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GM crops, developing countries and food security - Areal &al (2012) - World Agriculture

GM crops, developing countries and food security - Areal &al (2012) - World Agriculture | Ag Biotech News |

The agronomic and economic performance of genetically modified (GM) crops relative to their conventional counterparts has been largely investigated worldwide. As a result there is considerable information to conduct a meta-analysis to evaluate the agronomic and economic relative performance of GM crops vs. non GM crops by crop, GM trait, and country’s level of development. Such meta-analysis has been recently conducted showing that overall GM crops outperform non GM crops in both agronomic and economic terms. 

This paper focuses on the agronomic and economic performance of GM crops in developing and developed countries as well as the potential implications for global food security of adoption of GM crops by developing countries. The presumption that technology only benefits the developed world is not supported by the meta-analysis conducted. No evidence that GM technology benefits more developed than developing countries was found. Indeed, the agronomic and economic performance of GM crops vs. conventional crops tends to be better for developing than for developed countries. 

Although it is manifested that the conventional agronomic practices in developing countries are different to those in developed countries, it is also apparent that GM crop adoption in developing countries may help to tackle the growing concerns over the scarcity of food globally...

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Bringing light into the discussion about GMOs? – A rather long reading list

[updated May 19, 2016]  


These days I received an apparently easy request: “Do you have any recommendations for reading about the debate on GMOs? I think there is a lot of heat, but too little light in the discussion; I trust you can send me some…” To which I answered carelessly: “Sure, I will look into it, select a few references and post them…” 


I thought I’d have a quick look into my collection of bookmarks and references and post some of the links to satisfy the request. Obviously there would be too many individual studies and crop-specific or country-specific reports, but focusing only (i) on what was published in recent years, (ii) on sources where all this information was already aggregated (literature reviews, meta-analyses, authoritative statements, FAQs, etc.), and (iii) on academic or publicly funded sources should produce a fairly concise list, I thought. 


While not unmanageable, the list has become quite long. To get a rough idea of the current state of knowledge, it may be sufficient to peruse the first 1-2 (starred *) references under each heading, and to have a quick look at the abstracts and summaries of some of the others. (Given the controversy surrounding this topic I did not want to suggest just one or two sources, but show a bit the width of the scientific consensus, and to offer some titbits of related information.) ...


Jennifer Mach's comment, March 30, 2013 9:05 AM
I admit I haven't read this list... but for future reference, I'll definitely have a look.
Karen Ashby's curator insight, April 5, 4:26 AM

Conflicted about how your view on GM ties in with a career in Biotech? Look no further

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What consumers don’t know about genetically modified food, and how that affects beliefs - McFadden & Lusk (2016) - FASEB

In the debates surrounding biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) food, data from consumer polls are often presented as evidence for precaution and labeling. But how much do consumers actually know about the issue? New data collected from a nationwide U.S. survey reveal low levels of knowledge and numerous misperceptions about GM food. 

Nearly equal numbers of consumers prefer mandatory labeling of foods containing DNA as do those preferring mandatory labeling of GM foods. When given the option, the majority of consumers prefer that decisions about GM food be taken out of their hands and be made by experts… 

Results suggest that consumers think they know more than they actually do about GM food, and queries about GM facts cause respondents to reassess how much they know. The findings question the usefulness of results from opinion polls as a motivation for creating public policy surrounding GM food.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
This is similar to what I concluded in a recent literature review on the acceptance of GM food in Europe, namely that there is “little tangible evidence to support the assumption that Europeans wouldn't buy food that was produced using genetic engineering: The impression of a general rejection of GM crops by Europeans relies largely on the results of more or less rigorous surveys…” (in which consumers were more accepting of GM food the more realistic the scenarios were).

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Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects - National Academies of Sciences (2016)

Genetically Engineered Crops: Past Experience and Future Prospects - National Academies of Sciences (2016) | Ag Biotech News |

Genetically engineered (GE) crops were first introduced commercially in the 1990s. After two decades of production, some groups and individuals remain critical of the technology based on their concerns about possible adverse effects on human health, the environment, and ethical considerations. At the same time, others are concerned that the technology is not reaching its potential to improve human health and the environment because of stringent regulations and reduced public funding to develop products offering more benefits to society. While the debate about these and other questions related to the genetic engineering techniques of the first 20 years goes on, emerging genetic-engineering technologies are adding new complexities to the conversation. 

“Genetically Engineered Crops” builds on previous… reports… by undertaking a retrospective examination of the purported positive and adverse effects of GE crops and to anticipate what emerging genetic-engineering technologies hold for the future. This report indicates where there are uncertainties about the economic, agronomic, health, safety, or other impacts of GE crops and food, and makes recommendations to fill gaps in safety assessments, increase regulatory clarity, and improve innovations in and access to GE technology.

[And in the following a summary of summaries of the report from the Grist, New York Times, NPR, and National Geographic websites.] 

If you’ve been holding out any hope that there is an objective reality and that evidence of this reality might change minds and shape policy, then the National Academies of Sciences is here for you. Abraham Lincoln set up this organization to provide independent scientific guidance, and it has been the gold standard ever since. So, it’s worth paying attention to its latest report assessing all the science on genetically engineered crops… It’s really good. If you want to know what the deal is with GMO crops – whether you are interested in safety, environmental effects, or social impacts – go read it. It’s clear and accessible… 

You just want to know if GMOs are good or bad? The team of researchers that assembled the report knew you would say that… But instead of drawing sweeping conclusions, the report keeps coming back to the fact that every crop is different. The main generalization we can take from it is that we shouldn’t make generalizations about GMOs… The National Academies wants us to stop obsessing over whether something is a GMO, and ask instead if a given crop makes the world better or worse… Instead of applying special scrutiny to how crops are bred, regulators would focus on which new foods pose the greatest risks. The researchers recommended regulation “that is based not on the breeding process but on considerations of novelty, potential hazard, and exposure as criteria”… 

Are GMOs safe? … The researchers identified “no differences that would implicate a higher risk to human health” from eating GMOs. And they noted that their previous reports have found “no strict dichotomy between genetic engineering and other forms of plant breeding with respect to risk”… Are GMOs hurting ecosystems? Food production is the single biggest cause of environmental degradation… But when researchers tried to find evidence to pin some of these problems on GMOs specifically, they found “no evidence of cause-and-effect relationships between GE crops and environmental problems.” In other words, they’re no more guilty than regular crops. 

Do we need GMOs to feed the world? To feed the world’s growing population, we need to increase food production and decrease food waste. The researchers noted that some GMOs would help with both challenges, but cautioned… “Treating genetic engineering and conventional breeding as competing approaches is a false dichotomy; more progress in crop improvement could be brought about by using both conventional breeding and genetic engineering than by using either alone”…

The National Academy of Sciences – probably the country's most prestigious scientific group – has reaffirmed its judgment that GMOs are safe to eat… The report marks an anniversary. Twenty years ago, farmers started growing soybeans that had been genetically… Even before this report came out, an anti-GMO group… accused some members of the committee that prepared the report of… having… ties to the industry… The preemptive attack frustrates Fred Gould… who chaired the committee. Gould has been known in the past as a GMO critic. He has pushed for restrictions on the planting of some GMO crops. "I have not been a darling of the industry. As a matter of fact, they denied me seeds and plants to do my experiments"… Gould says that over the two years that… members of this committee worked on this report, they had one important rule: "If you had an opinion, you had to back it up with data. If you didn't have the data, it didn't go into the report"… 

The most basic conclusion: There's no evidence that GMOs are risky to eat. The committee also found that GMOs… have allowed farmers of some crops to spray less insecticide to protect their crops… Also, there's no evidence that GMOs have reduced the amount of wild plant and insect life on farms… The report urges federal agencies to change the way they regulate GMOs. Up to now, companies have introduced just a small number of different kinds of genetically modified crops. That could change very soon, because there's new technology, called gene editing, that isn't exactly genetic engineering, but it's not traditional plant breeding, either. The report urges regulators to look at all new crops, no matter how they're created, if they "have novelty and the possibility of some kind of risk associated with them"… Many scientists who got their first look at the report Tuesday praised it. Some called it the most comprehensive review of GMOs that anyone… has carried out.

Genetically engineered crops appear to be safe to eat and do not harm the environment, according to a comprehensive new analysis by… the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine… The report also says that new techniques, like a way to make small genetic changes in plants using genome-editing, are blurring the distinction between genetic engineering and conventional plant breeding, making the existing regulatory system untenable. It calls for a new system that pays more attention to the attributes of the crop, as opposed to the way in which it was created… 

This is the latest of several reports on genetically modified crops by the National Academies, which are… set up by Congress to give advice on issues related to science, technology and medicine. A previous report by the groups, released in 2010, found that genetic engineering had provided environmental and economic benefits to American farmers. The new report was written by a committee of 20, almost all of them from academia. There was no one from crop biotechnology companies like Monsanto or DuPont on the committee… The committee examined more than 1,000 studies, heard testimony from 80 witnesses in a series of public meetings and webinars, and analyzed 700 comments submitted by the public… 

The committee concentrated its review on the genetically engineered crops that account for the vast bulk of such plants grown in the United States… The report says that foods made from such crops do not appear to pose health risks… Several other regulatory, scientific and health organizations have previously also concluded that the foods are safe. The committee also looked at the incidence of certain diseases… It said it found no evidence that the crops had contributed to an increase in the incidence of cancer, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, autism, celiac disease or food allergies. 

