Beahrs ELP Blog

Searching for coexistence of GMO and organics in Amsterdam

David Zilberman photo

By Professor David Zilberman, Agricultural and Resource Economics, UC, Berkeley
This article was originally published on The Berkeley Blog.
Read the original article.


I recently returned from a conference on the co-existence of genetically modified food (GMO) with other food, such as organic. The meeting was on November 17-20 in Amsterdam, which was rainy, cold and windy, an unpleasant departure from the sunny and dry climate of drought-stricken Berkeley that I have grown accustomed to. Fortunately we were located in a hotel at DAM Square – the center of the city where everything began – that did not have much exposure to the weather.

I was fascinated from my time in this bustling city. Amsterdam has all the major brands you see in major tourist towns: Zara, Hermes and Gucci. But the local stores especially emphasize what seem to be the pillars of the local economy – cheese, marijuana, sex, and alcohol (you feel like you live in a Heineken ad). And the head shops put Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley to shame. The city is friendly and crowded, in a constant state of orderly chaos. As a taxi driver told me, “You might think that traffic is a mess- but there is some logic there- people tend to obey the red lights but use common sense when it come to other rules. Freedom is good.”

IMG_2059-225x300One benchmark to judge conferences, especially on topics related to food, is on their nightly dinners – and this one was a winner. Our first conference dinner was in a fish restaurant in a charming building built around 1640. We climbed a narrow and steep staircase to our seats on the third floor (safety and access rules are rather recent phenomenon). A unique feature of the restaurant is a Rembrandt self-portrait on the wall – I guess he gave it in exchange for a meal.

IMG_2030-225x300The next night we had a lovely tour in the rain of Amsterdam’s canals on the way to second and main dinner of the conference, which was held in a grand and very impressive and elegant building. The dinner included a presentation of the history of Amsterdam and we learned that the dinner’s venue served originally as a church, later converted to become the first stock market in the world. This stock market financed the Dutch discoverers and trade companies during the golden era of Holland in the 18th century when Amsterdam was the richest city in the world.

We learned that the Dutch discovered New Zealand, bought Manhattan, and renamed familiar locations (Harlem Brookline). The food in both cases was like everything in Holland – not flashy – but well done and enjoyable with an ample supply of liquids. Kudos to Justus Wesseler and his team on organizing a wonderful conference on food issues with a strong culinary component.

The conference was about co-existence…but what is co-existence? The definition of co-existence as addressed in the conference is quite narrow: it is a political and economic set up that allows for genetically modified crops to exist within the same regions of non-GMO and/or organic systems. The conference addressed the relative advantages and disadvantages of GMOs versus other systems, the regulation of GMOs (e.g. labeling, purity standards, etc.), and attitudes and perceptions of biotechnology in agriculture.

So, what did I learn from the conference?

IMG_2137-225x300First, the conference strengthened my impression that we reached some equilibrium in production and use of GMOs. There is some degree of co-existence of GMO and non-GMO products in consumption – and much less in production. Consumers in much of the world consume GMOs indirectly when they consume meats (it is used in production corn and soybeans that feed chicken and pigs), but there is very limited direct consumption of GMO products as food (papaya, sweet corn and few vegetables).

Much of the GMO products are produced in the US, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina, and even though GMOs are used to produce few feed crops in much of Europe and Africa, regulations practically ban GMOs. There is evidence that the limited use of GMOs already benefits the poor and the environment by reducing the price of foods, the use of heavily toxic pesticides, and the greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture.

Second, Europe is changing its regulatory regimes. In the past, many applications to grow GMO varieties were approved on technical grounds by the EU regulatory authorities. The implementation was delayed because it was impossible to reach the political consensus needed for approval. A recent policy will enable some countries to ban production of GMO products (opt out of the EU decisions) while the rest will maintain procedures that may allow some production with GMO varieties. This new policy may take the EU further away from the goal of “An Ever Closer Union Among the Peoples of Europe.”

It is expected that certain countries like Germany and Austria may fully ban GMO use. Some sensed that the political reality in those countries would lead to growing emphasis on shunning new biotechnology discoveries and encouraging local food and organic production. Other countries — Spain, Holland, and maybe England — may actually embrace GMOs, and have GMOs and organics side-by-side. But, developing the rules will still be a challenge. Since agricultural biotechnology is evolving and new technologies like gene editing are being introduced, the regulatory regimes will also evolve over time.

The countries that shun GMOs, like Germany, are losing a source of relative advantage and tend to reduce their research capacity in modern biotechnology. It is expected that some of these countries may reverse their positions and regulations in the future.

