FRANK DISALVO: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Frank DiSalvo. I'm the Director of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. I'm pleased to welcome you and also pleased that we, the Atkinson Center, are able to cosponsor this presentation with CALS International Programs as part of the Atkinson Center's Outside Voices Speaker Series.
The Atkinson Center has just passed its fifth-year anniversary. As a relative newcomer, I want to congratulate CALS International Programs on celebrating its 50th anniversary. I do hope that the Atkinson Center is as robust as the International Program when we turn 50. But alas, I will not be here to see it.
Our speaker today, Mark Lynas, author and journalist, has written about climate change for many years, and more recently about genetically modified crops. I expect that his visit will engender an invigorating conversation and debate on the role of biotechnology and the future of food that will lead to appropriate action on all our parts.
The Atkinson Center convenes and connects researchers across Cornell and with external organizations to address challenges to and opportunities in achieving a sustainable future. We are committed to engaging in fully informed dialogue, bringing disparate points of view together to find paths forward.
To further that end, after Mark's presentation, there will be a panel discussion, as you know, by a distinguished group of faculty and community agriculture leaders who represent many of the different views about the possible expansion of the use of genetically modified crops. I would like to now turn the podium over to Susan Evanega, the Senior Associate Director of the CALS International Program. Sarah-- did I say Susan? Sarah, excuse me.
SARAH EVANEGA: Thank you, Frank, for that introduction. And thank all of you for coming this afternoon for this very important discussion on food security in the face of a changing climate. Before I introduce our speaker, I would like to just acknowledge a couple of people in our very industrious office who have made this event possible.
Among many others, [? Kalli ?] Arthur and [? Ana ?] Hammond have really done a lot to pull this event off as well as Lauren [? Chambliss ?] at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. So we have them to thank for making this possible.
Today we'll hear from a special guest who is no stranger to controversy. And I hope that despite the polarizing themes of today's lectures, this sizable and diverse audience will show our international guests and our local panelists the respect they deserve. We open our symposium, changing crops for a changing climate-- what can biotechnology contribute-- with a keynote address by Mr. Mark Lynas.
Mark is a qualified speaker to link these two topical spheres that we're considering this afternoon, those of climate change and agricultural biotechnology. He earned his degree in politics and modern history at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. And he is an influential environmental writer in the UK and voice for action in responding to climate change. He was awarded the Royal Society prize for his 2008 book, Six Degrees. And his most recent book is The God Species, in which he discusses how humanity must respect the earth's biosphere to keep the planet habitable.
Mark is currently a visiting scholar at Oxford's Environmental Change Institute. Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Mark Lynas.
MARK LYNAS: I think the controversy over GMOs represents one of the greatest science communication failures of the last half century. Millions, possibly billions of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies on an unprecedentedly global scale. This matters enormously because these technologies, in particular the various uses of molecular biology to enhance plant breeding potential, are clearly some of our most important tools for addressing food security and future environmental change.
Now, I'm historian. And history surely offers us, from witch trials to eugenics, numerous examples of how, when public misunderstanding and superstition becomes widespread on an issue, irrational policymaking is the inevitable consequence, and great damage is done to people's lives as a result.
This is what has happened with the GMOs food scare in Europe, Africa, and many other parts of the world. Allowing anti-GMO activists to dictate policymaking on biotechnology is like putting homeopaths in charge of the health service or asking anti vaccine campaigners to lead a global eradication campaign against polio.
I believe the time has now come for everybody with a commitment to the primacy of the scientific method and evidence-based policy making to decisively reject the anti-GMO conspiracy theory and work together to begin to undo the damage that it's caused over the last decade and a half.
On a personal note, let me explain why I'm standing here saying this. Because believe me, I'd much prefer to live a quieter life. However, following my apology at my Oxford speech from my former anti-GMO activism, I've been subject to a coordinated campaign of hate and intimidation mostly by the internet. Even when I was at school I didn't give in to bullies. And now, at the ripe old age of 40 I'm in no mind to do so either.
Moreover, I've been encouraged by emails and other support from globally renowned scientists on this issue who are experts and who all basically said the same thing to me. They said, you've got hate mail? Welcome to my world. I think these scientists are the unsung heroes of this entire saga.
They carried on with their important work and tried, year after year, to fight against the rising tide of misinformation while people like me were belittling and undermining them at every turn. I won't mention names, but they know who they are. Some of them are here today. And I would like to give them my deepest thanks.
So for me, there's also a moral dimension to this. The fact that I helped promote unfounded scare stories in the early stages of the anti-GMO movement in the mid-1990s is the reason why I feel compelled to speak out against them. I have a personal responsibility to help put these myths to rest because I was so complicit in initially promoting them.
My activism, which I wrongly thought of at the time as being environmental, has done real damage in the world. For me, apologizing therefore was only the beginning. I'm now convinced that many people have died unnecessarily because of the mistakes that we, in the environmental movement, collectively made in promoting anti-GMO fear. With that on your conscience, just saying sorry and then moving on is not enough. Some restitution is in order.
Following a decade and a half of scientific and field research, I think we can now say with very high confidence that the key tenets of the anti-GMO case were not just wrong in points of fact, but, in large parts, the precise opposite of the truth. This is why I use the term conspiracy theory.
Populist ideas about conspiracies do not arise spontaneously in some political and historic vacuum. They are the result of powerful ideological narratives colliding with major world events, rare occasions, where even a tiny number of dedicated activists can create a lasting change in public consciousness.
In the 1960s, conspiracy theories about Kennedy's assassination and the profound feeling that they were shadowy people high up in the CIA and government reflected people's fears at the time about the subversion of democracy and the fighting of the Cold War by devious and deadly means. More recently, conspiracy theories about 9/11 reflected the hatred many on the political left clearly had for the Bush administration.
Successful conspiracy theories can do real damage, however. In Nigeria, an outbreak of Muslim conspiracy theorizing against the polio vaccination campaign there led to a renewed polio outbreak, which then spread to 20 other countries just as the disease was on the verge of being globally eradicated. In South Africa, during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, the HIV/AIDS denialist myth became official government policy, just as the anti-GMO denialist myth is official European Union policy today.
The result in South Africa was that hundreds of thousands of people were denied lifesaving antiretroviral treatments and died unnecessarily. The anti-GMO campaign has also undoubtedly led to unnecessary deaths. The best documented example, which is laid out in detail by Robert Paarlberg in his book, Starved for Science, is the refusal of the Zambian government to allow its starving population to eat imported GMO corn during a severe famine in 2002.
Thousands died because the president of Zambia believed the lies of Western environmental groups that genetically modified corn provided by the World Food Program was somehow poisonous.
I've yet to hear an apology from any of the responsible Western groups for their role in this humanitarian atrocity. Friends of the Earth was one of the groups responsible. And I note that, not only has no apology been forthcoming. But Friends of the Earth Europe is still actively promoting anti-GMO denialism in the EU in a new campaign called "stop the crop." Check out their YouTube video to see how they've learned nothing in 10 years.
Another well-known example is that of golden rice, genetically modified to contain high levels of beta carotene in order to compensate for the vitamin A deficiency, which kills hundreds of thousands of children around the world and blinds many more every single year. One study on the potential for golden rice in India found that the burden of vitamin A deficiency could be reduced by 60%, saving 1.4 million healthy life years.
Here, the actions of Greenpeace, among others, forestalling the use of golden rice to address micronutrient deficiencies in children makes them the moral and indeed practical equivalent of the Nigerian mullahs who preached against the polio vaccine because they were stopping a lifesaving technology solely to flatter their own fanaticism. I think this campaign is shameful and has brought the entire environmental movement into disrepute with damaging consequences for the very beneficial work that many environmentalists do.
Greenpeace's campaign against vitamin A-enhanced golden rice should therefore be canceled. And I call on everyone concerned about children's health to lobby Greenpeace and to demand that this happens immediately and without delay.
The anti-GMO campaign does not even have the benefit of intellectual coherence. If you truly think that herbicide-tolerant biotech crops are an evil plot by Monsanto to achieve its stranglehold on the entire world's food supply, then why would you also oppose all other non-patented and open source applications of biotechnology which have nothing to do with Monsanto apparently without any exceptions.
This is like being against all computer software because you object to the dominant position of Microsoft Office. On a logical basis, only a case-by-case assessment makes sense for deciding how any technology might best be applied.
So if you think that Bt corn is bad for farmers in the US or wherever, despite all evidence to the contrary, it shouldn't necessarily follow that you also therefore have to insist on a ban for virus-resistant papaya or oppose a blight-resistant potato in Ireland. This matters today more than ever because we're entering an age of increasingly threatening ecological scarcity. The planet is beginning to move outside the envelope of stable temperatures that we've enjoyed for 10,000 years and into an age of instability and rapid change.
Within just a year from now, global CO2 concentrations will break through the crucial 400-parts-per-million boundary marking a change in atmospheric chemistry which is unprecedented for at least 3 million years. Moreover, we're now on a global emissions path which puts us on track for four to five Celsius degrees of warming by 2100, a transformation which will leave this planet barely recognizable and considerably more hostile to human and other life.
But what about all those who say that global warming is a hoax, a product of thousands of scientists apparently conspiring behind the scenes with governments in the UN to falsify temperature data and usher in a new age of global socialism. Well, I spent more than a decade arguing with climate skeptics. And in the end, I fall back on a single killer argument that, if an overwhelming majority of experts say that something is true, then any sensible non-expert should assume that they're probably right.
To make the point, here's the consensus position of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences on climate change. Quote, "The scientific evidence is clear. Global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society.
Accumulating data from across the world reveal a wide array of effects-- rapidly melting glaciers, destabilization of major ice sheets, increases in extreme weather, rising sea levels, shifts in species' ranges and more. The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse gas emissions is now." End quote.
Oh, but wait. The IIIS has also released another statement of consensus science in a different area also concerning us today. Quote, "The science is quite clear. Crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the US National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion.
Consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques." End quote.
So my suggestion today is that a sensible baseline position for environmentalists and, indeed, everybody else, is to accept the consensus science in both these areas. Instead, you have the unedifying spectacle of so-called green groups, like the Union of Concerned Scientists, stoutly defending consensus science in the area of climate change whilst just as determinedly undermining it in the area of biotechnology.
Tellingly, the UCS uses the exact same techniques as climate skeptics in its enduring and strikingly unscientific campaign against GMOs. It issues impressive reports based on strategic cherry-picking and closely referencing its ideological allies in some kind of epistemological closed loop. It pushes the perspective of a tiny minority of hand-picked pseudo experts. And it tries to capture and control a public policy agenda to enforce its long-held prejudices.
Many of the most influential denials like those at the Union of Concerned Scientists sound like experts. Indeed, they may even be experts. Richard Dawkins tells a story about a professor of geology who lectured and published papers about stratigraphy and 100-million-year-old rocks whilst at the same time being a Young Earth creationist who really believed the world was only 6,000 years old. His preexisting conviction, therefore, simply overpowered his scientific evidence-based training.
Perhaps an even more striking example is that of Peter Duesberg, the leading light in the AIDS denialist movement who is a professor of cell biology at the University of California in Berkeley. Many anti-vaccine campaigners like Andrew Wakefield started out as qualified medical professionals. This is why scientific consensus matters. It is the last line of defense that we have against the impressive credentials and sciencey sounding language of those who are really on the lunatic fringe.
Speaking of the lunatic fringe, someone else who claims scientific credentials is Vandana Shiva, probably the most prominent Indian anti-biotechnology activist who incidentally draws much larger audiences in this one to her fiery speeches on the evils of Monsanto and all things new in agriculture. Shiva tweeted after my Oxford speech that me saying that farmers should be free to use GMO crops was like giving rapists the freedom to rape.
This is obscene and offensive, but actually is not the half of it. Let me give you my all-time favorite Vandana Shiva quote regarding the so-called terminator technology on which she launches constant blistering attacks without once acknowledging the salient fact that it was never actually developed,
Quote, "The danger that the terminator may spread to surrounding food crops or the natural environment is a serious one. The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that would eventually wipe out higher lifeforms, including humans, from the planet." End quote.
Now I've said and done some pretty stupid things in my time, but that takes some beating. You don't need the intelligence of a Richard Dawkins or, indeed, a Charles Darwin to understand that sterility is not a great selective advantage when it comes to reproduction, hence, the regular observed failure of sterile couples to breed large numbers of children.
As Shiva's case so clearly shows, if we reject data-driven empiricism and evidence as the basis for identifying and solving problems, we've got nothing left but vacuous ideology and self-referential myth-making. Indeed, in many related areas like nuclear power, the environmental movement has already done great harm to the planet, even as it has rightly helped raise awareness in other areas such as deforestation, pollution, and biodiversity loss.
Science tells us today that the coming age of ecological scarcity extends much further than just global warming. If we wish to preserve a semblance of current biodiversity on this planet, for example, we must urgently curtail agricultural land conversion in rainforests and other sensitive areas. This is why organic agriculture, to a large extent, is unfortunately an ecological dead end. It's dramatically less efficient overall in terms of land use, so likely leads to higher rates of biodiversity loss when the system's considered overall.
Maybe organic producers should be legally mandated to specify on labels the overall land use efficiency of their product. I'm all in favor of food labeling, by the way, when it comes to something important that the consumer should have a right to know. Of course, conventional agriculture has well documented and very major environmental failings, not least of which is the massive use of agricultural fertilizers, which is destroying river and ocean biology around the world.
But the flip side of this is that intensive agriculture's extremely efficient use of land is conversely of great ecological benefit. For example, if we tried to produce all of today's yield using the technologies of 1960, organically in other words, largely, we would have had to cultivate an additional 3 billion hectares, which is the area of two South Americas. We cannot afford the luxury of a romanticized but inefficient agricultural systems like organic because the planet is already maxed out in terms of both land and water.
