1.Tackling the global food challenge
2.GM crops will address food crisis: MP
3.Australia needs to ride the GM wave - 2 responses

COMMENT from Dr. Brian John: A thoughtful paper from Australia (item 1) -- I particularly like the bit about Australia being "out of step with world scientific opinion" through its obsession with GM technology.

EXTRACTS: Australia should accept that genetically modified (GM) crops will be crucial in addressing the world food crisis, federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke says. (item 2)

These [global food] challenges are far from trivial. With its current depleted agricultural science effort and over-commitment to a single technology (GM), Australia is in a position to tackle few, if any of them.

The issue of declining global food security is far more pressing than even climate change. It is the scientific challenge of the age.

The solutions to this phase of the global food challenge are laid out in the IAASTD report, which Australia has refused to support (along with the US and Canada) because we did not like the claim that GM crops were not the 'silver bullet' some insist them to be, especially for poor farmers. We are thus out of step with world scientific opinion about what needs to be done. (item 1)
1.Tackling the global food challenge   
By Julian Cribb
ScienceAlert, 3 September 2008

[Julian Cribb is the principal of Julian Cribb & Associates, consultants in science communication, and founding editor of He is Adjunct Professor of Science Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney.]

World food security, as Australian consumers and others are fast discovering, is at its lowest in half a century. The precipitous fall in world food stocks in the past seven years is forewarning of what we can expect in the next few decades as civilisation runs low on water, arable land, nutrients and technology, as marine catches collapse, as biofuels grow and energy costs rise, and as droughts intensify under climate change.

The chart of grain stocks reveals that, year on year, humanity now consumes more food than it produces.

The reasons for this are straightforward:

The human population is growing towards 9.1 billion by 2050 but demand for protein food, especially in China and India, is growing much faster. Total world food demand is forecast to rise 110 per cent by 2050.
We are entering a global water crisis. Cities now take up to half of the water that was once used to grow food, while groundwater levels are falling in every country in the world where it is used for agriculture. The volume of fresh water available to grow food is now in decline.
The global area of good arable land is now declining. We are building on it, eroding and degrading it, or locking it away in conservation reserves or for recreational purposes.
We are losing nutrients we apply about 150 million tonnes of elemental fertiliser to the world’s farms every year, but lose an estimated 1100 million tonnes of nutrients, through soil erosion and leaching. Yields are now falling in many countries.

Up to half of farm produce is wasted during processing. Up to half the food in shops, restaurants and homes is thrown away. Almost all of the nutrients in our sewage systems are wasted.
Biofuels are expanding into food production areas. At this rate, by 2020 we will be burning 400 million tonnes of grain a year equal to the entire world rice harvest.
There has been a decline in global scientific research to lift food production, in both developing and developed countries (including Australia) for 20 years.

There is currently massive farm inflation in the prices of fuel, fertiliser and chemicals, pricing these out of the reach of poor and medium farmers.

More than half of the world's major fisheries are in decline. Sea fishing is forecast to collapse by 2040, throwing more demand onto land-based food protein.

The climate is changing.

Modelling by the Hadley Centre in Britain suggests that up to half the Earth may be in regular drought by the end of the century.

The present challenge is thus to double world food output using less land, far less water, far fewer nutrients and, with the prospect of less technology to do so, in the teeth of increasing drought.

This is not a challenge susceptible to 'silver bullet' solutions, but will require action on a global scale and by every human and government on Earth. Nowhere have I yet seen signs that world leaders, or Australian leaders, appreciate the complexity and multifactorial nature of the challenge confronting us. Blaming biofuels or oil prices alone, as most commentators do, will not address all 10 critical factors listed above.

Land degradation has not been assessed globally since 1992, but is known to have become much worse. The evidence is in the Aral Sea, the Sahel and the Murray Darling Basin. As the World Bank's IAASTD report indicates, our present civilisation is not sustainable as it is supported only at the cost of the destruction of natural resources.

This situation heralds the real likelihood of regional and global instability. It is manifest in soaring food prices international rice prices have risen from $400 to $1000 a tonne and food riots in 37 countries, in some of which there is high risk of government failure.

Sixty per cent of all conflicts in the past 18 years have been driven, at their core, by disputes stemming from a scarcity of food, land or water. These are major drivers of refugeeism and war. In 1850-52 a quarter of the population fled Ireland due to famine. By the 2020s looming regional food shortages could precipitate refugee waves numbering in the hundreds of millions, leaving no country on Earth unaffected.

If we wish to avoid these wars, riots and refugee tsunamis, the only answer is to secure the food supply.

Australia has not yet understood that agriculture policy is defence policy. It is refugee policy, immigration policy and environmental policy, as well as health, food and economic policy. We persist in seeing it as an isolated and unimportant issue. We have not grasped its significance as the central issue of human destiny in the 21st century.

Thus, we have cut agricultural science for decades. At a time of global food crisis, CSIRO recently announced fresh cuts. University enrolments in this discipline are at record lows and most of our existing researchers are approaching retirement.

