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Feeding the world

Make Sure Your Voice is Heard

Another positive side effect of extending my stay in Iowa for another week (besides having the chance to work from a room with a view), was getting the chance to see the Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak give a presentation on the same themes are their book “Tomorrow’s Table” here on campus (I’ve reviewed the book itself).

Pamela Ronald is actually going to be talking in Berkeley late next month, but, in addition to a sneak peak of the presentation (which was really good) listening the the question session following their talk was a great chance to resample the perspective of the other major group involved in the debate on genetic engineering (besides anti-gmo activists, corporate public relations people, and plant scientists like me), farmers and agronomists.

What Pamela and Raoul advocate, distilled down to a single phrase, is agriculture utilizing “the best technology and the best practices.” The best technology is pretty clearly going to incorporate at least some genetically engineered traits, but the best farming practices will definitely incorporate approaches from organic agriculture. (more…)

Edible Cottonseed

Cotton and cotton seeds photo credit: Gonzalez's tongue, Flickr (click to see photo in it's original context)

Cotton and cotton seeds photo credit: Gonzalez's tongue, Flickr (click to see photo in it's original context)

Over 102 million bales of cotton (more than 24 million tons of cotton) were grown around the world last year. I wouldn’t surprise me to hear cotton called the single most important (and widely cultivated) food crop on the face of the planet. But does it have to be a non-food crop?

Clearly no one (nor any livestock) wants to eat the cotton fibers themselves, but they aren’t the only product of the plant. After to cotton plant flowers, the cotton fibers grow around the developing seeds. The combined mixture is harvested each year, after which the seeds are removed from the cotton fibers before the cotton is baled and sold.*

The seeds of the cotton plant are full of protein and oils and since cotton is already grown as a source of fiber (and the seeds are even harvested and sorted out of the cotton fibers already) adding them to the food supply** doesn’t require any further land to be cultivated or increased input costs. Obviously there is a catch… (more…)

China’s Approval of Bt Rice Confirmed

Read today’s story from Bloomberg. I’d discussed my own thoughts when it was a story based on anonymous sources last week.

From the article:

China produces 31 percent of the world’s rice and 20 percent of its corn, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. …[China] uses 7 percent of the world’s arable land to feed a quarter of its population.

China has only 7% of the world’s farmland yet feeds more than 1.3 billion people (and still growing). No wonder they’re investing so heavily in crop/plant science.

Another one I recently read (if it was you, sorry for not attributing it properly, the comparison just stuck in my head) was that India and Argentina are about the same size (India is about a quarter bigger) yet India must feed 30 times as many people!*

*Of course this isn’t quite a fair comparison since Argentina exports so much food to Western Europe, since those countries can afford to buy food abroad instead of focusing on increasing local production, and China and India must

Could we feed ourselves with tomatoes?

Obviously no one is suggesting turning the US into a tomato monoculture, but tomatoes seem like a easy, if not necessarily accurate, proxy for the sort of fresh vegetable passed diets that some people advocate as a solution for the entire nation. If the did the same calculation for lettuce, the numbers would likely be much worse. If I did it for sweet potatoes, I’m guessing they would be substantially better.

There is a very useful resource on growing tomatoes made available by the Iowa State extension service. They estimate yields of 12,000-16,000 pounds of tomato per acre. A pound of tomatoes contains 86 calories. (more…)

Food Stamps Usage

Today 1 in 8 Americans and 1 in 4 children is on food stamps. We have some of the most productive agriculture in the world, which translates into some of the lowest food prices. Any change that decreases our productivity is going to have to include some way to protect those who already don’t have enough to eat.

At the same time the status quo isn’t acceptable. Food stamps are a great program (for fighting hunger but it’s also one of the two most effective ways of stimulating the economy along with increasing unemployment benefits), but families often still run out of money before the end of the month. I propose three key areas to work on:

  • Increase funding for the food stamps program to make more eligible and give them enough money to make it through the month
  • Increase agricultural productivity, this will bring down prices somewhat domestically, and also help fight hunger around the world
  • Get government funding to train people in how to cook simple meals (things with lots of rice, dried beans, and pasta) and even buy hot plates and a few pots and pans for those most in need. The cost of homemade rice and bean burritos is a lot less frozen food and potato chips. Some people still won’t have time to put together their own meals, but for some, such training and equipment could make a HUGE difference.

I got thinking about this after seeing this cool/frightening graphic from the nytimes about the huge increase in food stamp usage in this country.

Bt Rice in China

Reuters has a story up, based on anonymous sources, that China has just approved a government developed strain of bt rice*. Bt crops express a protein isolated from Bacillus thuringiensis a bacteria used by organic farmers to control insects. The introduction of bt crops (primarily corn and cotton) has lead to substantial reductions in the use of insecticides. China plants more than 100,000 square miles of land with rice each year, so the environmental and economic** impact of being able to reduce insecticide applications would be substantial.