Our only option, therefore is to learn to do more with less. This is known as sustainable intensification. It's about improving the efficiency of our most ecologically scarce resources. But remember everything is changing. Food demand will inevitably skyrocket this half century because of the twin pressures of population growth and economic development. We need to sustainably increase food production by at least 100% by 2050 to feed a larger and increasingly affluent global population.
Now this is where the Eco-Malthusians tend to pop up, illustrating another uncomfortable aspect of the anti-GMO philosophy. Let me share with you a rather revealing quote I read just a couple of weeks ago on Yale 360 from the US environmental writer Paul Greenberg where he's lamenting the supposed wrongs of genetically engineered salmon. But forget the fish for a moment. When it comes to humans, he says the following.
Quote, "If we continue to bend the rules of nature so that we can provide more and more food for an open-ended expansion of humans on the planet, something eventually will have to give. Would you like to live in a world of 15 billion people, 20 billion? I would not. And while it's possible you will label my response as New Age-ish, I feel that GE food distracts us from the real question of the carrying capacity of the planet." End quote.
Well, I think that calling these sentiments New Age-ish is to give them too much credit. I would actually call them misanthropic. What Greenberg seems to be suggesting here as Paul Ehrlich did decades before him is the denial of food to hungry people in order to prevent them breeding more children and supposedly burdening the planet with overpopulation. Luckily, this modern-day Malthusianism is wrong in point of fact as well as by moral implication.
Firstly, the human population is never going to reach 20 billion. Instead, it's forecast to peak at 9 to 10 billion and then slowly decline. Secondly, although we're certainly heading for 9 billion people by mid-century, this is not because people in poor countries are still having too many babies. The main reason is that children who are born today are much more likely to survive and therefore become parents themselves. It's a little known fact that global average fertility is now down to about 2.4, not far above the natural replacement level of 2.1.
So pretty much all the increased population growth to 2050 will come from more children surviving into adulthood. And that is surely a good thing. I want to see child death rates in developing countries continued to plummet thanks to better health care, access to clean water and sanitation, and all the other benefits the modern world can and should bring to everyone. No doubt, like all of you, I also want to see an end to the scourge of hunger, which today affects more people in an absolute sense than ever before in history.
It's surely an abomination that, in 2013, we can all go to bed each night knowing that 900 million other people are hungry. This scourge affects children disproportionately. One third of child deaths are attributable to malnutrition. Among those who survive, nutrient deficiencies like iron, zinc, and vitamin A can lead to cognitive impairment and other health problems which reduce a child's life chances for his or her entire future. It's a truism to say that people are hungry, not because there is a global shortage of food in an absolute average sense, but because they're too poor to afford to eat.
But it's a dangerous fallacy to suggest, therefore, that because the world, on average has enough food, we should therefore oppose efforts to improve agricultural productivity in food insecure countries. In fact, probably the best way to address rural poverty is to ensure that subsistence farmers, the world over, enjoy more reliable and increasingly productive harvests. This will enable them both to feed their own families and to generate a surplus to sell at profit in the markets so that their children can go to school.
Is genetic modification the silver bullet to achieve any of this? Of course not. It cannot build better roads or chase away corrupt officials. But surely, seeds which deliver higher levels of nutrition, which protect the resulting plant against pests without the need for expensive chemical inputs and which give a greater yield resilience in drought years are at least worth a try. And real effort and real world evidence so far gives cause for optimism.
The use of Bt cotton in China has been shown to dramatically improve biodiversity, unlike broad spectrum insecticides, which kill everything, pests and predators alike. The Bt protein only affects the insect which bore into the crop, is entirely safe for us, and has led to insecticide reductions of 60% in China and 40% in India on cotton.
The introduction of Bt brinjal, or eggplant, in India, a project which I know people here at Cornell were closely involved in leading, would have dramatically reduced insecticide poisonings associated with that crop too had the anti-GMO activists in India not succeeded in preventing its use.
India today seems to be perched on a scientific knife edge with a vociferous lobby pushing Dark Age traditionalism on the brink of permanently capturing the entire political and legal agenda. If they succeed, hundreds of millions of food insecure Indians will be the losers.
In Africa too there are a multitude of Western-funded NGOs who all claim to be mysteriously protecting biodiversity by keeping cultivated plant genetic improvements permanently out of the continent. In many African countries, GMOs are subject to the same kind of de facto ban as is the case in Europe leaving poorer farmers at the mercy of a changing climate and exhausted soils. However, a showdown is looming because some of the most exciting biotechnology initiatives are now based in African countries.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is putting substantial funding into these efforts, such as improved maize for poor poorer African soils, a project which is looking to get yield increases of 50% even when fertilizer is not available or the farmer cannot afford to buy it. There is also the public-private partnership called Water Efficient Maize for Africa using biotech to produce drought-tolerant corn, specifically, for African smallholders facing the challenges of a changing climate.
There's C4 rice, aiming to improve the photosynthetic capacity of rice and, thereby, dramatically improve yields. Another Gates-funded project is based at the John Innes Center in the UK and aimed to, by 2017, to have cereal crops which fix their own nitrogen and make them available for farmers free from patenting in sub-Saharan Africa.
The list goes on. There's bio-fortified cooking bananas and East Africa, cassava fortified with iron protein and vitamin A in Nigeria and elsewhere. And I haven't finished yet. There's resistance to cassava brown streak disease which is currently spreading rapidly and threatens the staple crop for 2 out of every 5 people in sub-Saharan Africa and, of course, transgenic technology focused on conferring wheat rust resistance at the molecular level to head off the threat of a global pandemic, which could otherwise threaten one of humanity's most important staple foods.
But if the activists have their way, none of these improved seeds will ever leave the laboratory. And this brings me, by way of conclusion, to the essentially authoritarian nature of the anti-GMO project. All of these activists, strikingly few of whom are themselves smallholder farmers in Africa or India, claim to know exactly which seeds developing country farmers should be allowed to plant. Those which are not ideologically approved by self-appointed campaigners should be banned forever.
The irony here is that predominantly left-wing activists who are supposedly so concerned about corporate power are determined to deny the right to choose to the most powerless people in the world, subsistence farmers in developing countries. In fact, this is more than an irony. It is a cruelty. And it's a cruelty, which must stop and stop now. HG Wells is often quoted as saying that "Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe."
The New Yorker writer Michael Specter who wrote a great book about anti-science movements called denialism updates this. And he writes that "Civilization is a race between innovation and catastrophe." This is surely no more true than today when civilization is genuinely threatened by the twin catastrophes of climate change and ecological scarcity colliding with vastly greater food demand from a larger and wealthier population.
The solution is the same one that it always was, innovation-- the uniquely human capacity to produce new tools, which has saved our species so many times before from apparently inevitable Malthusian collapse. Therefore, if we reject innovation, now, of all times, we make catastrophe, not just lightly, but probably inevitable.
This was indeed the warning that the great Norman Borlaug left us with before he died. To quote again, "If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years." End quote.
In the final assessment, the only way that conspiracy theories die is because more and more people begin to wake up to reality and reject them. Then perhaps there comes a tipping point where what was once received wisdom becomes increasingly understood for the foolish nonsense that it always was. I think-- I hope that we're close to this tipping point today. And now, with just a little extra push, we can all join in consigning anti-GMO denialism to the dustbin of history where it belongs. Thank you.
SARAH EVANEGA: Thank you, Mark. We now have some time for a few questions directly for Mark before we open it up to the panel. I think there are two microphones that are being placed at the two aisles here. And if you have a question, please come line up by the microphone. And we'll try to hear from all of you. Anyone sitting in the back of the screens, you should feel free to move forward. There are lots of seats up here in the front and throughout. So if you'd like a better view, come on down. It's a good chance to do it.
And I'd also like to ask everyone, as you come forward to the microphones, please be respectful. And please stick to thought-provoking questions and not political statements. So with that, we'll hear from you. I think the microphone is not live.
AUDIENCE: Wondering if the people in developing countries are against the GMO stuff because it's being pushed by the World Bank, and they've had a pretty poor history with the World Bank in the past?
MARK LYNAS: Sorry. I didn't understand the question.
AUDIENCE: Can you hear?
MARK LYNAS: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: OK. I'm wondering if the people in developing countries don't buy the GMO stuff because it's being pushed on them by the World Bank, and they've had a poor history with the World Bank in the past?
MARK LYNAS: I don't see why that should be the case. I just gave you a list of 15 projects, none of which have any involvement to my knowledge of the World Bank. Was it the involvement of the World Bank, which made India reject Bt brinjal, which was developed largely with help and support from Cornell University? These are projects which are there precisely to achieve environmental objectives-- to reduce pesticide poisonings, to allow farmers to use less inputs and, therefore, to make better profits, and to protect consumer health by having less pesticide residues on the crop.
And it was rejected because of anti-GMO activists dressing up in eggplant costumes with no idea of the benefits that this potential project could give them. I don't think that the World Bank has anything to do with it. But certainly, conspiracy theory is about global corporations, the World Bank, all this kind of thing-- might have had some impact on people's opinions. But I don't think that was valid.
AUDIENCE: Good afternoon.
MARK LYNAS: Good afternoon.
AUDIENCE: A lot of the people that you mentioned-- your groups, individuals, or people I highly respect. Who I don't respect are people like Monsanto who I consider very criminal and this whole biotech movement that we still do not know-- the verdict isn't in that it's safe. OK. I do not like eating Monsanto or genetically engineered food. I don't have much of a say in it because I don't know what I'm eating unless I'm eating something organic.
I was at a conference here years ago on this issue. And one of the scientists, maybe in this room, said that the whole continent of Europe is stupid. And I said, how could the scientists in Europe be stupid? Because Europe has its own scientists. In Europe, you have labeling, which the US is trying very hard to get rid of. It would be good if we have labeling of these foods if they do-- we have such a pronunciation of them. But we already have it especially in corn and soy. So would you accept the labeling of GE food around the world, so people have a choice of whether to reject it or not? Thank you.
MARK LYNAS: Thank you. The statement that I read out you from the American Association for the Advancement of Science is about the safety of GMO foods, which quoted similar statements from the Royal Society, from the American Medical Association, and from countless other reputable academic institutions around the world represents a very strong scientific consensus that GMO labeling is not necessary because there was no material difference between that and any other product and that it's no more dangerous than conventionally bred products. So that's the statement. That's what the scientists are saying.
If consumers want information, which has no basis in material reality, then I guess you can argue about both ways. But I bet I could stand on a street corner here in Ithaca and say, do you want labels on mutagenically produced foods, foods which have been bombarded with gamma radiation to induce mutations in the genome, which are then available and can even be labeled organic?
Would you want that labeled? Of course you would. So I think this comes about from the decades of scaremongering where people think there's something they ought to know, but there isn't. Because there's no danger to it.
And if you say that you not you're not convinced that GMO crops are safe, what would it take to convince you? Are you convinced about climate change? Are you convinced about climate change because of the consensus statement by the scientists? Well, if the same consensus of the same scientists tells you the GMO crops are safe, then why do you choose to disbelieve them? That's totally inconsistent.
SARAH EVANEGA: Another question over here.
AUDIENCE: Hi. I guess my question isn't whether GMOs-- or you think that humans are safe or whether there's a scientific consensus on it or not. But I would like to know how you reconcile your historical discourse of positive science that ignores the economic effects in the production of biotechnology and how that is exported into developing countries, such as in Africa, where you mentioned yourself, where people are too poor to eat.
And this ignores the history of colonialism and those structures that were put into place and learning from history, talking about the first green revolution where we exported hybrid seeds to Africa, and it was an enormous failure. How--
MARK LYNAS: What do you say was-- the first green revolution was what?
AUDIENCE: A failure in Africa. And so how would it be different? I would argue that the biotechnology importation into Africa would be akin to a second green Revolution that does nothing in practice rather than that. But first, I guess answer the first question about you're ahistorical discourse.
MARK LYNAS: I think, as a historian, I'm allowed to have ahistorical discourse. A second green revolution--
AUDIENCE: I disagree.
MARK LYNAS: A second green revolution is precisely what Africa needs because it missed out on the first one. The first green revolution enabled India to avoid the famines that have plagued its entire previous history. And that's the legacy that Norman Borlaug left us with. And that's why he received the Nobel Peace Prize for saving the lives of a billion people through high levels of food productivity around the world.
I got the gist of your question. What we need now is to ensure that farmers, subsistence farmers more than anyone else, have access to improve seeds so that they can make the choice of what to plant on their own land, right?
AUDIENCE: Is it a real choice? But also, while wheat production and rice production and grain production increased, other vegetables in that kind of production that is essential to a human diet, production of those indigenous foods have decreased with the introduction of those seeds.
SARAH EVANEGA: Let's just let him answer the question, and then we'll move on to another question. Thank you.
MARK LYNAS: The point the point is that, if you can increase productivity in smallholder farms where people don't have enough to eat and where they don't have a surplus to sell in the markets, if you can increase the resilience of their harvests, if you can make sure that their crops will not suffer from insect infestations where they don't have to buy inexpensive inputs, then those situations for those farmers will be improved. Is it a silver bullet?
As I said before, it's not. But I think the farmers should have the right. And what we've got at the moment is f situation in all of these countries where GMO seeds or biotech seeds are banned. If you take them out of the laboratory-- if you give farmers in Uganda or Kenya access to seeds for crops which are pest-resistant, which are virus-resistant, which can survive to deliver a harvest, you can go to jail for 10 years. And that's not based on any safety assessment.
AUDIENCE: It's not about safety.
MARK LYNAS: It's just based on irrational superstition, which has come from activists, which have primarily been pushed by Westerners.
AUDIENCE: I'd just like to say that you changed the question.
MARK LYNAS: Can we move on to the next question because we've got a whole panel coming up. If you want to join in the debate, then you can do so afterwards.
SARAH EVANEGA: Yeah. And we will have an opportunity, for everyone, to do some live tweeting. So you'll have a chance to express more-- if we could hear from the next questioner.
