Feeding Hungry Indians

News today in the Bombay press about India’s worrisome food imbalance.

Too much food.

It seems that India’s “buffer stocks” have more than 30 million tons of wheat and rice over what they want or can handle.  Having sucked down their precious water to grow the mostly irrigated grains, and paid farmers more than the market rate for the surplus, they will now export large quantities for little profit. I mentioned India’s grain surplus in an earlier post and have gotten several questions about it, so here’s the story.

First note that India has more hungry people than any other country by far. But this has nothing to do with the actual amount of food in the country.  What it has everything to do with is poverty.

Since the 1960s the Indian government has been buying wheat and rice from its farmers to create buffer stocks.  This is to modulate market prices, to support farmers, and to provide subsidized food for the poor.  The vast amounts of grain are stored in hundreds of granary facilities called godowns, replenished twice yearly by India’s major harvests.

Godown (storage facility) in Andhra Pradesh. Godowns are really hard to photograph. The buildings go on as far as the eye can see.

The state-owned Food Corporation of India sets “norm levels” for the stocks — that’s what they actually want to have in the stocks — but it keeps buying as long as farmers are selling, often creating enormous surpluses that it doesn’t want and can’t even store.  For the last year the stocks have been over 30 million tons over the norm level; over 10 million tons were at risk of rotting and the storage cost for the overage was expected to top $170 million.   The situation has been a major political issue, with one party demanding a parliamentary investigation and another charging the agriculture minister with deception.

Here’s what has been going on with the buffer stocks since the 1990s (click to expand).

It may seem like an inexplicable oddity of the modern world that India, with all its hungry people, has a national scandal over surplus food.  But odder yet is that the problem is not new; it has been going on for years, and has been covered extensively in the Indian press and the NY Times.  I wrote about it in Current Anthropology back in 2002 when the India papers were saying “Dump rotten foodgrains into the sea“.

Why India continues to have so many hungry mouths alongside overflowing granaries is a topic for future discussion, but rest assured there is nothing unusual about it (except maybe the scale).  Hunger in India has no more to do with population outpacing agriculture than it does in the US, where 14% of the country suffers from food insecurity.

So who is it who keeps telling us that India’s problem is an imbalance between population and agriculture?  Mostly 2 groups, I believe: 1) those who don’t really follow Indian agriculture, and 2) those who have a vested interest in selling things to Indian agriculturalists (biotechnology interests spring to mind).

For group 1, give them this blog and suggest they follow some of the links.

For group 2, ask them a simple question: Just exactly how are their technologies going to feed hungry Indians when over 30 million tons of excess grain can’t?

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, Food, India, Population | 17 Comments

Why We Eat So Much Meat: Beef, Bombs, and Convenience

Why we eat so much meat is a question that keeps coming up, as well it should.  The real reason is that…. well to cut to the chase, there are a lot of reasons, big and small, general and specific.  I just read a small but interesting one this morning from dieter-blogger Jane McClaren (responding to Mark Bittman’s “Hooked on Meat“):  it’s because of agricultural distancing.  When stores have tasteless long-traveled vegetables, “Why not go next door and grab a salty, fatty burger in a bag? It’s so much easier.”  I’m not sure how much that really explains, but I’ll grant that the convenience factor is in the top 10 drivers of meat consumption, at least in those parts of the world blessed with McD’s and Ponderosas.

But the main reason we have such convenient beef outlets in the first place is that we had artificially cheap beef, because we had artificially cheap grain.  It all started with the flood of nitrogen in the US following WW2.  Most nitrogen in nature needs to be “fixed” before plants can use it, but some concentrated forms of fixed nitrogen are both fertilizing and explosive.  Timothy McVeigh, you may remember, blew up the Murrah building with a truckload of fertilizer.

The Germans invented industrial nitrogen fixation in the early 1900s for fertilizer, but they ended up making bombs in WW1.  Americans built nitrogen fixing factories in the early 1940s for bombs, but ended up making fertilizer after the war.  Lots of it: way more fertilizer than farmers could use, so we started breeding grains with a sweet tooth.  (And Japan, one of the main reasons we had built the bomb factories in the first place, kindly “donated” some important fertilizer-intensive crop varieties — including a type of wheat that later became the basis of the “Green Revolution,” but that’s another story.)

The watershed was 1950.  Look what happens to inorganic fertilizer use:

The fertilizer age was driven by nitrogen, but use of industrial nitrogen meant the farmer minimally needed phosphorus and potassium as well. A lot has been written on the "NPK" mentality; I think Michael Pollan does a particularly good job with it in Omnivore's Dilemma.

The flood of fertilizer and spread of fertilizer-intensive grain — especially corn — caused a sea change in the ecology of the grain field and then a sea change in the structure of agriculture.

In the field, farmers could now plant corn plants much closer together to capitalize on the highly concentrated fertilizer.  But all those extra roots required extra water,  and the moist fertile soil and dense plants were a heaven for weeds and insects.  So, a short history of agricultural industrialization in the US: tractors in the 1920s, hybrid seeds in the 1930-40s, and then after 1950 the trifecta of intensive fertilizer, irrigation, and pesticides.

An Illinois corn field. My colleague, the renowned ethnobotanist Gayle Fritz, point to where the plants are literally planted right on top of each other.

And it came to pass that corn yields (output per acre) boomed.  And that corn prices slumped.  Here’s a graph I just made; again look at what happens after 1950.