The document also says the regulatory system should be tiered, with potentially riskier products receiving greater scrutiny before they can be marketed, whether those products are made using genetic engineering or not. Other new products, regardless of how they are made, might need virtually no scrutiny… Regarding environmental effects, the report says there is “no conclusive evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship ship between G.E. crops and environmental problems… The report says use of the insect-resistant crops has clearly led to a decrease in the spraying of chemical insecticides. Conversely, the use of herbicide-resistant crops might have led to an increase in the spraying of chemical weed killers in some cases… However, looking only at the pounds of chemicals sprayed per acre is misleading because different chemicals have different toxicities… 

The committee concludes that the use of crops has generally provided economic benefits for the farmers and can increase their output in certain cases, for instance, by protecting crops from insect damage. Nonetheless… “G.E. crops are pretty much just crops. They are not the panacea that some proponents claim, nor the dreaded monsters that others claim.”

Genetically-engineered crops are as safe to eat as their non-GE counterparts, they have no adverse environmental impacts, and they have reduced the use of pesticides. That’s according to a comprehensive report released by the National Academy of Sciences today -- a group founded by the U.S. Congress to provide expert scientifically-based advice on a wide variety of issues… The report acknowledges that beyond safety, other issues need to be addressed, including earning the public’s trust. It recommends a more transparent and inclusive conversation about GE crops going forward… 

The assessment is generally positive, but there are many caveats… here’s the nutshell version… GE crops are safe to eat… They have… helped farmer protect yields from insects and weeds… The report found no adverse affects on biodiversity or danger from interbreeding between GE crops and wild relatives… The economic benefits to farmers have been well-documented… Regulation should be based on the characteristics of the crop, rather than the technique used to develop it, whether GE or non-GE… Both genetic engineering and conventional breeding are important to crop improvement… 

The report sees an important role for genetic engineering, and “the committee expects that its potential use in crop improvement in the coming decades will be substantial.” Increased nutrition, better nutrient use, decreased greenhouse gas emissions, and pathogen resistance are just some of the ways GE crops can improve human and environmental health, farmer well-being, and agriculture’s sustainability…

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Is organic agriculture really better for the environment? - Washington Post (2016) 

Is organic agriculture really better for the environment? - Washington Post (2016)  | Ag Biotech News |

There are lots of techniques organic farmers employ to improve [soil]. They use compost and manure, rotate their crops and grow many kinds of plants. They do use pesticides, but only certain ones (mostly non-synthetic, with a few approved synthetics), and often only when other pest-control methods fail. But plenty of conventional farmers do a lot of those things, too. 

When you pony up the extra money to buy organic produce, are you supporting environmental benefits? … There’s never a clear-cut answer to a question like that when you’re talking about something as complicated as farming… all conventional is not the same, and all organic is not the same… Nevertheless, some important differences… the organic systems… Have more-fertile soil. Use less fertilizer and much less herbicide. Use less energy. Lock away more carbon in the soil. Are more profitable for farmers. The conventional systems: Have higher yields. Are best at reducing erosion (when a no-till system is used)… 

Some tools that mitigate environmental harm aren’t available to organic farmers; one of them is genetically modified crops. Although reasonable people disagree about how the advantages and disadvantages of those crops balance out… many scientists and farmers [say] that both major types of GMOs – the kind that are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate and the kind that have a built-in organic insecticide – can help cut pesticide use. Also, it’s difficult for organic farmers to implement no-till. Without herbicides, the best weed-killing tool is tilling, and that can lead to erosion, nutrient runoff and the disruption of the microbial community that organic farmers work so hard to foster… 

But there’s a problem. The environmental advantages generally are not why consumers are willing to pay extra for organic products…. consumers buy organics primarily because they believe the products are better for their health: either more nutritious or safer. So it’s not surprising that organic food purveyors and advocates often promote a product by implying it’s more nutritious or safer, a claim not supported by most of the evidence… Labels for some organic products use the word “toxic” to describe the pesticides they’re not using, despite the fact that some toxic pesticides… are allowed in organic agriculture. Although… the evidence indicates that trace amounts of pesticides in food are not dangerous to human health…. 

Unfortunately, you can’t believe organic food is more nutritious and safe without believing conventional food is less nutritious and safe, and that infuriates advocates of conventional food… I’ve noticed some schadenfreude at food-borne illness outbreaks pegged to organic foods… Conventional food is as safe and nutritious as its organic counterparts, and if consumers are told otherwise, they’re being deceived, and conventional producers are being harmed. 

And misinformation does nothing to improve the quality of the public debate… there is value in having farmers employ and improve all kinds of practices…. Sometimes it seems as if every column I write has the same conclusion, but it’s an important one. If we’re going to make progress on food, we need a whole lot less of us vs. them. The USDA’s certified-organic program – from its inception a marketing program, not an environmental initiative – has given organic farmers a way to make a living… by connecting with like-minded consumers willing to pay a premium for a product that is grown in a way that is often labor-intensive and lower-yielding, and produces some bona fide environmental benefits…

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
I’m not sure the arguments in the article are entirely coherent. It says that plenty of conventional farmers employ a lot of the good techniques used in organic farming – whereas it says that some good tools that conventional farmers use aren’t available to organic farmers. The article then goes on to say that there is value in having farmers employ and improve all kinds of practices – which, given the preceding statements, seems to indicate that only conventional farming fits that bill, as only conventional farmers can actually employ all kinds of practices. (Whereas the options open to organic farmers are limited to those permitted under their restrictive marketing-driven certification program.) However, the article then concludes that we need also organic ways of feeding our growing population (thus expanding the scope of the article beyond the environmental focus of the headline), highlighting organic’s positives rather than its restrictive practices and – in the context of feeding a growing population – its lower yields. 

And even if one could agree that it’s legitimate for organic farmers to cater to the demands of like-minded consumers who are willing to pay a premium for what are only bona fide environmental benefits (and the question is if the farmers are indeed like-minded or simply exploit a business opportunity), if the concern is feeding a growing population, and doing so safely and sustainably, is organic the best option? To what extent do the lower yields in organic farming reverse the fertiliser, herbicide and energy savings if the same output is produced as in a conventional system? (Which then needs to be done on more land, which is also problematic as it necessarily reduces the land that’s available to natural ecosystems.) How relevant is it that organic farming has more fertile soil if it produces nevertheless lower yields? How is the use of manure accounted for? (Or the use of other “organic” fertilisers such as soybean meal or fish meal – from GMOs and overfishing…) To the extent that such fertiliser is imported from the conventional system, this means organic farming is not self-sustaining and thus not sustainable, at least not at the already lower current yields. 

Why is organic farming more profitable? If there is indeed so much more money to be made in organics, is it realistic to assume that over 90% of US farmers are too stupid to realise this as business opportunity? How accurately can results from field trials (where arguably more knowledge, effort and care is applied) be extrapolated to real-world farming? Or do organic farmers in real life self-select (because they know from experience that the pest-pressure on their fields is lower, because they have access to cheap labour (or less scruples to pay lower wages), or because their operation is suited for other reasons)? Or is it simply because market demand grows faster than organic certification expands, thus creating a temporary seller’s market (that’s not sustainable once supply catches up, or if all farming should convert to organic – which would again be an example for organic only being possible because of conventional agriculture)? Is the up-front cost of the certification properly taken into account? And are the costs really comparable, as the Figure suggests? 

When it comes to food safety (which is also part of feeding our growing population), the article mentions incidents of food-borne illnesses in the organic sector, while affirming that trace amounts of pesticides in (conventional) food are not dangerous to human health. To this one could add that in organic farming not only are food-borne pathogens perhaps more frequent (relatively speaking), but to the extent that pest control is less efficient probably also natural toxins (from fungi that infest insect-damaged crops or from weeds that may end up in the harvested crop) are more common in organic food. And relating more to nutrition than to food safety, the higher price of organic food can also have a negative impact on people’s nutrition if people could afford a healthy and varied diet with lots of fruits and veggies if they opted for conventional produce but instead, with the same budget, can only buy a more limited range of organic staple foods. 
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Rationalizing the GMO Debate: The Ordonomic Approach to Addressing Agricultural Myths - Hielscher &al (2016) - Int J Env Res Public Health

Rationalizing the GMO Debate: The Ordonomic Approach to Addressing Agricultural Myths - Hielscher &al (2016) - Int J Env Res Public Health | Ag Biotech News |

The public discourse on the acceptability of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is not only controversial, but also infused with highly emotional and moralizing rhetoric. Although the assessment of risks and benefits of GMOs must be a scientific exercise, many debates on this issue seem to remain impervious to scientific evidence. In many cases, the moral psychology attributes of the general public create incentives for both GMO opponents and proponents to pursue misleading public campaigns, which impede the comprehensive assessment of the full spectrum of the risks and benefits of GMOs… 

Focus attention on common interests, without denying the existence of conflicting ones. The focus on common interests allows reframing the conflictual semantic categories and mental models… to realize the latent win-win potential inherent in social dilemmas… In the case of GMOs, an example of discourse distortions is the disregard for the benign consequences of GMOs, as well as the tendencies to discredit discourse participants as anti-progressive or technophobic...

