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The struggle for the soul of food

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There is food. There is no food. There is no contradiction in there being food and not-food at the same time.

But the not-food is not ‘no food’, it is primary crop that has been passed to food industry, instead of directly to households, and in that industry it is converted into a raw material that is entirely different from the cereals, vegetables, pulses and fruit forms that we consider food and which farmers grow.

That conversion is the food industry, and the demands of that conversion include the use of ‘high-response’ crop varieties, livestock and aquatic breeds, enormous doses of synthetic agro-chemicals and the flattening of ecosystems.

The food industry makes plants grow by applying pesticides and herbicides that sterilise all other life, takes those grown plants and reduces them to components, re-mixes and alters those components, infuses them with deadly formulations of chemicals so that they withstand the treatment of the supply and retail chain, packages them and sells them as ‘food’. This is the not-food that a majority of households in countries now eat.

The industrial food model is predicated on waste, on a false economy of surplus production of commodities rather than on the basis of ecological sustainability, on a biological science that has hideously distorted the rhythms of life.

In the last few weeks, several incisive new reports describe the problems with the industrial food model, and I have drawn quotes from four here. These are not the first. But the conditions they now describe for an old malady are not what we have seen before.

There is a fifth, which I call a pseudo-report. It describes the problems differently, as if they were disconnected from the source of the problems which the other four reports correctly identify. The FAO State Of Food And Agriculture 2017 report refuses to acknowledge the macro-economic, corporate science and finance capital causes for the problems.

Here are the summaries, with links:

Whereas historically the organisations’ proposal for agrarian reform referred particularly to land distribution and to access to productive resources, such as credit, financing, support for marketing of products, amongst others, the integral or genuine agrarian reform is based on the defence and the reconstruction of territory as a whole, within the framework of Food Sovereignty. The broadening of the object of agrarian reform, from land to territory also broadens the concept of the agrarian reform itself.

“Therefore the contemporary proposal for integral agrarian reform does not only guarantee the democratisation of land, but also takes into consideration diverse aspects that allow families to have a decent life: water, the seas, mangroves and continental waters, seeds, biodiversity as
a whole, as well as market regulation and the end of land grabbing. Furthermore, it includes the strengthening of agro-ecological production as a form of production that is compatible with the cycles of nature and capable of halting climate change, maintaining biodiversity and reducing contamination.”

From ‘Struggles of La Via Campesina, for Agrarian Reform and the Defense of Life, Land and Territories’, La Via Campesina, 2017

The Industrial Food Chain is a linear sequence of links running from production inputs to consumption outcomes. The first links in the Chain are crop and livestock genomics, followed by pesticides, veterinary medicines, fertilizers, and farm machinery. From there, the Chain moves on to transportation and storage, and then milling processing, and packaging. The final links in the Chain are wholesaling, retailing and ultimately delivery to homes or restaurants. In this text we use ‘industrial’ or ‘corporate’ to describe the Chain, and ‘commercial foods’ should undoubtedly be associated with the Chain. Just as peasants can’t be comprehended outside of their cultural and ecological context, the links in the Chain – from agro-inputs to food retailers – must be understood within the market economy. All the links in the Chain are connected within the financial and political system, including bankers, speculators, regulators and policymakers. The Chain controls the policy environment of the world’s most important resource – our food.”

From ‘Who Will Feed Us? The Peasant Food Web vs The Industrial Food Chain’, ETC Group, 2017

A significant horizontal and vertical restructuring is underway across food systems. Rampant vertical integration is allowing companies to bring satellite data services, input provision, farm machinery and market information under one roof, transforming agriculture in the process. Mega-mergers come in the context of an already highly-consolidated agri-food industry, and are ushering in a series of structural shifts in food systems. Agrochemical companies are acquiring seed companies, paving the way for unprecedented consolidation of crop development pathways, and bringing control of farming inputs into fewer hands.

“The mineral-dependent and already highly concentrated fertilizer industry is seeking further integration on the back of industry overcapacity and a drop in prices; fertilizer firms are also moving to diversify and integrate their activities via hostile takeovers, joint ventures, and the buying and selling of of regional assets– with mixed results. Meanwhile, livestock and fish breeders, and animal pharmaceutical firms, are pursuing deeper integration with each other, and are fast becoming a one-stop shop for increasingly concentrated industrial livestock industry. Leading farm machinery companies – already possessing huge market shares – are looking to consolidate up- and down-stream, and are moving towards ownership of Big Data and artificial intelligence, furthering their control of farm-level genomic information and trending market data accessed through satellite imagery and robotics.”