Click to see the graph. Data are from the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The change in grain (especially corn) ecology led to the splitting of crop and livestock production and laid the foundation for factory farming, highlighted by the hyperproduction of maize and maize-feeding cows (and other animals) in CAFO’s.

Of course cows are ridiculously inefficient at turning grain into meat.  The “feeding efficiencies” of stock animals change through time, but in 1975 when US beef consumption was at its peak, it was taking 14 kg. of corn to make 1 kg of beef.  For comparison, the ratio for pork was 6:1, and for chickens 3:1.  But that wasn’t a problem, it was an opportunity; after all, the system was in effect looking for ways to burn up the surplus corn.

Americans had eaten beef before, but the beef boom began in the 1950s — a story that has been told elsewhere.  The underlying cause was a surplus of fertilizer being turned into a surplus of grain being turned into a surplus of beef.  So when we hear that the worlds needs to boost food production by so much, not just because of population growth but because people in developing countries want to eat more meat, it’s a bit convoluted.  We eat this much beef, and have these institutions to provide it so conveniently, because we overproduce grain.

Notes.  If you’re interested in “distancing” and “fresh” foods, you owe it to yourself  to read Suzanne Freidberg’s wonderful book Fresh.  On meat eating as “progress” throughout history I recommend Warren Belasco’s Meals to Come: A history of the future of food.  A fascinating article on the politics and ecology of splitting up crop and livestock production is Foster & Magdoff’s “Liebig, Marx, and the depletion of soil fertility: relevance for today’s agriculture” in Hungry for Profit. The figures on feeding efficiencies are from Smil (2002) “Eating meat: Evolution, patterns, and consequences,” Population and Development Review 28:599-639.

Posted in Agriculture, Food | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Golden Rice, soon. Or not.

We have a new E.T.A. on Golden Rice. Well, sort of: the institutes in the Philippines that have been conducting field tests since 2008 say they may be able to submit the needed data for regulatory approval by 2013 in the Philippines and 2015 for Bangla Desh. So maybe a 2014 release in the Philippines.

Summer, 2000.

Golden Rice is genetically modified to produce beta carotene in the grain (instead of just in the bran). It was mainly funded by the Rockefeller Foundation as a possible means of mitigating vitamin A deficiency in Asia, although I think it’s fair to say that Rockefeller has soured a bit on biotech approaches to food improvement since then.

Golden Rice has been the subject of intense promotion since it appeared on the cover of Time in 2000, and many people assume it has been eaten by the poor for years. This illusion has been encouraged by the biotech industry and many others too: for instance, a leading South African biotechnologist who writes on Africa’s food needs scolded the press for “bias” in not covering how it has saved children from blindness, internationally recognized leaders in biotech have claimed Golden Rice to have already saved many lives, and US congressional documents claimed it to have saved the sight of thousands of children..

Golden Rice is still years from being released, but it’s got an even bigger problem: the big ugly M branded on its ass when it was young will cause problems for the rest of its life. It seems that the researchers initially used the 35S promoter to try to get their set of introduced genes to work. A promoter is a stretch of DNA that tells a gene when and where to express. Sometimes a promoter is referred to as a kind of gene, sometimes as a part of the gene, sometimes as something separate from the gene – the terminology isn’t standardized. But they are essential to making genes work, and the most common promoter in genetic research, hands down, is the “Cauliflower Mosaic Virus 35S” promoter — on which Monsanto happens to have a patent. (How anyone can patent naturally occurring DNA anyway? – see my earlier posting, Baseball bats and Breast Cancer.)

DNA patent-holders routinely let researchers use “their” DNA in experiments, but reserve the right to profit from (or block development of) commercial products. In 2000, with an enormous image problem on its hands and meanwhile with Golden Rice on the cover of Time, Monsanto agreed to forego any share of the profits from this rice. It’s doubtful they would have made any money on this crop anyway, especially since the 35S viral promoter was soon replaced with a plant promoter. But for the “altruistic” act of giving up non-existent profits on a rice for the poor, Monsanto launched a shameless PR campaign in which they essentially took credit for actually developing Golden Rice:

Check this out.

They were still crowing about Golden Rice 4 years later, after their promoter had been replaced.

If this was disheartening to Rockefeller, it was infuriating to biotech critics, who up till then had mainly picked fights with commercial products. Their attitude quickly became “If you’re going to clean up your image with Golden Rice, just watch how much mud we can put on Golden Rice.” Golden Rice was a hoax, wrote Vandana Shiva; a trojan, wrote RAFI. Ineffective, said many observers — too little beta carotene to impact health (that was true, but it has greatly improved). Anyway, said Greenpeace, “Why go to the problem of producing golden rice when you still have to eat vegetables anyway?” Some of the attacks were over the top, some had some truth, but many of them wouldn’t have been worth making if not for that big ugly M.

In short, Monsanto obstructed the successful deployment of Golden Rice.  (It would have had its detractors anyway, but falsely claiming it to be a corporate product hung a huge and unnecessary target on it.)  Monsanto probably further impeded its adoption by publicizing it as a food for the poorest of the poor.  Poor people are like everyone else: they don’t want poor people food.

No one knows how Golden Rice will be received in the Philippines. One GM crop (Bt maize) is already being grown there on a small scale but no food crops. GM crops are not a topic of intense debate there as they are in much of Europe and India.  Adoption probably won’t be decided on the basis of human health – no one’s going to eat this and suddenly get healthy. It will turn on how the presentation & debate articulate with local culture.

