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.”
One 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.
The 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?
First, 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.
This 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.
David Zilberman is a co-director of the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program. He is a professor and holds the Robinson Chair in the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley. He has served as a consultant to the World Bank, the USDA, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the Environmental Protection Agency, Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
by David Zilberman
As we celebrated our 15th anniversary, in human terms, the ELP is a teenager approaching adulthood. All together, we have had a happy childhood, with nurturing and supporting parents (the CNR, the Beahrs family and our other friends), and we have already built a wonderful alumni base. But that will allow us to expand, grow and contribute to the change. In addition, the ELP has a young and very dynamic sibling, the Master of Development Practice (MDP); there are synergies between the programs in terms of curriculum and personnel. The synergies between the programs will allow both of them to flourish. Finally, the ELP is now becoming part of CNR’s International & Executive Programs (IEP). The new home will bring an extended family that will include excellent environmental training.As we look into the future, it is clear that the summer program will continue to be a core event of the IEP, but I expect to see several other events that will enrich the ELP family and benefit the world. First, we have had several attempts to build affiliated ELP programs; the one in Russia was the most successful but unfortunately did not last, after the passing of Dr. Svetlana Chernikova. But we would strive to think about alternative models. For example, we may consider having two ELP annual programs, one in Berkeley and the other rotating across locations. The program does not need to be of the same length, and the rotating program may be specialized. I always welcome your input and suggestions for new programs.
Second, the current ELP mostly targets international students, and it is quite extensive, providing an excellent introduction to the Berkeley community. We may consider a shorter summer program that will be aimed at the ELP alumni and the whole Berkeley alumni community. It can be a one-week refresher of environmental and international problems that will combine cutting-edge knowledge with Berkeley fun! Such a program can integrate the ELP and CNR communities with the whole Berkeley community, and hopefully yield useful partnerships.
Third, the ELP as well as CNR’s IEP will aim to offer educational programs that will foster life-long learning opportunities to our alumni. The fast development in technology and policy, new tools, as well as emerging challenges require professionals to update themselves, and we believe that the CNR and the ELP can be in the frontier to provide the training, both on campus and globally.
Finally, this future vision is ambitious but achievable. A key immediate challenge is to improve the communication and collaboration among all of us; it is to take advantage of our means of communication like the blog, the newsletter, and encourage the members of our alumni to engage in initiatives that will allow us to come together and start new projects. I believe that the IEP, under the leadership of Mio Katayama Owens, and Dean Gilless, CNR and of course, Dick Beahrs and our other friends, will be supportive of sound initiatives that will allow the ELP to grow. We would appreciate feedback and concrete proposals on how to enhance communication and interactions, ideas for new projects and even identifying new sources for support. I believe that together, we can make the world a better place.
Mio Katayama Owens, Ph. D., is the director of the International and Executive Programs (IEP). Building on the outstanding success of the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program, IEP functions as a mechanism for effectively linking academic and professional entities, developing non-degree professional programs in Berkeley and overseas.
by Mio Katayama Owens
Dear ELP Alumni and Friends,
This year marks both the Beahrs ELP’s 15th anniversary and its first year as member of International and Executive Programs (IEP). I am excited to join the ELP at this important junction in its history. Now more than ever, we need to prioritize global education, to connect thinkers and movers, and to inspire innovations in the face of critical changes to our natural and social environments.
The College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley has always produced groundbreaking research, but 15 years ago, ELP’s co-director David Zilberman had a realization that “many practitioners in the environmental field could benefit from the extra knowledge and skills that Berkeley has.” To meet this need, the Beahrs ELP was conceptualized and founded by David, Dick Beahrs, Robin Marsh and many other contributors. Their efforts were instrumental in nurturing the ELP from a 3-day program with 9 participants to the comprehensive, 3-week program it is today. The potential for growth was boundless, and the College decided to do more. In 2013, IEP was established to give the College more channels to extend its research to scholars, practitioners, professionals and executives.
IEP upholds the mission of the College of Natural Resources of “[serving] society by generating and disseminating knowledge in the biological, physical, and social sciences in order to provide the tools both to protect the Earth’s natural resources and ensure economic and ecological sustainability for future generations” through non-degree training programs. For example, we have organized programs on climate and energy policy and spatial data science, bringing practitioners around the globe to Berkeley and engage with our experts.We also collaborate with government agencies and companies to design programs that cater to their specific needs. In 2013 and 2015, we brought representatives from the Department of Agriculture of the Philippines to Berkeley for two courses on the intersections between climate change, agriculture and livestock. With our colleagues at UC Davis, we organized field trips and workshops to bolster the livestock industry in the Philippines. This wonderful program was only possible because of Ruth Miclat-Sonaco, one of the ELP alumni who wanted to promote sustainable agriculture within her agency.
This fall, we are hosting buyers and managers from Costco Wholesale for a program on Organic Agriculture that is designed to support informed decision making regarding sustainable food. They are learning from our experts such as Claire Kremen and David Zilberman on issues such as diversified farming systems and drought. These programs allow us to translate CNR’s expertise into action to support the health of people, environments, and economies around the world.