Global discourses about food and agriculture are in a paradoxical state. There is a widespread consensus about the goals of food security as well as economic, social, and ecological sustainability of agricultural production. At the same time, specific strategies for attaining these goals are the object of fierce debates, which are very far from converging towards consensual standpoints. The encompassing rationality related to the sustainability goals of the global food and fiber system seemingly breaks up into multiple partial rationalities, which are unable to establish rational contacts with each other. The present research note has traced this state of affairs to the prevalence of agricultural myths, or rigid mental models, that are impervious both to scientific arguments and to available data. 

This imperviousness, in turn, is conditioned by the narrow emotional and moral framing of the relevant issues, such as those related to small-scale farming, world hunger, and GMOs. The moral context of the respective discourses opens up new remarkable opportunities for economic ethics… to make a difference in the lives of billions of people whose wellbeing depends on the global food and fiber system. To this end, the ordonomic approach deconstructs moral arguments in those cases when they are dysfunctional and stand in the way of a search for consensus informed by all relevant arguments. In doing so, the ordonomic approach not only paves the way to identifying the latent win-win potentials within the global food and fiber system but also moves this system closer to the ideal of economic, social, and ecological sustainability.

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Attitudes toward genetically modified organisms in Poland: to GMO or not to GMO? - Rzymski & Królczyk (2016) - Food Sec

Attitudes toward genetically modified organisms in Poland: to GMO or not to GMO? - Rzymski & Królczyk (2016) - Food Sec | Ag Biotech News |
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a subject of on-going scientific, political and social discussions… Societies have every right to substantive information and education in biotechnology, yet they appear to be misinformed by contradictory views and sensationalism. The present study investigated the level of knowledge and the attitude of citizens of Poland towards the various uses of GMOs… 

The use of GMOs in medicine and pharmacy received slight approval from the surveyed group, and was generally perceived as the greatest benefit of GMOs. In contrast, most respondents were against the production and distribution of GM food products on the Polish market or at least favoured the labelling of any product that contains a GM component. The majority of individuals who were willing to accept GM foods also demanded their labelling. 

The studied group revealed various concerns related to the safety of GM foods, particularly their potential effect on health and the environment. Generally, the greatest scepticism towards GMOs and GM foods was expressed by farmers, medical workers and school teachers while the greatest enthusiasm was shown by students of medical and life sciences, and researchers… 

Importantly, most of those taking part in the survey admitted that their knowledge of GMOs was insufficient, expressed a willingness to improve it, and expected school teachers, academicians and researchers to be actively involved in this process… The present study underlines the urgent need to implement evidence-based educational programmes so as to raise the public understanding of the current possibilities and limitations of GMO-based technology…  

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
As I discussed elsewhere [1], abstract surveys using questionnaires to determine attitudes towards GM food produce very different results than more realistic studies or people's behaviour in real-world settings: The more concrete the the questions and studies, the more positive the attitudes towards GM food. And the less people know about GM food -- as here where "most of those taking part in the survey admitted that their knowledge of GMOs was insufficient" -- the more likely they are to “play safe” in their responses and state that they see (unfamiliar) GM food in a negative light... 

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A profitability analysis of fertilizer use for maize production in Nigeria - Liverpool &al (2016) - AgEcon

Inorganic fertilizer use across sub Saharan Africa is generally considered to be low. Yet, the notion that fertilizer use is too low is predicated on the assumption that it is profitable to use rates higher than currently observed... As a result of this assumption, the literature generally looks to other constraints to its adoption (financial market imperfections (credit/insurance/savings), knowledge, or lack of demand and thus the realization of economies of scale on the supply side (agro-dealer network), or lack of access to markets to sell the produce), but these all link again to profitability issues... This brief summarizes a study that focuses on the profitability of fertilizer use as a likely explanatory factor for observed fertilizer use rates in Nigeria.. 

The study reveals that fertilizer use in Nigeria is not as low as conventional wisdom suggests. Low marginal physical product and high transportation costs significantly reduce the profitability of fertilizer use in maize production. Given the large share of fertilizer acquisition costs that are due to transportation, there appears to be significantly more scope for strategies reducing transportation costs to have a much larger effect on the profitability of fertilizer use than fertilizer subsidies... strategies to reduce the distances farmers have to travel to purchase inputs could also play an important role... 

Apart from reduced transportation costs, other constraints such as timely access to the product, availability of complementary inputs such as improved seeds, irrigation and credit, as well as good management practices are also necessary for sustained agricultural productivity improvements. Finally... understanding the nature and characteristic of Nigerian soils and the consequent nutritional requirements are important for determining fertilizer application rates and achieving optimal yield responses.

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Genetically Modified Crops and Agricultural Development - Qaim (2016) - Springer

Genetically Modified Crops and Agricultural Development - Qaim (2016) - Springer | Ag Biotech News |
What are the goals and priorities of agricultural development? Answers to this question can be diverse. Depending on who is being asked, the list of priorities may include food security, poverty reduction, supply of biofuels, soil conservation, biodiversity preservation, climate protection, animal welfare, attractive rural landscapes for recreation, and many other things. People in Western Europe will likely answer differently from people in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa because of different living standards, cultural backgrounds, and attitudes. Also within regions, priorities may differ between rich and poor, urban and rural, young and old, men and women, and so on. Moreover, responses to the question about goals and priorities today would probably be quite different from responses 20 or 50 years ago. However, in spite of the many nuances and changes in priorities and preferences over time, there are a few overarching goals of agricultural development that persist and that constitute the foundation for this book. I… analyze how far genetically modified (GM) crops can contribute to achieving these goals. 

Plant Breeding and Agricultural Development: 
Striving for sufficient food has always been at the heart of human existence… Humankind has evolved from scavenging to hunting and gathering and finally to producing food in a systematic manner. Plants have been at the center of this process as they, directly and indirectly, provide virtually all of our food. While initially almost all humans were inevitably involved in the sourcing of food, the start of agriculture made it possible for people to pursue other occupations, marking the beginning of civilization. Given the subsequent explosion of the world population, it has always been the prime objective of agriculture to increase the supply of food… Fundamental advances in agricultural technology… have made sufficient food production growth possible in the past, also discussing related economic, social, and environmental implications. 

Potentials and Risks of GM Crops: 
A genetically modified (GM) crop is a plant used for agricultural purposes into which genes coding for desirable traits have been inserted through genetic engineering. The term genetic modification is somewhat misleading, as it implies that plants had not been genetically modified before techniques of genetic engineering were developed… Humans have modified the genetic makeup of plants since the beginnings of agriculture. Without the initial cultivation of plants, our cereals would still be seed-shedding wild grasses and our potatoes small, toxic lumps. Without systematic selection, our maize would be unrecognizable, and sugarbeets would not exist in their known form. Without scientific plant breeding, our crops would be relatively inefficient nutrient converters and susceptible to countless diseases and pests. All of these developments represent genetic modifications of crops, which would not have occurred naturally without human intervention. And without these interventions by breeders, agricultural yields would only be a fraction of what they are today. It is thus not the genetic modification of plants that is new, but some of the methods involved in achieving this modification. 

Adoption and Impacts of GM Crops: 
GM crops have already been used commercially for 20 years, a large number of impact studies exist, looking at GM crop effects on farmers’ yields, pesticide use, income, poverty, and wider implications for sustainable development. I will first provide an overview of the adoption of GM crops in different parts of the world, before reviewing the evidence about impacts. Impacts can be analyzed ex post, based on actual observations, or ex ante, based on expert assumptions and simulations of likely future scenarios. In this chapter, I review ex post impact studies of already commercialized GM crops… 

New and Future GM Crop Applications: 
The cultivation of GM crops has increased rapidly during the last 20 years with sizeable areas in North and South America, Asia, and to a lesser extent in Africa. However, of the 182 million hectares under GM crops in 2014, 99 percent were grown with only four different crop species (soybean, maize, cotton, and canola) and two modified traits (herbicide tolerance and insect resistance). Almost all of the GM crops available so far were developed and commercialized by the private sector. 

