Opinions are divided. I would like to refer to a similar debate that the New Yorker hosted online on this topic around this time last year – Can Biotech Cure World Hunger. Opinions were divided amongst experts there as well. However, I was particularly intrigued by the proposal that Johnathon Foley, director of the new Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, put forward. He expounds upon “The Third Way”…
“Currently, there are two paradigms of agriculture being widely promoted: local and organic systems versus globalized and industrialized agriculture. Each has fervent followers and critics. Genuine discourse has broken down: You’re either with Michael Pollan or you’re with Monsanto. But neither of these paradigms, standing alone, can fully meet our needs.”
Foley proposes a “hybrid” of the two: “…take ideas from both sides, [create] new, hybrid solutions that boost production, conserve resources and build a more sustainable and scalable agriculture.”
We need compromise. We need to explore the value, opportunities and gains that can be made through the employment of a variety of production practices including organics, GE, conventional, etc. The more time we spend fighting at the impasse, the less time we can put towards developing viable, practicable solutions – solutions that can benefit everyone.”
GM and organics have, for the most part, been viewed as being at opposing ends of the farming production & practice debate.
To that end, I was pleased to see that The Economistis hosting a debate on this very important matter. The Economist puts forward the notion that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are symbiotic and complementary, not at all contradictory. Moderator, Tom Standage*, looks beyond the ‘crude stereotypes’ and observes that these opposing sides have something in common”
“Both camps are looking for new techniques to produce food sustainably: in other words, methods that minimise environmental impact, maximise farmers’ welfare, can cope with climate change and can be scaled across the developing world. The two camps agree on the ends, if not the means…the idea of a rapprochement between these two approaches is not totally out of the question.”
Professor Pamela Robert (UC Davis) defends the notion of symbiosis between GE and sustainability: “The number of people on Earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. How will we feed them? Genetically engineered crops will play an important role.”
Opposing the motion is Charles Benrock of the Organic Center: “Biotechnology is not a system of farming. It reflects no specific philosophy nor is it guided by a set of principles or performance criteria. It is a bag of tools than can be used for good or evil, and lots in between.”
The online forum (scheduled from November 2 to November 12) allows users to vote or provide input into the debate. Here are a few of the viewpoints that have been put forward – some are the same ol’, same ol’ while others are thought-provoking and intriguing…
“‘…If we continue with current farming practices, [quoting P. Robert]..’, why does it have to be that we have to choose between one bad over the other? The type of farming that would be sustainable not only for the environment but also for the people would be traditional farming.”
“…when I hear about national research institutions that provide the government with information, allow me to have the benefit of the doubt regarding the truth of the scientists’ statements. When scientists are not independent and get paid from the government, (whose decision is lobbied by multinational companies,) how much trustworthy can the research institutions be?”
“…to increase agricultural output on the scale needed, not only must we rely on biotechnology for crop re-engineering and pest control, but we also need it for optimal fertilising…agricultural biotech therefore represents a key tool for smart feed and fertilising which by helping us to close the phosphate loop, will make an important contribution to sustainable agriculture.”
“The thing to be constantly vigilant about in this debate is stewardship. Modifying plants genetically is old hat, when level heads prevail we agree it’s something that requires a regulated environment. Creators of GM crops must act as good stewards of their products and ensure safety for people as well as the environmental.”
“What about the loss of bio-diversity in planted crops or that GM crops cross-pollinate with non GM crops then making them produce GM crops? Natural selection has worked for millions of years so why tamper with it. It is all about making corporations money not feeding the worlds hungry.”
“It is important to remember that GE seeds developed through biotechnology by itself won’t increase productivity. Its part of a technological package that includes the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and heavy machinery and the more vital of all, water. But is an expensive and brutal system that requires education and experience to be sustainable.”
“There is one simple fact about GMO that many politicians and some irresponsible scientists do not seem to be willing to accept: “GM crops cannot coexist with conventional crops.””
“If you ask what the value of the industrial food is, you must deduct the taxpayer money supporting it. We lose something whenever we artificially prop one company up with taxpayer dollars that destroys competition.”
“If the scientific knowledge required for the manipulation of plant genetics is available, then it would be foolish for us not to seek to employ that knowledge for the betterment of mankind simply because of slippery slope concerns.”
“The question is wrong. All sustainable farming is not ecological farming.Considering the limitations of organic farming, it could even be asked if organic farming is sustainable. A wholesale shift to organic farming would lower the world’s food output dramatically, causing famine on a large scale. I am not convinced that GM can make up for pesticide and especially fertilizers. Organic farming may be sustainable for the soil, but it is not sustainable for us.”