From ‘Too big to feed: Exploring the impacts of mega-mergers, concentration, concentration of power in the agri-food sector’, IPES-Food, 2017

Power — to achieve visibility, frame narratives, set the terms of debate, and influence policy — is at the heart of the food–health nexus. Powerful actors, including private sector, governments, donors, and others with influence, sit at the heart of the food–health nexus, generating narratives, imperatives, and power relations that help to obscure its social and environmental fallout. Prevailing solutions leave the root causes of poor health unaddressed and reinforce existing social-health inequalities.

“These solutions, premised on further industrialization of food systems, grant an increasingly central role to those with the technological capacity and economies of scale to generate data, assess risks, and deliver key health fixes (e.g., biofortification, highly traceable and biosecure supply chains). The role of industrial food and farming systems in driving health risks (e.g., by perpetuating poverty and climate change) is left unaddressed. As well, those most affected by the health impacts in food systems (e.g., small-scale farmers in the Global South) become increasingly marginal in diagnosing the problems and identifying the solutions.”

From ‘Unravelling the Food–Health Nexus: Addressing practices, political economy, and power
relations to build healthier food systems’, The Global Alliance for the Future of Food and IPES-Food, 2017

a) Industrialization, the main driver of past transformations, is not occurring in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa and is lagging in South Asia. People exiting low-productivity agriculture are moving mostly into low-productivity informal services, usually in urban areas. The benefits of this transformation have been very modest.
b) In the decades ahead, sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, will face large increases in its youth population and the challenge of finding them jobs. Workers exiting agriculture and unable to find jobs in the local non-farm economy must seek employment elsewhere, leading to seasonal or permanent migration.
c) The world’s 500 million smallholder farmers risk being left behind in structural and rural transformations. Many small scale producers will have to adjust to ongoing changes in “downstream” food value chains, where large-scale processors and retailers, who are taking centre stage, use contracts to coordinate supply and set strict standards to guarantee food quality and safety. Those requirements can marginalize smallholder farmers who are unable to adjust.
d) Urbanization, population increases and income growth are driving strong demand for food at a time when agriculture faces unprecedented natural-resource constraints and climate change. These increases have implications for agriculture and food systems – they need to adapt significantly to become more productive and diversified, while coping with unprecedented climate change and natural resource constraints.”

From ‘The State Of Food And Agriculture. Leveraging Food Systems For Inclusive Rural Transformation’, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 2017

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GM and its public sector servants in India

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[Continued from part one.]

The facade of sophisticated science carries with it an appeal to the technocrats within our central government and major ministries, and to those in industry circles, with the apparently boundless production and yield vistas of biotechnology seeming to complement our successes in space applications, in information technology, in nuclear power and complementing the vision of GDP growth.

Framed by such science, the messages delivered by the biotech MNC negotiators and their compradors in local industry appear to be able to help us fulfil the most pressing national agendas: ensure that food production keeps pace with the needs of a growing and more demanding population, provide more crop per drop, deliver substantially higher yield per acre, certified and high-performing seeds will give farmers twice their income, consumers will benefit from standardised produce at low rates, crops will perform even in more arid conditions, the use of inputs will decrease, and the litany of promised marvels goes on.

Yet it is an all-round ignorance that has allowed such messages to take root and allowed their messengers to thrive in a country that has, in its National Gene Bank over 157,000 accessions of cereals (including 95,000 of paddy and 40,000 of wheat), over 56,000 accessions of millets (the true pearls of our semi-arid zones), over 58,000 accessions (an accession is a location-specific variety of a crop species) of pulses, over 57,000 of oilseeds (more than 10,000 of mustard), and over 25,000 of vegetables.

And even so the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources reminds us that while the number of cultivated plant species is “relatively small and seemingly insignificant”, nature in India has evolved an extraordinary genetic diversity in crop plants and their wild relatives which is responsible for every agro-ecological sub-region, and every climatic variation and soil type that may be found in such a sub-region, being well supplied with food.

With such a cornucopia, every single ‘framed by great science’ claim about a GM crop made by the biotech MNCs must fall immediately flat because we possess the crop diversity that can already deliver it. Without the crippling monopolies that underlie the science claim, for these monopolies and licensing traps are what not only drove desi cotton out when Bt cotton was introduced but it did so while destroying farming households.

Without the deadly risk of risk of genetic contamination and genetic pollution of a native crop (such as, GM mustard’s risk to the many varieties of native ‘sarson’). Without the flooding of soil with a poison, glufosinate, that is the herbicide Bayer-Monsanto will force the sale of together with its GM seed (‘Basta’ is Bayer’s herbicide that is analogous to Monsanto’s fatal Glyphosate, which is carcinogenic to humans and destroys other plant life – our farmers routinely intercrop up to three crop species, for example mustard with chana and wheat, as doing so stabilises income).

