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May 19, 2010

Where does the BIGMAP lead?

BIGMAP is not an overweight atlas, but rather an acronym for Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products. Their seventh annual symposium, entitled “Food, Feed, and Fuel for the World: Seed and Biotechnology” was held on April 27–28 in southern LA (Lovely Ames, Iowa). This symposium is open to all registrants at no cost. The Gateway Hotel really knows how to put on conferences, with spacious rooms, great snacks and a delicious lunch on the 28th.

BIGMAP is a program of the Iowa State University Seed Science Center. Directed by Manjit Misra, the SSC has seen rapid growth over the past two decades. The stated mission of the Seed Science Center is to “improve production, quality assurance, marketing, utilization, and regulatory environment of seed through research, testing, teaching, outreach, and international programs.” BIGMAP’s mission is to “provide science-based analysis of the risks and benefits of genetically modified plant and animal products. It will provide guidance and education to help safeguard consumers and the environment.”

This will be the third BIGMAP conference I have attended; I can’t resist a free lunch. But seriously, it consistently has good information, even if it's not necessarily what IATP might agree with. I am always treated well, even though the IATP name tag brings some quizzical looks. This year one conference staffer asked what I was doing there, since IATP always works against the use of GMOs. My reply is that GMOs are part of the bigger system and we all need information.

The conference presented several mixed messages. It was polite to the core, no disagreements or negative body language (except for a few nodding off now and then). It had little to say about feed or fuel, but rather concentrated on food and almost exclusively on sub-Saharan Africa (referred to from now on as Africa) and Southeast Asia, with a bit of South America thrown in.

Biotech in food-deficient countries is presenting major issues for science, regulatory agencies, the private seed sector and NGOs. There are regulatory issues such as “low-level presence” (how to regulate presence of minute amounts of GMO genes and how to properly evaluate biosafety). African, Latin American and Indian scientists and bureaucrats talked about the development of seed enterprises in their regions, a big problem regardless of seed sources. There is a huge deficit of infrastructure for building quality commercial seed systems. These will not be solved in the short-term. Lack of access to credit, which would allow the purchase of quality inputs such as adapted seeds and fertilizers, lack of technical expertise in crop production and post harvest processing and handling, problems accessing markets and limited collective action are also issues. NGOs were not on the agenda.

Part of the discussion focused on the regulatory systems for GMOs in various parts of the world. I was appalled at the regulatory climate, especially in India, where the number of approval agencies in each state is huge and disparate. In Africa, many nations have minimum regulatory and testing agencies, and little commonality in regulations. Harmonization is definitely needed.

Joe DeVries of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) gave an outstanding overview of the challenges to a sustainable seed supply in Africa. It should be noted that AGRA has considerable Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funding. While plant breeding was a key to food security in Africa, infrastructure needs such as seed distribution, seed policies, etc., must go along with good genetics. He did not even mention use of biotechnology. Another part of the theme is the lack of trained plant breeders. In the U.S., public plant breeding has been shoved to the bottom of the agronomy heap and industry took over. So training the cadre of needed scientists will not come overnight. The overall goal is to provide quality seed at low costs, preferably higher yielding hybrids, but in some cases open pollinated varieties are sufficient.

An example DeVries gave: a local variety of maize without fertilizer yielded 13 bushels/acre, with fertilizer, 20 bushels/acre, while a hybrid without fertilizer yielded 19 bushels/ acre and a hybrid with fertilizer was 31 bushels/acre.

More than just maize seed is needed, as Africa has a wide variety of climates and ecological regions, each benefiting from different crops such as cassava and rice. To this end, more farmer participation and networking will be required to help breeders and private seed distributors meet farmers' needs. Similar situations exist in India and South America, but not as severe as in Africa. But little, if any, attention was given to saving landraces or seed conservation, except for yield traits. Sometime, maybe even now, Africa will need these seeds.

Finally, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation weighed in. The presentation was impressive, what was behind the veil is unknown. Yilma Kebede talked about the core values of the foundation: “all lives have equal values.” They have a limited set of issues including health, education and policy. Their agriculture development program focuses on Africa and Southeastern Asia. It aims at small farms, women, environmental market opportunities and innovation. The foundation is developing three levels of funding: high-risk, partnerships and sure things. They will spend considerable funding on evaluation of progress. Still, they spoke as a funding agency, not a driver of progress.

It was a conference of mixed messages and hidden agendas. I did not get the feeling of a big cheering squad for biotech from the scientists and technocrats. And there was a feeling that they know who is paying the bills. The needs are great, the time is short, and so far, there has been more talking than doing.

Dennis Keeney

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