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From the Catskills to the Cotswolds

Guest posting by Robert Stone

Not too long ago, most environmentalists assumed that the world was rapidly running out of fossil fuels. This certain fact, we believed, would lead to a steady and steep rise in energy prices that in turn would encourage and facilitate the inevitable transition towards a renewable energy future. We were wrong.
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Recent

SIDA responds; scientists push for answers over funding of Golden Rice vandalism

This is an English translation of the response by the Swedish minister of development cooperation to a letter sent by scientists protesting its funding of Masipag, a Filipino activist group linked to the recent vandalism of a Golden Rice trial. See below for a further response from Swedish scientists

Answer to questions about Swedish foreign aid to the International Rice Research Institute and the local organisation MASIPAG

For many years Swedish foreign aid has contributed to the development of agriculture in the poorest countries of the world. Sweden has, through Sida, supported both local farmer organisations such as MASIPAG, and world leading research institutes such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

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Scientists challenge Swedish government over funding of Golden Rice trial vandalism

This is a guest posting by the signatories below

To: Minister for Development Cooperation Hillevi Engström
Department of Foreign Affairs
Gustav Adolfs torg 1
SE-103 39 Stockholm

Why does Swedish foreign aid support vandalism of valuable research?

On August 8th, field trials of the vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice were vandalized in the Philippines. The trials were conducted by the Philippine Department of Agriculture, on behalf of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). IRRI is supported by Sweden through foreign aid to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR.

The attack was presented as an uprising of local farmers. However, it is clear that the attack was orchestrated by protesters from various environmental organizations, according to a pattern that we have seen recurring here in Europe. Philippine authorities have identified members of the organization MASIPAG among the attackers, and are now preparing legal action against them. On MASIPAG´s home page, explicit support for the attack is expressed.

It is now clear that MASIPAG has for many years been receiving support from the Swedish International Cooperation Agency (Sida) through funds to the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SNF). Hence, Swedish foreign aid funds are directed both to organizations that seek scientific ways to help ensure a safe and secure global food supply, and to organizations that support criminal actions aimed at counteracting such development. We assume that this does not accord with the intentions of the Swedish government.

Golden Rice is a strain of rice capable of producing β-carotene that has been developed using modern plant biotechnology. This trait could not have been introduced into rice by means of conventional plant breeding methods. Upon consumption β-carotene is converted into vitamin A, which is an essential component of the light-absorbing molecule rhodopsin in the eye. Golden Rice was developed with the support of independent funding agencies, such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The trait that allows Golden Rice to produce β-carotene has now been crossed into several local rice varieties. After completion of the field trials and following regulatory approval, these locally-adapted rice varieties are intended to be freely distributed to local farmers. Hence, Golden Rice is not the legal property of any private company, and is instead supervised by a Humanitarian Board.

Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness and in severe cases death. It may also directly affect the body’s immune system and can thus exacerbate many serious diseases. Vitamin A deficiency is a disease of poverty and poor diet. It has been estimated that vitamin A deficiency causes between 1.9 and 2.8 million deaths each year, predominantly among poor children under the age of 5 and among poor women. It is now well documented that Golden Rice has the ability to produce sufficiently high levels of β-carotene to prevent blindness and death due to vitamin A deficiency.

The global scientific community has therefore reacted with dismay, and has strongly condemned the attack on the Golden Rice field trials. This vandalism is not only an attack on efforts to reduce human suffering, but also an attack against science itself since the arguments that have been put forward against the trials are fundamentally anti-scientific. The attack can only be understood in an international context, where influential ‘environmental’ groups are organizing a global campaign against modern plant breeding.

We welcome the Swedish government’s longstanding support for aid-related agricultural research, including the continued support to CGIAR and IRRI, and we do appreciate the value of pluralism in funding policy. But we see it as extremely worrying that Swedish aid funds are used to sabotage research that aims at mitigating human suffering. Sida has also financed projects in South America with the stated aim to reduce or eliminate modern plant breeding. We do not believe that Swedish foreign aid should be used to finance activities aimed at stopping the introduction of modern technology in the agricultural sector.