Many people have more or less understood this for some time. Back in 2003, the president of the Philippine Federation of Free Farmers pointed out that the success or failure of Golden Rice all depends on how it is presented to the public; “If we do it carefully and with sensitivity to the concerns of all stakeholders, I think it will be that much easier to sell the technology…But if we do it in an insensitive manner, although it has a lot of promise, it could end up exploding in our faces.”

And the presentation by its backers is only half the story; if and how anti-GMO forces elect to oppose the rice is the other half. Given how hard it will be to wash off Monsanto’s taint, and given the industry media onslaught we’ll get when it is released, the green activists just might be on it (dare I say) like white on rice.

And that’s just in the Philippines. In Bangla Desh — not to mention India, where it is also being trialed — there will be a shitstorm.

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, Food, Intellectual Property | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Do Not Read: GM Cotton and Indian Farmer Suicide

More in the news this week about Indian cotton farmers killing themselves.

Mainly cotton farmers. Mostly deep in debt.

One every 30 minutes.

Bt cotton contains a gene from a bacterium that produces an insecticide against some caterpillars that are serious cotton pests. Whether you believe it is a killer or a savior in India probably depends on who you hang out with. Most of what is said on the issue spreads through highly polarized agenda-driven information networks. I have spent the last 10 years doing research among Indian cotton farmers, and if I were to say my findings showed Bt seed to be a killer, it would be picked up by the enviromentalist, liberal, crunchy, anti-corporate, and European information channels. On the other hand, if I said my findings show Bt seed to be saving Indian farmers from ruin, it would be picked up by a lavishly funded network of industry and cat’s paw websites, as well as by some highly partisan academics who have long ago left behind any pretense of scientific objectivity.

Bt cotton has been linked to suicide since before it was being planted. Four years before Bt cotton was approved, Post-Dispatch reporter Bill Lambrecht wrote about the Warangal suicides and Monsanto

Actually what I have learned about GM seeds and farmer suicide doesn’t fit either platform.

That means it’s unlikely to be propagated through either network, and you are unlikely to be reading this right now.

But if you were reading it, you would find out that both claims are false.

“GM Genocide?” Bt cotton is repeatedly said to cause farmer suicide because

  1. it is expensive, plunging poor farmers into debt
  2. it requires high levels of water
  3. it “fails” a lot (“invariably” according to the latest claims)

Let’s look at each claim.

  1. Bt cotton appeared in 2002. Before that, a box of seed cost 400 rupees (about $10.) Cotton farmers usually buy 1-3 boxes of seed. At first, Bt seed cost $40/box but they were forced to lower it; it has usually cost $19 in recent years. Some economists point out that farmers’ pesticide bill usually drops when they buy Bt seed, which I found as well. But also consider the larger context. I surveyed cotton farmers a few years ago and found the median debt to be $375. Farmers definitely feel the extra $9/box, but it’s a bit of a stretch to see this as a crippling addition to their debt.
  2. There’s nothing about Bt that makes a cotton plant need more water. In the beginning, Monsanto/Mahyco started by putting the trait into existing hybrid seeds, some of which were water-intensive. But soon there were dozens, and now hundreds, of Bt hybrids on the market, with varying water requirements.

    Adapted from G. D. Stone 2011 Field vs. Farm in Warangal: Bt Cotton, Higher Yields, and larger Questions. World Development 39(3):387-398.

  3. Cotton productivity has never been higher in India. I studied villages across Warangal (a district in Andhra Pradesh notorious for farmer suicides): in between 2003 (when basically no one planted Bt cotton) and 2007 (when basically all cotton farmers did) yields rose 18% (see the recent World Development). And look at the chart of trends in cotton yields: tough to reconcile with the claim that Bt cotton “invariably fails.”

Moreover, the timing of the suicides and the Bt cotton just don’t work. The worst rash of suicides was in Warangal in 1998 — 4 years before Bt seed was even on the market. The trends in suicide and Bt cotton adoption don’t match at all (as shown in a well researched and balanced report by the International Food Policy Research Institute.)

GM is a savior? There are some serious problems with the economics studies of Bt cotton and that’s a whole other story. But there is also a lot going on in recent cotton history other than ‘Bt or not Bt.”

Look at the AP line in the chart and consider that Bt cotton wasn’t even adopted on a significant scale until 2005. There’s a ten year surge in cotton yields, and six years of it happened before Bt started to spread. Ag hands can ponder the various factors affecting these trends, but one thing is for sure: most of the cotton boom cannot be attributed to Bt seed.

In fact Bt seed also appears to be exacerbating a key problem underlying the suicides: technology treadmills.

Technology treadmills can have disastrous effects on farm management. I saw how badly farmers were trapped on the pesticide treadmill the first time set foot in Warangal in 2000: they kept asking me if I had, or knew of, a “new pesticide” because the insects had developed resistance to the last pesticide. In a bit of gallows humor, a group of farmers built a mountain of empty cans from the pesticides they had gone through (including chlorpyrifos, subject of a previous blog).

Even worse was the “seeds treadmill,” with literally hundreds of hybrid seed brands appearing and disappearing on the stores, and the normal process of farmer evaluation breaking down.

The seed and spray treadmills are slightly different, but both have viscious effects on local ecology, on farm economy, and on the farmer decision-making. And then, for a coup de grâce, they destroy the farmer’s confidence that he’ll ever dig his way out.

Farms always have bugs; farmers always have debts. What is different about Indian cotton farming is this treadmill. (It’s not a problem with rice, which is the biggest crop in the area. Cotton farmers grow rice too but they hardly ever say it was their rice field that drove them to suicide. New rice varieties appear at a moderate pace that allows farmers to evaluate them.)