Third, on average, consumers have negative attitudes towards GMOs. But the attitude towards GMO as a technology are not strong, but rather are affected by the way the choices faced by consumers are framed. Instead, the objection to GMOs in many cases reflects negative attitudes to big agribusiness that became associated with GMOs. Consumers’ familiarity with GMOs is limited: a large percentage of the U.S. public assumes that GM products are much more ubiquitous than they really are, which allows retailers to promote GMO-free chocolates or tomatoes when no such GMO varieties are even available, and thus can charge a premium.

Consumers’ attitudes towards GMOs vary within and across nations. Significant portions of the population in many developed countries may be willing to pay a significant amount to avoid GMO foods, but studies also found that half the population was not willing to pay much to avoid it, and some were even open to pay extra for traits that enhance food quality.

Fourth, surveys found that a large majority of consumers were in support of labeling GMOs as long as they are not costly. A majority of consumers in a survey supported a label stating that the food “contains DNA which is a living organism”. But when consumers realize that labeling is costly, a large percentage will not be willing to pay the cost. Indeed all the propositions in the US to introduce GMO labeling were defeated. In the US we are likely to see voluntary labeling while in the EU, labeling is mandatory. The impact and cost of labeling depends on their implementation.

Fifth, Monsanto – the dominant developer of commercialized GMO traits – has decided to launch a “charm offensive” and reach out to its critics and the critics of GMOs more generally. I wish them the best and believe that they will be able to reach out and change the mind of some open-minded critics of GMOs; but the hardcore opposition to GMOs will not budge. They benefit from demonizing Monsanto and have been very successful thus far.

Whatever the flaws of the company, it was able to harness a great technology that eluded others. Furthermore, this technology already has provided benefits to the poor and the environment. Such technology should have been hailed (like Apple), but the fact that the benefits of the technology are not apparent to the middle class, coupled with the power of the certain interest groups that stand to lose from the technology, and past missteps of Monsanto (it did not have a Steve Jobs) have all contributed to their current predicament. As such, the diffusion of GMOs has been curtailed – and while they have not reached their potential – they already have had a major impact and will have much larger impacts in the future.

IMG_2147-300x177This conference is part of an effort to improve the global food system and the human condition. The current state of affairs is unsatisfactory. The poor and the environment pay a heavy price for the global community’s failure to take advantage of known traits which were not developed and promising opportunities that have not been pursued because of unjustified regulations and barriers.

Furthermore, our ability to adapt to climate change will be hampered by not utilizing the best tools for developing agricultural technology we have. Of course, more and smarter use of GMOs is not the only solution – I believe in diversified agricultural principles that take advantage of the best of biotechnology as well as ecological agricultural practices.

As I see it, cumbersome regulations, efforts to label GMOs, and attacks against Monsanto are not providing alternatives to address the real issues of our food systems. We need to improve food distribution systems and address other societal problems that maintain poverty and restrict opportunities and access.

My Impressions of the ELP

by Linh Huong Dang, Vietnam, ELP 2015
Written on August 1, 2015.

Finally I made it to the United States where, to me, it is supposed to be a pinky one. However, to be honest, I was a little bit disappointed on the way from San Francisco International airport to Berkeley. The taxi drove me by some gloomy resident areas. The reality was far different from what I had in mind. The disappointment went away as soon as I entered the “Bear territory” – I could feel a friendly, open, and academic atmosphere. The first day went by with a mixed feeling about a new country and the people here.

Second impression – the country of immigration. From Foothill to the campus, I saw people from all over the world. No matter where they were from and how long they have been living in this country, opportunities were there for people to take. All of the ELP staff were originally from different parts of the world, some respectful and distinguished professors also came from other countries. They made themselves in the country by their efforts and talents, and for that, I admired them. I was fortunate to have a chance to expose myself to other educational systems, but for the very first time in my life, I was deeply impressed by the way people could make the change here. They made me feel I was part of the team even though we all met each other for the first time.

Third impression – good story. Everybody I met here has a story. And some of the stories made me cry. I could not forget the the moment I had to control myself for not bursting into tears in front of people when listening to an inspiring, motivated, and brave story from one of my classmates – her own life. I also remembered the minute I couldn’t help but cry when I had a chance to express my gratefulness to one of the professors who was a silent sponsor to help me attend the course. In ELP, you are encouraged to tell your story and listen to the others. It is the shortest way for you to reveal yourself, reach out to embrace, and learn from others – learning is sharing. Stories make people get closer to each other. No matter who you are or where you are from, true stories come from within with full emotional, touching, and inspiring thoughts that connect people.

Fourth impression – field trips. ELP offers you not only the academic knowledge but also the practical and fun experience. From Redwood forests to Point Reyes, from Urban Agriculture to Salinas Valley, you have chances to experience the conservation and agriculture work on the ground in the country. Believe me, they are so much different from what you have already known. And if you are lucky enough (like me), you will see elk in the wild.

