary costs as well — to the tune of $20 billion per year… 

FAO… has launched a new “Blue Growth” initiative which “has the potential to be a leading program on the major issues related to oceans and their resources” … The blue economy model emphasizes conservation and sustainable management, based on the premise that healthy ocean ecosystems are more productive and represent the only way to ensure sustainable ocean-based economies… The shift to sustainable and responsible oceans and fisheries management cannot wait any longer… ”We have the know-how, we have the opportunity. Now is the time to act” …

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Sep 24 '14

Boosting global corn yields depends on improving nutrient balance - Purdue U (2014)

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Ensuring that corn absorbs the right balance of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium is crucial to increasing global yields… A review of data from more than 150 studies from the U.S. and other regions showed that high yields were linked to production systems in which corn plants took up key nutrients at specific ratios - nitrogen and phosphorus at a ratio of 5-to-1 and nitrogen and potassium at a ratio of 1-to-1. These nutrient uptake ratios were associated with high yields regardless of the region where the corn was grown.

"The agricultural community has put a lot of emphasis on nitrogen as a means of increasing yields, but this study highlights the greater importance of nutrient balance," said Tony Vyn, Purdue professor of agronomy. "We will not be able to continually boost global corn yields and achieve food security without providing adequate and balanced nutrients."

While corn producers in the U.S. have long relied on nitrogen fertilizers to improve yields, they should not overlook other nutrients such as potassium and phosphorus… “Growers need to be as concerned about the amount of potassium available to their plants as they are about nitrogen… Corn’s demand for nitrogen and potassium is similar. We need to focus on the nitrogen-potassium balance because that’s where we have the greatest deficiency in terms of application”… 

The main obstacles to closing corn yield gaps - that is, reaching the potential yield projected for a particular soil and climate - around the world are the inaccessibility and cost of fertilizers and the inherent nutrient deficiencies of soils in many regions in which corn is grown… ”On the global scale, the potential yield response to balanced nutrient applications is big… But growers outside the U.S. should also focus on developing an integrated management program that considers factors such as optimum planting dates, plant densities and pest management”… 

Despite the higher nitrogen content of U.S. soils, corn plants in the U.S. were not more efficient at absorbing nitrogen fertilizers from the soil than those in other regions. Nitrogen recovery efficiency, the measure of how much applied nitrogen the above-ground portion of a plant absorbs from the soil, was the same… for the U.S. and other parts of the world… partly because increasing fertilizer application rates can create a “declining return:” The more fertilizer applied, the more difficult it becomes to extract the same percentage of the nutrients in the corn… 

Data collected from 1976 to 2012 also revealed that the efficiency with which individual corn plants absorbed and used nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus stayed relatively consistent despite plants being grown at much higher densities. “On a per-plant basis, corn plants are not taking up more nutrients than they were in the past… They may be taking up less because they are grown closer together, but they are more efficient at producing more grain with the same amount of nutrient uptake”… 

"Growers should not rely too heavily on modern genetics to give them the yields they expect without spending a considerable amount of effort on maintaining nutrient availability throughout the growing season."

Original article:

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Sep 23 '14

Fortification of super basmati during parboiling of rice to alleviate zinc deficiency - Saleem &al (2014) - Pak J Food Sci [pdf]

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Micronutrient deficiencies especially zinc is one of the major issues in developing countries including Pakistan. Present study was designed to evaluate zinc status in rice variety namely in super basmati through parboiling fortification of rice with two zinc salts (ZnO and ZnSO4) by using level of zinc 100, 200, 300, 400 and 500 mg/kg. For the purpose, rice is one of the best options because it holds 2nd position among dietary cereals after wheat. 

After fortification rice samples were subjected to analysis for various attributes. Momentous increment was observed in zinc after fortification. Zinc fortification increased zinc retention and solubility about 79-80% and 80-92% respectively, in all treatments as compared to unfortified parboiled rice. During storage, Zn retention was non-significantly varied and Zn solubility was significantly decreased in respective intervals.

Cooking characteristics of rice i.e. volume expansion ratio, water absorption ratio and elongation ratio had non-significant effect but it is significantly different from raw milled rice. Color of rice and texture values of rice were higher as function of parboiling. Color value of rice increased with high fortification treatment and storage time. Zinc density also increased with higher fortification treatment.

Hedonic response of cooked rice showed non-significant variation from 100 to 300 level of fortification and significant variation was observed with respect to color at 400 and 500 fortificant levels.

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Sep 21 '14

Food security and the evaluation of risk - Smyth &al (2014) - Global Food Sec

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Achieving global food security over the next 40 years will require sustained increases in agricultural productivity. This will require increased investment in agricultural R&D. If there are systemic reasons why agricultural R&D is inhibited, they warrant investigation.

New products and technologies require regulatory approval if they are to be commercialized. Approval, or not, is based on risk assessment with only those products that pass the risk assessment contributing to productivity improvements. If the likelihood of meeting the acceptable risk threshold is reduced, investment in R&D will be negatively impacted.

This paper investigates the changing methods of risk assessment for agricultural products and notes a deterioration in the likelihood that risk assessment exercises will be completed successfully. Genetically modified products are used as an example.

The changing nature of risk assessments is found to be inhibiting international market access, reducing trade and, hence, making investments in productivity enhancing technologies in agriculture less interesting. Achieving future food security goals will be more difficult… 

In its attempts to deal primarily, but not exclusively, with the GM issue, the EU is attempting to broaden the way risk is defined to include a host of socio-economic factors. Given that all new technologies will create some economic losers, redefining risk assessment will make seeking approval for new technologies less predictable and transparent. This, in turn, will alter the incentives to invest in new technologies needed to meet future food security goals.

While the GM issue has been the driving force behind the moves to alter risk assessment, once the new method of risk assessment becomes part of accepted international procedures… it can be applied to any new technology. This is a different issue than the EU simply refusing to approve GM-crops - which also alters the incentives to invest and has been written about previously.

The politicization of risk does not deliver either safer food or technological improvements. Science-based risk assessments have been successful in denying the commercialization of unsafe foods while politicized risk assessments continue to rule that consuming GM foods is a danger to one’s health or the environment.

lf this regulatory divergence meant only that consumers in some rich countries have fewer food choices, the making of this kind of Type 2 error would not be a particular focus for concern. The EU has also made the granting of the most preferred market access for the products of developing countries… contingent on accession to the CPB – meaning that the non-scientific risk assessment methods are spread to developing countries that may most need productivity enhancing innovations.

Given the long term negative impacts on technological improvement in a period when concerns regarding future food security are high, a re-assessment of politicized risk seems prudent. While the focus of this paper has been on one particular agricultural technology… the real danger lies in the potential acceptance of politicized risk more generally. Once it is applied to one technology and accepted as a guiding principle, it can be extended to other technologies.

New technologies will always have their doubters and detractors. They inevitably create potential ‘losers’ who have a vested interest in having
a technology denied. While future food security may not be dependent on fully exploiting the potential of agbiotech, it does depend on technological advancement. Formally allowing non-scientific factors to enter into risk assessments gives process legitimacy to some factors that are normally relegated to political pandering to protectionist vested interests.

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