Whereas the veil of ignorance is slowly lifting, the immediate questions that should be asked by food grower and consumer alike – how safe is it for plants, soil, humans, animals, pollinating insects and birds? what are the intended consequences? what unintended consequences are being studied? – are still uncommon when the subject is crop and food. This is what has formed an ethical and social vacuum around food, which has been cunningly exploited by the biotech MNCs and indeed which India’s retail, processed and packaged foods industry have profited from too.

When in October 2016 our National Academy of Agricultural Sciences shamefully and brazenly assured the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on the safety of GM mustard, it did so specifically “To allay the general public concerns”. What followed was outright lies, such as “herbicide is used in the process only in hybrid production plot”, “The normal activity of bees is not affected”, “GE Mustard provides yield advantage”, “no adverse effect on environment or human and animal health”. None of these statements was based on study.

India grows food enough to feed its population ten years hence. What affects such security – crop choices made at the level of a tehsil and balancing the demands on land in our 60 agro-ecological sub-zones and 94 river sub-basins – is still influenced by political position, the grip of the agricultural ‘inputs’ industry on farmers, economic pressures at the household level, and the seasonal cycle. In dealing with these influences, ethics, safety and social considerations are rarely if ever in the foreground. Yet India is a signatory to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, whose Article 17 requires countries to prevent or minimise the risks of unintentional transboundary movements of genetically engineered organisms.

Neither the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), in the case of GM mustard, nor the Department of Biotechnology, the Department of Science and Technology (whose Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council in a 2016 report saw great promise in genetic engineering for India), the Ministries of Environment and Agriculture, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR, with its 64 specialised institutions, 15 national research centres, 13 directorates, six national bureaux and four deemed universities), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have mentioned ethics, consumer and environment safety, or social considerations when cheering GM.

This group of agencies and institutions which too often takes its cue from the west, particularly the USA (which has since the 1950s dangled visiting professorships and research partnerships before the dazzled eyes of our scientific community) may find it instructive to note that caution is expressed even by the proponents of genetic engineering technologies in the country that so inspires them. In 2016 a report on ‘Past Experience and Future Prospects’ by the Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine of the USA, recognised that the public is sceptical about GE crops “because of concerns that many experiments and results have been conducted or influenced by the industries that are profiting from these crops” and recommended that “ultimately, however, decisions about how to govern new crops need to be made by societies”.

Practices and regulations need to be informed by accurate scientific information, but recent history makes clear that what is held up as unassailable ‘science’ is unfortunately rarely untainted by interests for whom neither environment nor human health matter.

[This is the second part of an article that was published by Swadeshi Patrika, the monthly journal of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. Part one is here.]

How GM ‘science’ misled India

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For the last decade, the reckoning of what agriculture is to India has been based on three kinds of measures. The one that has always taken precedence is the physical output. Whether or not in a crop year the country has produced about 100 million tonnes (mt) of rice, 90 mt of wheat, 40 mt of other cereals (labelled since the colonial era as ‘coarse’ although they are anything but, and these include ragi, jowar, bajra and maize), 20 mt of pulses, 30 mt of oilseeds, and that mountain of biomass we call sugarcane, about 350 mt, therewith about 35 million bales of cotton, and about 12 million bales of jute and mesta.

The second measure is that of the macro-economic interpretation of these enormous aggregates. This is described in terms of gross value added in the agriculture (and allied) sector, the contribution of this sector to the country’s gross domestic product, gross capital formation in the sector, the budgetary outlays and expenditures both central and state for the sector, public and private investment in the sector. These drab equations are of no use whatsoever to the kisans of our country but are the only dialect that the financial, business, trading and commodity industries take primary note of, both in India and outside, and so these ratios are scrutinised at the start and end of every sowing season for every major crop.

The third measure has to do mostly with the materials, which when applied by cultivating households (156 million rural households, of which 90 million are considered to be agricultural only) to the 138 million farm holdings that they till and nurture, maintains the second measure and delivers the first. This third measure consists of labour and loans, the costs and prices of what are called ‘inputs’ by which is meant commercial seed, fertiliser, pesticide, fuel, the use of machinery, and labour. It also includes the credit advanced to the farming households, the alacrity and good use to which this credit is put, insurance, and the myriad fees and payments that accompany the transformation of a kisan’s crop to assessed and assayed produce in a mandi.

It is the distilling of these three kinds of measures into what is now well known as ‘food security’ that has occupied central planners and with them the Ministries of Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Consumer Affairs (which runs the public distribution system), and Food Processing Industries. More recently, two new concerns have emerged. One is called ‘nutritional security’ and while it evokes in the consumer the idea which three generations ago was known as ‘the balanced diet’, has grave implications on the manner in which food crops are treated. The other is climate change and how it threatens to affect the average yields of our major food crops, pushing them down and bearing the potential to turn the fertile river valley of today into a barren tract tomorrow.