China is also in a unique position when it comes to commercializing any form of genetically engineered rice, as the world’s largest producer of rice, but only a small next exporter*** China stands to benefit from any improvements to rice, and is largely immune to pressure from food importing countries such as the members of the European Union. China has also invested (and continues to invest) billions of dollars in developing their own, publicly-funded, domestic crop research and breeding which has kept their per acre crop yields trending upwards, and now means they’re prepared to make the leap to genetically engineered food crops (they’ve had bt cotton for some time) with home-grown technology, killing any narrative about this being western tech foisted off on the developing world. (more…)

It never rains but it pours (more analysis of The Organic Center report)

Just this morning I was talking about how I’d hope to see more analysis of The Organic Center’s report on genetic engineering’s effect on pesticides. Just a little while ago I was able to point to a discussion of problems with some of the numbers behind the report. Here’s more perspective (this time from Steve Savage on sustainablog), which brings up another key point I didn’t consider. Much of the increase in pesticide use attributed to herbicide tolerant crops actually came in 2007-2008, the same year that food prices spiked around the world:

There is an old saying – “the best cure for high food commodity prices is high food commodity prices.”  When grain prices are high, growers respond by planting more acres (=more chemical use) and by applying more crop protection chemicals to the crop they grow so that less of this more valuable yield is lost to pests.  Its really simple, rational economics.  Also, remember that the irritating, but not large, food price increases American consumers saw in 2007/8 corresponded to a huge swing in the percent of the family budget spent on food in poor countries.  There were even food riots and export restrictions.  The fact that American farmers ramped up production was a good thing for poor people and the chemicals were part of that.

This is Why It’s Important to Know What bt Stands For

We’ve been hearing more about India in the news lately. Along with the decision about whether or not to approve bt eggplants (brinjal), India is also debating a set of new biotechnology intellectual property laws. As I’ve said in the past India currently doesn’t recognize genetic patents, so anybody can breed transgenes into their own seeds and sell them. Of course the only legalized GE crop in India right now is cotton but as others are legalized, the same situation would apply.

I’ll admit I disagree with this quote:

Clinton said she favoured a strong intellectual property or patent regime (IPR) to safeguard the ownership of agricultural research, as that would be in ‘everyone’s interest’.

India is faced with the question of how best to balance protection for creators, to encourage biotech research, and the rights of farmers, to make sure they get the most possible benefit from that research. It is important to strike the right balance between the two, not just cater to the desires of one side of the other. It’s the same issue faced by every country when it comes to regulating everything from pharmaceutical research to the music industry.

And I have faith India will find the right balance. After all we’re talking about a country where cheap pirate copies of movies are available cheaply and easily on every street corner sometimes before movies even make it into theaters, yet Bollywood (the Indian film industry based in Mumbai) is quite profitable, turns out twice as many films as Hollywood, and is probably the only other national film industry, other than America’s, recognized around the world.*

So given all that could the people who write about the issue please PLEASE bother to look up what bt stands for? Case in point:

First, the Indian government has yet to greenlight the commercialisation of Bt brinjal — crucial for the future of these ‘Bt brand’ companies — even after a thumbs up from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). … the MNCs who produce ‘Bt’ seeds, as genetically modified or GM crops have come to be popularly known (patents would ensure that no one else would be allowed to produce or sell these seeds).

*Off the top of my head I’d recommend Krrish and Salaam/Namaste as examples of entertaining movies Bollywood has put out recently, and Gol Maal as a hilarious one from several decades ago.

About the herbicide application report that’s floating around

I’m sure everyone who follows the genetic engineering debate has heard about the report from The Organic Center which lays a net increase in pesticide usage at the feet of genetically engineered crops. So I finally found a link to the report itself [warning pdf, also 69 pages]. I’m neither a statistician nor an agronomist (despite my awesome ISU hat which has exactly that slogan), so I’m not qualified to confirm or refute the numbers they put forward. Hopefully we’ll see more detailed analysis on that end from someplace like Biofortified or Sustainablog. I now have some analysis of the methodology of the report itself, tracked down by gntis on the biofortified forums. What I can do is given a bit of the broader context about the context of their numbers and what they don’t mean. This post will be in the following format:

  • The 318 million pounds in context
  • Chemicals are different
  • –Different Toxicity
  • –Different Persistance in the Environment
  • Herbicide resistant weeds
  • One trait vs a technology

318 Million Pounds in Context

Example tweet:

Pesticide use has skyrocketed by 318 million lbs (in last 13 years) with use of #GMO seeds!

Let’s put that number in perspective. (more…)

Biotech Wheat

Nature Biotechnology has an article well worth checking out (if you have journal access anyway) about the story of biotech wheat. No genetically engineered wheat is commercially grown today, nor has it been in the past.  Monsanto came close to releasing an herbicide tolerant variety several years ago, but didn’t because of fear that American farmers would lose valuable markets for our wheat exports. I speculated that genetically engineered wheat runs into more consumer opposition because we eat more wheat in recognizable forms (mostly bread and pasta) than we do crops like corn, soybeans, and canola.

Anyway, two new developments seem to have prompted this article. (more…)