Genetic modified plants Warning! Nina Federoff — former “Science and Technology Advisor” to the U.S. State Department and well-known genetic engineering apologist — is back on her soapbox. In an Op Ed [www.nytimes.com] published in the New York Times last week, Federoff strings together one blazing falsehood after another, extolling the virtues of a technology that much of the rest of the world has rightly rejected. What is behind her evangelical commitment to this particular technology? Let’s take a look.
Conflict of interest?
Thanks to Tom Philpott [www.grist.org], we know that for the 5-year period before she joined the State Department, Federoff served on the scientific advisory board at Evogene [www.evogene.com]. This Israeli agriculture-biotech firm works closely with Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta and others. She also served on the board of Sigma-Aldrich [www.sigmaaldrich.com], a transnational corporation that provides services and products — including transgenic animals — to agricultural biotech companies.
And she herself was one of the early patent-holders [www.patentstorm.us] on transgenic technologies, back in the 1980s. Federoff was one of the early patent-holders on transgenic technologies, back in the 1980s.
These solid corporate credentials proved just the ticket into the G.W. Bush Administration’s State Department; tapped initially by Condoleeza Rice, she was kept on by Hillary Clinton. During the same period (2007-2010),Federoff also served as the Science and Technical Advisor to the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development. USAID [www.panna.org] works with Monsanto and other partners to develop and commercialize GE crops, advancing U.S. trade interests in opening new markets abroad for these products.
Feeding the world? Or feeding U.S. geopolitical interests?
Corporate connections aside, it is entirely possible that Federoff truly believes in the technologies and products associated with high external input, industrial agriculture as the panacea for the world’s woes. Unfortunately, many (though certainly not all) molecular biologists and geneticists have a disciplinary habit of thinking in such narrow, reductionist terms that they miss a lot of historical and political context.
For instance, often missed in such myopic preoccupations with what's on the other end of a microscopic gaze is the cold hard fact that the Green Revolution’s origins in 1940s Mexico were not really about feeding the world; Mexico was a food exporter at the time. Rather, the aims included stabilizing restive rural populations in our neighbor to the south, and making friends with a government that at the time was selling supplies to the World War II Axis powers and confiscating oil fields held by Standard Oil (a funding source for for the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the key architects of the Green Revolution).
The dark underbelly of the Green Revolution — how it was driven largely by the political, economic and trade agendas of the U.S., then taken up by key partners including the World Bank and international research centers, is brilliantly dissected by historian Nick Cullather in his new book, The Hungry World, recently reviewed [motherjones.com] by Tom Philpott in Mother Jones. (Note to self: send copy to Federoff.)
Today, the geo-political agenda behind the first Green Revolution, combined with a blind preference for silver-bullet solutions to complex global problems, has led to what Sussex University researcher Sally Brooks calls a “lock in” of genetics-led strategies that fail to meet the diverse needs of people on the ground. And hence, we are forced to read too many ill-informed commercials for corporate technologies — like the one by Federoff — published by news outlets that one would hope might know better.
“Sorry, my dogma ate my homework”
As the kids say now, Federoff gets a FAIL for her latest rant. She provides no empirical evidence to back up her sweeping claims, and blithely ignores the abundance of reports from U.N. agencies and independent scientific studies that have — over the past several years — consistently concluded that GE technologies are unlikely to reduce either hunger or poverty, but do pose a serious threat to food and livelihood security.
For the empirically inclined, here's a quick roundup of the evidence:
* Meeting the climate, water, energy and food challenges of the 21st century requires investing in agroecology [www.panna.org]; in contrast, GE technologies [www.panna.org] are unlikely to get us where we need to go (concludes the UN-led IAASTD [www.agassessment.org).
* GE crops neither increase yield [www.ucsusa.org] nor provide nutritional benefits. They have led to a massive increase in herbicide use [www.organic-center.org] and epidemic of herbicide-resistant superweeds [www.nytimes.com];
* GE won’t feed the world (see Anna Lappé's Civil Eats [civileats.com] rebuttal of Federoff and her Foreign Policy [www.foreignpolicy.com] dispatch of the ardent GE-proponent, Robert Paarlberg);
* Agroecological farming can double food production [www.panna.org], save our soil [www.panna.org], protect biodiversity [www.panna.org] and help farmers adapt to climate change [www.panna.org]; and
* Organic farming and reliance on traditional seed systems is the best option for achieving food security in Mexico [motherjones.com], Gaza [motherjones.com] and across Africa [www.unctad.org];
* oh, and it's more energy efficient [www.panna.org] too.
This is not the first time that the New York Times has completely missed the mark [www.panna.org] in identifying the causes of world hunger — which makes it awfully difficult to identify the solutions.
Fed up with Federoff? If you’re tired of being bombarded by pro-GE rants, and would rather get the real scoop on GE, food and ecological justice from leading thinkers, scientists and activists in CA, then join me next month at the Justice Begins with Seeds [biosafetyalliance.org] conference in San Francisco.
