Monday, March 31, 2008

Bioprospecting or Biopiracy?

While studying our two weeks of biotechnology, in which we have discussed the positive possibilities of genetic modifications, I have been participating showing independent food films at the Briar Patch, which gives another  view than that espoused in our text.

In 1930 the United States passed the Plant Patent Act, which provided a 20-year patent restricting asexual production on protected varieties.  It differs from a regular patent in that it does not involve manufacturing or "making" the plant.  This gave limited patent rights to varietal developers and plant breeders, but didn't give them ownership of the lifeforms they developed.

That changed in 1980 when the Supreme Court awarded an appeal to patent an oil-eating microbe in the case Diamond v. Chakrabarty, which allowed the patenting of a life form.  This in turned was the basis for a 1987 decision by the PTO to extend patenting to all altered or engineered animals.  Now "bioprospecting" or as some call it, "biopiracy" is rampant.  

Our recent reading has lead us to believe that using biotech as a form of natural selection does not seem to play out when reviewing new varietals and proposed patents.  Universities, pharmaceutical and big-ag companies are trying to capitalize on all sorts of life forms, not all of it microbial in nature.  Monsanto is one of the worst offenders, and they're doing it hand-in-hand with our government.  Most of Monsanto's board of members are current holders of key government positions.

Want to learn more?  Here's some movies I've watched lately:  Future of Food, Ripe for Change, King Corn, and Fridays at the Farm.  Most of these movies have excellent websites with related links and suggested readings for more information. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Biotechnology II

OK, so last week you chose a agricultural crop that is produced using biotechnology. Take some time to read about the crops others wrote about. Get a general feeling for the types and volumes of crops where biotech is used. What are your thoughts around the use of biotechnology for food production? What are the positives (society, production & environment) as well as the downside? Make sure you do the reading for this week before blogging! :)

A discussion this morning with a local organic veggie producer wound around to the topic of biotech and genetically modified (GM) crops. GM crops are not allowed in organic production, and are generally against the grain of most ecologically minded growers. Most of these growers would probably style themselves as agroecologists, if they know the term, and are against most of the methodology of the Green Revolution.

Agroecology is the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design, development, and management of sustainable agricultural systems. With this definition, cropland is viewed as an ecosystem first, rather than an economic or industrial model. Crop rotation, selecting appropriate crops/varieties, composting, using little or no pesticides and creating refuges for beneficial insects are all tools for good ecosystem management when producing crops.

Therefore the questions beg to be asked: what happens when you genetically alter the traditional organisms within the ecosystem? What happens when you destroy portions of the system with soil degradation, loss of soil biology, salinization, and further pollute and kill other organisms through the use of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides?

However, with gene mapping, it doesn't seem unreasonable to speed up natural plant breeding techniques to use existing modifications across closely related species. You could theoretically create those crosses through breeding trials (and error), looking for the ideal mutation or cross. My friend even thought that using biotech methods to produce these GM crops is one of the best uses of biotechnology. However, she was very clear that she drew the line at introducing radically different species genes into our food. For example, fish DNA into tomatoes, or Bt into cotton or corn.

In the past weeks we have been discussing the merits and deficits of the Green Revolution (GR), and how does GM fit into the future of food production. In a policy brief published by Food First, they list ten reasons why trying to introduce the GR again in Africa will not produce any better results the second time. Most of the reasons have to do with the issues around the the components that made the GR successful where it was successful. Industrial-style agriculture, expensive technology packages, increased use of fertilizers and pesticides increased and/or exacerbated existing health, environmental and economic consequences in more marginal areas, and did not increase the ability of poor people to grow or buy more food.

At the same time, promoters of organic and sustainable farming practices are producing studies showing that agroecology practices can produce similar amounts of food as conventional, industrial style ag using GM crops. The key difference is the management of the underlying land use. The practices previously mentioned may take more time, but leave the soil in at least a similar, or possibly improved, condition from season to season and can be practiced in most rural and marginal regions. It has marginal production costs, can be accessed by the poor, and has environmental benefits. An evaluation using these principles for rice production is summarized in a Cornell University paper.

Well, I'm slightly off-topic or not, depending on your point of view... To summarize, yes labeling and accountability is important. So is choosing what and how to tinker with the genetic material of other organisms. Is relying on biotech and a Gene Revolution in addition to a Green Revolution the whole answer? No!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