AUDIENCE: I have a two-part question.
MARK LYNAS: You have what question?
AUDIENCE: A two-part.
MARK LYNAS: All. Right
AUDIENCE: The first part is, wouldn't the safety of a particular transgenic crop depend on what it was that was being expressed, what gene had been introduced? And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the regulatory framework to assess safety on these crops as it exists in the US currently. Thank you.
MARK LYNAS: The answer to your first question is yes. I can easily imagine making a biotech crop, which was entirely unsafe to eat. You could introduce an allergen. You could do-- any number of things you could do, which would-- so like all of these things, you have to make a case-by-case assessment. You can't say that-- scissors or chairs or any other technology can be used for good or evil. A mobile phone could be used to set off a roadside bomb, or it could be used to call your mom.
So in a case-by-case assessment, that's the only way you can decide on the applicability of a technology under any circumstance. But banning the entire thing outright makes no sense whatsoever. The regulatory system in the US, I think what you need, actually, is a system, which is more like in Canada, where there's a case-by-case assessment, which is irrespective of the way in which the crop was bred.
Because you can also, through conventional breeding, make a crop, which is allergenic, or which has some kind of mutation which could potentially affect consumers negatively. And those should be regulated. And those should be assessed by safety authorities, where they're not at the moment. And these crops can go straight to market.
So in Canada, they don't say it's transgenic, therefore, it must be subject to the same kind of regulation and 10 years of delay like drugs are, but everything else can just be waved through. What they say is, we'll take a case-by-case basis. Look at what the proteins that are being expressed in these new crops, see whether they're safe, and then take it to market accordingly.
SARAH EVANEGA: Over here.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Could you just provide a little insight on how to prevent oligostic behavior between some of the firms in the market right now and how that maybe it would relate to patent law reform and things like that?
MARK LYNAS: The patents is a thorny area. And this was the main reason-- one of the main reasons I think originally that so many people were against GMO technology because it appeared to give away to companies to permanently own the seeds that they were producing. Of course, that's not actually the case. Things can be out of patent quite quickly. The Roundup Ready technology, which Monsanto brought to market is out a patent within a year. So as far as I know, everyone will be able to use it that way.
Roundup itself is also out of patent. So genetic versions of that can be produced. And the justification for having a patenting system-- and I'm a writer. And I like to have copyright of my books. I don't want people to just have free access to them. As much as I'd like more people to read my stuff, I do also want to generate an income. And so there has to be an incentive to do innovation and to do invention, which comes from the whole patenting system.
Having said that, the technology fees which are implicit in that do make the resulting product cost more. And that's the reason why I think it's so vital and so important that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other international donors are focusing on giving improved seeds to farmers in poorer countries without the technology fees which come from patents.
Golden rice, for example, which I mentioned is a vitamin-A-fortified crop, which could save hundreds of thousands of lives per year potentially, will be offered patent-free to all farmers under $10,000 turnover per year. And that's written into all of the agreements now because the technology originally belonged to Syngenta and some other companies. So it's a kind of a public-private partnership where the private sector have waived all of their rights in order for it to be able to get out free of charge to the poorest people who need it most. Sir.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. I don't want to talk about any particular details. But I would like to just comment on the tone of this forum. We were asked by the adjudicator to be respectful. And I don't see that coming necessarily from the podium.
MARK LYNAS: Feel free to be disrespectful right now. Say what you want to say.
AUDIENCE: That's not my style. But I would like to say that, when you began talking, it sounded like the late '90s when you were talking about how anti-GMO people are responsible for so many thousands of people who've died. And I think that that's kind of inflammatory and charged language. I understand why you may be on the defensive. But I think that there are some issues that we need to look at.
For example, the charge that the anti-GMO lobby is authoritarian because they decide what seeds farmers should be allowed to use, which is more or less what you said, I don't see it that way. I think the folks who are questioning the monopoly power of the GM companies are concerned about farmers having the choice to decide on what they use that's appropriate to their local circumstances. We know that agra, in its inception, has not had the voices of African farmers involved. So that's another issue that brings up the question of applying a technology to other cultures without involving local participants.
And I think that's an important issue that is part of the politics of it. The enduring theme, I think, in what you've said Mark is that we should use GM crops to deal with the food issues in the future. And there's been no discussion by you of the benefits of crops. I'm not concerned about the safety issue. That's not what I'm talking about here. You know as well as I do that the [? Istat ?] report came out and said, more or less, any general claim that GM crops will reliably produce more than conventional crops in the same environment is not scientifically substantiated.
Secondly, GM crops so far have been selected for affluent crops, not for poor crops. Thirdly, farmers who can use GM crops tend to be the affluent ones just like with the green revolution. The poor farmers tend to be marginalized. There's been no evidence of sustained increase in yields. You should know that.
And crops have been engineered, not for yield, but for herbicide or pesticide effect applications. So I think that this discussion needs to be a little toned down to allow the expression of alternative ideas and so forth. Thank you.
MARK LYNAS: Alternative ideas are all very well. But what we can't have is the banning of crops, which are produced using one single technique of breeding. I just don't see why that makes any sense. Let's take a single case study, which people here are familiar with, the development of Bt brainchild. Why was that advancing the interests of some multinational corporation? It was advancing the interests-- I don't know-- of Cornell University and the local partners who helped develop it?
Why should that not be available now to all Indian farmers who are consequently continuing to use 25 to 30 sprays per harvest onto their eggplant crops, which are then poisoning themselves, poisoning the kids, and poisoning the consumers who then go to then go on to eat eggplant. And the seeds which would have allowed that crop to be produced without using toxic insecticides have been banned because of the actions of a small number of activists. That is, to me, authoritarian. It is denying farmer choice. And it is denying the choice of consumers to have a safer product.
Actually, I think there are a lot of people who can speak a lot more knowledgeably about the Bt brinjal issue. And I think hopefully that will come up during the panel. [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: Hi, Mark.
MARK LYNAS: Hi.
AUDIENCE: It seems to me that the first step in changing public opinion about GMOs is to clear up some of the misinformation regarding the science of transgenic research. But it's-- because I think you alluded to-- that is quite challenging because any discussion on the science has been conflated by this discussion of the merits and pitfalls of Big Ag. So I was wondering if you had any thoughts about how to effectively separate those two discussions and focus first on the science without engaging people in this other part of the discussion.
MARK LYNAS: I think you've hit the nail on the head. And that's why I focused about 2/3 of my speech on the non-Big Ag applications of GMOs funded by the Gates Foundation or other-- even Cornell University or other agencies-- which are going out there to produce these things patent-free, license-free, and even free at the point of use for farmers who need them in developing countries. That's the area which I think is most interesting.
To give you another example which I'm familiar with, Rothamsted Research in the UK, they've developed a GMO wheat which is aphid repellent. It expresses an alarm pheromone which the aphids use amongst themselves to communicate when they've been attacked by a pest. And if the wheat expresses this pheromones, then the aphid is driven away.
Now the scientists are the first to say they don't know whether that's going to work. But it's worth a shot. Because aphids are a disease vector as well as being an important pest in their own right. And they're controlled by spraying at the moment. So let's see whether a different intervention, which doesn't need spraying, and which could be more environmentally beneficial could work.
Now, that's being produced in the public sector with no involvement from any big corporation. And it would be offered-- and Rothamsted said this would be offered patent-free. Now, did that have any effect? No. The activists said they were going to trash it. They didn't even want to finish the experiment. They wanted to get it out of the ground and to destroy it before the results were even in. And the scientists recorded a passionate YouTube video appeal, which you can still see. There were letters going around of support for the scientists to say, don't destroy scientific research.
If you destroy the process for accumulating knowledge, in what way does that advance any environmental benefit? So no, they're not able to make the distinction between Monsanto and GMO. And that's precisely the problem we've got here.
SARAH EVANEGA: We have a question over here.
AUDIENCE: Yeah. I'm curious about your appeal to scientific authority. Because if we look back in the history of science, we see a lot of cases where the consensus was utterly wrong. For example, before the plate tectonics, you would have asked the geologists about why the continents are where they are and so forth. Or you could go back before the development epigenetics-- when I was taking genetics here, how many years ago, everything was in the nuclear genes.
So I am not necessarily disagreeing with that. But I think it's a weak argument you make. And I would ask further to that, say, well, I think the evidence for the GMO, it's on a very short term. You can do the experiments. But I think the consensus for climate change rests on much, much weaker foundations and much more speculative models and much longer term. So we have two equally powerful consensus statements that are the consensus. But I would be cautious about making those equal.
MARK LYNAS: Well, good. At least you're being consistent in saying you don't accept the consensus in either area. What I object to is environmental groups saying they accept the consensus on climate change and banging on about peer-reviewed evidence and the weight of scientific opinion on climate change and an entirely undermining and denying it when it comes to the area of molecular biology.
So at least you're saying that you need a more skeptical approach to science overall. And I'm fine with that. I think you can raise any issue you like all the way across the board. And that's an important part of the scientific process. But at the baseline, I'm a historian, as I said. So I don't think I'm in a legitimate position to really say I challenge the entire scientific consensus about climate change. I listen to a lot of skepticism stuff.
And I research avidly. And I'm always open to new points of view on this. So it's not about having a closed mind and saying scientific authority is the absolute be all and the end all. But it's a good baseline position. If the overall weight of expert opinion is saying this, then that's a good starting point. That's what I'm saying.
SARAH EVANEGA: OK. We'll take one more question. And then we'll bring up the panel.
AUDIENCE: OK. So I'm just concerned about open pollination because it would provide that even the pure organic crops are susceptible to the GMO DNA. There is an example in Hawaii of a papayan orchardist from two generations who can no longer sell his organic crop because of open pollination with GMO. And so now he's lost his niche market. You can't just take an orchard out of the ground either. And you seed a study claiming no difference between GMO and natural DNA. I think that was the Medical Association--
MARK LYNAS: American Medical Association.
AUDIENCE: And that's all well and fine. But I wonder if you would agree that we would need to track the genes of a GMO crop that open pollinates just in case of any unforeseen dangers in mutation. And furthermore, what should these companies that give the GMO seed do in financial damages done to organic farmers?
MARK LYNAS: I think it's something like 2 out of 5 farms, which grow organic also grow GMO on the same holding. There are well-established mechanisms, such as buffers, which protect against cross-pollination irrespective of whether the crop is GMO or not. You've got different crops, which you don't want to cross-pollinate. And there are well-established techniques for doing that.
I don't think that organic should say, I need to have a whole veil of integrity around me, which then prevents neighboring farms doing things. There has to be ways to work with to work this out. And with the papaya case, I don't know. But I do know that we're going to enjoy some transgenic papaya later. And I hope you can join us for that.
SARAH EVANEGA: OK. [INAUDIBLE] With that, I'd like to thank you all for engaging in this really fascinating discussion. And please join me in thanking Mark Lynas for coming.
We're going to move now to the panel presentation and discussions I hope you'll all stick around for. And I'll ask now the panelists to please come to the stage. I'm going to switch microphones here and introduce the moderator of our panel. Again, those of you that are behind the screen, feel free to come forward if you'd like a better view.
RON HERRING: [INAUDIBLE] I'm following the tweets.
SARAH EVANEGA: OK. Ron Herring will be the moderator today. He's taught political economy and political ecology at Cornell University since 1991. And at Cornell, he has served as the director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. He's served as the John S. Knight Professor of International Relations and chair of his Department of Government as well as director of the South Asia program.
His interests include agrarian political economy, ethnic politics, and the politics of biotechnology. Ron generously is moderating our panel discussion this afternoon. So please join me in giving a warm welcome for Ron Herring.
RON HERRING: I suppose I can sit here. At first, I thought this was quite a compliment. They wanted me to be the moderator-- that I had such a moderate and [? jusdicious ?] panoply of ideas about these things. And I realized it's just they didn't want me to do slides of bollworms in India, which everybody on campus has seen. So I don't have a slot to speak. I'm to introduce everybody, which I will do in an order that's not quite the same as your program. I'm going to start with David Wolfe. And we're giving very brief introductions. People have large numbers of things in their accomplishments, but we're just going to be extremely brief.
Dave Wolfe is a professor of plant and soil ecology in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell and chairs the Atkinson Center's Climate Change focus group. His current research includes leading a $4.7 million dollar USDA project focused on new tools for farm greenhouse gas management and a project in Ethiopia focused on potato drought tolerance and water management. He also teaches a course on climate change and the future of food. So Dave, you're on.
DAVID WOLFE: OK. OK. Very glad to be here. And I'll start up with the slides right away. I've got my 10 minutes. I'll Mark my clock. I know Ron will be marking the clock. So the photo I have up here at the beginning is illustrating developed versus developing agriculture, both from the standpoint of climate change impacts really are going to likely have much more impact on much of the developing world.
And where I do part company with our speaker is the optimism about the benefits of biotechnology reaching the developing world. And I'm not talking about local bans on them. But simply, I just think that even the richest man in the world-- and I think he's still the richest man-- Bill Gates, him combined with the public sector, I don't think they're quite a match for what the corporate world is doing. And I'm not sure all of that's going to filter down that level.
So the first couple things are on climate change. And all of the bullets I have on this slide are well-documented in the peer-reviewed literature. And I don't want to spend my few minutes going through the evidence of all of these things. So if we do have some climate change deniers out there, I'll have to take questions later about some of that. But many things are happening.
And these are all things we know with a high degree of certainty, quite a bit of consensus. Glaciers worldwide are melting. This not only, of course, is a part of the sea level rise issue along with thermal expansion of the oceans. But those glaciers melting also is the water source for a lot of agriculture. Increased frequency of heat stress, more flood and drought risk-- and often, that's happening in the same area.
For example, here in New York, we have increased frequency of high rainfall events. But we also have the threat of more summer droughts in the future. Living world is already responding. And I'll talk a little bit more about that. And as I already mentioned, food security challenges in developing regions will be exacerbated.
