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NOTE: Lots of interesting items - a bit of a catch up courtesy of GM-free Ireland's excellent news page:
GM crops will not produce miracle
Irish Independent, letter to the editor, 29 April 2008

In his column 'If Ever The World Needed GM Food Production It's Right Now' (Irish Independent, April 23), Kevin Myers claims that, "GM will enable us to increase plant production, without greater use of fertiliser."

The cornerstone of modern science is that any claims must be based on empirical evidence.

While being passionate about his views, Kevin Myers offers no data in support of his assertion.

Pity he had not read an article entitled "Exposed: the Great GM Crop Myth", by Geoffrey Lean, the environment editor, in the [UK} Independent (April 30).

Lean reported on a study carried out during the past three years at the University of Kansas in the US grain-belt.

It found that GM soya produced 10pc less than its conventional equivalent. This contradicts the clam that GM technology increases yields.

Furthermore, last week the findings of a four-year study by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology concuded that GM was not the answer to world hunger.

When Prof Bob[Watson, the director of the study and the chief scientist at the Deparment for environment, food and rural affairs in the UK, was asked whether GM crops could feed the world, he said: "The simple answer is no".

Fr Sean McDonagh
St. Columban's, Navan
Greece extends ban on Monsanto Co. biotech maize seeds for another 2 years
Associated Press, 24 April 2008

ATHENS, Greece (AP) - Greece on Wednesday renewed its ban on genetically modified maize produced by U.S. biotech giant Monsanto Co., expanding it to include 70 types of seed.

Agriculture Minister Alexandros Kondos said the three-year-old ban on the sale and cultivation of MON810 seeds was extended for two more years.

´The new decision ... is based on the same solid scientific and legal basis (as the last one), but includes new scientific data and findings,ª Kondos said. ´These data concern a potential threat to human health and to the beekeeping industry.

Experts fear pollen from biotech crops, carried by bees, could adversely affect swarms. Greece has some 27,000 beekeepers and accounts for an estimated 16 percent of European Union honey production.

Despite pressure from the European Union, Greece has implemented and extended bans on the MON810 strain since April 2005. The initial ban included 17 types. ´We absolutely oppose the circulation of genetically modified organisms,ª Kondos said.

Kondos said the European Union should allow members states ´enough timeª to assess the threat from the cultivation of genetically modified seeds.

Genetically modified crops are a touchy issue in the EU. The European Food Safety Authority ruled in 2004 that genetically modified products do not constitute a risk to human health or the environment.

But some EU governments _ including Austria, France, Greece, Luxembourg and Germany _ are wary of biotechnology and are fighting to keep the crops from their fields and out of their supermarkets.

´Internationally, there is no study showing that biotech products do not harm humans and the environment,ª Kondos said.

The Greek branch of Greenpeace staged a small protest Wednesday, urging Kondos to include biotech cotton seeds in its ban.
UK: Science friction
The Guardian, April 28 2008

The Daily Telegraph looks set to lose its science correspondent amid growing fears about standards of science reporting in the press. Iain Hollingshead reports [extract only]

...Yet there are still a disquieting number of contemporary voices suggesting that all is is not well with science journalism. "Science in the daily media is too often reported in the same deferential way as political journalists used to report politics in the 1950s," says Jonathan Leake, science and environment editor at the Sunday Times. "Many of the tensions, rows and skulduggery in the science community get far less attention than they would in business or politics." The main criticism is that respected journals such as Science and Nature - along with active news agencies such as AlphaGalileo, EurekAlert! and a plethora of less rigorous journals - control much of the science correspondents' output.
USA: Nationwide Biotech Crop Maps Suggested for Monitoring Environmental Impacts
UC Davis, 28 April 2008 [shortened]

A team of biologists, including a UC Davis plant scientist, is proposing that maps be created showing where all of the billion-plus acres of genetically engineered crops have been grown in the United States.