These two new concerns, when added to the ever-present consideration about whether India has enough foodgrain to feed our 257 million (in 2017) households, are today exploited to give currency to the technological school of industrial agriculture and its most menacing method: genetically modified (GM) or engineered seed and crop. The proprietors of this method are foreign, overwhelmingly from USA and western Europe and the western bio-technology (or ‘synbio’, as it is now being called, a truncation of synthetic biology, which includes not only GM and GE but also the far more sinister gene editing and gene ‘drives’) network is held in place by the biggest seed- and biotech conglomerates, supported by research laboratories (both academic and private) that are amply funded through their governments, attended to by a constellation of high-technology equipment suppliers, endorsed by intergovernmental groupings such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), taken in partnership by the world’s largest commodities trading firms and grain dealers (and their associates in the commodities trading exchanges), and amplified by quasi-professional voices booming from hundreds of trade and news media outlets.

This huge and deep network generates scientific and faux-scientific material in lorry-loads, all of it being designed to bolster the claims of the GM seed and crop corporations and flood the academic journals (far too many of which are directly supported by or entirely compromised to the biotech MNCs) with ‘peer-reviewed evidence’. When the ‘science’ cudgel is wielded by the MNCs through their negotiators in New Delhi and state capitals, a twin cudgel is raised by the MNC’s host country: that of trade, trade tariffs, trade sanctions and trade barriers. This we have witnessed every time that India and the group of ‘developing nations’ attends a council, working group, or dispute settlement meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The scientific veneer is sophisticated and well broadcast to the public (and to our industry), but the threats are medieval in manner and are scarcely reported.

[This is the first part of an article that was published by Swadeshi Patrika, the monthly journal of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. Part two is here.]

Written by makanaka

July 21, 2017 at 18:53

The ideologies about knowledge

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RG_TERI_terragreen_201605

The few paragraphs that follow are taken from my recent article for the TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) magazine, Terragreen. Published in the 2016 May issue, the article links what we often call traditional knowledge with the ways in which we understand ecology and the ways in which we are defining ‘sustainable development’.

quotes-blueSustainable development has today become a commonly used term, yet it describes a concept that is still being considered by different kinds of societies, by each in a manner of its choosing. This has happened because while historically how societies grew to be ‘developed’ was a process that took a variety of pathways, today the prescribed pathway to the ‘modern’ scarcely changes from one country to another.

Hence culturally what these societies have considered as being ‘sustainable’ behaviour – each according to its ecological context – is being replaced by a prescribed template in which interpretations are discouraged. Such a regime of prescription has led only to the obscuring of the many different kinds of needs felt by communities that desire a ‘development’ that makes cultural sense, but also of the kinds of knowledge which will allow that ‘development’ to be sustainable.

RG_terragreen_7_sm_20160602

Click for image pdf (600kb) of article

Some of this knowledge we can readily see. To employ labels whose origin is western, these streams of knowledge and practice are called traditional knowledge, intangible cultural heritage, indigenous wisdom, folk traditions, or indigenous and local knowledge. These labels help serve as gateways to understand both the ideas, ‘development’ and ‘sustainable’. It is well that they do for today, very much more conspicuously than 20 years earlier, there is a concern for declining biodiversity, about the pace and direction of global environmental change, a concern over the unsustainable human impact on the biosphere and the diminishing of community identity.

There is widespread acknowledgement of the urgency of the situation – this is perceived across cultures, geographical scales (that is, from local units such as a village, to national governments), and knowledge systems (and this includes both formal and non-formal ways of recognising these systems). The need for such a new dialogue on the situation is expressed in several global science-policy initiatives, both older and recent, such as the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) which is now 22 years old, and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), whose first authoritative reports became available in 2015.

Development whose sustainability is defined locally and implemented locally means that the ‘investment’, ‘technology’ and ‘innovation’ (terms that have become popular to describe development efforts) comes from the people themselves. Many diverse agencies at this level – civil society, youth groups, vocational networks, small philanthropies – assist such development and provide the capacities needed. This is the level at which the greatest reliance on cultural approaches takes place, endogenously.

In domains such as traditional medicine, forestry, the conservation of biodiversity, the protection of wetlands, it is practitioners of intangible cultural heritage and bearers of traditional knowledge, together with the communities to which they belong, who observe and interpret phenomena at scales much finer than formal scientists are familiar with. Besides, they possess the ability to draw upon considerable temporal depth in their observations. For the scientific world, such observations are invaluable contributions that advance our knowledge about climate change. For the local world, indigenous knowledge and cultural practices are the means with which the effects of climate change are negotiated so that livelihoods are maintained, ritual and cultivation continue, and survival remains meaningful.