See you there!
Marcia Ishii-Eiteman [www.panna.org]
Here's the reason for Marcia's response --
Engineering Food for All
By NINA V. FEDOROFF
FOOD prices are at record highs and the ranks of the hungry are swelling once again. A warming climate is beginning to nibble at crop yields worldwide. The United Nations predicts that there will be one to three billion more people to feed by midcentury.
Yet even as the Obama administration says it wants to stimulate innovation by eliminating unnecessary regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to require even more data on genetically modified crops, which have been improved using technology with great promise and a track record of safety. The process for approving these crops has become so costly and burdensome that it is choking off innovation.
Civilization depends on our expanding ability to produce food efficiently, which has markedly accelerated thanks to science and technology. The use of chemicals for fertilization and for pest and disease control, the induction of beneficial mutations in plants with chemicals or radiation to improve yields, and the mechanization of agriculture have all increased the amount of food that can be grown on each acre of land by as much as 10 times in the last 100 years.
These extraordinary increases must be doubled by 2050 if we are to continue to feed an expanding population. As people around the world become more affluent, they are demanding diets richer in animal protein, which will require ever more robust feed crop yields to sustain.
New molecular methods that add or modify genes can protect plants from diseases and pests and improve crops in ways that are both more environmentally benign and beyond the capability of older methods. This is because the gene modifications are crafted based on knowledge of what genes do, in contrast to the shotgun approach of traditional breeding or using chemicals or radiation to induce mutations. The results have been spectacular.
For example, genetically modified crops containing an extra gene that confers resistance to certain insects require much less pesticide. This is good for the environment because toxic pesticides decrease the supply of food for birds and run off the land to poison rivers, lakes and oceans.
The rapid adoption of genetically modified herbicide-tolerant soybeans has made it easier for farmers to park their plows and forgo tilling for weed control. No-till farming is more sustainable and environmentally benign because it decreases soil erosion and shrinks agriculture’s carbon footprint.
In 2010, crops modified by molecular methods were grown in 29 countries on more than 360 million acres. Of the 15.4 million farmers growing these crops, 90 percent are poor, with small operations. The reason farmers turn to genetically modified crops is simple: yields increase and costs decrease.
Myths about the dire effects of genetically modified foods on health and the environment abound, but they have not held up to scientific scrutiny. And, although many concerns have been expressed about the potential for unexpected consequences, the unexpected effects that have been observed so far have been benign. Contamination by carcinogenic fungal toxins, for example, is as much as 90 percent lower in insect-resistant genetically modified corn than in nonmodified corn. This is because the fungi that make the toxins follow insects boring into the plants. No insect holes, no fungi, no toxins.
Yet today we have only a handful of genetically modified crops, primarily soybeans, corn, canola and cotton. All are commodity crops mainly used for feed or fiber and all were developed by big biotech companies. Only big companies can muster the money necessary to navigate the regulatory thicket woven by the government’s three oversight agencies: the E.P.A., the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
Decades ago, when molecular approaches to plant improvement were relatively new, there was some rationale for a cautious approach.
But now the evidence is in. These crop modification methods are not dangerous. The European Union has spent more than $425 million studying the safety of genetically modified crops over the past 25 years. Its recent, lengthy report on the matter can be summarized in one sentence: Crop modification by molecular methods is no more dangerous than crop modification by other methods. Serious scientific bodies that have analyzed the issue, including the National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society, have come to the same conclusion.
It is time to relieve the regulatory burden slowing down the development of genetically modified crops. The three United States regulatory agencies need to develop a single set of requirements and focus solely on the hazards — if any — posed by new traits.
And above all, the government needs to stop regulating genetic modifications for which there is no scientifically credible evidence of harm.
Wiki-Leaks strikes at GMO thugs:
New WikiLeaks Cables Show US Diplomats Promote Genetically Engineered Crops Worldwide
The cables further confirm previous Truthout reports on the diplomatic pressure the US has put on Spain  and France , two countries with powerful anti-GE crop movements, to speed up their biotech approval process and quell anti-GE sentiment within the European Union (EU).
Several cables describe "biotechnology outreach programs" in countries across the globe, including African, Asian and South American countries where Western biotech agriculture had yet to gain a foothold. In some cables (such as this 2010 cable  from Morocco) US diplomats ask the State Department for funds to send US biotech experts and trade industry representatives to target countries for discussions with high-profile politicians and agricultural officials.
Truthout recently reported  on front groups supported by the US government, philanthropic foundations and companies like Monsanto that are working to introduce pro-biotechnology policy initiatives and GE crops in developing African countries, and several cables released this week confirm that American diplomats have promoted biotech agriculture to countries like Tunisia , South Africa  and Mozambique .
Cables detail US efforts to influence the biotech policies of developed countries such as Egypt and Turkey, but France continues to stand out as a high-profile target.
