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Agriculture - Oct 29

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This crop revolution may succeed where GM failed

Jeremy Rifkin, The Guardian
Gene splicing has been made obsolete by a cutting-edge technology that greatly accelerates classical plant breeding
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For years, the life-science companies - Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Pioneer etc - have argued that genetically modified food is the next great scientific revolution in agriculture, and the only efficient and cheap way to feed a growing population in a shrinking world. Non-governmental organisations - including the Foundation on Economic Trends, of which I am president - have been cast as the villains in this agricultural drama, and often categorised as modern versions of the Luddites, accused of continually blocking scientific and technological progress because of our opposition to GM food.

Now, in an ironic twist, new cutting-edge technologies have made gene splicing and transgenic crops obsolete and a serious impediment to scientific progress. The new frontier is called genomics and the new agricultural technology is called marker-assisted selection (MAS). The new technology offers a sophisticated method to greatly accelerate classical breeding. A growing number of scientists believe MAS - which is already being introduced into the market - will eventually replace GM food. Moreover, environmental organisations that oppose GM crops are guardedly supportive of MAS technology.

...As MAS becomes cheaper and easier to use, and as knowledge in genomics becomes more easily available over the next decade, plant breeders around the world will be able to exchange information about best practices and democratise the technology. Already plant breeders are talking about "open source" genomics, envisioning the sharing of genes. The struggle between a younger generation of sustainable-agriculture enthusiasts anxious to share genetic information and entrenched company scientists determined to maintain control over the world's seed stocks through patent protection is likely to be hard-fought, especially in the developing world.

If properly used as part of a much larger systemic and holistic approach to sustainable agricultural development, MAS technology could be the right technology at the right time in history.
(26 Oct 2006)


Ethanomics 101
The shining promise of ethanol doesn't add up for farmers

Tom Philpott, Grist
No one can begrudge corn farmers their share of euphoria over the recent ethanol boom.

Until very recently, their plight could be summed up by a bit of gallows humor I once heard from a dairy farmer: "I lose money on every gallon, so I try to make up for it on volume."

That brief sentence sums up the desperation of large-scale farming. When prices drop, the farmer hopes to compensate by producing more. But everyone else has the same idea, so the price just drops further.

For most of the last three decades, the price of commodity corn has hovered at about $2 per bushel (which is 56 pounds). That means corn fetched for its growers a mind-numbing 3.5 pennies per pound -- less than the cost of production, which has risen steadily over the decades. Meanwhile, corn buyers -- chiefly Archer Daniels Midland -- reeled in fat profits by turning all that cheap corn into high-fructose corn syrup, ethanol, and feed for confined-animal feeding operations.

...For these farmer/investors, ethanol plants promise a can't-lose scenario. Producing ethanol theoretically provides a hedge against low corn prices, because when corn prices dip, ethanol production becomes more profitable. And if ethanol demand keeps surging, it will suck in more corn, meaning rising prices for the farmers' main commodity.

Yet I fear these hopes will prove to be hollow.

Most environmentalists agree that the "green" case for corn-based ethanol is a sham: Even if the fuel's energy balance is marginally positive, that factor is probably outweighed by the vast environmental liabilities of large-scale corn production.

From the farmer cooperative's perspective, the economics of corn-based ethanol may be even worse.
(25 Oct 2006)

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