Bt cotton has been generally effective in warding off caterpillars. It has not “failed” and has not run up farmer debts, no matter what the network of anti-GMO sources say. But it has now snagged farmers on a genetic technology treadmill. By 2009 there were 5 different Bt gene combinations going into 284 separate Bt hybrids. Before anyone figures out how these seeds function, they will be replaced. Now populations of the non-target pests are starting to explode, and biotech companies are working on new genes as a solution for that problem.

But for Indian cotton farmers, the “solution” is the problem.

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, India | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

10 Billion People and Paul Ehrlich’s Taxi

When the U.N. announced its global population projection of 10 billion by 2010 a few days ago, it was hard not to think back on Paul Ehrlich.  Prof. Ehrlich was the butterfly researcher whose books and TV appearances scared the bejeezus out of us in the late 60s with predictions of a planet running out of food and hundreds of millions starving.  Ehrlich’s name has come up as pundits have been pondering the meaning of this scary projection, but actually he and wife Anne had already taken a victory lap in HuffPo  a few weeks earlier:

When The Population Bomb was published in 1968, there were 3.5 billion people, and we were called alarmist — technology could feed, house, clothe, educate, and provide great lives to even 5 billion people. Nuclear agro-industrial complexes or growing algae on sewage would feed everyone. Well, they didn’t. Instead, the roughly half-billion hungry people then have increased to about a billion…

The fear of runaway population, and the belief that it explains hunger, are old indeed; they even predate Malthus.  But in modern times no one has beat these drums as loudly as Ehrlich.  With this new population projection reviving old concerns, it’s a good time to think about Ehrlich’s victory lap and whether he has earned it.

Ehrlich’s original population epiphany was triggered by a wild ride in a Delhi taxi which he described in the prologue to The Population Bomb:

Indian cities are crowded alright. But then again, they are cities.

I have understood the population explosion intellectually for a long time. I came to understand it emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi a few years ago. My wife and daughter and I were returning to our hotel in an ancient taxi. The seats were hopping with fleas. The only functional gear was third. As we crawled through the city, we entered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the dust, noise, heat and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened… since that night I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.

The problem, he concluded, was bigger than the crowded evening hell in Delhi: it was that there could never be enough food for all those Indians.  In 1968 he wrote

The battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.

The next year he was more specific, writing that “by 1985 enough millions will have died to reduce the earth’s population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people.”  More chilling yet: “[m]ost of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born”; by 1975, “some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions.”

Oddly enough, Ehrlich was saying all this just as wheat yields were soaring due to Green Revolution seeds.  In fact, this “revolution” was never the life saver that it is in legend; I am persuaded by the analysts who say that it mainly led to the replacement of cut-rate American wheat with Indian-grown wheat.  But while I’m thinking that India wouldn’t have starved even without the Green Revolution, Ehrlich was sure India would starve even with it.  The statistics said there as plenty of food but Ehrlich was having none of it:

These clowns who are talking of feeding a big population in the year 2000 from make-believe ‘green revolutions’ … should learn some elementary biology, meteorology, agricultural economics and anthropology…

Trends in per capita Agricultural Production Index Number. Data from FAO.

I know some elementary anthropology and I have to point out that Ehrlich’s claims about population and agriculture have never fit the facts.  Farm production per capita was climbing in the 1960s, it has been climbing ever since, and the FAO sees it continuing to climb for as far out as they care to project (2030).  India does have a lot of undernourished people, but it has nothing to do with population ourstripping farm production; in fact as I pointed out recently, India has an ongoing crisis of grain surpluses.

OK, but just because Ehrlich has been wrong for the last 40 years, doesn’t this scary new projection warrant pulling the alarm?  What’s the harm in trying to be safe rather than sorry?

Actually there is a lot of harm.

First, these projections are much too fuzzy to base anything on.  To quote Joel Cohen (who, unlike most commentators, actually knows a lot about population), tiny changes in our assumptions about reproduction give wildly different numbers.  If women average just half a child more or half a child less than the U.N. assumes, the population in 2100 rises to 15.8 billion or falls to 6.2 billion, which was the world’s population around 2001.  The farther into the future you project, the more you are just guessing.  We have no theory to predict the reproductive behavior of people who have not even been born yet.

But more importantly, attributing hunger to population growth distracts attention from the actual (primarily political) causes of hunger while yielding the floor to the politicians, academic researchers and corporations that benefit by promoting agricultural inputs.  After all, if we really are in a desperate scramble to create food, then all these discussions about sustainable, organic, local, and humane farming are a dangerous distraction.

On the other hand, if we are making ourselves and our environment sick with agricultural systems that grow faster than the population, then it is writing like Ehrlich’s that is the dangerous distraction.

Posted in Agriculture, Food | Tagged | 5 Comments

Gone are the Days when the Ox Fall Down?

Last year my daughter’s boyfriend sent us a bottle of red wine from a biodynamique winemaker in the Loire Valley, along with a note explaining that “he uses a horse named Joker to plow fields and transport grapes.” A slightly risky choice for a gift (this wine really puts the terre into terroir) but I loved it as well as its backstory. There’s something rather thrilling about animal traction in this day and age.

Bullock plowing lessons in Andhra Pradesh.

