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Fury as EU approves GM potato

Martin Hickman and Genevieve Roberts, The Independent
The introduction of a genetically modified potato in Europe risks the development of human diseases that fail to respond to antibiotics, it was claimed last night.

German chemical giant BASF this week won approval from the European Commission for commercial growing of a starchy potato with a gene that could resist antibiotics – useful in the fight against illnesses such as tuberculosis.

Farms in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic may plant the potato for industrial use, with part of the tuber fed to cattle, according to BASF, which fought a 13-year battle to win approval for Amflora. But other EU member states, including Italy and Austria and anti-GM campaigners angrily attacked the move, claiming it could result in a health disaster.

During the regulatory tussle over the potato, the EU’s pharmaceutical regulator had expressed concern about its potential to interfere with the efficacy of antibiotics on infections that develop multiple resistance to other antibiotics, a growing problem in human and veterinary medicine. Amflora contains a gene that produces an enzyme which generally confers resistance to several antibiotics, including kanamycin, neomycin, butirosin, and gentamicin…
(4 Mar 2010)

France blasts GM crop approvals by EU agency

Europe’s food safety agency has used partial evidence to approve genetically modified crops, including a GM potato developed by BASF, and should overhaul its methods, a French environment minister said.

France has previously invoked environmental risks to suspend cultivation of Monsanto’s MON 810 maize, which was the only GM crop approved for growing in the European Union prior to this week’s approval of BASF’s Amflora potato.

Chantal Jouanno, a junior minister in the French government, said the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), whose opinions are used by the EU’s executive, had ignored the environmental effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

“We do not recognize their expertise because we consider that their opinions are incomplete,” she told French daily Le Parisien in an interview published on Friday.

“They are only interested in the sanitary consequences of GMOs, without taking into account their long-term environmental impact,” she said, citing potential contamination of soil and adverse effects on other species…
(5 Mar 2010)

Are GMOs the ‘financial innovations’ of agriculture?

Tom Laskawy, Grist
Financial blogger Felix Salmon has an essay in Foreign Policy called “How Locavores Can Save the World” — expanded, by the way, from a wonderful blog post he wrote after attending a panel discussion on world hunger at the Davos World Economic Forum in the company of Blue Hill Farm’s Dan Barber. Salmon usually focuses on issues involving economic crises, monetary policy, complex derivatives, macro-economics and governmental oversight of the financial markets, but here he’s talking monocultures, sustainable agriculture, and transgenic seeds. Tom Philpott has in the past opined on the similarities between financial and food crises, so I suppose this turn of events is not too surprising.

But the bit I found most striking was how Salmon characterized Big Ag’s claim that genetically modified organisms are an “answer” to the problem of world hunger:

[It] is the agricultural equivalent of creating triple-A-rated mortgage bonds, fabricated precisely to prevent the problem of credit risk. It doesn’t make the problem go away: It just makes the problem rarer and much more dangerous when it does occur because no one is — or even can be — prepared for such a high-impact, low-probability event.

Well, hey. That’s a new one. GMOs as CDOs (i.e. Collateralized Debt Obligations), the mortgage-backed securities that helped destroy the economy as we knew it. But I wanted to hear more details. So I asked Salmon if he might expand on the analogy. And this post was his response:

The point here is that a disease-resistant crop is a lot like a triple-A-rated structured bond: they’re both artificially engineered to be as safe as possible. That would be a wonderfully good thing if no one knew that they were so safe. But if you’re aware of a safety improvement, that often just has the effect of increasing the amount of risk you take: people drive faster when they’re wearing seatbelts, and they take on a lot more leverage when they’re buying AAA-rated bonds.

The agricultural equivalent is the move to industrial-scale monoculture, “safe” in the knowledge that lots of clever engineers in the US have made the crop into the agribusiness version of a bankruptcy-remote special-purpose entity.

But the problem is that bankruptcy-remote doesn’t mean that bankruptcy is impossible: just ask the people running Citigroup’s AAA-rated SIVs [Structured Investment Vehicles — another risk management financial “innovation” that failed spectacularly]. If and when the unlikely event eventually happens, the amount of devastation caused is directly proportional to the degree to which people thought they were protected. When something like that goes wrong, it goes very wrong indeed: artificial safety improvements have the effect of turning outcomes binary.

Essentially, you’re trading a large number of small problems for a small probability that at some point you’re going to have an absolutely enormous problem.

In a sense, Big Ag — along with the Obama administration — is doubling down on the industrial system we have now: one that is already starting to show signs of stress, from the rise of superweeds along with the price of oil. Monsanto and Syngenta are claiming the ability to genetically engineer all the risk out of agriculture. But in narrowing farmers’ choices to a small set of patented seeds, seeds that must be bought by and distributed to every far-flung farm in the world every year (most of which lack basic infrastructure like, say, roads, and which must grow them according to strict protocols), these companies presume to have managed all the risks, just like the banks did a few years back. They are also presuming that the “Business as Usual” scenario, the world as it exists today, will continue indefinitely; that, in other words, there are no Black Swans hiding in the reeds.

As Salmon describes it for us so clearly, it’s a huge gamble. Only this time we’re not gambling with money — we’re being asked to gamble with our breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and farmers with their livelihoods. That is a bet that none of us should have to take.

The good news is we don’t. Between Dan Barber-style “regionalized breeding” as a bulwark against disease and the kind of sustainable agriculture sketched out in the UN’s landmark IASTAAD report, a practical alternative to Big Ag’s vision exists. The question is, Must we wait for the Black Swan to take flight before we enact it?
(5 Mar 2010)

GM and farming technology ‘key to fighting climate change’

Rebecca Smithers, The Guardian
The government’s drive to push controversial genetically modified crops up the national agenda will receive a further boost today, when former cabinet minister Chris Smith will tell farmers that the technology has a key role in helping the UK beating climate change.

Lord Smith, former culture secretary under Tony Blair and now chair of the Environment Agency, will say that both GM crops and new technologies to support “precision farming” – including nanotechnology – could help tackle growing climate pressures such as water shortages.

Addressing delegates at the National Farmers’ Union’s (NFU) annual conference in Birmingham, Lord Smith will tell farmers that climate change “will create new demands on land and environmental resources” and “could provide opportunities for novel crops and systems”.

Intense lobbying by food companies, the growing significance of climate change, recent international food crises and shortages and a major independent Royal Society report have all helped to give the government the authority to put GM back on the national agenda. The controversial technology was the focus of intense campaigns including destruction of GM crop trials by environmentalists in the 1990s, and last month came under renewed attack from academics and organic food campaigners at the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

Lord Smith will say: “We can already see wildlife following climate change – the mayfly is now found some 40 miles further north than before and warmer winters and wetter summers are thought to be a major factor in the rapid decline of pollinating insects with UK bee populations, in particular, falling by 10-15% over the last two years.
(24 February 2010)