So first of all, just species range shifts and this kind of thing really has a big impact on pest issues. So this is one of the big climate change challenges, especially of mid to high latitudes. Farmers in this region, obviously-- many more challenges from both weed insect and disease pests. This is just a slide showing some of our own modeling work looking at climate projections for the Northeast.
The dark orange region is the potential habitable zone for kudzu, a very notorious invasive weed. And if you look across the top panel, across the century with the business as usual mission scenario. It's kudzu coming to get us. And that's something our farmers will have to be facing with climate change. So my first slide was talking about what we know with a high degree of certainty. But there are a lot of things we're still learning and a lot of things we really don't know.
So while I focused initially on some of that certainty. There's a lot of unpredictability of climate change. And that's what I want to get into now. We saw last year here, in New York state, often second or third in the US and apple production lost almost 50% of the crop due to frost damage. And we've also seen more freeze damage in our wine grapes due to warmer winter than average. But we had more frost damage due to premature bloom by more than four weeks.
Another sort of expect the unexpected-- people have been talking to me. Of course, I'm the climate change guy. And people are saying, what's with this cold winter? Well, read the December issue of Scientific American written by Chuck Greene, here at Cornell, "The winters of our discontent"-- talking how the Arctic ice melting is affecting our weather patterns. What this really means-- this is still an area that's not-- we don't have such a high degree of certainty-- a lot of debate still in the climate science community.
But really, with this kind of unknowns and unpredictability of climate change, this is the issue of what we really breed for. We breed for more cold tolerance, more heat tolerance, more flood tolerance. We had here, in New York, last year in the same summer, flood problems and wet soils early in the spring and then drought later in the summer.
There was a farmer, just in the panel who was on a couple weeks ago, talking about he initially started experimenting with longer growing season varieties, intuitively, encompassing the fact that we do indeed have more frost-free days in this region. But now he's had to go to short-season varieties as well because of wet soils delaying planting.
So he needs both shorter- and longer-season varieties. So what farmers are doing about this is not-- I guess climate change is not just bringing with it a well-defined trend. And oh, now, I need more heat-tolerant varieties because it's hotter every summer. Or now I need more drought-tolerant.
They need a little bit of everything. And what farmers are really doing in reality on the ground, I'll tell you, is diversifying, hedging their bets-- more short-season varieties and more long-season varieties. And so this is one of the challenges of biotechnology is what do we really breed for? So this is the list that-- I don't have time to go through all these. The key strategies of adaptation-- and many of these really involve management.
The first one being diversification of the farm system. And this is where biotechnology does play a role. And I'm not really opposed to the safety of biotechnology as long as it's regulated and careful regulation. And certainly, biotechnology can increase the number of varieties farmers have at their disposal for both biotic or abiotic type of stresses. But all the rest of these things really don't involve biotechnology at all.
So I guess, our first speaker, we do agree here. He said it wasn't a silver bullet. And I think it's far from that. But it can add something to that diversification piece. Here's what I have some major concerns about biotechnology is-- first of all, given the unpredictable nature of climate change as I tried to emphasize in my couple of minutes there. It's difficult to really identify what's the optimum crop trait for even any single region. Now, there are some parts of the world where it maybe very clear cut. But for many parts of the world, farmers need a bit of everything.
Stress-tolerant varieties often have low-yield potential even in optimum years. Stress-tolerant plants, in general-- there are costs with those stress-tolerance mechanisms. And therefore, when conditions are really good, the crops don't do so well.
At issue is that stress tolerance is often very complex and multigenic. So while we can use some of the latest technology, the particular thing of things like transgenic techniques for getting at single-gene or few-gene phenomenon, getting at these complex multigenic challenges with breeding for stress tolerance-- we're still a long ways off from a lot of biotechnology doing any better than conventional breeding. Often, also, those unique suites of genes are required depending on the timing of stress.
And this, again, comes back to the unpredictable nature of climate change. Is the heat stress this year going to hit when I first put my seeds in the ground? Or is it going to be cold then, and it's going to be hot at the reproductive stage? Or is it going to be the reverse? So if I pick a variety with one suite, I might not have the right suite of genes for either thing.
Another big thing is farmer access to seed and other products of biotechnology. And this is where I have some doubts that biotechnology is going to-- other than cascading down from what are the goals of some of the big corporations going for the big-seed sales-- some of that feeding down in a happenstance way, I kind of wonder about farmer access and the costs of those and then consumer access to affordable foods.
Just a couple of slides left. I focused on adaptation, coping with the unavoidable climate change. But I want to say something about-- farmers-- and we all have something at stake in terms of avoiding the unmanageable, that is, mitigating climate change. And here, I do see a role for biotechnology in developing more nitrogen use-efficient crops. Of course, there are many things farmers can do in terms of management as well. But to the extent that biotechnology techniques, however we may be defining that here today, can play a role in that, that would be great.
Legume cover crops-- very important, not only for reducing nitrogen fertilizer use-- and this is all relates to the fact that nitrous oxide emissions is a big culprit in terms of the greenhouse gas story in agriculture. So if we can use legume cover crops in rotation, that's a really good thing. And to the extent the biotechnology can come up with better legume crops for us, so much the better. These techniques also are part of kind of a conservation agriculture approach which also builds soils that are more resilient to stress and can buffer farms from flood and drought tolerance.
This is my final slide. And actually, I was interested to hear that question that came up about the green revolution. So here's my take on this in the new green revolution. So increasing food crop diversity-- diversification, I already have said, is part of the resilience to climate change that I see farmers already enacted. But this can also address the human malnutrition challenge. Thanks to the green revolution, we now produce enough calories to feed the world.
And we have less crop diversity in many regions and relatively high costs for nutrient-rich foods essential to health. So many low-income families, it ends up we have the double whammy of malnutrition at the same time obesity and all the health risks associated with that. To the extent biotechnology can play a role in developing more nutritious crops, it will definitely help in this pursuit of a new green revolution. And I'll stop there. Thank you.
RON HERRING: Thanks.
What an efficient panel. OK. Peter Davies is our next speaker. He's a professor of plant physiology in the department of plant biology and horticulture, international professor of plant biology. Peter has taught how plants grow to Cornell students for 44 years and also teaches a course on issues in social biology. Last year, he was a Jefferson fellow in the United States Department of State where he served as a senior science advisor in agriculture biotechnology. He's also my co-instructor in the GMO debate. Peter.
PETER DAVIES: Thank you. OK. Thank you very much. And if we can go on two slides. It's still the last speaker up there.
OK. I would like to spend my time just telling you a little bit about what some of these crops are because there's a great misunderstanding about biotech crops. We start off with how these might be related to climate change. As I'm sure you all know, climate change is leading to changes in insect infestations. Here's an example-- nothing to do with biotech. But pine bark beetle is advancing up the Rockies causing great distress solely because of changing temperatures.
So one of the things that can be done with biotech is to improve insect resistance. And here's what happens to corn when European corn borer gets on it. And so we have severely malformed ears of corn. OK. All right. Got it.
So here's the basic idea of insect resistance through Bt. And the first thing we need to note is that DNA is the same in all organisms. So it doesn't matter where you put it. DNA is rather like a cookbook. It doesn't matter which who the chef is, if the chef is good, the chef will produce the same thing. Same with DNA in different organisms.
So here's the basic idea of Bt. A gene is taken from a bacterium, Bacillus Thuringiensis, which produces a protein which prevents insects from feeding and ends up killing them. So you take this gene, you put it in a crop, and because there's the crop now has this Bt, the insect feeding on it is killed. So what is Bt? Well, it comes from a bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a protein that's lethal to many insects. And it has been used as a powder in organic agriculture for about 90 years.
And this protein prevents the insect from digesting its food. Bees and other animals are unaffected by this protein. And when it is put into crops, they cannot be attacked by Lepidoptera or [? Cholioptra. ?] And this provides all-season-long protection from insect damage with no need to spray for insect control. And here's an example from eggplant. And these examples from eggplant and actually come from the Philippines. Here you can see the damage caused on eggplant by the shoot and fruit borer.
And trials are going on in the Philippines to put Bt into eggplant. And here's the team that's doing it. And this is a trial that is ringed by fencing. People are not allowed in it. Here's the effect.
Normally, eggplant like this in the market has been dipped or sprayed about 20 times with very toxic insecticides and often done by children leading to considerable poisonings of the farmers and also the consumers. By putting Bt into the eggplant-- here's one without Bt. Here's one with Bt-- you get insect-damage-free eggplant without the use of insecticides.
When farmers hear of this, they have one question. Where can we get the seeds? But as yet, it is not approved, because it is still going through trials to prove its safety in the environment. And the main point is of this, it avoids exposure of the farmer and his children and the consumers to toxic insecticides.
The next thing we need to note with regard to climate change is that herbicide-resistant crops can enable no-till farming. And to some, this is a surprise because we need to note that agriculture can contribute about 31% of greenhouse gases. And conventional tillage can release about 100 pounds of carbon per acre per year.
With the use of herbicides to get rid of the weeds, one can do farming without tilling. And the carbon is sequestered in the soil. So we have a net gain of carbon rather than a loss of carbon. And no-till systems can store up to 300 kilograms of carbon per hectare per year. And that's about the same as 300 pounds of carbon per acre per year-- a considerable gaining.
In addition, there are fewer tractor pas sings over the field and a 75% fuel savings over conventional tillage leading to less greenhouse gases. And it's calculated, if there are no biotech crops, this would result in 18 million more tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2009 alone. And this is equivalent to taking 8 million cars off the road.
One thing that's going to happen with climate change, as alluded to by Dave Wolfe, is a change in climate patterns leading to less water. And if I go back to that, the orange areas are the areas where climate experts say there will be less water in the future. And they're predicting up to 27% less water in these areas of the world.
In order to combat that, plant biotechnologists have developed crops-- and the first one out is corn-- that possesses drought tolerance. And you can see in the right-hand picture, the difference between drought-tolerant crop-- that is the one on the right-- and one that is not drought tolerant. And this can lead to crops where, otherwise, they would fail. And this would enhance his social and economic sustainability.
And here's how it works. Desiccation has an effect because big molecules in the cells cannot fold correctly. And so they found a gene in a bacterium that-- and made a protein when it received a cold shock, which actually is also-- cold also causes misfolding. And this protein is called a chaperone that ensure the correct folding of the molecules-- so not that sort of chaperone, but that sort of chaperone. So there are some large molecules correctly folded.
And then the next thing we need to turn to is nitrogen-use-efficient crops that has been mentioned by two speakers already. The trouble with nitrogen when it's put on as a fertilizer is it's often put on in a high amount to get the necessary growth. And this leads to an evolution in nitrous oxide. And nitric oxide has 300 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. In addition, nitrogen runoff, fertilizer runoff, runs into the rivers and is the cause for the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico. So anything that can be done to reduce nitrogen use is beneficial.
And the rice on the left has been modified so that it will take up nitrogen more efficiently as compared to the normal rice on the right. And if this was adopted generally, lower fertilizer levels could be used, mitigating the loss of excess nitrogen fertilizer as nitrogen dioxide and also, at the same time, improving the marine environment. And that is all I would like to say. And if anybody is interested in more basis of these biotech crops, we can do it during their questioning period.
RON HERRING: Our next speaker is Margaret Smith-- came to Cornell in 1987 as a faculty member in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences department of plant breeding and genetics focusing on corn breeding. Her program emphasizes breeding for productivity and adaptation to New York growing conditions, improving insect- and disease-resistance, adapting varieties to more sustainable production systems, and breeding for organic systems.
She is also working internationally on improving crop varieties for small-scale and subsistence farmers in the tropics, a research interest she maintains to this day. She's currently working collaboration on a plant-breeding graduate education project in Ghana. Margaret.
MARGARET SMITH: Well, thanks very much, Ron. We didn't exactly planet that way. But I feel like we've just transitioned to the other side of the gender divide up here. So now we're on the next side.
RON HERRING: Oh, dear.
MARGARET SMITH: OK. So we really didn't plan it that way. It just looked that way when I sat down. I'm going to talk a little bit about the plant breeding contributions that I see in the topic of this symposium on changing crops for a changing climate. It was pointed out in the first presentation that world population is growing. This is what we expect it to look like with the yellow being the developed regions and the green being the developing regions.
And I've seen it said that what this will require is that we'll have to produce more food over the next 50 years than have been produced during the past 10,000 years combined. As a plant breeder, I found that an extremely daunting thought. On top of that, the population growth, we also see that arable land-- certainly, there's no more being made.
And in fact, it's effectively declining due to the need for all those people to be somewhere and all of their roads and infrastructure to be somewhere. This is cutting into our arable land base. And as we heard very aptly described in Dave Wolfe's talk, climate change is happening.
And the picture I happen to have is a picture about change in average annual surface air temperature with the hotter colors being more serious changes. So the temperature change, as well as the water changes you saw recently depicted, both will present challenges for crop productivity. Keep that picture of temperature change in mind.
And looking at some of the areas where temperature change is likely to be most dramatic, we also find that those overlay areas where the global hunger index suggests the most severe hunger. So some of those populations that are currently most disadvantaged in terms of their nutrition are going to be the ones that are suffering the consequences of global climate change most severely.
There's a long history of improvement in yield. This happens to be a picture of New York corn yields from 1860s to 2011, I believe is the last year that was on there. And that looks like a pretty nice trend. If you're a plant breeder like me, you say that's primarily due to breeding and genetics. If you're in crop management, you point out that it's very highly due to crop management improvements. And the reality is, it's due to the two together. Because any variety, any set of genetics must fit within a particular management scheme.
So I'm not going to claim responsibility for this. But I think working with agronomists, we see some places in the world where improvements in genetics and management show a pretty consistent increase in yield. There are other areas where the story is a little more unnerving. This happens to be a picture of wheat yields in Bangladesh over a much shorter period of time, 1960 to 2010. And this is the kind of thing that gives many plant breeders pause. There appear to be areas where yields may be plateauing. So we really need to address this.