GM Crop Regulation: 
GMOs are more heavily regulated than any other agricultural technology. The regulation focuses primarily on the assessment and management of biosafety and food safety risks. Other important areas of regulation include labeling requirements for GM foods, as observed in some countries, and, related to labeling, rules of coexistence to facilitate segregation of supply chains for GM, conventional, and organic crops. Another area of regulation with immediate relevance for GM crops are intellectual property rights (IPRs) for biological materials and technologies… I review regulatory approaches and discuss the wider implications for GMO research, commercialization, international agricultural trade, and market structure in the biotech industry. 

The Complex Public Debate: 
Public attitudes toward GM crops are predominantly negative. This is especially true in Europe, but European perceptions have also spread to other parts of the world. Many people do not only believe but are strongly convinced that GMOs do not bring any benefits for farmers and consumers. Instead, GMOs are seen as a technology that is dangerous for human health and the environment and that contributes to monopolies and corporate control of the food chain, thus causing new dependencies and other social problems. The empirical evidence… clearly shows that this notion is wrong. Commercialized GM crops have already produced significant benefits for farmers, consumers, and the environment, and they have an unblemished safety record. Thirty years of risk research also suggest that GM crops are not inherently more risky than conventionally bred crops. If used inappropriately, GM crops can create certain problems, but the same holds true for any other technology. How comes then that public perceptions differ so vastly from the scientific evidence and that this rift has actually further increased over time? The answer is that a huge protest industry against GMOs has emerged since the 1990s. This protest industry strongly influences public opinions and policymaking. 

In spite of notable progress in global hunger and poverty reduction over the last few decades, way too many people in developing countries are still not able to satisfy their basic needs. Close to eight hundred million people are undernourished and do not have sufficient access to calories, most of them living in Asia and Africa. Urbanization tendencies notwithstanding, around 75 percent of the undernourished people reside in rural areas where they directly depend on agriculture as a source of income and employment. In addition to insufficient calorie intakes, micronutrient malnutrition is a serious issue. Around two billion people suffer from deficiencies in specific minerals and vitamins. These forms of malnutrition are a humanitarian disaster. They contribute to numerous infectious diseases, involve physical and mental retardation, and are the leading causes of child mortality in developing countries. Undernutrition and micronutrient malnutrition also cause huge economic costs, obstructing growth and development. Addressing these problems needs to be on top of the global development agenda. 

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Analysis of Farmers’ Willingness to Adopt Genetically Modified Insect-resistant Rice in China - Xu &al (2016) - RePEc 

Only a few studies have investigated farmers’ attitudes toward adopting GM grain crops in China. This study explores farmers’ willingness to adopt GM insect-resistant rice prior to its commercial release in China and determines the factors that affect farmers’ prospective adoption decisions. 

The analysis is based on data collected by using a questionnaire... Increasing output and income, and simplicity in crop management, have positive effects on prospective adoption, whereas the high seed price of GM rice has a significantly negative effect. Health implications [lower health risk] also have a significantly positive effect on the farmers’ decision to adopt GM grain crops...

The ex ante adoption decision for GM BT rice is driven by output, crop management, health impact, seed price, and education level... Higher output and income, greater simplicity in crop management, and lower health risk have a positive effect on the decision to adopt, and higher seed price has a negative effect. A higher educational level increases the probability of a farmer planting GM rice... government technicians’ recommendations, neighbors’ attitudes, and fewer environmental risks also have a positive effect on the farmers’ decision to adopt GM rice..

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Nanoparticles present sustainable way to grow food crops - WUSTL (2016) 

Nanoparticles present sustainable way to grow food crops - WUSTL (2016)  | Ag Biotech News |

Scientists are working diligently to prepare for the expected increase in global population – and therefore an increased need for food production – in the coming decades. A team of engineers… has found a sustainable way to boost the growth of a protein-rich bean by improving the way it absorbs much-needed nutrients. Ramesh Raliya… discovered a way to reduce the use of fertilizer made from rock phosphorus and still see improvements in the growth of food crops by using zinc oxide nanoparticles… 

Food crops need phosphorus to grow, and farmers are using more and more phosphorus-based fertilizer… However, the plants can only use about 42 percent of the phosphorus applied to the soil, so the rest runs off into the water streams, where it grows algae that pollutes our water sources. In addition, nearly 82 percent of the world’s phosphorus is used as fertilizer, but it is a limited supply… “If farmers use the same amount of phosphorus as they’re using now, the world’s supply will be depleted in about 80 years… Now is the time for the world to learn how to use phosphorus in a more sustainable manner.” 

Raliya and his collaborators… created zinc oxide nanoparticles from a fungus around the plant’s root that helps the plant mobilize and take up the nutrients in the soil. Zinc also is an essential nutrient for plants because it interacts with three enzymes that mobilize the complex form of phosphorus in the soil into a form that plants can absorb. “Due to climate change, the daily temperature and rainfall amounts have changed… When they changed, the microflora in the soil are also changed, and once those are depleted, the soil phosphorus can’t mobilize the phosphorus, so the farmer applies more. Our goal is to increase the activity of the enzymes by several-fold, so we can mobilize the native phosphorus several-fold.” 

When Raliya and the team applied the zinc nanoparticles to the leaves of the mung bean plant, it increased the uptake of the phosphorus by nearly 11 percent and the activity of the three enzymes by 84 percent to 108 percent. That leads to a lesser need to add phosphorus on the soil… “When the enzyme activity increases, you don’t need to apply the external phosphorus, because it’s already in the soil, but not in an available form for the plant to uptake… When we apply these nanoparticles, it mobilizes the complex form of phosphorus to an available form.” 

The mung bean is a legume grown mainly in China, southeast Asia and India, where 60 percent of the population is vegetarian and relies on plant-based protein sources. The bean is adaptable to a variety of climate conditions and is very affordable for people to grow… 45 percent of the worldwide phosphorus use for agriculture takes place in India and China. Much of the phosphorus supply in developing countries is imported… “We hope that this method of using zinc oxide nanoparticles can be deployed in developing countries where farmers are using a lot of phosphorus”… “These countries are dependent on the U.S. to export phosphorus to them, but in the future, the U.S. may have to help supply food, as well. If this crop can grow in a more sustainable manner, it will be helpful for everyone”…


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GM Crop Coexistence in Practice: Delivering Real Choices for Farmers and Consumers - Pearsall (2016) - EuroChoices

GM Crop Coexistence in Practice: Delivering Real Choices for Farmers and Consumers - Pearsall (2016) - EuroChoices | Ag Biotech News |
The political context which frames the EU policy debate over farm-level coexistence between genetically modified (GM) and non-GM crops has progressively lost sight of the practical and commercial realities involved. Instead of providing the basis for farmers and consumers to exercise a meaningful choice in relation to approved GM and non-GM products, the politically motivated use of disproportionate or unworkable coexistence measures has in itself become a further barrier to GM crop adoption in Europe. 

Yet coexistence is not a new concept in agriculture, and well-established practices exist throughout the farm supply chain to produce, segregate, store and deliver harvested crops to specified levels of quality and purity. In each case, the level of market differentiation – not the degree of political prejudice – determines the nature and cost of the segregation procedures applied… Worldwide experience of managing GM crop coexistence in practice suggests that a supply chain-based approach to managing GM crop coexistence – rather than Government prescription – offers the most effective solution to servicing differentiated market demands… 

The aim of coexistence measures is to support choice, not to fuel prejudice. The politically motivated use of coexistence measures by EU governments to block the adoption of approved GM crops sets a damaging precedent for scientific progress and innovation within Europe. Coexistence is not a new concept in agriculture, and well-established practices exist throughout the supply chain to produce, segregate, store and transport harvested crops to specified levels of quality and purity. GM crops introduce no additional considerations which cannot be addressed through these established supply chain mechanisms. 

Worldwide experience of managing GM crop coexistence in practice suggests that a supply chain-based approach to coexistence – rather than government prescription – offers the most effective solution to servicing differentiated market demands… Coexistence measures for GM and non-GM maize crops in the EU are practically feasible and effective, both at farm level and along the supply chain. This should serve as an important basis for the development of workable and proportionate coexistence arrangements within the EU.

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A Question of Segregation: ‘GM-free’ Maize Bread in Portugal - Quedas &al (2016) - EuroChoices

A Question of Segregation: ‘GM-free’ Maize Bread in Portugal - Quedas &al (2016) - EuroChoices | Ag Biotech News |
We describe the maize supply chain in Portugal for maize bread… As this bread is not labelled as ‘contains genetically modified organisms’ it should not contain more than 0.9 per cent genetically modified ingredients. On the basis of interviews we identify a general lack of documentation of the presence or absence of genetically modified ingredients along the complete supply chain (farmers, traders, mills and bakeries). Part of this deficiency is probably driven by a lack of awareness of the labelling rules at the end of the supply chain. 