Of Elsevier, Monsanto and the surge for Seralini

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Support for the team of scientists led by Giles-Eric Séralini, a professor of molecular biology at Caen University (France), is growing quickly every day following the appalling (but unsurprising) turfing out of the famous Seralini study from the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.

The industrial combines that work with governments, multilateral lending agencies, corrupt politicians, venal bankers and (to add to this merry list) scrupleless publishers have been hard at work in the last week. Through their public relations peons, they have swamped the world’s newspapers and television channels with reports claiming that the ‘retraction’ by the Elsevier journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, of the Seralini study is a step forward for science and a step closer to helping end hunger.

The level of public awareness about the dangers of GM food and seed needs independent and credible science as a partner. Here, anti-GM protesters in Bangalore, Karnataka, India

The level of public awareness about the dangers of GM food and seed needs independent and credible science as a partner. Here, anti-GM protesters in Bangalore, Karnataka, India

This is the most virulently cynical twisting of the truth in a long and gory history of truth being twisted in order that the food and cultivation options of millions remain, not a choice of options but the diktat of the corporations (GM seed, poison pesticide, poison fertiliser).

What did the Seralini group find? Their toxicological study on GM maize and Roundup herbicide involving 200 rats was done over two years, and found an alarming increase in early death, large tumours including cancers, and diseases of the liver and kidney. The study, published in 2012 by this journal (which has condemned Elsevier to lasting infamy and driven a spike through the cankerous heart of the sponsored scientific journals ancillary industry) was not the first to show the effects of Monsanto’s packaged poison (farmers in every country know the truth), nor was it the only one to show adverse health impacts from GM feed or Roundup herbicide.

What then? At the end of 2013 November (about a fortnight ago) PRNewswire reported ‘Elsevier announces article retraction from journal Food and Chemical Toxicology’ (2013 November 28).

This immediately set off the mobilisation amongst the hundreds, then thousands, who had been following the course of the Seralini study and the repugnant reactions to it by the GM food and seed industry (Monsanto, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, BASF and their subsidiaries and national partners).

In an open letter to the editor of Food and Chemical Toxicology the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) bluntly said that the journal’s retraction of the Seralini team’s paper “is a travesty of science and looks like a bow to industry”. ENSSER reminded the worldwide audience that the Séralini group had found severe toxic effects (including liver congestions and necrosis and kidney nephropathies), increased tumor rates and higher mortality in rats fed Monsanto’s genetically modified NK603 maize and/or the associated herbicide Roundup. There it was, clear as day.

ENSSER went on: “Even more worrying than the lack of good grounds for the retraction is the fact that the journal’s editor-in-chief has not revealed who the reviewers were who helped him to come to the conclusion that the paper should be retracted; nor has he revealed the criteria and methodology of their reevaluation, which overruled the earlier conclusion of the original peer-review which supported publication. In a case like this, where many of those who denounced the study have long-standing, well-documented links to the GM industry and, therefore, a clear interest in having the results of the study discredited, such lack of transparency about how this potential decision was reached is inexcusable, unscientific and unacceptable. It raises the suspicion that the retraction is a favour to the interested industry, notably Monsanto.”

Elsevier is attempting to erase from the public record results that are potentially of very great importance for public health. The support for the Seralini study and studies like it will ensure that does not happen.

Elsevier is attempting to erase from the public record results that are potentially of very great importance for public health. The support for the Seralini study and studies like it will ensure that does not happen.

The Elsevier journal, coming under baleful condemnation from all quarters for its cowardly act, essayed a response meant to be collective but which mired itself in administrative cover-thy-bum murkiness and addressed none of the substantial matters raised by the open letters which are gaining supported every day. Unable to see the writing on the crumbing frankenfood wall, The Economist, that gormless right-wing leaflet despised by fish’n’chips vendors, stumbled in with an editorial titled ‘Fields of beaten gold: Greens say climate-change deniers are unscientific and dangerous. So are greens who oppose GM crops’.

With the retraction of the Seralini team paper by the Elsevier journal, the Economist’s leader gibbered feverishly, “There is now no serious scientific evidence that GM crops do any harm to the health of human beings. There is plenty of evidence, though, that they benefit the health of the planet. One of the biggest challenges facing mankind is to feed the 9 billion-10 billion people who will be alive and (hopefully) richer in 2050. This will require doubling food production on roughly the same area of land, using less water and fewer chemicals. It will also mean making food crops more resistant to the droughts and floods that seem likely if climate change is a bad as scientists fear.” As you can see, this specious and laughably binary argument is the kind that the CGIAR and its thought-control institutions (such as the International Food Policy Research Institute) have sloshed through governments in the South for the last decade, mostly successfully.