There are so many things I would like to say about the amazing three-week course with ELP where my expectations came true. Go to the ELP, go to UC Berkeley to experience it yourselves, and I am sure you will love it all. And last but not least, by attending the ELP, you will have a chance to meet the most talented participants from around the world who you will never forget in your life.

Rivers for Life

by Gabriela Ponce Guerrero, Ecuador (in Switzerland), ELP 2015
Written on July 18, 2015.

One of the lectures I enjoyed the most was the one given by Professor Vincent Resh on water and environmental leadership. I consider managing freshwater resources to be one of the most vital, not only environmental, but also social problems we are currently facing. I have had the opportunity to research the impacts of river regulation and fragmentation on the ecological integrity on riverine ecosystems. Despite being familiar with many of the concepts presented, I found it fascinating to hear more about the biological components. Once you understand that leaves are the main energy source in rivers, you realize how important it is to protect the riparian vegetation. After briefly going through some of the science behind the differences between rivers and lakes, Professor Resh shared some of the principles necessary for a community based water management: (1) having a “shared vision of a community’s water future”; (2) putting limits on water consumption; (3) allocating specific amounts to each use; (4) investing in water conservation to its maximum potential. We also had a lively discussion around the principles based on the challenges and insights some of the participants have encountered in their carriers or studies. Building on that, I would like to share some of my thoughts on freshwater management.

Impacts on the world’s large river systems due to fragmentation and regulation by dams [Nilsson et al., 2005]. Source: GWSP Digital Water Atlas (2008). Map 25: River Fragmentation by Dams.

Impacts on the world’s large river systems due to fragmentation and regulation by dams [Nilsson et al., 2005]. Source: GWSP Digital Water Atlas (2008). Map 25: River Fragmentation by Dams.

Rivers have been extensively altered to support economic and social development. Modifying rivers has provided benefits such as reliable water supply, reducing flood hazards, and generating hydroelectric power. Environmental and social implications were often not taken into consideration during planning and construction phases, causing the displacement of 40 to 80 million people worldwide and leading to significant degradation and loss of species and ecosystems. Furthermore, there are major challenges river scientists will have to face like adapting the science and practice of water management to climate change and its consequences. Moreover, growing population will result in higher pressure on water resources. It is crucial to recognize the water needs of riverine ecosystems themselves. Failing to see rivers as legitimate water, users could undermine their integrity leading to their deterioration which will result in rivers being unable to provide their multiple ecosystem services. It has been suggested that one of the most effective ways of tacking these challenges is to restore rivers, since healthy rivers are naturally more resilient to change.

The History of Modern Wildlife Conservation in Ethiopia

by Kumara Wakjira, Ethiopia, ELP 2015
Written on October 26, 2015.

The beginning of the modern wildlife conservation movement in Ethiopia back in the 1960’s laid down a foundation for the birth of modern concepts of nature and natural resource conservation, including the thought of cultural conservation in the country.

At its 12th session of the General Conference that was held from November 9th to December 12th, 1962 in Paris, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted two motions with regard to the conservation of nature and natural resources. The first resolution was concerned about the economic development and conservation of natural resources, flora and fauna. Its essence was to consider the importance of natural resources conservation, flora and fauna, for sustainable economic development of countries and the benefits of their population. Thus, the General Conference urged all member states, particularly the developing countries to pay due attention to the conservation, restoration and enrichment of their natural resources, flora and fauna, while UNESCO and the competent international organizations should give their fullest support to the developing countries in the conservation, restoration and enrichment of their natural resources at their request. The second motion was concerned about the safeguarding of the beauty and character of landscapes and sites, with consideration to their aesthetic and cultural values.

The Ethiopian Delegations to the General Conference of UBESCO had given their fullest support to these motions through the then minister of Agriculture and head of the delegation, H. E. Mr. Akalework Habtewold. Subsequently, the minister requested assistance from UNESCO in the field of natural resources, flora and fauna, conservation in Ethiopia. In his letter, the minister pointed out that “it is our wish to manage and develop national parks and wildlife reserves to ensure the preservation of our flora and fauna, to provide centers of biological and ecological research and contribute to the growth of the national economy, especially through tourism development and game cropping.” UNESCO decided to support the request, and organized five members of the mission to Ethiopia following the invitation of His Imperial Majesty the Emperor.