“Back in the 70’s, when the world’s population was 2 billion, we developed GM agriculture to prevent a growing problem of starvation. We suceeded so well that now we have more than 6 billion people. Now, faced with the threat of 9 billion people, we need to again step up the technology. When does it end? The term sustainability needs to incorporate population stablity to make any sense at all.“
As of today (November 3rd) there were 60+ comments posted to The Economist’s online debate. This is a very important dialogue – engage in it!
Scientists say “no” to Bill C474 while some seed and organics growers support it. What are your thoughts?
Dr. Peter Phillips’ (University of Saskatchewan) and Dr. Wilf Keller (Genome Prairie) warn MPs against support of such a bill. Dr. Phillips’ kindly provided his notes from this presentation and they are attached.
“…this proposed 42-word, well-intentioned and apparently simple and straightforward amendment is a veritable Trojan horse that would destabilize the vitally important Canadian agri-food innovation system. As an alternative, I strongly urge you to broaden the dialogue to consider how we might truly achieve the stated goals of this amendment—an efficient, effective and commercially viable research, development, regulatory commercialization system that delivers world-class agri-food products…” (Phillips)
A stimulating read on a local (Sask-based) innovation model by ‘yours truly’ and colleague Stuart Smyth… Facilitating Innovation in Agricultural Biotechnology: An Examination of the Ag-West Biotech Model, 1989-2004 AgBioForum, volume 13, Number 2, Article 9 http://www.agbioforum.org/v13n2/v13n2a09-smyth.htm Innovation is more than just science. Innovation encompasses a diversity of disciplines, such as law (patents and freedom to operate), economics (spill-over benefits and returns to investment), political science (government policy and international trade barriers), and psychology (consumer responses). Clearly, the multiple disciplines that can—and have—investigated aspects of cycles of innovation or innovation systems indicate that the concept of innovation is extremely broad. In the same stream, innovation is more than simply firms commercializing new products. It also involves public research institutions, federal regulators, and organizations representing stakeholders from farmers to consumers. In their role to facilitate innovation, governments have developed arm’s-length organizations to advocate, support, and service the agricultural biotechnology industry. This article examines Ag-West Biotech, a non-profit venture funded by the Saskatchewan government. Ag-West Biotech has delivered a wide range of services to the Saskatchewan biotechnology industry by acting as a mediator between business and government, as project facilitator and financier, and by offering visible leadership and direction for the biotechnology sector.
Chris Holman blogs on patent protection of gene sequences…
“…[The EU] ruling could have a substantial impact on biotechnology. Obviously, it provides an opening for growers to circumvent gene patents used to protect genetically modified crops by growing the crops in a country where the gene is not patented, such as Argentina in this case, or in a jurisdiction with weak patent enforcement, and then importing the product into a European Union member wherein the patent is in force with impunity…I personally do not think gene patents will substantially impede whole genome sequencing, in the US or elsewhere. But if I am wrong, and patents on genes pose a substantial impediment to whole genome sequencing in the US, the patents could be circumvented by exporting the process to a place like Europe. The EU court decision could substantially reduce the likelihood that whole genome sequencing in Europe will result in liability for patent infringement.”
Excerpt from the Holman blog:
Monsanto v. Cefetra: EU Court of Justice Limits Scope of Patent Protection Available to Gene Sequences
Friday, July 9, 2010
A couple of years ago I posted an article (available at: http://holmansbiotechipblog.blogspot.com/2008/05/limitations-on-scope-of-dna-… discussing the case of Monsanto v. Cefetra. Essentially, in that case a European court held that Monsanto patents claiming the gene responsible for its Roundup Ready trait were not infringed by the importation of soy meal containing the gene, because the grinding of the soybeans to make the meal rendered the DNA incapable of expressing the encoded protein, and thus unprotectable pursuant to the 1998 European Union Directive on biotechnology.
On Tuesday, July 6, that decision was affirmed by the Court of Justice of the European Union. This is the highest judicial body of the European Union, so there will be no further appeals, and this would appear to be the final word on the subject. The decision was reported in an article posted on IPKat, a respected European IP blog, available at http://ipkitten.blogspot.com/2010/07/monsanto-court-makes-meal-of-soya.html. I am no expert on European law, but here are a few thoughts on the significance of this case.
First, my interpretation of the decision.
In a nutshell, the Court of Justice held that although the so-called Biotech Directive, promulgated by the European Union in 1998, permits the patenting of naturally occurring DNA sequences, the scope of patent protection only extends to products incorporating the DNA if the DNA is capable of performing “the function for which it was patented.” Applying this criterion to the facts of the case, the Court held that the patentable function of the gene at issue was to confer glyphosate (i.e., RoundUp) resistance upon a plant, and that since the soy meal is dead and thus incapable of expressing this function, the DNA residing in the soy meal is ineligible for patent protection.