We therefore urge the Swedish government to investigate if the development funds allocated to MASIPAG have been used in accordance with the governmental guidelines to Sida; funding that has provided alleged support for the destruction of publicly funded field research. We also wish to seek clarification as to what steps the government plans to take in order to ensure that future foreign aid in the agricultural sector is directed towards developmental projects that are knowledge driven and have a sound scientific basis.

Signed:

Nina Fedoroff
Pugh Professor, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Penn State University
Former (2012) president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Dr. Robert S. Zeigler
Director General
International Rice Research Institute

Torbjörn Fagerström
Professor emeritus of theoretical ecology, Lund University
Former Deputy Vice Chancellor SLU

Sten Stymne
Professor of Plant Breeding
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)

Stefan Jansson
Professor of Plant Cell and Molecular Biology
Umeå University

Jens Sundström
Assoc. Professor of Plant Physiology, SLU

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Why we need to label GMOs

Mark Lynas speech to Center for Food Integrity Summit, Chicago, 15 October 2013

Audio on YouTube:

Ladies and gentlemen,

In just about three weeks from now, on November 5, Washington State will likely pass a ballot initiative to label GMOs. Polling I’ve seen suggests two-thirds of voters currently approve of I-522. Those numbers may come down a bit, but my hunch is this particular battle is lost.

I’m told that it’s entirely possible that the ballot initiative could then be struck down as unconstitutional, so it being passed is not the end point. But as Churchill once said, it is certainly the end of the beginning. The strategy of fighting labelling state by state will have failed, and something new will have to take its place. Today I want to outline to you some ideas about what this something new might look like.

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Using the tools of biotechnology to advance Borlaug’s legacy

Keynote speech by Mark Lynas to the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative 2013 Technical Workshop, Hotel Taj Palace, New Delhi

20 August 2013, 8.30am

[as prepared - please check against delivery]

Ladies, gentlemen, distinguished delegates, honoured guests,

I particularly want to acknowledge Jeanie Borlaug, chair of BGRI and a champion of continuing her father’s legacy in food security… and her daughter and Dr Borlaug’s grand-daughter Julie Borlaug, who is not with us today but has been both an insipiration and a practical support to me in preparing these remarks.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Three weeks ago I was travelling in central Kenya, meeting smallholder farmers who were growing improved bananas using the tools of modern biotechnology. Their banana plantations were healthy because they had been able to obtain clean tissue culture plantlets from the agricultural research institute rather than transplanting disease-carrying suckers.

One of these farmers, who had just over an acre of land, and children to feed, told me, much to my surprise, that he had once met Dr Norman Borlaug. He had been on a Kenyan delegation to the World Food Prize some years ago, it turned out. His description of the event has stayed in my head ever since. Meeting Borlaug was “like meeting the President of the World”, he told me with a grin.

Well, Borlaug wasn’t president of the world of course. To my knowledge he wasn’t president of anything. And yet he achieved more in his lifetime to change the world for the better than any official world leader I can think of for at least the last half-century.

That is why the Kenyan smallholder farmer I met remembered meeting Borlaug as one of the greatest moments of his life. Because he had shaken hands with one of the greatest men who has ever lived.

And we heard similar very moving testimonials last night from farmers here in India for whom Norman Borlaug touched their lives and changed them for the better.

Now, generally I am sceptical of hagiographic tributes, but with Borlaug it would be difficult to exaggerate his positive impact. As M S Swaminathan has put it:

“There is a saying in the Gita that, from time to time, God appears on earth in disguise. When the world was in a serious food crisis one of the godly forms who appeared was Norman Borlaug.”

Unlike official world leaders, Borlaug achieved what he did not through formal political power, nor through lofty rhetoric delivered from high up on the world stage, but through rigorous science and sheer hard work.

Science in Borlaug’s case was meticulously crossing thousands upon thousands of different wheat plants, in order to breed new varieties with greater yields, dwarfing characteristics and higher ratio of grain to total biomass.

Science for him also meant living alone in the research station he established in Sonora in Mexico, sowing wheat out of season initially by hand with a hoe, with no electricity or clean water, and with a dying child in a hospital far away.

How many of us would have worked that hard and made those kinds of sacrifices, even if we had known in advance – as he could not possibly have done – that we would end up saving a billion lives?

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