The fall in Australia’s international standing in agricultural science is reflected the fact that we provided almost none of the 400 scientists asked by the World Bank to report on the challenges facing global agriculture. Only a decade or so ago we were world leaders in this field.

The solutions to this phase of the global food challenge are laid out in the IAASTD report, which Australia has refused to support (along with the US and Canada) because we did not like the claim that GM crops were not the ‘silver bullet’ some insist them to be, especially for poor farmers. We are thus out of step with world scientific opinion about what needs to be done.

The scientific goals of the coming decade are clear, and I have outlined them in a longer paper, ‘The coming famine’. They include:

*a 200 per cent increase in water use efficiency in all crops;
*a global effort to put organic farming systems on a scientific footing and exploit still-unknown soil biological processes;
*development of low-input farming systems that rely far less on oil-derived fertilisers, chemicals and energy;
*a global effort to recycle all nutrients on-farm, in the food chain and sewage works;
*a massive effort to raise vegetable production and consumption to replace protein and carbohydrate-based foods, using more than 1000 species of 'new' vegetables currently undeveloped in agriculture this will also address the obesity pandemic;
*large-scale introduction of 'green cities' (urban horticulture on buildings) and vegetable protein biosynthesis using recycled sewage nutrients; and
*development of farming systems, especially for the Third World, that protect native vegetation and biodiversity, cleanse water and sequester soil carbon.

These challenges are far from trivial. With its current depleted agricultural science effort and over-commitment to a single technology (GM), Australia is in a position to tackle few, if any of them.

Half a century ago we shouldered similar global responsibilities with great enthusiasm, skill and commitment but that nation is no longer recognisable in today's apathetic mob of sybarites.

Just as humanity overcame two previous global food crises with the first agricultural revolution and the Green Revolution, it is now called on to do so again, with the sustainable food revolution. The effort required to launch this is far greater than indicated by the half-hearted response from out-of-touch governments at the recent Rome food summit.

First we must all be aware of and, if possible, alarmed about the position. Then, we must act. The issue of declining global food security is far more pressing than even climate change. It is the scientific challenge of the age.   
2.GM crops will address food crisis: MP
AAP, September 3 2008

Australia should accept that genetically modified (GM) crops will be crucial in addressing the world food crisis, federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke says.

State governments have imposed bans on most food crops, with the exception of canola in NSW and Victoria.

Scientists and environmentalists are concerned GM crops are difficult to contain and long-term health effects are unknown.

Mr Burke, addressing an agriculture science conference in Canberra, said GM food crops would be necessary to address global food shortages.

"I don't believe we should be turning our back on any part of science, including what I believe is an inevitable situation over time, that there will be growing acceptance of genetically modified crops," Mr Burke said.

"This is not a time where I believe the world will avoid the inevitable, and that is that genetically modified crops will find themselves as one piece of the jigsaw in meeting the challenges of food production."

Mr Burke said climate change and growing input costs for producers had led to the demand for food outstripping supply.

He said the food crisis was global and all governments have a responsibility to come up with new ways to tackle the issue.

"All of these issues come together in one simple concept, around the world it is becoming harder for families to feed themselves," he said.

"It comes down to families around the table, either in wealthy nations where the shopping bill is higher than it used to be, or families in poorer nations sitting around a table where there is just not enough food to adequately feed the people sitting around it.

"The nature of this being a global crisis means new policy responses."

Mr Burke said biofuels had resulted in a reduction of staple crops being harvested for food, but it alone could not be blamed for the food crisis.

"The public commentary on world food shortage has disproportionately looked to focus on biofuels as though biofuels are the be all and the end all of the problem.

"It would be a mistake for anyone to think that a reversal of those biofuels policies will get us out of the challenge that we face with global food shortages, they won't."

Mr Burke said as oil prices continue to rise markets would be looking towards biofuels.

"That means we have the responsibility to try to drive research and development in biofuels away from initial staple food crops."

Mr Burke made the comments during his address to the ATSE Crawford Fund conference in Canberra.

The annual conference brings together lead scientists, economists, policymakers and politicians to discuss the agriculture sector in Australia and abroad.
3.Two repsonses to Australia needs to ride the GM wave

These responses are to a piece by Dr Matthew Morell, who is Theme Leader, Advanced Genetics in the Food Futures Flagship in CSIRO, first published in the August 2008 edition of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering's (ATSE) Focus Magazine (number 151, Food for the World). Morrell's piece is reproduced here:


1. Written by Dr. Gregory Crocetti, September 1 2008

From my reading, the main arguments of this opinion piece are that:
1)Australia urgently needs to join in with global GM technologies or risks missing out on the 'significant economic opportunities'
2)there are no human health risks associated with the use of GM crops and that the Australian public is ready to begin producing and consuming GM foods.
3)GM technology carries great environmental benefits

Perhaps the strongest criticism of GM crops is that the control of the intellectual property and seed stocks almost always ends up in the hands of a few multi-national companies.