In a 2007 cable , the US embassy in Paris reported on a meeting among US diplomats and representatives from Monsanto, DuPont and Dow-Agro-sciences. The companies were concerned about a movement of French farmers, who were vandalizing GE crop farms at the time, and suggested diplomatic angles for speeding up EU approvals of GE Crops.
In 2008 cable  describing a "rancorous" debate within the French Parliament over proposed biotech legislation, Craig Stapleton, the former US ambassador to France under the Bush administration, included an update on MON-810, a Monsanto corn variety banned in France.
Stapleton wrote that French officials "expect retaliation via the World Trade Organization" for upholding the ban on MON-810 and stalling the French GE crop approval process. "There is nothing to be gained in France from delaying retaliation," Stapleton wrote.
Tough regulations and bans on GE crops can deal hefty blows to US exports. About 94 percent of soybeans, 72 percent of corn and 73 percent of the cotton grown in the US now use GE-tolerate herbicides like Monsanto's Roundup, according to the US Agriculture Department. 
A 2007 cable , for example, reports that the French ban on MON-810 could cost the US $30 million to $50 million in exports.
In a 2007 cable obtained by Truthout in January, Stapleton threatened "moving to retaliate" against France for banning MON-810. Several other European countries, including Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria , have also placed bans on MON-810 in recent years. MON-810 is engineered to excrete the Bt toxin, which kills some insect pests.
One more response to Fedoroff:
Letters to the Editor
New York Times
August 22, 2011
In “Engineering Food for All” (op-ed, 8/18), Ms. Fedoroff rehashes
industry-sponsored myths about genetically-engineered (GE) crops, while ignoring
some ugly facts. First, massive adoption of GE crops has coincided with a
swelling of the world’s hungry by over 100 million, consistent with science
showing no yield boost from GE . Second, herbicide-resistant GE crops
have not reduced soil erosion (the no-till farming revolution preceded their
mid-1990s’ introduction) ; but they have increased herbicide use, spawned an
epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds, and forced a return to tillage and even
hand-weeding for many farmers . That beneficial GE crops have not been
developed is due to the technology’s high failure rate, not the extremely lax US
regulatory system .
William Freese, Senior Science Analyst
International Center for Technology Assessment
660 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Suite 302
Washington, DC 20003
814-237-2767 (home office)
Notes to Editor (FYI only of course, not for inclusion in the letter):
 Frankly, we do not share Ms. Fedoroff’s simplistic assumption that
increasing yields equate to less hunger. Yet this emotive card is regularly
played (always in the future tense!) by biotech proponents who do not understand
or care to learn about the overriding political factors that cause poverty and
hunger. That said, increasing yields in exporting nations where most GE crops
are grown would mean more abundant harvests; all other things being equal, this
could slightly lower world food prices, benefitting the urban poor in
import-dependent developing countries. Yet, as stated: 1) The world’s hungry
have increased by over 100 million since the mid-1990s, when GE crops were first
introduced (see chart of UN FAO figures at http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm [www.worldhunger.org]); and 2) GE crops are not designed to, and do not, increase yields. See Gurian-Sherman, D. (2009). “Failure to Yield,” Union of Concerned Scientists: http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/science/failure-to-yield.html
[www.ucsusa.org]. Real solutions must come from helping poor farmers produce more, and GE crops do not do that. 84% of world GE crop acreage is planted with herbicide-resistant crops
that are irrelevant to poor farmers, who cannot afford herbicides.
 USDA National Resources Conservation Service (2010). “2007 National
Resources Inventory: Soil Erosion on
Cropland,” http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs143_012269.pdf [www.nrcs.usda.gov]. See
the table on page 2, which shows a large decrease in soil erosion from 1982 to
1997, attributable to rapid adoption of conservation tillage (including
no-till), and a leveling off of soil erosion in the years GE herbicide-resistant
crops were massively adopted, from 1997 to 2007. (Note: GE herbicide-resistant
crops in the U.S. expanded from just 16.0 to 117.2 million acres from 1997 to
2007, as documented in Benbrook, C. (2009). “Impacts of Genetically Engineered
Crops in the U.S.: The First Thirteen Years,” The Organic Center, Supplemental
at http://www.organic-center.org/science.pest.php?action=view&report_id=159 [www.organic-center.org]).
 See Benbrook, C. (2009), cited above. The NYT’s Andrew Pollack also
reported on this last
year http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/04/business/energy-environment/04weed.html [www.nytimes.com]. It
is disingenuous of Ms. Fedoroff to ignore the responsibility of GE crops for
increasing herbicide use, resistant weeds, increased use of soil-eroding
tillage, and sharply rising weed control costs, regarded by agricultural
scientists as major challenges facing U.S. farmers.
 See pages 2-3 of the letter (the section entitled “Regulation does not
‘stifle’ GE crop innovation”) to USDA Secretary Vilsack, August 3, 2011, from 22
farming and consumer protection groups, food companies and trade associations
regarding US regulation of GE crops,
at http://www.agra-net.com/content/agra/ips/pdf/APHIS-Rules-Letter.pdf [www.agra-net.com].