The European corn borer (Ostrinia nubilalis) is a pest of corn, particularly in large corn growing regions of the US Sout, Midwest, and Africa.  In the past, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis ssp kurstaki) have been used as a targeted spray.  Bt sprays traditionally only affect animals with alkaline guts, which are mainly the Lepidoptera order of insects.  The adult moth lays clusters of eggs on corn leaves.  Once hatched, the larva infest the developing ears of corn, where the encasing husks prevent adequate control by sprays, except for the brief time between hatching and entering the ear.  Bt must be ingested by the larva in sufficient quantities to have an killing effect.  Non-target pesticides are also often used, which has a greater impact on non-target species, including beneficial insects.
Bt corn was introduced in 1996.  There are four genetic modifications, or transgenic events used for Bt corn production, developed by different biotech companies and having different results in the corn itself.  Combinations of various promoter genes in combination with different portions of the Bt genome can result in the gene expressing at different times in the crop, and may or may not be expressed in the grain itself, only the foliage.
Advantages to using Bt corn include minimizing timing issues for pesticide application, no special application equipment, no need for personal protective gear during application, is compatible with biological control.  As Bt is an order specific pesticide, it has minimal effects on non-target pests and may control other corn pests of the Lepidoptera order (earworm, fall armyworm, Indianmeal moth, black cutworm, and southwestern corn borer) and reduces the need for pest monitoring.  Also, as most corn varieties become increasingly susceptible to secondary fungal infections after being weakened by the corn borer, Bt presence also mitigates fungal infections.
The disadvantages are primarily the seed cost and variable pest populations, development of Bt resistance by pests, impact on non-target organisms, variation in effectiveness, marketing of Bt grain, cross-pollination of Bt corn and non Bt corn.  In 1999, Cornell University published the results from a poorly designed trial which suggested that Bt contaminated pollen represented a threat to monarch caterpillars.  This was later refuted as pollen contamination rarely reaches lethal levels, there is limited overlap during pollen presence and caterpillar presence and that only a portion of caterpillars will feed on milkweeds adjacent to cornfields.  
Recommendations have been made to plant non Bt corn in fields adjacent to Bt corn to reduce the development of Bt resistance in the corn borer.  As resistance is believed to be a recessive allele, increasing the chances of a Bt resistant moth mating with a non-resistant moth, with a high chance of producing more non-resistant offspring.  However, this planting strategy increases the amount of pollen contamination to non Bt corn nearby.
The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) lists hybrids which have full food and feed approval for the 2008 planting season in the US.  The information includes regulatory information, as well as the trade names, characteristics and genetic events for all of the current GM hybrids currently available.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Green Revolution

Is new technology necessary to increase food production?  Why or why not?

The combination of bringing more land into production, along with the Green Revolution has allowed for the needed increases in food production to date.  However, many of the lands which have been converted to farmland were marginal or sensitive ecosystems which cannot sustain repeated use.  In many developed regions of the world, prime farmland is being lost due to urban encroachment and increasing land prices, while increases in population far outreach the increases in food production.

In light of the problems associated with the Green Revolution, we must continue to develop new or improved strategies for increased food production.  Future limiting factors include soil degradation, over harvest of aquifers, soil salinization, climate change, available petroleum, and the social-economic issues around sustainable agriculture.   Furthermore, continued reliance on Green Revolution techniques alone will not be enough to continue with the increases in food we have seen over the last four decades.  It's reliance on petroleum, fertilizer and soil amendments and irrigation are not sustainable and changes must be made to continue at even a similar rate of production as oil is coming to peak oil prices and aquifers in China and the midwest are over harvested. 

Norman Borlaug, the father of the Revolution, has proposed the need for varieties which will have greater tolerance for abiotic extremes, such as drought, heat, cold, as well as greater tolerance for soil alkalinity, free aluminum and iron toxicities.  In his Nobel Peace Prize anniversary lecture, he suggested the need for a Blue Revolution to complement the existing Green Revolution.  "In the new Blue Revolution, water-use productivity must be wedded to land-use productivity.  New science and technology must lead the way."


Monday, March 3, 2008

Population Growth & Food

Malthus proposed in 1798 that eventually Earth’s population will be too great to be supported by available resources. Due to technological advances that Malthus could not foresee, we have increased both our population and our ability to produce food beyond the estimates of his time. However, current scientific research into the earth’s carrying capacity estimate that without other unforeseen developments, we will achieve maximum carrying capacity between 2 and 12 billion people. As we are already halfway to the proposed limit, and rapidly approaching the upper limit, we need to take steps that continue to feed our existing and expanding population, but also reign in our rampant growth.

In the past, different societies and cultures have used different strategies to control population size. Pederasty was used by ancient Greek societies, preventing marriage in men until later in life. This cultural practice has even been used more recently in Siwan. Other approaches have included emigration, expansionism and technological developments. Technology has allowed for the Green Revolution of the last three decades. However, these same agricultural “improvements” have caused water deficits, soil degradation and peak oil issues.

Nature has historically been the means by which population has been controlled. Infectious diseases like bubonic plague and influenza have repeatedly reached epidemic proportions, killing sometimes significant portions of populations. New diseases such as SARS, AIDS and avian flu can still reach epidemic proportions in our lifetime, despite advances in medical technology. Plant pathogens and pests can also have devastating effects on food security. Locust swarms can be just as devastating now as they were in Biblical times.

Weather variations have seriously affected crop production. Minor yearly variations can have huge affects on crop production and result in either feast or famine. Shifts in climate patterns have resulted in the collapse of entire civilizations, like the Mayans and SW Pueblo Indians.

Humans themselves have regulated their own numbers for as long as we have been humans. War, moral attitudes, genocide and the depletion or pollution of natural resources have affected population. Modern technology allows us to control our birth rates. The use of effective contraceptives and medical sterility make population control possible, even while we have removed natural selection, decreased birth mortality rates and increased average life spans.

China's one-child policy sounds like an interesting idea for controlling soaring populations.  However, upon closer inspection there are many exceptions to this policy, and China's current birth rate is closer to 2 (1.6-1.9 depending on the source) than 1.  This policy was originally meant to be in place for one generation, and China estimates that it has three to four hundred million fewer people today as a result of the policy.   However, exceptions are made for certain ethnic populations, single-child parents are allowed two offspring, and many families can pay fee to have more than one child. Also, many female babies are still put up for adoption, and do not count towards the one child policy if their births were never reported.  China reports that they have historically had best results at population reduction through a combination of poverty alleviation and health care with relaxed targets for family planning.