In attempting to address this moral argument, Dr. Morell conveniently ignores the real argument and instead cites the recent ABARE report.

This 'independent' report attempts to scare the state and federal governments into launching into the full-scale production of GM food using hypothetical estimates with non-existent GM crops (Senate Estimates).

How can an ABARE report into GM technology possibly be taken seriously, when it has most likely derived much of it’s funding from members of the same GM industry who would eventually control these seed stocks?

Investment into improving the ecological management of existing crops has repeatedly been demonstrated to generate higher yields than GM crops, and given an increasing demand for ‘organic’ food growing in Australia and across the developed world, surely this choice of crops would be a no-brainer for any economist. If only big business could find a way to better control and make money from the farmers who choose to forgo the use of GM crops, inorganic pesticides and fertilisers in an attempt to lessen their impact on our environment.

Eventually, the questions of whether Australians ‘can afford not to adopt this technology’ is raised. In support of this worryingly-urgent question, Dr. Morell refers to some ‘statistics’ that about 80 per cent of Australians are either neutral or pro-GM. Approximately how many of this 80 per cent are actually pro-GM? This use of ‘statistics’ is incredibly misleading, especially in light of the fact that the Australian public have never been educated about the use of GM technology and the potential risks”¦although there has been no shortage of coverage of the "guaranteed" benefits.

Relating to the health concerns from eating GM food, it is not unreasonable to suggest that there have not, as yet, been any strong connections found between human health problems and GM crops. However, GM technology has to date, only been tested in short-term experiments. We have only just begun to understand how a small proportion of the network of 20,000-odd genes in our genome interact with the RNA and enzymes that they encode. Even with the use of the latest gene array technology, how can anyone possibly suggest that there are no risks associated with introducing new genes into the food we eat? Furthermore, the statement that GM crops undergo more testing that any other type of food crop is a ridiculously vague assertion that ignores centuries and millennia of crop trials by farmers and agriculturalists since humans first began civilisation.

Dr. Morell claims that the individuals choosing non GM-food "should not hold the entire population and agricultural industry to ransom". Surely, Dr. Morell does not deny the widely-published reports (e.g. PNAS, 2004) of pollen from GM crops spreading to adjacent non-GM farmland? How can this contamination possibly ever allow those who choose not to consume GM crops any choice whatsoever?

To claim that GM cotton (courtesy of the Monsanto corporation) has been of environmental benefit to Australia, blatantly ignores the devastating environmental impact from irrigation of GM cotton in the Murray-Darling basin in Queensland and New South Wales has played on this river, downstream.

Recent reports by the CRC for Australian weed management suggest that we should lessen our use of glyphosate herbicides or face the consequences of broad-scale resistance by surrounding weeds. In this light, how can crops with increased pesticide or herbicide-resistance be of benefit to Australia, environmentally or economically?

Dr. Morell is correct to suggest we are currently on the cusp of a wave. A wave of business-as-usual consumption, environmental destruction and fear-mongering by those with a vested interested in trying to improve on nature...just because we can.

2. Written by David Marsden-Ballard, Faculty of Education, University of Canberra , September 2 2008

In addition to the very good points raised by Dr. Crocetti above, the loss of biodiversity within our agricultural species driven by the GM and non-GM monocultures is of greatest concern.

The 20th Century saw the beginning of the 6th major wave of extinction in the history of the world as we know it. But while many people may be aware of the loss of the wild species, most are not aware of the staggering losses of the domesticated plants and animals that got us to this point of civilisation.

This loss of "Agrodiversity" and wild biodiversity has significantly sped up in the 21st Century with the ill-thought out and energy inefficient rush to biofuels based on food crops such as soy, sugar cane and corn/maize.

In a time of rapid non-linear climate change, disruption to the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles greater than that of the global carbon cycle, global loss of soils and increasing desertification, the Peak Oil and massive price hikes in energy and fertilisers, it's time to get real.

With the average calorie from broadscale agriculture taking 15 calories of "free" energy input. Carbon prices and global energy and fertiliser shortages will be adding to the 500% rises in food prices already experienced by some areas around the world in 2008.

Havana, Cuba is a model for the energy descent we are facing, where most of the food is grown within the city. Peri-urban agriculture or Permaculture techniques and the growing work on Aquaponics can be 2 times more efficient in the production of food than broadscale agriculture.

GM and agri-chemical companies are like big Pharma glossing over the truth with a greenwash, but in reality only in existence to make the corporations and their 1st World shareholders rich at the expense of the rest of the world, particularly the poorest people and countries.

So to Boycott GM and energy-wasting, soil-losing, chemical-using non-sustainable monocultures; start growing your own food, buy local and organic food (where farmers are generally managing their properties in a more ecological manner) and close the loop of nutrients, with composting, backyard, school or city farm chooks, and manure worm or earth worm farming systems.

This will have numerous beneficial outcomes, including: less food & water wasted, smaller ecological footprint, fewer "food miles", better mental and physical health, better connections with your community and better immune systems for your children.