I take students to rural India in the summer, and for many of them the “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” moment comes at the first sight of a farmer behind a bullock or buffalo plow. (Then of course they started demanding plowing lessons…)

I was tickled to play a small role in the donkefication of Missouri a few years ago. I was emailing with a couple who run an organic herb harvesting operation in the St. Francois mountains and they asked me if I knew anything about donkey traction. (Yes, there is such a thing as certified organic wild goods, and one criterion is that they are transported out in a non-destructive manner.) I connected them with an animal traction expert in England who talked their ear off. I assumed they would soon be running a fleet of donkeys but it looks like they are making do with one.

In the US, animal plowing is best known on Amish farms where it is actually less environmentally friendly than you might assume. But animal traction is making a surprising comeback on other American farms, to the point of a major article “On Small Farms, Hoof Power Returns” in today’s NY Times. In Michigan, Tillers International runs workshops on animal plowing and last year over 300 farmers signed up.

For people who already scoff at organic farming’s avoidance of pesticides and GMO’s, ditching the tractor for the ox must seem like the ultimate lunacy. But as Deborah Fitzgerald shows in Every Farm A Factory, tractors aren’t inherently better, just different, and they replaced animal traction in the 1920s only because of an unusual intersection of factors. War-related labor shortages coincided with engineering schools turning out “agricultural engineers” who sought to earn their spurs by persuading farmers to adopt industrial machines and mindsets.

Studies in the 20s showed that tractors often required more time and work than doing the job manually, and that tractor buyers didn’t come out ahead economically. Tractors were wildly dangerous too. But as prosperous farmers began to adopt (for the complex and partly non-economic set of reasons that farmers adopt things), the tractor became the mark of farmer prosperity, and before long banks stated using tractor ownership to evaluate creditworthiness.

Expensive tractors, larger farms, and higher loans all amplified each other in a perfect storm of overproduction. There was already more than enough food pouring out of American farms without tractors, and now as the grain-eating draught animals disappeared, a crisis of over-supply started to drive farmers out of business. As economist EG Nourse put it in 1927, “the outlook for agricultural production is so good that the outlook for agricultural prosperity is distinctly bad.”

Today I hope we are beginning to understand that agricultural prosperity comes in different forms. When we hear about retro technologies like oxen, it’s like a reflex to ask if they can make enough food, but the brutal truth is that we make too much food and we make it badly. The small but growing ranks of oxplow farmers are making an unexpected contribution to agricultural prosperity by helping to provide a viable alternative to overproduction of artificially cheap commodity crops by heavily subsidized, cost-externalizing agribusinesses.

Posted in Agriculture | Tagged | 3 Comments

Baseball Bats and Breast Cancer: The Court Mulls Over Gene Patenting

A few weeks ago in a courtroom in Washington DC, lawyers with the blessing of the US Dept. of Justice (DOJ) argued that gene patents are invalid.  The judges of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit are now mulling over the question and we should be too.

This was in the famous Myriad genetics case which has brought gene patenting to the attention of so many people who hadn’t thought about it before. It gets your attention your test for the “breast cancer gene” (BRCA1 or BRCA2) costs $3000, and it piques your curiosity when you learn the gouging is allowed by a public university owning gene patents and licensing them to a biotech company started by one of its professors.

Last year in District Court, the plaintiffs (the ACLU and others) challenged gene patents in general and won a surprising victory, sending the case to the Court of Appeals (and possibly on to the Supreme Court, which has only taken one other patent case).  The Court of Appeals received a head-turning amicus brief from the DOJ calling for an end to gene-patenting.  There was also a brief from the  Assn. of University Technology Managers in favor of gene patenting; universities love to use your tax dollars to study and patent genes, which they then sell or license to biotech companies, without paying taxes on profits.  Case in point: patents for the BRCA genes are held by the Univ. of Utah and licensed exclusively to Myriad genetics, co-founded by Utah adjunct professor Mark Skolnick.  Much of the funding came from the National Inst. of Health (which the patent application didn’t even mention this until NIH challenged the patent).

But how could genes be patented in the first place?  Products of nature have always been exempt: no one can patent a bird’s nest, a shark’s fin, or an oak tree.  When an “inventor” applies for a patent, the US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) first makes sure the “invention“ is eligible to be patented – i.e., it isn’t a product of nature and most definitely not a human being – and then checks to make sure it is “new,” “useful,” and “nonobvious.”  Newness, or novelty, is a crucial concept, sometimes used counterintuitively in intellectual property circles, and some stunningly silly inventions have been deemed new (one of my favorites being the comb-over, and how Donald Trump manages to evade prosecution for infringement is a question for greater legal minds than mine).  Normally, “new” means it wasn’t part of the “prior art” — the extant body of knowledge — but it’s also the key to whether DNA “inventions” are even patent-eligible.  If you can convince a court that your invention doesn’t exist in nature, then by definition it must be “new” and therefore patent-eligible.

There’s your trouble.  There are no general rules for telling the “new” from the “old, just tweaked a bit.” Obviously the criteria have to vary with different kinds of inventions.  Biotechnologists started copying, altering, and moving DNA before legislators had even tried to legislate what would be patentable in the biotech era, and so judges just started judging it…based on …what?  Based on whether they got a “new” vibe after the lawyers were finished describing the invention.