Crop yields' potential-- what a crop could yield is a function of these primary inputs into the crop. Sunlight-- well, there's currently plenty of that. And we're not fully utilizing it in most crop fields. Air-- I don't expect air and the various things a crop needs from it to be constraining. More CO2, in fact, can help crop growth. On the other hand, pollutants can be a problem for that. But I'm going to set that one aside for now. I'd like to focus on the two in the bottom-- soil, both as a support network, but also, importantly, as a source of nutrients, and water.
We've already heard water is becoming more scarce. Soil is limited by our limited arable land base. And the amount of nutrients in it is, in some cases, limited by its cropping history. So as I think about the future plant breeding challenge, what I see is this. We're going to need both more yields as well as more nutrition produced per acre. We need to feed people more nutritionally. That will have to be done with fewer external inputs.
There will probably be less water available. We will have fewer or more costly agrochemicals. And we need to be thoughtful about which of those we use in order to avoid environmental problems that will make our production issues worse. And that will all have to happen under circumstances that probably bring with it more stress-- water logging, drought, increasing pest pressures, or novel pest pressures. So that is a huge challenge. And I think it's going to require the use of all of the best tools we have at our disposal.
I want to talk for a moment, then, about the question of yield and nutrition per acre. So if we think about this as the potential yield of a crop in a field-- how much you can get out of it-- that's what you might harvest if you had great circumstances. Some of that may be lost to pests and stresses that occur in the field. Yet some more of it, in some parts of the world particularly, is lost in terms of post-harvest issues. And what you're left with is the green piece there that's the final yield and the associated nutrition available from that particular acre of field.
Now, some of the genetically engineered crops have helped to address things that represent losses to pests or stress, for example, Bt with insect damage in some crops, Roundup resistance, which may have reduced losses to weed competition. We now have some efforts which you've just heard about to develop crops which might be more tolerant to drought or might be more nitrogen-use efficient. And then the one example we have out there that's really clearly addressing nutrition is golden rice, which our first speaker spoke about briefly.
One thing you'll notice about all of these, first, they have not really addressed yield potential. They have addressed losses of that yield potential. They also are things which involve one or a few genes. Whereas, on the other hand, yield potential, final yield that we get, and some of the stress tolerances, as Dave Wolfe pointed out, are very polygenic. They involve a lot of genes interacting in tremendously complex ways.
At this point in time, we don't begin to have the knowledge to be able to engineer those kinds of things. They are profoundly complicated networks. And in fact, I find it particularly interesting that, right now, a lot of engineers are looking to DNA to create multiple possible pathways to new and novel outcomes. So they're using genetic material to try an experiment with ways to design things. And here are the geneticists trying to engineer the genes that have actually done a lot of optimizing over evolutionary time.
We will have impacts on these areas. We're learning a lot about how to better understand the many genes and the complexity of the genes that go into these traits. But in terms of being able to genetically engineer one or a few genes that would have a major impact on some of the stresses and on yield potential, that's a long ways down the road.
I was asked by a visiting scientist once, what do you need genetic engineering for? And it sort of took me by surprise. And I stopped, and I thought about it for a moment. And I started talking about Roundup resistance and soil erosion and some other things. And the person that was visiting kept coming back to, but did you really need that? And it made me think hard about where genetic engineering might really have something to offer that we don't get in any other way.
And one of the examples that I thought about is resistance to striga. Striga is this very lovely parasitic weed you see on the left. There are a couple different species of it. It's predominant around Africa many areas. It attacks the cereals. So you can see the photo in the middle there has maize with striga growing off the roots. Those are all the little green things. And then the photo on the right shows a crop ready to harvest with virtually no ears on it because of the striga damage.
And striga, paradoxically, and very sadly, is most severe on the lowest fertility soils that are most stressed. So here, you have a biological pest organism whose greatest impact is on those who are the most resource-poor farmers in the continent of Africa. There's been a lot of work trying to develop striga resistance through traditional plant breeding approaches. And we have been relatively unsuccessful. There's just not a lot of genetic variation out there for resistance to striga.
Here is a case where I see genetic engineering as offering something that could truly benefit some of the neediest farmers if we were able to find a gene that would condition resistance to this insidious pest. The challenge I think with that is, if you're going to develop a trait to benefit resource-poor farmers, who's going to do it? And who's going to pay?
If you look at the profile of investment in biotechnology genetic engineering right now-- this is a quick pie chart of what it looked like a couple of years ago. The vast majority is that orange piece-- investments in the developed world by the private sector. The aqua piece is the developed world investments by the public sector. The rest of it is the developing world. The private sector is that little red piece. And the public sector of the developing world is the gray-brown piece.
So clearly, the big investment is happening where the private sector is able to recognize a big return on their investments. And that makes perfect sense from their point of view. On the other hand, if you're trying to address a trait for smallholder and resource-poor farmers in Africa who are, at present, not a seed market, who is going to invest? I think the example we have where investment of that sort has happened is golden rice.
Golden rice originated with an idea 30 years ago. And the initial version of golden rice was developed in 1999. A few years later, a much-improved version was developed. But it was started 30 years ago. The dollars invested were significant and largely from foundations, the Rockefeller Foundation and other foundations.
And maybe soon we will have golden rice in the fields. It's been a long and expensive process to develop one product. And part of the reason it has been long and costly is, you actually need to not just develop those genes, but put them in a variety that works for farmers in the field.
When you begin to look at a continent like Africa or an area like the developing world, environments are very variable. Farmers grow many different varieties. They need them for many different purposes with many different agronomic characters. And it's not entirely clear to me who will manage to support the research and put it into the crops that will meet these farmers' needs.
So I'll wrap up with this. I think we need to address yield potential, which is genetically profoundly complex. And a lot of traditional field breeding is needed to do that. We will need to reduce yield losses in the form of stress and pest resistance. This is an area where genetic engineering may have some role to play.
We will need to improve nutrient density, another place where it may have a role to play, along with traditional breeding. But I would leave you with the question of what traits, to benefit whom, and who's going to pay for the research and development? Thank you very much.
RON HERRING: Our next speaker is Mary-Howell Martens. Mary-Howell Martens is an organic farmer who currently serves on the USDA advisory committee on biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture. She and her husband, Klaas Martens, who we had a lovely lunch with have been farming organically since 1993 and along with their three children currently raise 1,500 acres of organic corn, soybeans, small grains, other field crops, plus organic cows, pigs, and chickens. They also own and operate Lakeview Organic Grain, including an organic grain and feed business.
The Martens have won numerous prizes, including the 2008 Patrick Madden Award for Stewardship, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Leadership Award, and EcoFarm's prestigious Society Award. They also have a daughter at Cornell in animal science. Mary-Howell.
MARY-HOWELL MARTENS: Good afternoon. It didn't seem very long ago, about 30 years ago, I was a young graduate student sitting at a meeting like this. And at least one of my former teachers is in the room today. And I guess she and I are a bit older than we used to be. But is this much clicker? OK.
Since then, we have become organic farmers. And I think we need to look at conventional farming, GM farming as a case study. Because science works that way, Mark. We can't just look at what the ideal conditions, what might happen are. But we need to look at what has happened as an example for what we can anticipate and predict. And after about 20 years of commercialization of GE crops in the United States, largely herbicide resistant and insect quote, "tolerant," we do have a pretty good case study to see what the outcomes are and give us an idea of what we can expect.
We are organic farmers. That's the way we're usually introduced these days. We grow a variety of different grain crops including corn, soybeans, and a variety of small grains. If you think that organic farming is going back to the old ways, think again. A modern organic farm like ours has a lot of technology on it. We resent the fact that the word technology has been co-opted by one kind of technology. Because certainly, solar, GPS, precision planting, precision plowing are different technologies that organic farmers are very interested in.
We've been part of numerous studies at Cornell including the NEON Study. So our farm has been used as a laboratory here at Cornell by a lot of programs to see how organic farms operate as far as soil fertility, soil conditions, and weed control. But just as importantly, we are grain farmers. And as grain farmers, we read the same magazines and see the same information that other grain farmers throughout the United States see.
And if you go onto the websites, if you read the magazines these days, conventional farmers are talking about herbicide-resistant weeds, skyrocketing fertilizer, chemical, and land prices, drought and water shortages, erratic weather, volatile grain pricing, struggling rural economies, the shortage of young people interested in farming, the need to return to tillage after years of no-till. And we hear farmers questioning the costs and the promises of GE technology. Here we are, America, showing the world what GM means. And we're seeing a lot of doubt amongst the farmers.
I think it is important to define how you draw the circle around the benefits and the costs of genetic technology. A lot of farmers, some researchers, really want to just focus on the center circle. Yes, we've got 200-bushel-per-acre GM corn. Yes, we've had some reductions in insecticide use. But then they don't want to take responsibility for all the other collateral effects of GE technology. And I think it's very important, indeed, it is morally dishonest if you do not take responsibility for the downsides if you're trying to take credit for the upsides.
One of the things we're seeing is that corn farmers are spraying fungicide on their corn. This has never happened before. But the problem is, genetically modified corn is more susceptible to disease. And farmers know this, so that we're spraying a great deal of fungicide out on our land. BASF who manufactures the primary fungicide has redefined sustainability to mean just high yield. I think sustainability means something else.
In the United States, we have a term, the proof is in the pudding. And the pudding on our farm is we don't have problems with neonicotinoid insecticides because we don't use them. We don't have problems with insecticides or fungicides or synthetic fertilizers, because we don't use them. We don't have antibiotic resistance, because we don't use them. And we make our own nitrogen.
One of our philosophers of merit that we follow is Bill McDonough, who is an architect from Virginia. And in his book, he talks about design-- design of buildings, design of systems, design of agriculture. And he says that design is the signal of intention. If you want certain outcomes from a particular system, you have to design it in at the very start. I think we need to ask, what is our design?
USDA ERS data has shown that, yes, there has been some reductions in insecticide use. That is true with a reduction of Bt corn. However, if you track the total volume of pesticides used since 1996, it actually has gone up by about 7%. That's because herbicides and fungicides and other products make up more volume of the total amount of pesticides used on American farmland. So we have to ask a few questions.
And they are very soul-searching questions. How sustainable is herbicide resistance? Primarily, we're talking about Roundup resistance. And the answer to that, after 10 years, just 10 years is, not very. Because now we have an outbreak of all sorts of Roundup-resistant weeds including Palmer amaranth and water hemp.
For those people who teach biology and have ever looked for a classic textbook case of microevolution in action, herbicide resistance. Is it. It doesn't take long to build. And now the farm magazines-- and this came out of the March issue of Successful Farming-- farmers are advised to not just use glyphosate, not just use Roundup, but now their advice to mix back in those big bad old chemicals we were told we were never going to have to use again like 2, 4-D Dicamba and Atrazine because Roundup alone isn't working.
We also should be asking how safe is Roundup-- this experiment we're using on 10 million acres of American farmland. And the answer to that, coming from literature most recently, usually published outside the United States is, not near as safe as we thought it was. It has carcinogenic, teratogenic, endocrine disruptor effects. And there's a lot of research that is showing this. And it has impacts on the mineral nutrition of plants and, therefore, the plants' own ability to fight off disease and insects. It has impacts on the soil microflora, the microbes in the soil. It has impacts, serious impacts on amphibians.
So Roundup, this is part of the package. No, it is not genetic modification. But you cannot take it away from herbicide-resistant weeds. While, on organic farms, we haven't used Roundup at all. We don't need it. There are better ways to control weeds.
We should be asking, how sustainable is insect resistance? And again the answer is, not very. Because increasingly, entomologists are saying that insect resistance is breaking down. Mike Gray, an entomologist from Illinois I was talking to this past week-- and he's saying that, out in Illinois, farmers are redefining IPM to mean Insurance Pest Management. That means going out and spraying insecticide anyway and not scouting. That's the way we used to do it. But on organic farms, we haven't used insecticides for 20 years. We don't need them.
We've been working a great deal with the soil health team here at Cornell. And it's a good time to ask, how well does GM no-till actually build soil? Again, the answer is-- this is our farm-- not very well. John Teasdale at USDA ARS has shown that, really, the effect of carbon sequestration is only in the top inch of no-till farms. And it really does not build carbon throughout the whole profile.
We should ask, how sustainable is the food security from GM crops? As the agribusiness has consolidated businesses, farmers are having less choice of companies to buy from. But farm systems research at Rodale and here at Cornell shows that organic yields are equal to conventional yields and better under conditions of stress, especially under drought stress. So I'm being told to stop. I'm going to cycle through the slides, so you can see what I'm not talking about.
But I'm going to leave here, real quick, that I know GM is here to stay. I know that there may be some useful applications for it. But I urge folks, if you are interested in using this, to use, as your primary lens, these considerations. Don't have it be a genetic Band-Aid when there are better management systems out there that can address systems holistically.
And don't-- and this the last point. Don't design products that put farmers that choose not to use the technology at a disadvantage. If you're going to design these things, make them biologically incapable of negatively impacting farmers who choose not to use the technology. Thank you.
RON HERRING: Thank you Mary-Howell. Wendy Wolford is our next speaker. She's an associate professor of development sociology and an international professor as well as a field member in Latin American studies and international agriculture and rural development here at Cornell. Wendy's research interests include the political economy and geography of development, social movements and resistance, agrarian societies, political ecology, land use and land reform, critical ethnography as well as with a regional concentration on Latin America, particularly Brazil.
Wendy is published widely and is a founding member of the Land Deals Politics Initiative as well as the incoming associate director of economic development for the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Wendy.