The Beahrs ELP joined our family of programs this year. Through this union, we have increased ability to reach more professionals on the development of specific knowledge base and skills. Your advice will be invaluable to the development of new initiatives, and I am excited to hear from you about the types of programs that would allow you to acquire new skills and explore new topics. My hope is that IEP continues to expand and deepen its collaborations, to build on past successes and come up with creative ways to disseminate knowledge. I look forward to engaging with you as we celebrate this year, and many fruitful years to come.
Richard “Dick” Beahrs (Class of ’68) with his wife Carolyn, established CNR’s Beahrs’ Environmental Leadership Program. He was the first recipient of the College of Natural Resources Citation Award in 2003 and is currently Co-Chair of the CNR Advisory Board Development Committee and a Trustee of the UCB Foundation. He is the retired former President of the Courtroom Television Network and Comedy Central. A true Cal supporter, Dick, Carolyn and their four children all have Berkeley degrees.
by Dick Beahrs
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years since the welcoming reception for the first ELP was held on July 4th, 2001. I will always recall Chancellor Robert Berdahl’s opening remark that everyone at Berkeley “expects to learn as much from ELP participants as Berkeley can possibly convey.” His words strike me as prescient as there has been tremendous collaboration between ELP fellows and faculty over the years.From the very beginning, our perspective was that it would take many years to really be able to evaluate how impactful the program could be. Because of all of your spectacular work, there is reason to be excited about what has been accomplished. There have now been over 600 Fellows from 112 countries. The impact you have already had speaks for itself, and your successes hold great promise for the future. We’d like the ELP to help.
Happily, recent developments lead us to believe that the future can be even more exciting and that the ELP can do even more. New funding for the ELP will make it possible to strengthen the Alumni Network, the changes for collaboration and involvement with the Berkeley community. Here are some of the most important:
In the years ahead, Carolyn and I hope to visit many more of you in your home countries so that we can see your outstanding work on the ground. My visits with ELP Fellows in Russia (Svetlana Chernikova), China (Bill Valentino and Patrick Zhishao Tang), Ghana (Rafael Flor, Abenaa Akuamoa Boateng, and Frank McAvor), and Mexico (Eduardo Ponce Guevara), etc. have been lifetime highlights. I look forward to many more visits as we work together to expand the impact of your work.
I have had the privilege of working with ELP participants, staff, and faculty for most of its fifteen-year history. Every summer, as a new group of ELPer’s assembled for the three-week Berkeley program, I marveled at the amazing diversity of individuals in the class. I looked forward to reading where participants were coming from and what their particular environmental interests were. Each summer I learned more about the daunting obstacles each individual faced at home trying to manage wildlife in a national park, provide clean water to impoverished communities, promote sustainable agriculture, or develop viable urban refuse removal. The challenges to addressing any one of these problems were great. What made ELP exceptional to me was the strong vision and passionate commitment each participant brought to the session.
Susan Carpenter is a mediator, trainer, and writer in private practice. She has spent the past thirty-five years developing and managing programs to reach consensus and resolve controversies at the local, state, and national level. She was the founding director of the Program for Community Problem Solving in Washington, D.C. Ms. Carpenter has authored numerous materials including the book, Managing Public Disputes: A Practical Guide to Handling Conflict and Reaching Agreements.
by Susan Carpenter
One of ELP’s strengths over the years has been its ability to provide a variety of platforms for participants to talk about their issues with faculty, with local practitioners, and with their fellow ELPer’s. Through these different interactions people had an opportunity to learn, reflect, and strategize how they might best proceed when they returned home. As part of the leadership curriculum participants were exposed to state-of-the-art research on a broad-range of environmental issues along with the personal dynamics of leadership in the form of effective communication and collaborative problem solving skills. (ELP to its credit recognized the importance of paring technical knowledge with effective social skills in order to promote effective leadership when participants returned home.)This past month I had the opportunity to work in Vietnam with Do Thi Thanh Huyen (ELP ’14) thanks to the Buck Kingman Initiative. Huyen and I co-taught the first ever environmental education workshop for environmental educators from 20 national parks and nature reserves in Southern and Central Vietnam. I saw Huyen’s visionary, energetic leadership in action. I realized how many ELP participants return home to work on their causes without a strong network of local colleagues. I understood better how the ELP program can serve both as a re-energizer to its diverse participants while they are on the Berkeley campus and can provide a network of colleagues who can offer support and encouragement once participants have returned home.
In addition to reflections, anniversaries also give one the opportunity to think forward. With alumni now numbering close to 600, ELP has an opportunity to build more formal networks and programs among its talented graduates. By creating stronger regional and topical networks and by using social media to share opportunities, pose questions, and seek ideas, on-going learning and problems solving can be enhanced. Also as UC Berkeley proceeds to develop its new Global Campus up in Richmond, California, I am hoping that additional ELP activities such as topical or regional conferences and joint-projects between Berkeley faculty and ELP fellows can be initiated. I celebrate what ELP has accomplished to date and look forward to seeing it pursue even more productive activities in the future.