Right after attending the 8th General Assembly of IUCN which was held in Nairobi, the group proceeded from Nairobi to Addis Ababa on Sept 25th, 1963. The mission was comprised of Sir Julian Huxley, a former Director-General of UNESCO from London (the head of the mission); Prof. Th. Monod at the Museum of National d’histoire Naturalle of Paris and Director of the Institut franqais d’Afrique noire, from Paris and Dakar; Mr. L. Swift, former Director of the Division of Wildlife Management, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Dr. E.B. Worthington, Deputy Director of the Nature Conservancy of London; and Mr. Monsieur Alain Gille, UNESCO Science Officer for Africa. The mission was received by His Imperial Majesty the Emperor and exchanged ideas. Also, the mission visited some relevant institutions in Addis Ababa, including the Institute of Archaeology, the Office of Tourism, the Haile Selassie I University and the Ministry of Agriculture. For seven consecutive days, starting on September 26th, 1963, the mission conducted intensive field trips across the countries, encompassing Awash, Jima, Maji, the north end of Lake Rudolf, Omo River Delta, Lake Stefanie, Rift Valley Lakes, the Blue Nile Gorges, Lake Tana and Mount Simien Massif. Mr. Wolde Michael Kelecha, the then Director of Forestry and Game accompanied the mission on all its field visits.

Then, the team realized that Ethiopia supports a remarkable varieties of wildlife species, including extraordinary landscape features and unique cultural values, but lacked appropriate technical expertise to deal with the conservation matters. Thus, the team recommended given the country’s endowments with such high endemism and tremendous potential of natural resources which can be the basis for flourishing tourist industry, immediate and long-term conservation plans should be developed and implemented with the support of international organizations.

Following these recommendations, a semi-autonomous conservation organization came into being under the Ministry of Agriculture in 1965. The first national park, Awash, was created in 1966. An English man, John Blower, was recruited from East Africa to advise on wildlife conservation and management in Ethiopia. Then after, about 55 wildlife Protected Areas were designated with respect to the criteria of the IUCN management categories, comprising of national parks (22), sanctuaries (2), wildlife reserves (6), controlled hunting areas (18), biosphere reserves (4) and Community Conservation Areas (3). According the existing wildlife act, regulation and policy, inside the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, human activities including hunting, cultivating, grazing, settling in, burning vegetation, deforestation or exploiting other natural resources is strictly prohibited. Inside the rest of the Protected Areas, access to natural resources use may be allowed under regulatory procedures on sustainable basis. In total, the current size of Protected Areas System represents about 6.7% of the total land mass of the country. All of the ten major ecosystems of the country have been represented in these Protected Areas Network, providing environmental goods and services for the citizens, and even including the population beyond the political boundary. These Protected Areas are managed by Governments (Federal and Regional), communities and hunting companies, including co-management partnerships with NGOs, following the principles of participatory approaches. In general, the current wildlife policy and strategies of Ethiopia allow both modes of wildlife resource uses: consumptive and non consumptive utilizations pertaining to the stipulation of the existing rule and regulation.

A reflection about leadership tools for the battle against climate change in the electricity sector

by Ioana Bejan, Romania (in Denmark), ELP 2015
Written on July 21, 2015.

“Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system.” ( Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for policymakers)

Renewable energy sources continue to expand their shares globally. Yet 80% of total energy consumption still comes from fossil fuel combustion There are encouraging developments globally especially due to recent innovations and cost decrease for solar and wind power technologies.

I arrived confident at UC Berkeley few weeks ago. After all, I am studying in Denmark and working in Germany. Both Denmark and Germany have set ambitious targets both in terms of GHG reduction and renewable energy deployment and statistically, both countries are on the right path to achieve their goals.

Without any doubt, the energy transition in Germany serves as an important test case for the rest of the world. However, part of the success in statistics is overshadowed by the increasing dissatisfaction in some communities, where onshore wind farms have been built.

In the second week of the ELP I found myself challenged by Dr. Ernesto Sirolli’s speech: “you shouldn’t go where you are not wanted.” I was intrigued because I never doubted that climate change is a serious threat and that renewable energy deployment should have priority. Can we afford to wait for communities to ask for clean electricity?

The answer to my question came during Susan Carpenter’s lectures on Collaborative Leadership for Sustainable Change. A key component is often missing from project planning. It is not enough to identify project sites and give incentives to the private sector to develop the projects. In order to accept change, the community has to be integrated in the process.

A collaborative process involves all major stakeholders, is context specific and focuses on participants’ interests rather than their positions. Participants show mutual respect, educating each other about the problem and the leadership is committed and facilitative. Decisions should be made in consensus as opposed to voting. Following these key principles, stakeholders will own the process and the solution. It is therefore critical that not only public and private actors, but also community representatives are involved in the process and decide for themselves whether a project is acceptable or not. Using a collaborative approach requires that more time be allocated in planning renewable energy projects. However, sustainable local practices create acceptance and avoid future tensions.

This is the most important lesson that I will take with me from the ELP. I strongly believe that in the case of renewable energy deployment, local solutions solve global problems.

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