A test of maize bread showed that more than 40 per cent of breads were indeed over the labelling threshold, and should be labelled. This includes GM maize that is not cultivated in the EU and enters the supply chain via international trade. We conclude that the realisation of coexistence and segregation requires involvement of the full supply chain… Alternatively, retailers can label their bread. This might be a cheaper solution and as a study from Switzerland shows may not result in adverse consumer reaction… 

The EU requires products that contain more than 0.9 per cent of GM ingredients to be labelled with ‘contains GMOs’. To meet this requirement non-GM and GM material need to be strictly separated, and their identity needs to be preserved at all times through careful documentation… It is unlikely that the failure of segregation occurred at the very beginning of the supply chain. Coexistence is manageable at the farm level… 

If we want to take coexistence and the labelling requirements seriously, we also need to include the downstream supply chain. This requires a better control of compliance with EU labelling regulations within the maize bread supply chain… To achieve this, stakeholders might opt for either the implementation of sound segregation procedures or for the labelling of maize bread. We expect the latter to be easier. 

Currently, GM labelling is limited to edible oils in the Portuguese food market, the only food sector that deliberately releases some products derived from GM soybean. So far there is no research on Portuguese consumers' acceptance of these oils. However… negative responses by consumers are few. 

The unsteady segregation in the downstream supply chain identified by our research suggests that non-compliance with EU labelling regulations might be of interest to any EU country even if it has decided not to cultivate GM crops… Some of the sources in our study are clearly from imports, and the mixing has most probably taken place further down the supply chain. 

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Corporate Strategy on GMOs under Alternative Futures: The Case of a Large Food Retailer in Italy - Passuello & Boccaletti (2016) - EuroChoices

Corporate Strategy on GMOs under Alternative Futures: The Case of a Large Food Retailer in Italy - Passuello & Boccaletti (2016) - EuroChoices | Ag Biotech News |
This article analyses the possible response strategies of a large Italian food retailer to alternative future scenarios for the segregation of GM and non-GM products… Based on two major drivers, namely regulatory framework and perception of genetically modified organisms, stakeholders ended up with three scenarios: 1) Enabling regulatory framework, negative consumer's perception of GMOs; 2) Restrictive regulatory framework, positive consumer's perception of GMOs; 3) Restrictive regulatory framework, negative consumer's perception of GMOs. 

The retailer's strategy, which entails the certification of all the products sold under its private label as non-GM, could be modified under different future scenarios. For example, with an increase in segregation costs due to a more restrictive regulatory framework and a positive perception of GMOs, the retailer may decide to differentiate private labels based on other safety/quality attributes or on the direct benefits for consumers of second generation quality-enhanced GM products. If instead under a restrictive regulation the consumer's perception was still negative, the de facto ban of GMOs in the EU would probably cancel the retailer's exclusive reputational benefits from its voluntary non-GM schemes, making this differentiation process unprofitable. 

Food retailers' corporate positions and strategies on GMOs are… factors for the future of the segregated non-GM identity preserved markets in Europe… First, being at the nexus between production and consumption, retailers are expected to have first-hand information on perceptions, attitudes and WTP of the final consumers. Second, as gatekeepers they decide what type of products are offered on their shelves and what private standards they… comply with. Eventually, such decisions will have an impact on upstream supply chain operators, leading to changes in the governance of supply chains to reduce transaction costs and improve performance. 

Whenever consumers begin perceiving GM food as equal… [to] conventional products and their WTP for non-GM foods lowers, segregation costs may hamper the possibility of sustaining a differentiation strategy based mainly on the non-GM feature. Competition might therefore focus mostly on price, with a reduction in retailer's profitability, unless other quality/safety attributes are conveyed under the private label umbrella. Even with a significant WTP for the non-GM feature, the increase in segregation costs (due for example to less stringent regulations towards GMOs) might put the retailer's differentiation strategy at risk… In the future, with the increasing diffusion of GM crops worldwide, ‘non-GM lovers’ might have to pay substantially higher prices to satisfy their needs. 

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EU Member States’ Voting for Authorizing Genetically Engineered Crops: a Regulatory Gridlock

- Smart &al (2015) - GJAE

Several authors suggest a gridlock of the European Union’s (EU’s) approval process for genetically engineered (GE) crops. We analyse the voting behaviour of EU Member States (MSs) for voting results from 2003 to 2015 on the approval of GE crops to test for a gridlock; no reliable data are available pre-2003 - a time which included the EU’s moratorium on GE crops. 

After the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has given a favourable opinion on the safety of a GE crop, the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCFCAH) votes on the application. If the SCFCAH reaches no decision, the Appeal Committee (AC) (pre the Treaty of Lisbon: the Council) votes... if no decision is reached here, the final decision is left to the European Commission. All EU Member States (MSs) are represented on both committees; decisions are made by a qualified majority (QM) voting system... 

Our data include 50 events; and 61 ballots at the SCFCAH and 57 ballots at the Council / AC. A QM has been achieved once only at the SCFCAH, but never at Council. At Council / AC level, Austria and Croatia have consistently voted against an approval, while The Netherlands has always supported approvals. All other MSs showed differences in their voting decisions at the SCFCAH and Council / AC level at least once. 

MS-fixed-effects are the major factors explaining the voting results supporting the gridlock hypothesis, while crop characteristics and crop use play no apparent role in MSs' voting behaviour. We maintain that a QM is unlikely following the latest directive for MSs to ‘opt-out’ on GE crop cultivation in their territories.

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Health Canada and Canadian Food Inspection Agency approve AquAdvantage Salmon - Canada News Centre (2016) 

Health Canada and Canadian Food Inspection Agency approve AquAdvantage Salmon - Canada News Centre (2016)  | Ag Biotech News |

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have completed thorough and rigorous scientific reviews of AquAdvantage Salmon (a genetically modified [GM] salmon) for food and livestock feed use and determined that it is as safe and nutritious for humans and livestock as conventional salmon. These were the final Government of Canada scientific assessments required to allow AquAdvantage Salmon to be sold in Canada. The AquAdvantage Salmon is a GM salmon developed… to promote rapid growth during early life. This was achieved by introducing a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon to an Atlantic salmon. 

GM foods are becoming more common every day and are part of the regular diets of Canadians. GM foods… have been consumed in Canada for many years, and are safe and nutritious. Changes to the genes of plants and animals can improve food quality and production – for instance by reducing the need for pesticides, making crops resistant to drought, preventing bruising, or allowing foods to be grown more quickly. 

The AquAdvantage Salmon has undergone separate safety and nutrition assessments by Health Canada for use as food and by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for use as livestock feed. These reviews both found the salmon to be as safe and nutritious as conventional salmon. The assessments complement a regulatory environmental and indirect human health risk assessment… Canada is not the first country to approve this product for use as food and livestock feed. In November 2015, the AquAdvantage Salmon was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration following the Agency’s scientific safety review. 

Health Canada requires labelling for food products, including genetically modified foods, where clear, scientifically established health risks or significant changes to the nutritional qualities of the food have been identified and can be mitigated through labelling. For example, an allergen present in a food must be labelled to alert consumers. In this case, given that no health and safety concerns were identified, there are no special labelling requirements for AquAdvantage Salmon. The Government of Canada uses a stringent evidence-based process for evaluating the safety of genetically modified animals for food and livestock feed use…

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Left uncontrolled, weeds would cost billions in economic losses every year - K-State (2016) 

Left uncontrolled, weeds would cost billions in economic losses every year - K-State (2016)  | Ag Biotech News |
Imagine that weeds were left to grow uncontrolled in corn and soybean fields... That scenario would cut U.S. and Canadian yields by about 50 percent, resulting in $43 billion in annual economic losses to those two crops alone… The research… spanned seven years from 2007 to 2013… “We were interested in trying to understand just how much impact weeds still have on our crops. Despite the great improvements we have in crop genetics and fertility, we’re still having to manage weeds”… weeds compete with crops for everything from sunlight to moisture to nutrients in the soil… “What we saw in corn is that we’d lose over half of our yield if we didn’t manage those weeds… And in soybeans, almost the same – 49.5 percent total yield loss… The United States leads the world in both soybean and corn production, while Canada ranks 7th and 11th… 

“We wanted to document that weeds were still a significant pest to manage, that we need to maintain all the different weed control practices that we have… that these weeds are still so important and that we need to come up with every option that we can to manage them.” A recent dramatic reduction in research funding for weed management in crops is a trend… scientists find disturbing. 

Weed scientists conduct a number of weed control studies each year… asked them to provide the yield data from corn and soybean trials, specifically the untreated plot yield, and yield from plots with their best weed control methods. The team looked at the yields from both and took the difference to calculate how much yield loss happened… “The idea… was they did everything right to produce their best crop – their best seed, they fertilized it, they irrigated it – whatever they needed to do, but they just didn’t control the weeds in the untreated plots, so we could see what kind of yield loss impact that would have”… The scientists used data from these trials, plus… how many acres were harvested of those crops and the value of the crops over the years studied to determine the total potential impact of weeds on the crops… 

To break weed management into four categories: (i) Chemical weed control – herbicides. (ii) Biological – in some crops, insects will eat certain weeds and in others, livestock grazing helps, but those methods don’t work in row crops. (iii) Cultural – narrow row crop spacing (to limit the area where weeds can develop) or fertilizing just the crop and not the weeds are examples. (iv) Mechanical – Tillage is sometimes used before the crop is planted or after it’s established… 

Use more than one strategy to control them. “Weeds are smart. They keep figuring out how to survive whatever we throw at them… The reason some people ended up with herbicide-resistant weeds is that they often used a really good product over and over again and the weeds weren’t exposed to other control practices. If we change it up, keep the weeds on the defensive, then they potentially won’t become resistant because we’ve controlled those resistant ones with a different technique.” 

The WSSA researchers are planning to release similar reports across winter and spring wheats, grain sorghum, vegetable crops, rice and cotton. 

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Using data from field trials and applying the difference (loss) between the best and worst results in an experimental setting to the total area of actually harvested crops might be a bit optimistic -- in the real world yields will probably not as high as under ideal field trial conditions, and there would probably always be some minor weed control -- but as the text says, the reported cost represents the "potential impact". 
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Consumers’ Willingness-To-Pay for RNAi versus Bt Rice: Are all biotechnologies the same? - Shew &al (2016) - AAEA 

Consumers’ valuation of food products derived from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have played a… constraining role in the development of biotechnology advances in agriculture. As a result, agricultural companies have started exploring new biotechnologies that do not require the genetic modification of crops. One of these emerging biotechnologies is a non-GMO RNA interference (RNAi) liquid application that could be used to control specific insect pests. When ingested by a targeted sub-species of an insect during production, RNAi blocks the expression of a vital gene, which in turn kills it. RNAi is non-toxic to humans and kills only targeted sub-species of insects… RNAi could selectively eliminate a specific sub-species of caterpillar pest, while not harming a monarch butterfly caterpillar. In contrast, conventional pesticides often kill insects indiscriminately and vary in human toxicity levels. 

Since agricultural producers and researchers have faced opposition to GMOs, this may be an alternative to controlling commonly encountered insects; however, consumers’ valuation of traditional GM compared to RNAi derived foods has not been evaluated in the scientific literature. Thus, we conducted a Willingness-To-Pay (WTP) survey in the USA, Canada, Australia, France, and Belgium to analyze whether consumers need a premium or discount for: (1) a hypothetical GMO rice using the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene for insect control; and (2) a hypothetical non-GMO rice using RNAi for insect control… Measuring consumers’ valuation of rice produced by alternative biotechnologies provides vital information for crop breeders and policy makers. The results suggest that consumers require a discount for RNAi and Bt rice compared to a conventionally produced rice, but the discount required for the non-GMO RNAi rice was 30-40 percent less than that needed to purchase GMO Bt rice.

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As Big Candy Ditches GMOs, Sugar Beet Farmers Hit A Sour Patch - NPR (2016) 

As Big Candy Ditches GMOs, Sugar Beet Farmers Hit A Sour Patch - NPR (2016)  | Ag Biotech News |

Sugar, you might think, is just sugar, no matter where it comes from. But not anymore. About half of all sugar in the U.S. comes from sugar beets, and the other half comes from sugar cane. Now, for the first time, sugar traders are treating these as two different commodities, with two different prices. It's all because about eight years ago, nearly all the farmers who grow sugar beets in the United States decided to start growing genetically modified versions of their crop. The GMO beets, which can tolerate the weedkiller glyphosate, otherwise known as Roundup, made it easier for them to get rid of weeds… The people who buy sugar for industrial uses – as an ingredient in cereals and candies and baked goods and things like that – they've not expressed big concerns about it… 

In the past two years… food companies have decided to label their products as non-GMO. And because practically all sugar beets in the U.S. are genetically modified, those food products are now using sugar derived from sugar cane grown in Florida, Louisiana or outside the U.S. There isn't any genetically modified sugar cane… Meanwhile, the amount of beet sugar looking for buyers has been increasing, while there's a shortage of cane sugar. That shortage is bad enough that sugar users, such as candy companies, are asking the USDA to allow more imports of cane sugar to ease the shortage… 

Sugar beet farmers are thinking about going back to growing non-GMO beets… they would prefer not to do it. Planting genetically modified sugar beets allows them to kill their weeds with fewer chemicals. Beyer says he sprays Roundup just a few times during the growing season, plus one application of another chemical to kill off any Roundup-resistant weeds… planting non-GMO beets would mean going back to what they used to do, spraying their crop every 10 days or so with a "witches brew" of five or six different weedkillers. "The chemicals we used to put on the beets in [those] days were so much harsher for the guy applying them and for the environment… it's insane to think that a non-GMO beet is going to be better for the environment, the world, or the consumer."

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
So people buy candy - which is bad for them - but then they worry about whether the sugar in that candy is coming from GM beets?! (For which there is no indication that it's bad for them.) A brilliant - but also despicable - move of the junk food industry: By offering people candy that's non-GM, people can feel somehow nebulously good about buying that stuff (and thereby justify to themselves their excessive and harmful sugar consumption - or even their decision to feed junk to their kids). 

As to the sustainability of this non-GM sugar, not sure about the environmental footprint of importing cane sugar from abroad vs using local beet sugar that's efficiently produced with a minimum of weedkillers... 

Also, the statement that “There isn't any genetically modified sugar cane” is not entirely true - it may not yet be fully commercialised, but several countries are at various stages of development: 

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A risk-based approach to the regulation of genetically engineered organisms - Conko &al (2016) - Nature Biotechnol

A risk-based approach to the regulation of genetically engineered organisms - Conko &al (2016) - Nature Biotechnol | Ag Biotech News |

Current regulatory regimes for genetically engineered crops fail to use a scientifically defensible approach or tailor the degree of regulatory review to the level of actual hazard or risk. We describe a rational way forward. The use of molecular techniques for genetic engineering (GE), also known colloquially as ‘genetic modification’ (GM), offers plant breeders the tools to make old crop plants do spectacular new things. For a quarter-century, GE crops have been the most scrutinized foods in human history, despite a lack of scientific justification for such a burden. Although study after study – formal risk assessments as well as observations of ‘real-world use’ – have failed to show any new or incremental risks associated with GE, there has been no rationalization or reduction of the regulatory burden placed on GE crops. If anything, regulatory stringency continues to increase. 

As a deeper understanding of biology expands the range of technologies available for precision breeding, including genome editing, synthetic biology, oligo-directed mutagenesis, agro-infiltration, grafting onto transgenic rootstock and reverse breeding, removing unnecessary regulatory obstacles should be a high priority… We describe a risk-based approach, building on that outlined originally by the National Research Council… and then later in the ‘Stanford Model’ for risk assessment. With the US regulatory framework currently being re-evaluated, and with half a century of experience with transgenic organisms and almost two decades of experience with commercial GE crops in hand, the time is right to adopt such a risk-based regulatory approach. 

In some 30 countries worldwide, >18 million farmers are using GE crop varieties on more than 175 million hectares to produce more consistent and often higher yields with lower inputs and reduced environmental impact. However, most of the acreage of these new varieties is dedicated to growing a small number of commodity crops cultivated at vast scale and designed to resist pests or tolerate herbicides. The plants already commercialized have delivered substantial benefits to growers, consumers and the environment. Nevertheless, many of the greatest long-term contributions of GE and related technologies applied to agriculture are unlikely to be realized for many years. New crop varieties have been developed that tolerate drought and other water-related stresses, utilize soil and applied nutrients for more efficient plant growth, provide needed micronutrients to deficient diets (‘bio-fortified’ crops) and synthesize high-value-added molecules such as pharmaceuticals (‘biopharming’), but only a few of these are currently available commercially. 

Prohibitively high regulatory costs associated with commercial-scale field trials and other approval requirements mean that many of these promising varieties never make it to market. Ideally, the extent of regulatory scrutiny should be commensurate with the level of risk, but all the regulatory regimes for the field trials and commercialization of GE crops around the world fail this test; the degree of regulatory scrutiny in most cases is actually inversely proportional to the risk. Such regulatory approaches are neither scientifically defensible nor justifiable, given both the global experience with GE crops and the current level of understanding of plant genomes. The approach proposed here for the regulation of plant biotech refines a model first described in this journal almost two decades ago… 

From the beginning of the use of molecular techniques for genetic engineering in the 1970s, authoritative reports by scientists have concluded that GE presents no unique or different risks in comparison to other forms of breeding and genetic alteration… Nothing has come to light in the past 40 years that contradicts the initial conclusion. GE crops have been in commercial production since 1996 without unexpected effects on ecosystems or a single documented adverse effect on human or animal health… Since the advent of the prototypic GE technique of the 1990s… molecular biology has provided a variety of advances in genetic modification techniques… 

Given the knowledge accumulated during the past two decades, it is evident that most of the regulatory regimes around the world, including those of the US… are neither scientifically defensible nor justifiable: all too often, they lead to the plants of lowest risk being subject to the highest degree of scrutiny. The result is a massive waste of limited resources, huge disincentives to innovation in a time of great need and no increase in public or environmental safety… There is no evidence that insertion of DNA into a genome via recombinant DNA technology leads to unique or incremental risks… Compared with conventional breeding, the insertion of DNA via molecular techniques does not increase the probability of an adverse, unintended effect. And because risk is a function of the characteristics of the parental plant and the product of the inserted DNA, there is no justification for an independent, redundant review of food or feed safety for different events involving the same gene, regardless of the crop into which the gene is inserted… 

Excessive regulation… disproportionately affects small enterprises and, especially, public research endeavors such as those at landgrant universities, which lack the necessary resources to comply with burdensome and costly regulatory requirements… The global regulatory compliance costs associated with an insect-resistant or herbicide-resistant recombinant DNA-modified variety of corn, for example, have been calculated to be as much as $35 million. This cost estimate does not include the resources spent on products that are never approved; the costs borne by growers, shippers and processors associated with segregation, traceability and special labeling; or the opportunity costs of compliance with unnecessary regulation… 

Multinational corporate crop developers can bear these high regulatory costs for high-value, huge-volume commodity crops, but only as long as global sales are large enough to justify the regulatory expenditures. With development costs so high, researchers in the public sector as well as those at nonprofit organizations and small startup companies rarely have sufficient resources to navigate the complex, expensive and uncertain regulatory approval process. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to justify the expense of developing GE varieties of lower-market-value products, such as so-called specialty crops… or (especially) the staple crops grown primarily by subsistence farmers in less developed countries. As a result, although numerous, promising laboratory and greenhouse experiments are conducted with GE fruits, vegetables, and such developing-world staples as millet, sorghum and cassava, the products most likely to advance through field testing to regulatory approval and commercialization are major commodity species… 

Innovation of all sorts – including biopharming and biofortification, as well as the gradual, incremental improvements in crops that are typical of progress in agriculture – has been inhibited. Moreover, although this article focuses on plant breeding, the risk-based regulatory model we outline here could equally well apply to animals (fish, livestock and insects)… In deciding whether and how to regulate, agencies should assess all costs and benefits of available regulatory alternatives, including the alternative of not regulating… However, such lofty aspirations for regulation that is scientific, reasonable and public spirited are today… not regulatory reality. 

The current regulatory system fails to inspire confidence among consumers – as demonstrated by the growing demands for ‘GMO-free’ products – while keeping an estimated 90% or more of possible transgenic crops off the market. A further shortcoming of existing process-based regulations is that they are always a step behind the introduction of new techniques. A case in point is the development of CRISPR-Cas9 and other genome-editing techniques… Pointless debates often focus on whether the organisms that result from modification with such techniques fall into pseudo-categories, such as GMOs, regulated articles or PIPs. In contrast, the product-based protocol… is capable of assessing any new risks… Indeed, because the procedures describe here are based on risk-assessment principles that are independent of organism and traits, they can be applied to virtually any trait in any organism. It is past time for regulatory reform… by making regulation commensurate with the level of risk. Regulation must focus on the actual risks, which are presented by the end product of the modification and have nothing to do with the method used to achieve it…

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Ending event-based regulation of GMO crops - Strauss & Sax (2016) - Nature Biotechnol

Getting regulation of agricultural biotechnologies right is no simple task. Stringent regulations for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the European Union (EU) have nearly stifled the use of biotech crops on farms or in derived foods there, and in the United States the diversified ‘Coordinated Framework’ has produced a strange patchwork of rules, exceptions and lengthy delays… The US... has launched a process to reform its regulatory structure, calling for an integrated system that recognizes and balances safety, environment, innovation and economic growth… Revisions are badly needed to better align the GMO regulatory system with the substantial body of science and experience that has accumulated since… three decades ago. 

A key issue is the very high cost imposed on all types of GMOs by our national and international regulatory systems. This is a major factor preventing most small companies and public sector breeders from using GMO methods… The current regulations have the practical consequence of keeping innovations out of the marketplace, including more environmentally friendly or healthy alternatives… 

The current regulatory milieu takes little or no explicit consideration of new methods, including genome editing and RNA interference (RNAi), that modify the structure and expression of native genes much as breeding does, but with greater precision. With the exception of Canada (which regulates based on trait novelty not method), the process of conventional plant breeding is… exempt from explicit regulation in… all… countries, and there is little interest in imposing strong ‘GMO-esque’ types of regulations on it. Thus, based on science, GMO methods that create novelties and unpredicted variations similar to those of conventional plant breeding should receive a similar level of method-based regulation – which in most cases is none. 

A major cost of the international event-based system is the millions to billions of dollars of lost value due to cancelled, returned or degraded value of shipments – including that from legal settlements – as a result of the admixture of approved and unapproved events in commerce. Because several events are often tested in the field during advanced research and early breeding, low levels of adventitious presence… are likely… and presents a huge economic risk to companies and societies that has little biological merit. 

A key early rationale for event-specific regulation was food safety… Since… 1992, there have been many dozens of studies of unintended effects of gene insertion, and numerous studies have compared… the products of conventional plant breeding to those of normal, healthy plants… resulting from different gene insertions. Such analyses have failed to find any cases where there was elevated production of a worrisome toxin or where omic variation exceeded that resulting from conventional breeding; in fact, generally there was far less variation in the GMOs than in conventionally bred crops. Moreover, in most cases, agriculturally routine environmental variation exceeded variation from both GMO and conventional genetic modification… 

Thus far, there is no evidence that a random genomic change in a crop has ever resulted in a novel safety issue… Extensive transposition, where genes and promoters are moved throughout genomes, and normal mutational processes and DNA repair, provide a continual source of potential novelty in the kinds and degrees of modification of gene expression throughout the genome… Thus, the risk of unintended expression of endogenous toxic proteins from genetic engineering is no greater than conventional breeding, and in most cases far less… 

The new… global coordinated framework… should be novelty- and risk-based, not method-based… Second, the Framework should shift away from event-based analysis to product-based analysis. In this circumstance, classes of transgene constructs, species and environments should be the focus, with developers making as broad a case as can be scientifically justified from data and theory. Initially, research would logically focus on compositional and environmental analysis of multiple events to support generalizations, but subsequent events with the same or similar constructs would be exempt from the need for event-based data… 

Third, because of the severe commercial risks of adventitious presence (AP), workable tolerances should be established early in research and breeding… This should not be scientifically difficult to justify with new versions of already commercially approved genetic modifications, but a process should also be put in place to do the same for new genes where there is scientific reason to believe that AP does not pose a greater threat to food or environmental safety than similar AP from conventional breeding.. Notwithstanding the obvious political challenges to making such changes given the highly restrictive, event-based policies of other nations, the United States and its partners… should lead in developing a new, coordinated international regulatory framework. 

Fourth, it is essential that the roles of the agencies are clearly defined… Fifth, modifications that are analogous to what occurs in conventional breeding, but are more precise and better understood… should be exempt unless a novel product-based risk is identified… the method itself will no longer be an automatic trigger for stringent regulation… 

Sixth, reasonable timelines for regulatory review should be created and enforced. The costs associated with a review are not only driven by the requirements, but by the timeframe. On average, it takes 13 years and $136 million to bring a GMO product to market, meaning that it is predominantly only major companies with a crop of broad and large-scale appeal that can afford the regulatory hurdles. Finally, a national registry of event-by-event modifications that are put into commerce should be created… so… a system can be set up to enable tracking of the changes by those who wish to do so… The Biosafety Clearing House, is already in place… This is essential for managing the trade and market risks of current ‘loophole’ biotech products that do not use plant pest vectors or sequences. 

GMO methods are powerful tools… there is an extraordinarily rich pipeline of beneficial products, and many more that have been demonstrated in scientific literature. A highly precautionary approach… may have been a reasonable approach to reduce risk and assuage public fears when GMO methods were first entering the marketplace, but it seems that intensive regulation that goes far beyond the requirements of science has often had the opposite effect on public confidence. Although event-specific regulation is only one part of the high cost of regulatory compliance, its removal, together with other regulatory and market adjustments, should help to democratize genetic engineering technology so it can be used to deliver a much greater diversity of innovations to the marketplace.

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Organic production: authorisation 39 substances in line with principles of organic production - EU (2016) 

The lists of substances which can be used in EU organic farming have been amended to include 39 new products. Moreover the rules for approving such substances in future have been simplified... 