WENDY WOLFORD: Thank you very much, Ron, and thank you all for coming. I want to thank the organizers of this panel. It's such a pleasure to be here with such a distinguished group of speakers. Thank you also to Mark Lynas, of course, for coming all this way and for being able to focus so much attention on a critically important topic. I hope that once the media furor over the conversion passes, that you'll be able to invite people to continue a real conversation about the pros and cons of biotechnology and what needs to happen to harness the former and mitigate the latter.
There is no single answer to the GMO debate. And I think that we've heard a lot about that about other people saying there's no single answer because there isn't a single question. There are multiple questions. And none of them invite an easy yes or no answer. Genetic engineering is a tool, one that can be used to generate a wide variety of technologies, all of which will be developed, disseminated, and adopted in ways that are shaped by the global configuration of markets, social class, political power, and environments as they manifest in particular places.
Given that, and given that the current configuration of class, power, and ecology has created a situation in which we currently produce more than enough calories per capita while 1 billion people go hungry, even if GMO technology radically increases the amount of food we produce, we may be no nearer our goal of feeding the world.
This is not an argument against technology or against science. Some of my best friends are scientists. It's an invitation to think seriously about the way new technologies are adopted in particular places and particular times and what we can do to ensure that new agricultural technologies help to feed the world, rather than simply profiting corporations or producing potato chips that we can eat without gaining weight.
I'm not a geneticist, nor an ecologist, or an agronomist, or a very good farmer. I'm a social scientist. And as Ron said, I've worked with social movements, movements of small farmers and the rural poor, in different places around the world, primarily, in Brazil and in Ecuador. While there are, of course, many farmers who have adopted the new technologies, there are many who have not.
These tend to be the poorer farmers. And their reasons for not adopting are based on their lived experiences on the land. While not very scientific, perhaps, their experiences are evidence. And we, as scientists, should treat them as such, rather than dismissing all of those against GMOs as anti-science or anti-progress or somehow against feeding the world.
In my remarks today in what is left of my time, I want to present three of the concerns that I have seen raised about biotechnology by small farmers. The first concern is the political economy of agricultural biotechnology. And others have addressed this. Many people think that the difference between plant breeding in the past and today is the genetic engineering.
But as we've seen already, this difference is overstated. Instead, the biggest difference between traditional plant breeding and today is that it used to be conducted in public research institutions run by governments and universities. While today, agricultural technology is largely a private corporate affair.
70% of all biotech research in agriculture worldwide is done by the private sector. Four agrochemical companies own 43% of the world's commercial seed supply. These firms have concentrated their efforts on four crops so that 90% of all GM crops today are soybean, corn, cotton, and canola. Concerns over the privatization of seed research are not simply about the global concentration of wealth. The concerns are much more specific.
They have to do with the exclusionary patenting process, the rising costs of seeds, the focus on commodity crops produced at scale rather than basic food crops. These basic foods have come to be referred to as orphan crops, such as sorghum, maize, and pigeon pea. These concerns together have generated what the FAO refers to as a molecular divide.
Monsanto is probably the company we think of first when we think of biotechnology. And it is a leader in litigating the improper use of its seeds. Over 400 lawsuits have been brought against farmers with farmers then paying the corporation upwards of $23 million for improperly acquiring or using the seeds. And so unless we recognize the political economy of global agriculture and use Mark Lynas's conversion to have a thoughtful conversation, his conversion will be used by the biotechnology firms to foster their own interests.
An article in Forbes written by Richard Levick suggests quite happily that the GMO industry no longer needs to put out talking points or to engage in a quote, "pointless back and forth"-- end quote-- about the science. He writes quote, "The industry now has less need for company men to play the role of salaried corporate defender. They now have Mark Lynas to help." End quote.
The second reason why there are social movements of small farmers who oppose genetic engineering is because the new seeds tend to be narrowly focused on high yields. And as such, they promote a farm economy oriented towards the largest farmers who produce monocrops for export. So this may generate profits. But it still isn't clear that it will feed the hungry or be sustainable, as changing climate conditions require farmers to think on their feet and continually adopt new production methods.
The new technology feeds into and embodies a capital-intensive, labor-saving approach to production that has allowed US farmers to increase their farm sizes, reduce employment, and even to overproduce key crops every year. Surpluses generated by this system already flow across the globe in the form of cheap commodity crops and food aid. This transformation of the US farm sector led to one of the largest rural-to-urban migrations in history.
Now imagine this transformation taking place in the developing world. Where are the cities, the clean rivers, the infrastructure, the jobs that will employ the 2 billion small farmers who will find that their labor has been saved? These are things that we need to be thinking about. I've just come back from Mozambique where Brazilian scientists are breeding new crops for large-scale [? Agri ?] Export. It's a great project that takes advantage of a high-yield gap, the potential for yield being so much greater than currently experienced.
It's a great project, except that there are very few farmers in the country who can take up the new seed and machinery the technologies implied by the seed. And so the Mozambican government is talking about importing farmers from Brazil, South Africa, and Zimbabwe to farm the large plots of land. Smallholders from Mozambique will either move to urban areas, or they will engage with the new agriculture through contract farming.
With this contract farming, they will be able to receive some extension assistance for their primary crop. And they will sell at a pre-decided upon price. Contract farming is not new, of course. But it does represent a continuation of the privatization of agricultural extension and places risk squarely on the farmers' shoulders.
The third reason why many small farmers oppose the unfolding of biotechnology under current conditions is that this focus on technological solutions to low yields and hunger obscures the search or has the potential to obscure the search for alternatives. There is so much good evidence that the basic principles of agroecology-- diversity, rotation, healthy soil, prevention-- that these will go a long way to increasing yields and reducing some of the main environmental problems associated with industrial agriculture, namely, loss of biodiversity, dead zones, and soil erosion.
The systems approach fostered through agroecology is necessary to build a sustainable and more equitable farm system and needs to be a real part of the conversation and properly funded. This was clear from the international assessment of agriculture knowledge science and technology for development initiated by the World Bank and FAO, sponsored by additional UN agencies, and approved by 58 governments. The [? Istat ?] report is referred to as the IPCC of agriculture, having drawn over six years on the work of over 400 experts.
The report states quite clearly that the greatest gains in addressing hunger will come from sustainable intensification. I think you mean no time, right?
RON HERRING: No. 30 seconds. Got to get your signals right-- half a minute.
WENDY WOLFORD: --will come from sustainable intensification through agroecology and natural cross-breeding rather than a single focus or a focus on genetically modified crops.
So in conclusion, I think we need to put biotechnology in its place. We need to analyze it as part of the larger system as well as in particular local contexts. As the land grant university to the world, we need to ask not just, will it increase yields? But will it address world hunger? And if so, how?
But will only do this if we have a genuine conversation, such as that that I think we've had here today. Panels like this one today are extremely important because they bring people together from different backgrounds with different perspectives who are here, less to convince anyone of a particular position, and more to have a discussion of relative risks.
GM crops and animals have been part of our agri-food and livestock systems for a long time. And as with anything related to human consumption and health, innovations in these systems need to be carefully regulated, tested, made transparent, and publicly available. Local farmers and authorities should have a suite of varieties and technologies to choose from. And farmers, small and large, need sufficient extension and access to science to be able to choose between them. Thank you.
RON HERRING: We now have an opportunity to ask questions of the panel. And I presume that Mark is willing to rejoin us, yes? And as we do this, we are trying something new. We're going to display tweets. So if you are not a Twitter user, you will see tweets on this panel behind me. And you can also tweet. The hashtag is available on the adverts about this particular conference. If we will have people come to the same microphones that we had before, and then we will proceed as we had previously. I think we can start with [? Deperna Roy. ?]
AUDIENCE: Hello. I wish to make three points. First of all, I wish to thank Mark Lynas and all of the panelists and professor Ron Herring for organizing and telling us about GMOs. The first point is, many years ago, I had the privilege of listening to Vandana Shiva at Ithaca College. And today, I have the privilege of listening to Mark Lynas.
I was thinking of ways to charm Vandana Shiva [INAUDIBLE] Vandana Shiva and Mark Lynas. And here, the work of sociologist Lawrence Busch is very useful. They are basically rhetorical icons, or what I call lightning rods. So the moment you mention Vandana Shiva and Mark Lynas, you have people who are either pro them or against them.
Vandana Shiva, of course, is anti-globalization, anti-Monsanto, anti-corporations, anti-GMOs, and lord knows what anti. So she does see food sovereignty [INAUDIBLE] sovereignty. So I'm interested in knowing how Mark Lynas would classify himself according to those descriptive tones I used.
The second point is that, as far as my knowledge goes, there is no scientific consensus on Bt brinjal in India. The problem with Vandana Shiva and Mark Lynas is that they keep on addressing each other, forgetting there's a state, there's democracy, and also there are a large number of public sector scientists in India. So as long as you don't have the public sector scientists in India and other places in your [? kitty ?] bag, you're not going to make progress with biotech.
And the third point is-- this goes to panelists-- we have heard a lot of talk about the [? Via ?] Campesina and other conferences. What do you think of the Via Campesina is focused on food sovereignty and its advocacy that GMOs should not be used by small peasant farmers. Thank you.
RON HERRING: It's open to several of us. Does anybody want to hop in first? I could say something about brinjal and [? Vandana ?] Shiva if you wish. Mark Lynas brought up brinjal in his talk. It was then subsequently picked up by Peter Davies.
It's an interesting crop because-- we have an old saying where I grew up in North Texas that, if you want to beat a dog, any stick will do. So people who are opposed to recombinant DNA as a part of the toolbox have a number of sticks that are commonly used. One of which is giant corporations control. Another is, only commodities that are internationally traded are affected. And the third has to do with the unavailability of these seeds to ordinary farmers in subsistence situations.
Brinjal is an absolutely classic case. India is the second largest brinjal producer in the world. The crop is grown by very small farmers, only 500,000 of them in the whole country-- horrifically sprayed, lots of toxins that go to the market with the brinjal. It affects their profits very dramatically. These are tiny farmers. And more varieties are coming from the public sector than from [INAUDIBLE] hybrids-- open-pollinated varieties that farmers could save the seeds.
Same thing is true of golden rice. So the property stick that's used to beat crops actually doesn't apply. So I think that the point about desegregating and taking some kind of view of different cropping situations, different crops, different property regimes, and so on is a very valuable one. But certainly, biofortification in crops like brinjal just do not fall prey to the kinds of rhetoric that one hears about them. And I think Mark Lynas's great point was that they are attacked only for one reason.
This is the only reason brinjal lost in India. It had nothing to do with democracy. The only reason brinjal lost in India is it was codified as an rDNA plant even though India already has a mutagenetically produced eggplant since 1975 that no one has ever noticed or had any connection worrying about whatsoever. So it's the rDNA component of this part of plant breeding that has caused an international movement to deny the fields, to burn the crops in the fields, and the test trials, and to deny them to farmers.
MARK LYNAS: I would add that, in the same way that DNA codes for proteins, to put it simplistically, GMO codes for all sorts of social concerns about corporate power and food sovereignty as you said.
And all of these things bring up-- and try as you might to desegregate them and say, OK, you should be able to be anti-Monsanto and pro-GMO Bt bring being available to small farmers free of charge in India-- those two things are perfectly compatible. Being anti-large corporation doesn't mean to say that you should [? rule out the ?] entire technology.
When I wrote my final sort of anti-GMO piece in 2008 in The Guardian, one of the comments that was underneath that said, you're not against the wheel because cars are made by large corporations. And actually, I just thought, OK. There's a point here, which is why, ever since, I've been much more interested. I don't go out to defend herbicide tolerance. That's not really the application of GM technology which I find particularly useful or relevant. I think what's much more interesting is pest-resistant, particularly the disease resistance.
And my dad's actually an organic farmer in Wales. And they lost all of their potato crop to late blight [INAUDIBLE] this year because it was a particularly wet year. There are GMO blight-resistant varieties in production, which would be perfect for organic farmers. Because they don't have access to the fungus-side sprays which are used on conventional crops.
But of course, you can't use it because it's GMO. And it's that arbitrary distinction, which I think is just meaningless. GMOs should be perfect for organic systems because you're trying to find ways which don't use those chemicals.
RON HERRING: Yes, please, [? Tony ?] Shelton. I found actually that I agree with many of the different arguments that you all make. I don't agree with all of them. But each person presented certain facets very, very well. One thing I'd like to ask Mark Lynas was you said we have-- one of the problems is like that old Cool Hand Luke story-- of failure to communicate. And that's what really got genetic engineering into a real bind.
So whose failure is it? Is it the scientists to communicate, is it the public to understand science, is the environment that our education system is? There was a wonderful survey some years ago, it said 50% of the people who eat-- and we all eat-- said that they did not want to eat beans in their food. And that really showed a real problem in the educational system. But where is this communication failure? And who how can we get over it?
MARK LYNAS: If I knew the answer to that, I couldn't possibly give it to you, because it would be beneficial to the biotech industry. And that would show that I'm a shill for big biotech. But it's so difficult, even now, for me to think back. And I ask myself this question. What would have made me understand the scientific realities better in 1996 when I started out as an anti-GMO campaigner?
Would it have helped if somebody had sat me down and say, look, at least on the safety issue-- and I totally accept all the political economy issues. And this is a complex area. At least on the issue of safety versus conventional breeding, whatever that means, if somebody had sat me down and said, look, the consensus of scientists here.
And obviously, this was an earlier stage-- and there wasn't the kind of work which has since been done in terms of safety studies-- that there was an equivalent consensus as there is with climate change, would that have convinced me? I don't know. It's almost like it was a perfect storm of food-- it was a classic food safety scare. And I really think that it's the food safety plus the corporate angles which combine, really, to make this an enormous global movement.
And I term it denialists, and I term it to conspiracy theory because, if you take away this idea that there's a cabal of conspiring scientists faking the safety studies and trying to pull the wool over farmers' eyes, farmers are buying this stuff, even though it's not good for them because they're either stupid or they're being misled.
All of this stuff, it's classic conspiracy theory-type territory. And it's very difficult to combat those. Just you don't just throw facts of people because that doesn't work. And it hasn't worked with climate change. And it hasn't worked with many other areas.
But times change. And I think that's what's happening now. The social context changes. The political context changes. And people become amenable because it's better understood that we've got to improve productivity. We've got food security issues. We've got all of these challenges coming. And clearly, locking out a whole option from our tool box is not a particularly sensible way to go.
MARY-HOWELL MARTENS: Tony, one of the things that I think we should be very conscious of is that reality is not just a snapshot at one time, that a lot of people, both in the United States and around the world, are coming at this whole situation with a historical relationship and reaction to the very companies and agencies that are pushing genetic engineering now.
The companies-- the World Bank as was brought up earlier, some of the other agencies-- if it was just you scientists, I think things would be a lot easier. But it is the whole package of imposing American agriculture internationally, the package of chemical agriculture just being perpetuated with one more product without solving some of the underlying holistic issues. We can't just see this as a snapshot in time. There is history here, and it matters.
RON HERRING: Yes, [? Faye. ?]
AUDIENCE: Actually, that was a very good segue because one of the things that we don't have on this panel are people that have been-- their organic crop has been infected by the GE crops. Most of the lectures I've been to here at Cornell are very pro-GMO. And it's very telling because Cornell gets funding from Monsanto.
That's very well-known. But in order to have that discussion that people have been speaking about, that level discussion, is we need the other players. We need the other people that are being affected. Because there are farmers going out of business. A lot more organic farmers are going to be going out of business.
We haven't talked about how the cross-pollination is doing that, OK. There are a lot of issues that we haven't talked about here. And when we talk about fairness, these is the things we have to talk about. If you want to win me over, let's say, you have to be talking about these issues. Now, a lot of people do care about global warming. All the issues you talked about-- to label people fanatics-- that's where you lose people right away. Or you label people-- I'm sorry, the word that you used-- conspiracy theorists.
Because I'll tell you one thing. I'm very worried about carrying a cell phone, which I do not carry. Because Verizon and AT&T will not tell you their tests of whether it causes cancer or not. The patents that companies have, they don't have to tell you whether something is causing cancer or not. So we're human-- right now, we're an experiment on many levels-- on GM crops, on the cell phone, the digital divide. We're a big experiment.
So I would like to see, in the future, a more balanced panel. Because we're not having that discussion because the we that's coming up with the GE crops superweed, it's called, that's right. So you need more of a toxic chemical to combat the superweed. So there are so many things that I have learned about what's happening with the GM crop that is not being discussed. And if you want that level playing field, you have to discuss that.
Now, a lot of poor farmers around the world are being subjected to this. Yes, in a very aggressive way, by Monsanto, by other companies. A speaker from Chiapas, Mexico, a number of years ago, he was talking about the GE corn proliferating so much in Mexico where the poor Mexican farmer who's using their old seed, their traditional seed, the seed that's been passed down for millennium extinguished because of the GE crop coming in. It is creating so much of economic disaster. So I just-- I'm sorry. It's more--
RON HERRING: We have three questions on the table already though. And it's about--
AUDIENCE: Well, you don't have to answer to them. But I'm just saying that we are not having-- for also the benefit of younger people in this crowd-- a level playing field.
MARY-HOWELL MARTENS: Can I address the coexistence-contamination issue as an organic farmer, is that OK with you? As an organic farmer, this is some-- and as a member of the AC21 USDA Advisory Committee, this is an issue I have spent a lot of time thinking about. And this is my conclusion. I support the right for any farmer to grow whatever they want on their farm for the profitability of their farm. But it is not their right to do anything on their farm that will negatively impact their neighbors.
This is an agronomic decision. This is a community decision. But ultimately, it is a moral decision. And as I've talked to some of my conventional neighbors, it matters less whether you think you're a good neighbor than whether your neighbor thinks you're a good neighbor. So that was the reason for my final point on my summary. Any new GM product being produced should be biologically incapable of negatively impacting any farm that does not choose to use it. And that is the moral responsibility of scientists doing this.
RON HERRING: So that, of course, raises the issue of terminator technology, which used to be a hot political issue. But that would be the solution. Peter, you had a comment on this.
PETER DAVIES: Well, I had two or three comments. First of all, safety-- the EU, Europe, is in general, very much opposed to biotech. However, the European Commission, which evaluates this, has stated that, as the result of over 500 investigations by a similar number of research groups, there has been no genuine case where there is a safety problem. And the European Commission regards these biotech crops as no different from crops bred using conventional breeding techniques.
Secondly, superweeds-- these are not superweeds. They just happen to be resistant to one particular herbicide. And it's been stated several times that GM technology is not a panacea. And I don't think any of us who are connected with this would contest that. The important thing is to use good agronomic practices throughout. And good agronomic practices would include rotations including rotations of herbicides.
And the one advantage of the herbicide that is primarily used in conjunction with herbicide resistance, it is a much safer herbicide than the older herbicides on the market. The comment was made from the floor that the use of the GM crops is extinguishing the native varieties. That is not true in any way. GM crops do not extinguish the native varieties.
Now, let's say you have an insect-resistant crop, and the insect resistant gene moved, the other characteristics would not be any different. And this is no different from two different varieties being grown next to each other. There is a possibility of interchange of genes. If the farmers concerned do not wish the genes to be in interchanged, then, certainly, they should be separated by a certain distance. But this doesn't make any difference whatsoever whether it's a biotech crop or not.
If you have two varieties with different characteristics, and you don't want them to interchange, you have to separate them. So this is not something that is exclusive to biotech crops.
DAVID WOLFE: I wanted just to clarify a little bit, just on the topic of safety, and see if maybe-- it may be something that, actually, the whole panel roughly falls where I do, but I'm not sure, so I thought I'd mention it. So Mark, himself, talked about, with transgenics, you can you can do almost anything.
So you have to be concerned about things like allergens and toxins, of course, getting into the food system. And regulation is appropriate there to be monitoring those things. In terms of a hybridization of transgenic crops with related species or subspecies, possibly, of weeds, that's theoretically possible.
In fact, there has been-- not of transgenics, but there's been hybridization to other related species of many of our major world food crops like wheat, et cetera, to other species. So that's theoretically possible. The other thing is, transgenics are not out there in the scale and the length of time that there could be if they were to really marched forward in a major way.
And that could pose new risks that we can't really foresee. So for all these reasons I'm not opposed, inherently, to the use of GM crops. But I think the monitoring and the regulation has to be done very carefully, judiciously, so it's not ridiculously a disincentive from people exploring these things. But I think we definitely need some serious monitoring and regulation. I don't know where the rest of the panel actually falls on that.
RON HERRING: Margaret.
MARGARET SMITH: I'll just comment very briefly. And it was actually something that Mark Lynas said first. I think it's really important that we consider these things on a case-by-case basis. Because any technology can be used in many ways. You can use it for something that really, on balance when you evaluate it carefully and using a large circle of evaluation, could be very positive. Or it could be negative. So I think we really do need to think about those things on a case-by-case basis. And that's some of what I heard in Dave's comments.
MARK LYNAS: And just to add to that, a plant science friend of mine who shall remain nameless, once asked the key [? person ?] in the UK, [INAUDIBLE] if you had a crop, which is produced by transgenics, and one which wasn't, and they had an identical genome, you would [INAUDIBLE] to find out that there [INAUDIBLE] would the transgenic need to [? be subject ?] [INAUDIBLE]? And she said yes. So there's no material difference between these two things, but the mode of production in some way [INAUDIBLE] treat it differently. Now, that seems to be [INAUDIBLE].
PETER DAVIES: Agreed.
RON HERRING: I'd like to say one thing on the safety issue. It's very interesting how we treat risk. It's a fascinating subject how we treat risk. And then lots of psychologists and economists spend lots of time on this. But rDNA technology after it became available in 1973 was fundamentally split up by the social movements in which agriculture was segregated from medicine, pharmaceuticals, industrial uses like biodegradable plastics.
And all of those other uses of recombinant DNA techniques became subject to the same risk safety evaluation as their counterparts. So there's no separate trial for a pharmaceutical that-- what, insulin since 1978 produced by a recombinant technique bacterium with a human gene.
So we separated out agriculture as an especially risky business and one especially subject to corporate control. It's pretty interesting, really. Because the evidence on this just doesn't hold up when people have tried to find evidence of incremental risk, that is, a risk of a transgenic plant compared to a counterpart plant bred by some other means. It hasn't proved to be true that there is incremental risk in the sense of hazard times incidence.
We don't have the hazard. And we haven't, so far, found incidence. Now, this is Donald Rumsfeld's most famous contribution to human knowledge, right? There are unknown unknowns-- absolutely true. And if you've ever picked up a little bottle of prescription drugs, it lists all the things that might happen to you if you ingested those pills. One of the students in our class said, well, yeah, but you don't take a pill every day. And I said that's because you're 25 years old, you know?
So in fact, we are constantly weighing risk against utility. And in pharmaceuticals, and medicines, vaccines, and in bioindustrial products, we've decided that the risk-benefit calculus will determine what level of regulation and monitoring we'll have. But only in agriculture do we have absolute prohibitions rather than treating it like surgery or air travel or consumption of pharmaceuticals in which we weigh risk regularly, quite in a calculated way.
And I think what is offensive to me personally about the kinds of organizations that Mark talks about is that they say we, as Europeans, can make rational calculations about cost benefits. We will decide whether we want to use a pharmaceutical produced by a recombinant plant or a recombinant animal.
But these third-world peasants are incapable of rational cost-benefit calculation. We want them to ban everything that has any transgenic content. So that, to me, is a politically skewed conceptualization of what is risky and what we do about risk as social actors.
MARY-HOWELL MARTENS: I just want to comment on Mark's impression of organic irrationality. Two things-- one little known fact, Norman Borlaug's family farm in Northeast Iowa is now being farmed organically-- kind of important to this place. But to talk about whether or not organic farmers are being irrational when they choose not to use GM technology-- I don't like lima beans. I'm not afraid of them. I am not allergic to them. I don't like them. So I don't eat them. I choose not to.
Other people feel that way about oysters or peanuts. But I think people need to be given the choice to make the choice. That includes labeling, that includes farming the way they want to, that includes making decisions as countries or groups whether or not this technology is something they want to use. It doesn't mean they're afraid of them. It doesn't mean there's a conspiracy out there. It means they're making a choice. And that's OK. I don't like lima beans. I never will.
RON HERRING: That may be a good point at which to proceed to a reception. We won't have any--
PETER DAVIES: Hold on.
RON HERRING: Oh, no, there's somebody else.
MARY-HOWELL MARTENS: Sorry.
MARK LYNAS: There's someone standing waiting [INAUDIBLE].
RON HERRING: Sorry, I didn't see you [? in ?] the dark.
AUDIENCE: I'm short. I get that a lot. It's OK.
RON HERRING: [INAUDIBLE] Yeah.
AUDIENCE: I had a question. And this was mentioned briefly by Professor Wolfe about the scale. And I think that's an important question in terms of the time scale. And it's something that I focus on when I'm trying to think about this debate, which is really complex, and there's a lot of questions to it.
But in terms of the speed of change when you're using genetic engineering technology versus conventional breeding and how that may affect other parts of an agroecosystem in terms of the speed of change that's happening in terms of an expressed trait and how that impacts other, like I said, other organisms, but also within the social context in terms of profitability and choices. And I know somebody had brought up Via Campesina. And I was wondering if you also on that. That wasn't talked about before. Thank you.
PETER DAVIES: Just a comment on speed of change-- golden rice was developed by the year 2000. And this is to improve the nutrition of people in Southeast Asia where the lack of vitamin A leads to many hundreds of thousands of people being blind or having vision problems. We are now 13 years later. It is still not available, and it is not available, in large part, because of the opposition to golden rice. And maybe, Mark, you could comment a little bit about the adoption situation of golden rice as you were talking about it this morning.
AUDIENCE: Sorry, I just wanted to clarify. My question wasn't so much in terms of the regulation, but more fundamentally, at an ecological level, this change in terms of an organism being present or absent in an agroecosystem. We can certainly talk about the regulation as well. I just wanted to clarify in terms of what my question was.
PETER DAVIES: Well, now, one possibility you might be talking about is insects developing resistance. But let me take the case of Bt corn. Bt corn has been extensively studied for its effect on the environment. And a very nice study came out in the prestigious journal Nature last summer looking at the impact of Bt corn on the insect populations in China. This study lasted for 13 years. And it covered I think at least 17 different sites in China. And the conclusion was that, compared to conventional agriculture, there was an increase in insect diversity.
Now, of course, one would say, well, what if you compare it to organic? And I think the answer was there is no difference except for the decline in the bollworm because it was on cotton. But there was actually an increase in the number of predatory insects and a decline in the number of aphids because the predatory insects were eating the aphids.
Now, Mary-Howell has been describing what sounds an extremely successful organic farm. And it certainly sounds wonderful, and I've seen pictures of it. However, does the statistics on many analysis are that, on average, organic farms only have yields of 2/3 a conventional farm. Now, I believe Mary-Howell's farm is higher. But that is the statistics. And that has been published in prestigious journals.
So given that we have two alternatives, you either go to conventional agriculture where you spray pesticide, insecticides in large amounts leading to toxicity to the farmers, to the farmers children-- because, in developing countries, it's often the children that do the spraying. And take our eggplant. By the time it reaches market, it's had 20 applications of insecticide. So you're impacting both the farmer and the consumer.
And your alternative here is to use crops that are naturally insect resistant and do not need this extent of spraying. So given the choice, that's what I would far rather go with. And this, as I said, is now being examined for-- in the case I quoted you-- 13 years for the effect on the ecology and is found, in fact, to be beneficial to the ecology.
RON HERRING: Is there a question over here?
AUDIENCE: Yeah. So this is a question mostly for Mary-Howell, Mary, I think you're holding a GM technology to too high of a standard in saying that there should be zero risk of impacting neighbors. I think that the analogy is that you're saying you can't solve every problem, so we shouldn't go about solving lots of them. And I appreciate the position you're in on this panel is, like, the realist, as the farmer.
But I think that, in reality, the farming conditions in upstate New York are far more privileged compared to those in lots of developing countries. And I don't think you'd disagree with that. And I think you're right. We don't need GM here in upstate New York. But I guess what I have is not so much a question, but more a request that, I hope you would please tell me that you believe that there is some place for GM in going about solving the world's food crisis problems.
MARY-HOWELL MARTENS: I never said there was no place. There are vines in the vineyard in Geneva at the Experiment Station that are the result of my finger touching the gene gun's trigger. I have done this. I come from the mirror image to Mark where I was a genetic engineer and have looked at it critically from a scientific perspective and seen things to criticize. I don't say that there is no place for certain types of development.
And I think Margaret put her finger on some of the concerns of, who pays for something that is not a commercial benefit to a large company? And who benefits? And I think that, truly, if this eggplant is something that cuts down on insecticides, I'd support it. I'd also support golden rice if it hadn't come out with such a huge amount of fanfare rather prematurely.
Because I think, when we look at something like golden rice, a lot of the farms that this would be directed to are very small, on average, maybe 3 to 4 acres. Funny thing about land-- if you grow rice on it, you're not growing anything else on it. And I am concerned that it might displace other crops.
Another funny thing is that, in the areas where there is vitamin A deficiency, oftentimes, there's also other micronutrient, other vitamin deficiencies. And golden rice, for all I know, only supplies one. So what I would urge is, if we're going to look at GM crops, they need to be in a holistic manner, that we aren't using them as genetic Band-Aids to bigger agricultural and societal issues, political issues.
But look at them as a piece of the whole that could be valuable, but not as the only thing that is valuable. Most Ag agencies say that vitamin A would be better addressed if more farms grew a wide variety of vegetables, leafy green vegetables, because that would provide more nutrients. So let's don't put all our eggs in any one basket.
RON HERRING: Does somebody want to respond to Toby's tweet up here that says, if I can read it, "Organic certified pesticides toxic to bees-- pyrethrin, sabadilla, rotenone-- toxicity levels that would prevent nonorganic approval"--
MARK LYNAS: What was that?
RON HERRING: It's the tweet from--
MARY-HOWELL MARTENS: I can't see.
RON HERRING: Oh, you can't see. Sorry.
MARK LYNAS: I didn't even understand it.
RON HERRING: Well, here it is. You can read this while we have our next question, the one from Toby.
AUDIENCE: OK. So to hopefully provoke a little bit of discussion here, actually amplifying some comments from earlier, talking about leveling the playing field and maybe breaking out of cycles of negative feedback loops, in about 2006, there was an Ag economist study that said the cost of putting together a deregulation portfolio is on the order of $7 to $15 million. I think the figure now is probably more on the order of $50 million per event.
So I think part of the negative feedback loop here, in terms of leveling a playing field, is that only the largest seed companies can afford deregulation of a transgenic event where a single crop, a single individual plant would represent the entire R&D budget for a medium- or small-sized company. So I was wondering to the group-- we heard about Canada where now they regulate any novel trait regardless of how it came out.
Is this group, or could it consider, is this now a time, 15 years into the natural experiment, to revise how we regulate transgenic crops? If part of the idea here is to open the playing field to more public-sector players, even monster institutions like Cornell do not have $50 million sitting around to push for the deregulation of a transgenic crop.
RON HERRING: Peter, want to comment on this?
PETER DAVIES: Actually, the figure is now closer to $150 million from the point of conception to the point where it is produced enough to go out to the farmers. And one of the reasons that it is so expensive is that more and more regulations are placed on it by those opposed to it. And this may not have been the intention of those opposed to GM crops. Because it now makes it very difficult for small institutions or small companies to produce beneficial crops, let's say, disease resistance, which we're going to need more and more.
For example, in Uganda at the moment, there are about three different diseases to which the bananas are becoming subject. And that is a staple. That is not just a once a week fruit. That's a staple there. And these are the sort of advances we need.
Now, some scientists have suggested that we are going overboard in our requirements for testing now, considering that we have all this experience behind us. And I like the way they expressed it. There was a paper in a European molecular biology journal where they said the continued request requirement for extensive testing is a dead parrot.
Some of you may remember Monty Python and the dead parrot. You keep beating the dead parrot to death. And that, now we have 20 years of experience of all this testing, it is time to be more precise on the testing and regulations and reduce it to that which is appropriate. Decrease the cost, so the beneficial biotech crops can be produced by smaller companies or by nonprofit institutions.
RON HERRING: We won't know about-- because the Donald Rumsfeld comment about the unknown unknowns-- but how much regulation is safe that, one wouldn't know. But the political economy effects are absolutely clear. The first Bt cottons in India that were produced for three years before the government or Monsanto or anybody even knew they were being produced, were produced by a firm with three employees who could not possibly get through the eight years of testing that it cost Monsanto Mahyco.
And it was distributed by a tiny firm [INAUDIBLE] knows the developer. I know the developer. These were underground illegal seeds that the government banned because they hadn't been through the biosafety procedures. So even though Vandana Shiva writes about patents on Bt cotton, there was no patent on Bt cotton. The reason that Mahyco Monsanto did better than other people was simply because they had the only cotton that got through the biosafety hurdles, which was eight years, and I don't know how many thousands or millions of dollars it cost them.
But I know that [INAUDIBLE] seeds could not afford that. And that's why they took their Bt cotton to the market underground, and it spread like wildfire, right? So that was not a function of a patent regime. It was a function of biosafety regime. And that the tighter you make a biosafety regime, the harder you make it for public-sector plants, or public-sector scientists, or individual start-ups, or small mom and pop seed firms like [INAUDIBLE] seeds to enter into competition and to bring new ideas into the tool box. Yes? Oh, sorry, sorry, Margaret.
MARGARET SMITH: I just have a very brief comment on that. First, just to mention something Peter said, it's not apparent to me that the regulatory burden has gone up at all. It has been there, but it has not particularly changed. And secondly, I think it's important to realize that part of the cost of bringing a biotech crop to market is that regulatory piece, the testing that's required. But there's also a very big part of it that's actually the development of the crop itself, the gene and the crop.
The Indian folks were able to develop Bt cotton very cheaply because they could steel the Bt gene and back-cross it into cotton varieties. If you were actually to try and develop a new product that addressed something other than Bt Roundup-resistance and so on, there's a tremendous R&D cost, which I would argue will still be beyond the means of a medium-sized company.
RON HERRING: Fair enough. Yes, please.
AUDIENCE: Hi. I'd like to touch base on a few things that have been said today, which I think they basically stem from misunderstanding.
RON HERRING: Can you step closer to the microphone, please?
AUDIENCE: OK. So I think there are a few things that were said today that stem from misunderstanding. And without going into details, maybe a major one that I heard that we're losing biodiversity because GM are cross-pollinating, contaminating, such. So we're losing in Mexico biodiversity and all that.
Well, so there are a few things to be said about that, which is not true at all, by the way. Because there are studies that show that pollen does not travel more than 150 kilometers. So this is GM pollen that will not go from Texas or anywhere to Mexico. These are studies, for example, from the Max Planck Institute in Germany.
Also, there's something called germplasm, OK? So what we do, we collect seeds, potatoes, or in any part of the plan that we will use later on. And we keep that in a safe place so that we don't mix with any other pollen, whether it's GMO or not. There is also another thing that I'd like to point out here today is that we are fully now into a part of the dialogue that goes beyond the biology itself and goes more into the political issue.
And I think it's fine because this needs to be addressed on a political issue. We have enough background in biology. We have enough science behind this proving that this is a technology. It is a tool within a tool box that needs to be used in a smart way.
Now, we have the problem that it's extremely expensive, like you guys were talking about, to deregulate some of these products. How do we tackle that? I think that's the next question that maybe, in two years, we should be talking about here. We have enough scientific paper peer reviews saying that this is safety, and it is not Monsanto related. So the next step I think is going to be talk about, OK, how do we make these more affordable for universities like Cornell that do not have $100 million to deregulate a GMO.
Lastly, I think the focus should also be-- a lot of you folks have brought up the issue about small farmers. And the small farmers, they want to go organic, apparently. They don't want GMO. Well, let's take a look at what's going on in the world. Because if you go to southern Brazil, what's happening is that people are smuggling GM soya from Argentina. These are poor farmers doing that.
If you go to India, they're smuggling all the type of GMOs into-- so it comes to, well, do we want to-- so here we are in North America, the wealthy part of the world that is controlling what's happening in the poor South part of the world. I'm from the South. I'm from a third-country world. So I saw these, OK? I come from a family that is an agricultural family down there in Chile.
So when some people here say that poor farmers do not want GMO, that is not true. That is not correct. We have seen the opposite, actually. So I think it's important. And I think Margaret said this. We need to give them the choice. If they want to grow GM, well, do it? But why are we here, the northern hemisphere controlling, dictating what should be happening in the South? Do you want to wear plant imperialism? Yes.
SARAH EVANEGA: Can I answer? I know we're over time, and it's been a long afternoon, a long panel. There are certainly poor farmers, small farmers around the world who are using and who want to use GM technologies. And I didn't mean to suggest that there aren't.
I mean to suggest that there are certainly also social movements of small farmers made up of some of the same kinds of farmers who are working on small plots of land, 5 hectares to 25 hectares who also want to have a different voice in the conversation, who aren't necessarily adopting the technologies and who are fighting against the decline in public funding for agricultural research and extension that would benefit some of the farm technologies that they're currently using. So I think that paying attention to the arguments on both sides is necessary.
Somebody referenced-- [? Dev Parnaroy ?] referenced Via Campesina earlier. And Via Campesina, for those of you who don't know, is a transnational movement of movements. It's a social movement that's come together that has members who are social movements that operate in different countries. And there are over 130 or 40 social movements now. So it's not all small farmers. But it's a considerable voice suggesting that we think about the relationship between farmers and their land in these very particular contexts.
And one of the campaigns is for food sovereignty. Where, what food sovereignty means is the right or the ability to be able to choose a particular production path, having the options to choose a particular production path. So I think that that is a call for opening up availability to biotechnology, but also opening up the availability through public extension for alternative technologies.
RON HERRING: One of our panelists has to leave because of kids in school, which is one of these human values that we all support and sustain, and are in favor of-- children going to school. Margaret, do you want to-- I know we have we have at least one more question. Can we just thank Margaret and excuse you from the panel.
Thank you, so much. OK. And now we have a question. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Yes. My question is about their organic yields. Because you mentioned the organic yields and that they tend to be lower on average. And my question is just, how much money has been invested in organic research so far? Because I just know, from the European situation, it's not that good. I would be interested in the American situation.
MARY-HOWELL MARTENS: You make a very good point. Although I will commend Cornell for putting a lot of effort into research that may not necessarily be labeled organic, but is very pertinent to organic systems-- and I thank Cornell for that, and everybody in New York does. However, obviously, a great deal less attention and money and skilled scientists have spent their time on organic systems than on conventional. This needs to change.
What we have seen, though-- and I think this is really important-- is there is a huge range in yields on conventional farms. There is a large range of yields on organic farms. There's probably less difference in yield between the best-managed organic and the best-managed conventional than within the systems. We're talking about farmers. And I think what we need to really recognize is that there's room for improvement on both. But it's really not the system that determines the yield as much as it is the farmer.
RON HERRING: I think that's a superb way to end this discussion. It all comes down to someone making a choice on his or her farm about his or her production technologies and seeds. And many of us probably should have some hubris taken away from this to stand back from that and respect farmers' decisions. I think we have Sarah to make an announcement about food and drink.
SARAH EVANEGA: Well, before I do that, I'd like to think Ron and the panelists and our international guest, Mark Lynas. And I'd also like to thank two people behind the scenes, Chris [? Steit ?] and John [? Bakeum, ?] who have made it possible for our viewers that are viewing this live-stream to participate in the conversation.
So thank you for that. And one more huge thanks to the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future for partnering with us on this event. And thank all of you for joining us today to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Office of International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
I'd like to make a couple of announcements. One is that Mark will be signing books at the bookstore tomorrow from 10:45 to 11:15. So if you'd like to go down and pick up a copy of the book or bring one that you already have, he'd be happy to sign it. Another announcement is that we will be having another event.
Our next 50th anniversary event is July 23rd. We'll be partnering with Mann library and IAALD conference, the World Congress. And we'll be hosting a plenary session on how e-learning, digital libraries, and [? E ?] [? extension ?] are working in Africa.
And among the panelists, we'll have [? Na Amisa, ?] who's an alumnus from Cornell. She's now a faculty member at the University of Ghana. And we'll also be hearing from Rikin Gandhi of Digital Green. So that'll be an exciting event to look forward to. And now we invite you all-- you're highly deserving of a reception in the lobby. So I hope you'll join us for some food and drink. And thank you all very much for participating today.
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Mark Lynas is the author of several books including The God Species (2011) and Six Degrees (2007). He is former climate change advisor to the President of the Maldives and a visiting researcher at Oxford University's School of Geography and the Environment. In January, Lynas sent shockwaves through environmental circles by publicly apologizing for his role in the anti-GMO movement.
Lynas spoke at Cornell on April 29, 2013 as part of the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future's Outside Voices speaker series. Following his presentation Lynas joined a panel discussion with Ron Herring, Professor, Government (moderator); Peter Davies, Professor, Plant Biology; Mary-Howell Martens, Owner, Martens Farm and Lakeview Organic Grains; Margaret Smith, Professor, Plant Breeding and Genetics; David Wolfe, Professor, Horticulture; and Wendy Wolford, Associate Professor, Development Sociology.
Cosponsored by CALS International Programs and the Atkinson Center.