You think that’s uncharitable?  Consider:

  • In the Chakrabarty case, the US Supreme Court looked at a bacterium with one added gene and opined, 5-4, that it looked new because it was a “nonnaturally occurring composition of matter”
  • In the Harvard case,  the Canadian Supreme court looked at a mouse with one added gene and said it didn’t look new at all — “the mouse is still the same mouse even if one gene is changed, just like you are the same person after you are radiated”

A few years later, when the famous Percy Schmeiser case got to the Canadian Supreme Court, there were more disagreements on what was and wasn’t “new.”  (Percy was the Saskatchewan farmer sued by Monsanto for replanting his own canola seeds after his field was contaminated with Monsanto’s patented seeds.  He successfully sued Monsanto for contaminating his field, but they successfully sued him for replanting his own seed, because it wasn’t his own seed any more since they had contaminated it.  You can’t make this stuff up.)  In a 5-4 decision upholding the validity of Monsanto’s patent, the dissenting judges said that even if Monsanto’s genetically modified cell had a “new” vibe, its daughter cells didn’t: “the plant cell claim cannot extend past the point where the genetically modified cell begins to multiply and differentiate into plant tissues, at which point the claim would be for every cell in the plant.”

The appellate judges are now being asked to clarify what categories of DNA “inventions” give off “new” vibes.  As the DOJ sees it, the District Court saw too many things as products of nature, even casting doubt on the patent-eligibility of “genetically modified crops…[that] are in every meaningful sense the fruits of human ingenuity and thus qualify as ‘human-made inventions’”.  The DOJ does get “new” vibes off of GM crops (unlike many Canadian and American judges), just not off the genes themselves.

Is it really all so subjective?  Surely there is a legal basis for separating inventions from products of nature beyond the “new” vibe?  There is indeed, and this is the most interesting part of the story, although it never really escapes the subjectivity of newness:

Back in the early 1900s, some patent applicants argued that if you artificially isolate a product of nature, it can have new qualities; so it’s an invention.   A spirea bush was a product of nature, but aspirin isolated from it was an invention; an adrenal gland was a product of nature, but purified adrenaline was an invention.  Then in 1979: bacteria was a product of nature, but a pure strain of a bacterium was an invention.

Well now, biotech routinely involves artificial isolation of DNA, so the argument was almost inevitable: a chromosome is a product of nature, but an isolated gene (or other DNA segment) is an invention.  This is exactly what happened in the 1991 Amgen case, which was a fight over which company owned rights to genes for a human protein called EPO (same stuff Lance Armstrong has been accused of injecting).  Amgen claimed the EPO gene was an invention because it was “purified and isolated” by being identified and reproduced outside its natural environment.  Clearly feeling the “new” vibe, the Federal Circuit found that no one “invented EPO or the EPO gene,” but the patent was for “the novel purified and isolated sequence which codes for EPO”.  Since then, tens of thousands of genes have been patented on this rationale, including over 20% of human genes.

Let’s leave aside the ethical, political, and economic problems with gene patenting; there is a profound problem in the legal logic.  Yes, it is conceivable for an isolated & purified substance to take on qualities different from the same substance in its natural form, certainly enough to give of a distinct vibe of newness.  But as John Conley points out, “the entire utility of the claimed isolate lies in the fact that it is functionally indistinguishable from the natural version.”  That is: the only thing a gene does is to carry information in its DNA sequence; if the isolated & purified version carries the same information then by definition it does the same thing.  If the isolated gene really were different than the naturally occurring gene, then they couldn’t claim rights over the naturally occurring gene, could they?

The ACLU et al. used this argument before the Federal Circuit court, asking how the DNA could be an “invention” when “Myriad’s entire business is based on isolated DNA being identical to” chromosomal DNA.  None of Myriad’s arguments rebut this.

Myriad’s lawyer, asked why the DNA product was a human  invention rather than the handiwork of God, replied that “only God can make a tree” and yet a baseball bat can be patent-eligible; the isolated DNA had been embedded in a chromosome just as the bat is “embedded” in a tree.  Isolated DNA, therefore, is not made by God but is the product of “molecular biology” and human ingenuity.

(Reality check: the baseball bat was never patented; it has long been part of the prior art of sports.  All the baseball bat patents are on inventions that improve or change the bat, starting with JW Moose’s hollow core bat in 1888.  I do get a “new” vibe from this, and now I am wondering if Sammy Sosa wasn’t infringing some patents all those years.)

Much (although not all) of what is being written is critical of the plaintiffs’ (and DOJ’s) stand, and the betting is on a ruling for Myriad and gene patents. Given the economies and institutions that have developed around gene patents, abolition would be a nuclear option that is hard to imagine.  But it’s just as hard to imagine a legal rationale that is as patently flawed as the rationale for gene patents.

(And to think that I almost got through the whole posting without making that pun.)

Posted in Biotechnology, Intellectual Property | Tagged | 7 Comments

GM Eggplant and Ayurveda in India

India may be the world’s most closely-watched arena for the spread of genetically modified (GM) crops, but it has allowed only one of these crops so far — cotton.  Until recently it looked like its first GM food crop would be eggplant — called brinjal in India — modified with a Bt gene to produce an insecticide for the “fruit and shoot borer.” After years of testing and public debate, Bt brinjal had been okayed by the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee and seemed headed for release.

Brinjal vendor, Warangal. Photo G. Stone.

However in February 2010, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh declared an indefinite moratorium.  There was a major meeting on the topic in Delhi this week, and many thought that moratorium would be lifted.  But the only decision seems to have been indecision, and Bt brinjal remains in limbo.

The struggle over GMO’s is often depicted as an archetypal clash between irresistable force (science, progress, and productivity) and immovable object (Luddites, tradition-bound romantics, and overfed food snobs).  But it is becoming increasingly clear that each GMO controversy has its own backstory, and with Bt brinjal the story is particularly interesting.  This fight, oddly enough, turns out to have everything to do with Ayurvedic medicine.