The new products are authorised for use for different purposes such as basic substances (like vinegar) to be used as plant production products, selenised yeast as a feed additive, wood fibre as a processing aid and gellan gum as a food additive... 
Today's new rules updating the substances which can be used in production should provide a boost to the sector. Moreover... the simplification of the rules will facilitate further change in future and encourage innovative production techniques...

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Some substances are listed with conditions such as "Not from GMO origin" or "Only when derived from organic raw material" -- but others don't have any such limitations and e.g. merely need to be "from vegetable oils" or "from agricultural products", i.e. these substances can come from conventional or even GM crops? 

Then there is copper, paraffin oil, synthetic vitamins, and lots of "E numbers" and chemicals whose names cannot be pronounced -- all stuff that consumers who buy organics probably do not expect... 

But as the text says, this is to provide a boost to the sector, i.e. it's about helping a sector make money by simplifying rules? (Interestingly, it's probably safe to assume that supporters of organics are not very in favour of simplifying rules for other production systems -- or of innovative production techniques.) 
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A Meta-Analysis of Maize and Wheat Yields in Low-Input vs. Conventional and Organic Systems - Hossard &al (2016) - Agronomy J

Organic and low-input systems are proposed as ways to reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture. Previous studies have shown that yields of organic systems can be ∼19 to 25% lower than conventional systems. An intermediary, low-input system could be less damaging for the environment than conventional systems, while reducing yield losses in comparison with organic systems. 

In this study, we performed a meta-analysis to compare low-input systems to conventional and organic systems. Our analysis is based on data of cropping system experiments conducted in Europe and North America, and focuses on two important crops, maize and soft winter wheat. 

Pesticide use was greatly reduced for low-input systems as compared with conventional for the two crops (50% for maize, 70% for wheat on average). Mean mineral N use was also reduced by 36% for maize and 28% for wheat in low-input relative to conventional. 

Maize yields in low-input systems were not different from those in conventional systems, and were higher than yields in organic systems (yield ratio of low-input vs. organic = 1.24). Wheat yields in low-input systems were lower than yields in conventional systems (yield ratio of low-input vs. conventional = 0.88), but were substantially higher than yields in organic systems (yield ratio of low input vs. organic = 1.43). 

This is one of the first meta-analyses to assess performance in terms of pesticide use intensity, and yields, with clear evidence emerging that low-input systems can markedly reduce pesticide application, without strongly reducing crop yields.

Alexander J. Stein's insight:
Input-use in conventional agriculture can be optimised (reduced) following the evidence, while organic farming that completely renounces certain inputs (following ideology) suffers serious yield penalties (and is therefore inefficient and potentially unsustainable). 
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Legal But Costly: An Analysis of the EU GM Regulation in the Light of the WTO Trade Dispute Between the EU and the USA - Punt & Wesseler (2015) - World Economy

Legal But Costly: An Analysis of the EU GM Regulation in the Light of the WTO Trade Dispute Between the EU and the USA - Punt & Wesseler (2015) - World Economy | Ag Biotech News |

We assessed whether… the EU can be challenged again for its regulations on GM imports and cultivation at the WTO, and if so what the likely outcome will be. To this end, we assessed the current EU regulations and investigated how the previous legislation was judged by the WTO panel. We found large parallels between the previous regulation and the current one, and although the deadlock… seems to have ended with the new legislation, the current legislation still allows for undue delays. Moreover, the cultivation bans as exercised by a number of countries are also in breach of the WTO requirements. Consequently, the EU can in principle be challenged again, and the likely outcome would be again that they are guilty of at least unduly delaying the approval process. 

The new amendment of 2015, however, allows Member States to opt out of cultivation on other grounds than scientific evidence of health or environmental risks. If Member States replace the safety bans with the new cultivation bans the ruling of the WTO may change. In any case, the ban would most likely constitute a complaint under the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, rather than the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. The reason is that the bans would be no longer based on health and safety issues. Therefore, the former dispute provides little guidance on how a dispute about the new bans would play out… 

What we did not investigate is the processes in the EU that are associated with the low-level presence of unapproved events in EU imports. The main reason is that this was not addressed in the WTO case. However, these processes have been assessed in detail in a case study of GM flax… They concluded that the current regulation of the EU can, but does not necessarily, result in trade barriers. They also point out that currently, cases of adventitious presence are dealt with on a case-by-case bilateral basis, increasing the risks and uncertainty to exporters. 

One twofold question remains: will anyone challenge the EU again and who will the challenger(s) be? If the EU gets challenged again it is likely to be challenged by major exporters of GM crops, hence the previous challengers definitely qualify. However, given that the USA still has its request to retaliate open, and the others have settled matters, it remains open if the countries want to go through the same process again… the decision to fight before the WTO may be more costly than working out new bilateral trade agreements…

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A Profile of non-GM Crop Growers in the United States - Kalaitzandonakes & Magnier (2016) - EuroChoices

A Profile of non-GM Crop Growers in the United States - Kalaitzandonakes & Magnier (2016) - EuroChoices | Ag Biotech News |
In the US, the management of coexistence between GM and non-GM production systems has been left to market forces. Non-GM growers in the US assume the responsibility and costs of coexistence and, in turn, are compensated in the form of price premiums paid for non-GM crops. Using a producer survey we find that non-GM corn and soybean growers in the US are commercial farmers not much different in size, asset ownership and demographic characteristics to farmers that only grow GM crops. 

Non-GM growers seem to self-select and participate in non-GM production because they have fields that are sufficiently isolated and enough storage and labour to facilitate segregation. They grow non-GM crops primarily to improve farm profitability, diversify and manage financial risk. Importantly, coexistence issues are not perceived to be major constraints by most non-GM growers and even by a significant share of farmers who do not produce non-GM crops… These views do not seem to suggest the presence of market failure in ensuring the coexistence of GM and non-GM corn and soybean production in the US… 

When faced with the requirement to adopt large-scale non-GM production requiring a significant share of their acreage, a large majority of farmers do not find coexistence issues (e.g. field isolation, cooperation with neighbours) or other production and storage factors to be particularly constraining… Coexistence issues are not perceived to be major constraints even by a significant share of farmers who do not produce non-GM crops. This suggests that it might be possible for production and storage capacity to switch to non-GM production if sufficient economic incentive existed… 

The views of GM and non-GM farmers described here do not seem to suggest the presence of market failure in ensuring the coexistence of GM and non-GM corn and soybean production in the US. Non-GM price premiums and other potential pecuniary and non-pecuniary gains seem to provide adequate incentives for well-placed farmers who devote part or their entire farm to non-GM production. Additional land and storage assets appear readily available for additional IP non-GM production in the presence of relevant market signals. This is an important result since coexistence regulations designed to ensure freedom of choice for farmers and consumers seem to presuppose a market failure and therefore a need for government intervention. 

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Asynchronous Flowering or Buffer Zones: Technical Solutions for Small-scale Farming - Nadal &al (2016) - EuroChoices

Asynchronous Flowering or Buffer Zones: Technical Solutions for Small-scale Farming - Nadal &al (2016) - EuroChoices | Ag Biotech News |

Countries have regulated the labelling of products derived from genetically modified (GM) crops and coexistence of conventional and GM fields... A guide for Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) was compiled to facilitate maize coexistence in farming zones with temperate climate... 

We validated these recommended measures in real agricultural fields representing the worst case scenario, i.e. small-scale farming in a region with around 75 per cent commercial GM maize... Two alternative strategies... buffer zones and flowering asynchrony, successfully guaranteed coexistence in the frame of the present EU regulation. 

These measures do not lead to unnecessary costs, are simple to apply and are compatible with small deviations resulting from common agricultural practices. The results are applicable for temperate zones such as Southern Europe and cannot easily be transferred...

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A better understanding of bananas could help prevent blindness - ACS (2016) 

A better understanding of bananas could help prevent blindness - ACS (2016)  | Ag Biotech News |
Carotenoids, which are found at various levels in different banana cultivars, are important vitamin precursors for eye health… Researchers report a new understanding of how the fruit makes and stores the compound. Their findings could someday help in the development of banana varieties with enhanced health benefits. 

Vitamin A deficiency is rampant in Africa and Southeast Asia, causing an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 children to become permanently blind each year… Even worse, half of those children die within a year of losing their sight. To combat vitamin A deficiency, other researchers have been investigating methods to boost carotenoids in bananas, because these compounds – which turn fruits and vegetables red, orange or yellow – are converted into vitamin A in the liver. However, this approach has been hindered by a lack of understanding of how bananas produce and store carotenoids… 

The researchers studied two banana varieties to find out why they make very different amounts of carotenoids. They found that the pale yellow, low-carotenoid Cavendish variety produces more of an enzyme that breaks down carotenoids… the orange Asupina variety stashes its carotenoids in microscopic sacs during ripening, shifting the chemical equilibrium in the fruit so it can make even higher levels of these substances. The… work will provide insights for future developments in the biofortification and breeding of bananas that contain more carotenoids. 

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