The Court went on to hold that the Biotech Directive supersedes national law, and precludes individual European nations from enacting legislation that would permit patenting of DNA sequence per se. It also held that the prohibition against patenting DNA sequences per se applies retroactively to patents predating the EU’s adoption of Directive in 1998. In short, this unappealable ruling appears to be binding upon all 27 European Union Member States, and all DNA patents, no matter when they were issued.
See full article on Holman’s blog at: http://holmansbiotechipblog.blogspot.com/2010/07/monsanto-v-cefetra-eu-court-…
Judging the Facts About Biotechnology – Reg Clause, AgWeb, June 25, 2010 http://www.agweb.com (Jefferson, IA – Board member, Truth About Trade & Technology)
In the Supreme Court’s first-ever ruling on genetically modified crops, the justices issued a resounding decision in favor of biotechnology. The Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision to impose a nationwide ban on GM alfalfa.
The Supreme Court is famous for its 5-4 split decisions, especially in cases that generate political controversy. The alfalfa ruling, however, was no nail-biter. The justices ruled 7-1 in favor of biotechnology.
The case marks a clear victory for American farmer choice in the matter of biotech seed. It affirms the idea that relevant government agencies and regulators set the rules that govern agriculture – and those rules must be science-based. The United States has benefited since its founding from a process of lawmaking and regulatory rules making. When this is subverted by finding friendly courts or endlessly clogging our processes with frivolous suits, nobody benefits except the very narrow interest groups who happen to oppose progress.
Technically, the ruling in Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms was procedural. Important legal and regulatory decisions lie ahead as the Department of Agriculture finishes an environmental assessment of GM alfalfa. Farmers like myself agree with a robust and continuous process that assures me and all Americans that our food is safe and always available.
Yet the case also sets farmers on a course that may allow them to take full advantage of what GM alfalfa has to offer and opens up the possibility for plantings to begin within a few months.
Those opposing biotechnology obviously were hoping for a different result. For them, resorting to litigation was a desperate maneuver. They’ve lost significant battles over GM crops in just about every other arena.
Farmers across the country are adopting and planting GM crops as soon as they become available because the value is there in improved productivity and quality. This spring marks the 15th year that biotech crops are being planted in the U.S. Today, the vast majority of corn, soybeans, and cotton are genetically enhanced to fight weeds and bugs. The broader public has responded favorably as well, especially when there is objective information provided. Of course the public might be against GM seed if they are told there might be a problem. That’s why I’m writing this article. I haven’t seen these problems, research scientist inside and outside the industry haven’t been able to show these problems and our regulators didn’t find these supposed problems. The American people need to know that. Let’s put some trust but verify into action on this important subject and question those who oppose important new things, “just because.”
As a farmer I do not take more risk than I can justify. My legacy is my farm and the young people I leave to farm it. When I see the decades of regulatory research into biotech seeds and the billions of acres planted over the years, I simply ask a question. When there are no negative outcomes in the environment or human health discovered after so many years, is there not a point when those fearful of biotechnology can admit there is no longer need to just fear? I want the regulatory functions to go on and get better if anything, but simply stopping progress with the courts is not a way to facilitate proper research and rules development.
Science also has come down solidly on the side of biotechnology. Research has shown that these plants pose no threat to anybody and may even enhance human health as new traits that improve nutrition become available. On the environmental front, GM crops have let farmers adopt no-till methods that fight soil erosion. Gains in yield allow farmers to produce more food on each acre of land, thereby reducing the pressure on wilderness areas.
The anti-biotech activists are applying a cynical approach to science, technology, and food production by hiring lawyers and seeking out friendly court venues. Yet these professional rabble-rousers have a lot invested in their litigious scheme. The Supreme Court’s decision probably isn’t enough to make them abandon it completely. Even if they don’t win on alfalfa, they’ll try to win on sugar beets–another important crop that they are attempting to thwart.
The good news is that the Supreme Court’s ruling will make it harder for them to succeed. My goal in farming is to improve the environment in my care and provide ever safer food for Americans and the world.
All across our land I hope for us to all come together around achievable goals like mine. If there are legitimate objections to the adoption of new farming tools such as biotech seeds, I’m waiting to hear them and would want to see such objections thoroughly handled. Right now the objections appear to come without merit attached. So sayeth our Supreme Court.
Commissioned by Crop Life America and and the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA), Phillips McDougall conducted a study on the discovery, development and registration of new products designed to support modern agricultural production and fight pests and disease around the world.