But before we get to Ayurveda, let’s recognize that there were other issues in the brinjal fight as well.  One factor, perhaps surprising to some with the production-maximizing mindset, is the skepticism that the amount of food produced is really India’s problem.  India, after all, is the country that gave us Amartya Sen, and today it has both the world’s largest number of hungry people and an ongoing crisis of overstocked government granaries.  At one boisterous public hearing on Bt brinjal, one person asked if “we really need more brinjal” which, upon closer inspection, is a good question.  Minister Ramesh’s report points out that the question of “why Bt-brinjal” remains unanswered, as “there does not seem to be any over-riding food security, production shortage or farmer distress arguments” for it.  Just last month, the Times of India reported that “heavy flow of [brinjal] produce due to high yields has resulted in a slump in prices” bad enough to lead vendors to abandon their piles of brinjal in disgust.

(Interesting how often these new production-increasing technologies come along during gluts.  Monsanto’s first commercial GMO was rBGH, designed to raise milk production … just as the USDA paying dairy farmers $1.8 billion to slaughter cows to reduce overproduction of milk.)

There is also discomfort in India at Monsanto’s increasing control over the seed supply, and not just among the anti-GMO activists.  Citing government scientists, Minister Ramesh complained that Monsanto had gained direct or indirect control over “a vast proportion” of the Bt cotton seed now being planted by 90% of Indian cotton farmers.  Bt brinjal may have been developed by the Indian company Mahyco and by two Indian agricultural universities, but Ramesh pointed out that Mahyco was partly owned by Monsanto, and there were concerns about who had funded the work by the universities.

But most troubling to Jairam Ramesh was the question of outcrossing — especially the spread of transgenes to wild eggplants.  India is a center of diversity for the genus Solanum, with over 1500 known species (one eggplant species is domesticated, the rest wild).  The ecological effects of transgenes in the wild species are not well known. The transgenic hybrids would have to be able to make fertile seeds and any new traits would have to be able to spread before there was significant effects.  These things vary by plant,  environment, and many other factors, and they are hard to study.  Sometimes research into these questions is blocked by the very biotech companies who adamantly champion the “science-based approach” to food and farming.  (A notorious case was that of ecologist Allison Snow, whose research into outcrossing in Bt sunflower was abruptly stopped by the patent-holder when she started to find that the wild Bt plants thrived.)

Still, several studies have shown that domestic brinjal does outcross with its wild relatives, and the “expert committee” report on which the GEAC based its approval was seriously  flawed — at least according to an impressive list of ecologists who expressed their concerns to Ramesh (including Allison Snow, Norman Ellstrand,  and David Andow).

The reason this is particularly important is that wild eggplants are commonly used in Ayurveda, and Ayurveda is enormously popular — indeed, it is big business, especially in the prosperous state of Kerala.  This ancient, text-based system comprises medical treatments, massage, diet, and wellness retreats, all of which make intensive use of  herbs.  According to anthropologist Chith Kudlu, who has spent the last 4 years studying the Kerala Ayurveda trade and its changing pharmacopia, around 600 herbs are used in over 500 concoctions, an estimated 80% of which are gathered from the wild.  With around 2 million Ayurvedic practicioners, 7900 Ayurvedic manufacturers, and over $2 billion in annual international and domestic trade throughout India, wild herbs take on an unexpected cultural and economic importance.  Six different eggplant species are used in Kerala Ayurveda, all growing in the wild and some highly weedy.

Wild eggplant on a Kerala roadside. Photo C. Kudlu.

Genetic engineering seems to be inherently incompatible with Ayurveda.  In 2008 scientists at two institutions genetically modified Brahmi and Kariyat, two herbs commonly used in Ayurveda, to boost their expression of compounds thought to be anti-carcinogenic.  The plants were roundly condemned by Ayurvedics, whose formulations are based on the holistic character of plants and synergistic effects of plant combinations rather than on individual phytochemicals.

Kudlu points out that since wild eggplants are used in both Ayurvedic food and medicines, a proper assessment of potential impacts of transgenes would have to be different than conventional food analysis.  She notes that

Unlike food, medicine is given in highly concentrated form, and it is given to sick people whose tolerance for some compounds may be compromised.  Ayurvedic medicines are also polyherbal, involving interactions of dozens or hundreds of compounds. Ayurvedic medicine is also prepared in water-soluble, alcohol-soluble, and fat-soluble forms, each of which extracts different sets of metabolites.  All these variables will have to be taken into account in conducting toxicity tests.

Kerala’s chief minister (governor), V.S. Achuthanandan, was prominent among those who wrote to Ramesh as he was making up his mind, arguing that Kerala

is an important centre of diversity of medicinal plants and heritage of traditional medicines like Ayurveda. Serious concern has already been expressed by the Ayurveda practitioners on GM research being undertaken on various crops… the State has already declared an Organic Farming Policy, Strategy and Action Plan in 2008. Accordingly, the entire food crops would be converted to organic within five years and the cash crops within another five years. This will, apart from helping to feed the people with non-poisoned food, enhance our export possibilities with a high premium. However, introduction of GM crops will certainly defeat the very purpose of organic farming, because GM crops/foods are more disastrous than those from crops raised using chemical pesticides and fertilizers. It would also kill the State’s trade prospects.

The best course of action, wrote Achuthanandan, would be a 50 year moratorium.