But the world’s scientists cannot be bought and cannot be bullied en masse. The Institute of Science in Society wrote and circulated an open letter on the retraction and also included in it a “Pledge to Boycott Elsevier” – this letter has now been signed by 454 scientists and 813 non-scientists from 56 different countries!

The ISIS letter to the feckless Elsevier journal has said, very firmly: “Your decision to retract the paper is in clear violation of the international ethical norms as laid down by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), of which FCT is a member. According to COPE, the only grounds for retraction are (1) clear evidence that the findings are unreliable due to misconduct or honest error, (2) plagiarism or redundant publication, or (3) unethical research. You have already acknowledged that the paper of Séralini et al (2012) contains none of those faults.”

Moreover, the ISIS open letter has addressed in one fiery sweep the GM food and seed industry and their craven partners in governments, the journal publishers and their smarmy influence brokers alike: “This arbitrary, groundless retraction of a published, thoroughly peer-reviewed paper is without precedent in the history of scientific publishing, and raises grave concerns over the integrity and impartiality of science.”

Elsevier is already notorious for having published six fake journals sponsored by unnamed pharmaceutical companies made to look like peer reviewed medical journals; this particular journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, had recently appointed ex-Monsanto employee Richard Goodman to the newly created post of associate editor for biotechnology; Elsevier remains the target of a still-current boycott initiated by eminent mathematician, Sir Tim Gowers, as a protest by academics against the business practices of Elsevier, especially the high prices it charges for journals and books; and this now thoroughly invalidated journal had also retracted another study finding potentially harmful effects from GMOs.

Scientists’ statement deflates the bogus idea of ‘safe’ GM

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ENSSER_GMO_statement_10More scientists, physicians and legal experts have signed the group statement issued by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) on the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The number of initial signatories to the statement, titled ‘No scientific consensus on GMO safety’, was almost 100 on the day it was released, 2013 October 21, and has more than doubled since.

The ENSSER group has reminded us that crop genetic engineering is dominated not by ecological experts but by molecular biologists: “Many are not knowledgeable about ecological risks and – more importantly – they fail to recognise the limitations of their expertise.”

ENSSER_GMO_statement_13Regarding the environmental risk of GM crops, ENSSER has said, the negative effects now documented empirically have been predicted since about 25 years.

For instance, while naturally occurring Bt toxins come in a diversity of variants, GM crops necessarily have to choose one Bt toxin to be transferred, significantly enhancing the probability of resistance development. Such effects are analysed by community ecology researchers and not visible on the genetic level.

“So it is a shame that, more than 20 years after the international academic societies of ecologists and molecular biologists agreed on the complementarity of their competences, and the necessity to assess ecosystem impacts in a systemic fashion, today’s molecular biologists still do neither recognise nor respect the limits of their competencies (not to speak about the influence of funding). Ignoring one’s own blind spots is what can turn science into a social risk.”

ENSSER_GMO_statement_11Those who have signed the statement “strongly reject claims by GM seed developers and some scientists, commentators, and journalists that there is a ‘scientific consensus’ on GMO safety and that the debate on this topic is ‘over’.”

The signatories have said they “feel compelled to issue this statement because the claimed consensus on GMO safety does not exist. The claim that it does exist is misleading and misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue. Moreover, the claim encourages a climate of complacency that could lead to a lack of regulatory and scientific rigour and appropriate caution, potentially endangering the health of humans, animals, and the environment”.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_16ENSSER members and non-members alike who have signed the statement have collectively said that science and society do not proceed on the basis of a constructed consensus, as current knowledge is always open to well-founded challenge and disagreement. They endorse the need for further independent scientific inquiry and informed public discussion on GM product safety and urge GM proponents to do the same.

Regarding the safety of GM crops and foods for human and animal health, a comprehensive review of animal feeding studies of GM crops found that most studies concluding that GM foods were as safe and nutritious as those obtained by conventional breeding were “performed by biotechnology companies or associates, which are also responsible [for] commercialising these GM plants”.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_12It is often claimed that “trillions of GM meals” have been eaten in the US with no ill effects. However, no epidemiological studies in human populations have been carried out to establish whether there are any health effects associated with GM food consumption. As GM foods are not labelled in North America, a major producer and consumer of GM crops, it is scientifically impossible to trace, let alone study, patterns of consumption and their impacts. Therefore, claims that GM foods are safe for human health based on the experience of North American populations have no scientific basis.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_15A report by the British Medical Association concluded that with regard to the long-term effects of GM foods on human health and the environment, “many unanswered questions remain” and that “safety concerns cannot, as yet, be dismissed completely on the basis of information currently available”. The report called for more research, especially on potential impacts on human health and the environment.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_14Likewise, a statement by the American Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health acknowledged “a small potential for adverse events … due mainly to horizontal gene transfer, allergenicity, and toxicity” and recommended that the current voluntary notification procedure practised in the US prior to market release of GM crops be made mandatory. The ENSSER group has said that even a “small potential for adverse events” may turn out to be significant, given the widespread exposure of human and animal populations to GM crops.

What’s the ‘intensity’ of agri research nowadays?

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Nice infographic, but where are the prices of rice and wheat?

What do countries spend of agricultural research and development? How much is the ‘intensity’ of their agri-R&D spend – whether measured by agriculture domestic product or by ‘agriculturally active population’ (which I’m taking to mean farmers)? How much of this spending comes from taxpayers’ money and how much from the profits of the food companies and food retail chains and the food biotech corporations?

You’ll find some of these answers (in what form I cannot yet say without a close long look at what this new assessment lens is all about) in the ASTI Global Assessment of Agricultural R&D Spending, published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI, which is one of the CGIAR institutes) in collaboration with the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR).

ASTI is Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators and the assessment says it uses “internationally comparable data on agricultural R&D investments and capacity for developing countries” (can’t see how really, as ag-biodiversity is culturally dependent, but of course Big Ag is mono-minded).

Does this impressive-sounding scrutiny have any bottom-lines for real small farmers worth reading? I am sceptical, given the CGIAR orientation, but here are two sequiturs:

“Global agricultural R&D spending in the public and private sectors steadily increased between 2000 and 2008. Most of this growth was driven by larger middle-income countries such as China and India.”

“Following a decade of slow growth in the 1990s, global public spending on agricultural R&D increased by 22 percent from 2000 to 2008—from $26.1 billion to $31.7 billion.”

I looked, but couldn’t find the connection between all this R&D and the woman wearing the sari.

Written by makanaka

November 12, 2012 at 20:49

Asia takes the research and development lead

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Ten Asian countries, including some developing countries in South-East Asia, have, as a bloc, caught up with the global leader in research and development (R&D) investment, the United States, a report by Scidev.net has said.

The report quoted is the National Science Board’s ‘Science and Engineering Indicators 2012’ which is a broad base of quantitative information on the U.S. and International science and engineering enterprise. The National Science Board (NSB) is the policymaking body for the USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF).

The NSB report has said that total science spend of China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam rose steadily between 1999 and 2009 to reach 32 per cent of the global share of spending on science, compared with 31 per cent in the US.

“This information clearly shows we must re-examine long-held assumptions about the global dominance of the American science and technology enterprise,” said NSF Director Subra Suresh of the findings in the ‘Science and Engineering Indicators 2012’. “And we must take seriously new strategies for education, workforce development and innovation in order for the United States to retain its international leadership position,” he said.

Well over a year ago (2010 November), the UNESCO Science Report 2010 had as its primary message stated that Europe, Japan and the USA (the Triad) may still dominate research and development (R&D) but they are increasingly being challenged by the emerging economies and above all by China.

The report depicted an increasingly competitive environment, one in which the flow of information, knowledge, personnel and investment has become a two-way traffic. Both China and India, for instance, are using their newfound economic might to invest in high-tech companies in Europe and elsewhere to acquire technological expertise overnight.

The USA's National Science Foundation (NSF) launched a number of new initiatives designed to better position the United States in global Science and engineering. Photo: National Science Board / Richard Lerner

Other large emerging economies are also spending more on research and development than before, among them Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey. If more countries are participating in science, the UNESCO Science Report 2010 saw a shift in global influence, with China a hair’s breadth away from counting more researchers than either the USA or the European Union, for instance, and now publishes more scientific articles than Japan.

A “major trend has been the rapid expansion of R&D performance in the regions of East/Southeast Asia and South Asia,” according to the biennial report ‘Science and Engineering Indicators 2012’ produced by the National Science Board, the policy-making body of the US National Science Foundation, which drew upon a variety of national and international statistics. The report also mentions that the share of R&D expenditure spent by US multinationals in Asia-Pacific has increased.

According to the new Indicators 2012, the largest global S&T gains occurred in the so-called ‘Asia-10’ – China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand – as those countries integrate S&T into economic growth. Between 1999 and 2009, for example, the U.S. share of global research and development (R&D) dropped from 38 percent to 31 percent, whereas it grew from 24 percent to 35 percent in the Asia region during the same time. In China alone, R&D growth increased a stunning 28 percent in a single year (2008-2009), propelling it past Japan and into second place behind the United States.

“Asia’s rapid ascent as a major world science and technology (S&T) centre is chiefly driven by developments in China,” says the report. “But several other Asian economies (the Asia-8 [India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand]) have also played a role. All are intent on boosting quality of, and access to, higher education and developing world-class research and S&T infrastructures. The Asia-8 functions like a loosely structured supplier zone for China’s high-technology manufacturing export industries. This supplier zone increasingly appears to include Japan. Japan, a preeminent S&T nation, is continuing to lose ground relative to China and the Asia-8 in high-technology manufacturing and trade,” the report says.

International R&D highlights
(1) The top three R&D-performing countries: United States, China – now the second largest R&D performer – and Japan represented just over half of the estimated $1.28 trillion in global R&D in 2009. The United States, the largest single R&D-performing country, accounted for about 31% of the 2009 global total, down from 38% in 1999.

(2) Asian countries – including China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand – represented 24% of the global R&D total in 1999 but accounted for 32% in 2009, including China (12%) and Japan (11%). The pace of real growth over the past 10 years in China’s overall R&D remains exceptionally high at about 20% annually.

(3) The European Union accounted for 23% total global R&D in 2009, down from 27% in 1999. Wealthy economies generally devote larger shares of their GDP to R&D than do less developed economies. The U.S. R&D/GDP ratio (or R&D intensity) was about 2.9% in 2009 and has fluctuated between 2.6% and 2.8% during the past 10 years, largely reflecting changes in business R&D spending. In 2009, the United States ranked eighth in R&D intensity – surpassed by Israel, Sweden, Finland, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, and Taiwan – all of which perform far less R&D annually than the United States.

(4) Among the top European R&D-performing countries, Germany reported a 2.8% R&D/GDP ratio in 2008; France, 2.2%; and the United Kingdom, 1.9%. The Japanese and South Korean R&D/GDP ratios were among the highest in the world in 2008, each at about 3.3%. China’s ratio remains relatively low, at 1.7%, but has more than doubled from 0.8% in 1999.

“India’s high gross domestic product (GDP) growth continues to contrast with a fledgling overall S&T performance.” The figures show that China, while still a long way behind the United States, is now the second largest R&D performer globally, contributing 12 per cent of the global research spend. It has overtaken Japan, which contributed 11 per cent  in 2009. The proportion of GDP that China devotes to science funding has doubled since 1999 to 1.7 per cent and China’s pace of real growth in R&D expenditure “remains exceptionally high at about 20 per cent annually,” the report says. Overall, world expenditures on R&D are estimated to have exceeded US$1.25 trillion in 2009, up from US$641 billion a decade earlier.

“Governments in many parts of the developing world, viewing science and technology as integral to economic growth and development, have set out to build more knowledge-intensive economies,” it says. “They have taken steps to open their markets to trade and foreign investment, develop their S&T infrastructures, stimulate industrial R&D, expand their higher education systems, and build indigenous R&D capabilities. Over time, global S&T capabilities have grown, nowhere more so than in Asia.”

The scientific landscape is not conveniently demarcated by blocs, whether formed by states or by private sector interests. As UNESCO has said, even countries with a lesser scientific capacity are finding that they can acquire, adopt and sometimes even transform existing technology and thereby leapfrog over certain costly investments, such as infrastructure like land lines for telephones. Technological progress is allowing these countries to produce more knowledge and participate more actively than before in international networks and research partnerships with countries in both North and South. This trend is fostering a democratization of science worldwide. In turn, science diplomacy is becoming a key instrument of peace-building and sustainable development in international relations.

Discovery and spread of biodiversity studies

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FAO, The Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and AgriculturePLoS (the Public Library of Science) has launched a Biodiversity Hub aiming to accelerate the discovery, dissemination and integration of biodiversity studies. The Biodiversity Hub provides three general services to users: it aggregates selected open-access biodiversity articles, adds value in the form of data/images etc and encourages community dialogue – you can find out more about these benefits in the official launch post.

Over the past decade, considerable progress in synthesizing and digitizing biodiversity related assets has been made. These resource assets include:  Specimen datasets: GBIF; Interoperability among datasets and databases: GEO BON; Taxonomic literature: BHL; Taxonomic names: Zoobank; IPNI; Catalogue of Life; Molecular sequence data: GenBank; Barcode of Life; Images: MorphBank; ARKive; Phylogenetic relationships: Tree of Life; Natural history: Encylopedia of Life; Conservation status of species: IUCN Red List; TreeBASE and WWF Wildfinder.

Scientists are amassing details about the scope and status of life’s variation at an accelerating rate. This aids our understanding of species distributions and their interactions over time. However, if we are to address the consequences of global environmental change for life’s future, biodiversity data must be integrated and synthesized to a much greater degree than they are at present, and this can be promoted by enhanced communication among the interested parties, and raising public awareness. Here, we call attention to a new community resource and tool which provides a step in the right direction.