The comprehensive biotech mapping system, modeled after one now in use in Arizona, would permit much-needed studies of the positive or negative environmental impacts of genetically engineered crops, the researchers suggest in a Policy Forum piece published in the April 25 issue of the journal Science.

"Such maps would enable scientists to better analyze the effects of genetically modified crops on wildlife, water quality, insect pests and beneficial insects," said UC Davis Professor Paul Gepts, an expert on the evolutionary processes that have shaped the evolution of crop plants.

Lead author on this paper is Michelle Marvier of Santa Clara University. The other authors, in addition to Gepts, are Peter Kareiva of Santa Clara University and The Nature Conservancy, Norman Elstrand of UC Riverside, Yves CarriËre and Bruce Tabashnik of the University of Arizona, Emma Rosi-Marshall of Loyola University Chicago, and L. LaReesa Wolfenbarger of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
World: Making a killing from the food crisis
A new report by GRAIN, 28 April 2008.

The world food crisis is hurting a lot of people, but global agribusiness firms, traders and speculators are raking in huge profits.

Much of the news coverage of the world food crisis has focussed on riots in low-income countries, where workers and others cannot cope with skyrocketing costs of staple foods. But there is another side to the story: the big profits that are being made by huge food corporations and investors. Cargill, the world's biggest grain trader, achieved an 86% increase in profits from commodity trading in the first quarter of this year. Bunge, another huge food trader, had a 77% increase in profits during the last quarter of last year. ADM, the second largest grain trader in the world, registered a 67% per cent increase in profits in 2007.

Nor are retail giants taking the strain: profits at Tesco, the UK supermarket giant, rose by a record 11.8% last year. Other major retailers, such as France's Carrefour and Wal-Mart of the US, say that food sales are the main sector sustaining their profit increases. Investment funds, running away from sliding stock markets and the credit crunch, are having a heyday on the commodity markets, driving prices out of reach for food importers like Bangladesh and the Philippines.

These profits are no freak windfalls. Over the last 30 years, the IMF and the World Bank have pushed so-called developing countries to dismantle all forms of protection for their local farmers and to open up their markets to global agribusiness, speculators and subsidised food from rich countries. This has transformed most developing countries from being exporters of food into importers. Today about 70 per cent of developing countries are net importers of food. On top of this, finance liberalisation has made it easier for investors to take control of markets for their own private benefit.

Agricultural policy has lost touch with its most basic goal: that of feeding people. Rather than rethink their own disastrous policies, governments and think tanks are blaming production problems, the growing demand for food in China and India, and biofuels. While these have played a role, the fundamental cause of today's food crisis is neoliberal globalisation itself, which has transformed food from a source of livelihood security into a mere commodity to be gambled away, even at the cost of widespread hunger among the world's poorest people.
The seeds of catastrophe
By Ingeborg Boyens
Globe and Mail, 26 April 2008

Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World's Food System
By Raj Patel
HarperCollins, 438 pages, $29.95

Seed Politics and the Future of Food in Canada
By Devlin Kuyek
Between the Lines
147 pages, $22.95

"Food Riots in Haiti." "Continuing Demonstrations in Egypt." "Protests Against High Food Costs in Bangladesh." It is strange here in the land of plenty to see headlines trumpeting massive food shortages around the globe. However, these headlines are an ominous sign that the economic arrangements that produce and distribute our food are breaking down.

The impending food crisis in much of the developing world would not surprise Raj Patel. In Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World's Food System, he effectively argues there is something wrong with an economic model that leaves 800 million people on Earth hungry while another billion are overfed. "Unless you are a corporate food executive," Patel writes, "the system isn't working for you."

In past years, the food system has been the focus of several writers, such as Eric Schlosser with Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan with The Omnivore's Dilemma. Patel significantly adds to the topic with a thorough and impassioned work that looks at how corporate control and global trade markets have wounded farmers and consumers around the world. He successfully connects the dots of seemingly disparate issues like hunger, obesity, free trade, rural depopulation and food safety to create the picture of a food system run by corporate greed.

Patel is well-equipped for his take on the globalization of food. He worked for the World Bank, interned at the World Trade Organization, and consulted for the United Nations before he became an activist opposed to many of policies of his former employers. Patel - who lives in South Africa and California - has directed his attention to the haves and have-nots of the world - those who are "stuffed" by often obscene amounts of food while others are "starved" because the global food system ignores them. Although it may seem a contradiction, Patel writes that both are victims of a grotesquely unbalanced food system.

Patel argues that the irony of a world in which there are now more fat people than hungry ones is the inevitable outcome of a system in which a handful of corporations have been allowed to capture the wealth in the food supply chain. The modern food structure, Patel explains, evolved from an imperial past in which European nations destroyed the economies of countries to get their hands on sugar, tea and spices. Today, a surprisingly small number of corporations own the seed companies, agrochemical manufacturers, processors and supermarkets that control what we see on our plates, often by running roughshod over small rural landowners in the developing world.

Farmers, whether in Canada or in developing countries, may grow our crops, vegetables and livestock, but they paradoxically have little control over what we eat. In fact, they often become members of the "starved" category under pressure from a global, supply-and-demand trading system that sets prices and pushes them to produce for consumers in distant industrialized countries. Although rural communities around the world have been neglected by the global system, Patel begins his look at rural injustice in India, where a shocking number of farmers have responded to despair by drinking agricultural pesticides.

Patel writes that even in the industrialized North, where "stuffed" consumers may be dazzled with signs of plenitude at the local supermarket, they actually have little "choice." Yes, they have the choice between Pepsi and Coke, but any other options seem to be prescribed by those who control the system. The result is that many people are obese from unhealthy calories, susceptible to heart disease, diabetes and other diet-related issues.

This is often depressing material. But ultimately, Patel is hopeful, championing the work of movements that challenge the system. He writes about the global network of peasant farmer organizations, Via Campesina, that has pulled together 150 million people from around the world; the Landless Rural Workers Movement in Brazil, which has resettled one million people since the 1970s in communities that practise sustainable farming; efforts to challenge the food retail establishment with initiatives like the People's Grocery, in California, which grows its own food on donated land.

Patel's book is an impassioned plea for change. To urge us all to fight back to develop a new food system, Patel has set up a website and come up with a 10-point action plan which he says everyone should try.

Good Crop/Bad Crop: Seed Politics and the Future of Food in Canada, by Devlin Kuyek, a Montreal-based researcher with the international NGO GRAIN, is a smaller offering with a narrower focus, but it too is critical of the global food system. Its heart is the very foundation of food, the seed.

Although Kuyek has also travelled the world, he chooses here to explore how Canada's regulatory system has systematically removed control of seeds from farmers and given it, through public breeding rights (PBR) and patents on single genes, to the corporate sector. In the past, farmers themselves saved seed from one harvest to plant the next year. They were essentially breeding crops specifically for their land. Anything new was produced by a public university. Now, for many crops, farmers have to buy hybrid seeds or sign contracts when they purchase genetically modified seeds saying that they won't re-use them. The consequence is a small number of seeds stipulated by the corporations that control the food system, rather than a broad biodiversity controlled by farmers.

This book may seem a bit technical for the average reader, but Kuyek tells an important story about the very foundation of food. Where Patel has chosen to go wide, Kuyek's assessment of the food system is narrow, but just as critical.

Judging by books, films, and movements like the Slow Food campaign or the 100-Mile Diet, food is becoming the issue of our times. These two books add to the debate about our global food system and forcefully argue that we have to change. Otherwise, protests about overwhelming food costs and widespread shortages will grow and we will be faced with a crisis that may even spill over into our comfortable, overfed First World lives.

Ingeborg Boyens has written extensively about food and farming. Her most recent book is Another Season's Promise: Hope and Despair in Canada's Farm Country.

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