Ramesh’s moratorium does not have a set length, but it was indeed justified in part on fears that Bt brinjal would endanger the plants’ “medicinal properties due to loss of synergy, differences in the alkaloids and changes in other active principles.”

– – – – – – – – – –

See my article with Chith, “The Trials of Genetically Modified Food: Bt Eggplant and Ayurvedic Medicine in India“, in Food Culture & Society.

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, Food, India | Tagged | 5 Comments

Blood type: Bt

A new study by toxicologists and obstetricians looks in the bloodstreams of a sample of Canadians for pesticides associated with genetically modified foods (new acronym alert: PAGMF).  They studied pregnant women, their fetuses (actually umbilical cord blood after delivery), and also a group of non-pregnant women.  GM-associated insecticide was widespread in the blood samples; GM-associated herbicide was present but rare.

Some background: the overwhelming majority of GM crops grown in the world today are either herbicide tolerant (HT) or insect resistant (IR).  Herbicide tolerance is from a gene for immunity to glyphosate (Roundup) or gluphosinate (Liberty) weedkiller, allowing the farmer to spray weeds without harming the crop. Insect resistance is via a gene from the soil microbe Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which produces an insecticide — hence the name “Bt crops.”  Canada mainly grows a lot of HT canola, but it grows other GM crops too including some Bt maize (details here).

Bt insecticidal proteins were found in the blood of 93% of the pregnant women and 80% of the fetuses.  The current thinking is they get into humans via meat from animals fed Bt crops — these proteins have been found in the guts of pigs and calves.

Evidence of weedkiller in the blood was much more scant.  None of the samples from pregnant women or fetuses were contaminated; 5% of nonpregnant women had glyphosate and 18% had gluphosinate.

What does this mean for health impacts?  Nobody knows.  There are some signs that high levels of glyphosate and gluphosinate disrupt fetal development, but the levels in the women in this study were low.  I know of no evidence that Bt proteins in the blood are harmful, and Bt is quite safe for humans in most contexts.  (And as one of our graduate students just suggested, we should look on the bright side — the babies should be protected from caterpillar bites.)  But there’s no contesting the authors’ conclusion: “Given the potential toxicity of these environmental pollutants and the fragility of the fetus, more studies are needed.”  A lot more.

Should this affect what we eat?  Or what we think about GM crops? Ah, as with so many things, it all depends on the counterfactual — i.e., what you compare it to.  You can buy organic produce that is free of weedkiller, and organic or most grassfed beef will be Bt-free.  You pay more for these foods, but then again they offer benefits beyond the avoidance of pesticides.

On the other hand, while low levels of Roundup in adult blood and the common occurrence of Bt in fetal blood may give us pause, try wrapping your mind around some of the findings on other pesticides.  Start with this article by Rauh et al. that just came out in Environmental Health Perspectives. They have been studying the effects of exposure to chlorpyrifos in the womb.

Spraying chlorpyrifos on lentils in Andhra Pradesh, India. Photo by the kids of the Kalleda Photo Project.

(Chlorpyrifos is a common organophosphate insecticide, sold under many named including Dow’s product Lorsban.  It is used on food crops in dozens of countries and it is a big favorite of the farmers I study in southern India, who use it on cotton and also food.)

Years ago Rauh et al. started looking at umbilical cord blood for chlorpyrifos in several hundred births.  They found some problems right off the bat — for example, the babies whose mothers had chlorpyrifos in their systems were smaller.  They checked the kids at 3 years, and found the chlorpyrifos kids had cognitive and behavioral problems.  Now the kids are 7 and this new study shows the exposed kids to have slightly lower IQ’s and poorer memories.

The spread HT crops into Canada and several other countries has not reduced weedkiller use — actually it has led to increases especially in the use of Roundup, but also to less use of other more toxic sprays.  The spread of Bt crops has reduced the use of chlorpyrifos and many other toxic insecticides, but we now know it means most babies (in Quebec anyway) are born with Bt in their blood.  What that means for our health and our  babies, we really don’t know, but it’s hard to resist the conclusion that it’s better than organophosphates in the blood, and worse than neither.

Posted in Agriculture, Biotechnology, Food | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Staph, Lies and Videotape

A new article in Clinical Infectious Diseases reports on an investigation of staph contamination (Staphylococcus aureus) on CAFO beef, pork, chicken and turkey in grocery stores in 5 US cities.  Staph was found on 47% of the meat samples, but what is particularly troubling is that over half of the staph samples were multidrug resistant.  It is clear that the CAFO’s are incubating drug resistance, and doing it quickly.  (For instance, fluoroquinolone antibiotics were used in in chicken CAFO’s from 1995-2005 and fluoroquinolone-resistant staph were common on the chicken samples — but not on the other meats).

(Multidrug resistant does not necessarily mean methicillin resistant, as in MRSA; this study only found 3 MRSA-contaminated packages out of 136 tested.)

If you are wondering when we are going to stop making meat “cheap” by steadily eroding the power of antibiotics, you could have gotten a partial answer from two other stories in the news at the same time.  Both show state governments bending over backwards to protect the interests of the CAFO owners:

  • The Missouri legislature just passed a bill that essentially protects Premium Standard Farms, the state’s main operator or hog CAFO’s, from lawsuits
  • Iowa, Florida and Minnesota moved to criminalize videos exposing conditions at CAFO’s — no more of those videos that keep us from enjoying our breakfast strips in peace.  Update 26 Apr 11: Mark Bittman of the NY Times weighs in on the ag-gag law.
Posted in Food | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments