Monthly Archives: February 2016

Oil: $30-35 per barrel. Synthetic biology diesel: $3,180 to $7,949 per barrel. Game over?

Synthetic biology is being heavily promoted and funded as a way to produce large quantities of cheap industrial products, including biofuels.

But so far affordable, large-scale manufacture with synbio organisms has proven elusive.

Synbio start-up companies that set out to produce high volumes of low-cost biofuels have switched to low volumes of expensive chemicals, cosmetics and food additives instead. Many are still struggling to stay afloat.

Sanofi’s synthetic artemisinin, an anti-malaria drug, has been the latest casualty amongst commercial synbio ventures, and is perhaps the most stunning one:

According to an article just published in Nature, Sanofi failed to produce any synthetic artemisinin in 2015 and they are selling their artemisinin manufacturing plant in Gasserio, Italy.

Jay Keasling first developed the GE yeast strain used to make artemisinin, and in the article explains that if the price of natural artemisinin, derived from sweet wormwood, “is already very low and there’s a bumper crop, there’s no reason to fire up a fermenter”. By a low price, he means less than $350 per kg.

This will come as a relief to the 100,000 farmers in Asia and Africa whose livelihoods depend on sweet wormwood.

Is this really a way to make cheap and plentiful biofuels?

If Sanofi were making biofuels rather than artemisinin, they would cost at least $350,000 per tonne, or over $41,000 per barrel. This comparison is only partly valid because Sanofi’s genetically engineered microorganisms produce artemisinic acid, which needs to be chemically converted to artemisinin, accounting for part of the overall cost. This additional cost would not be incurred in the production of biofuels.

But the comparison is not entirely far-fetched either: Sanofi’s artemisinin platform was developed by Amyris, originally a biofuel company that was founded in 2003. Jay Keasling was a co-founder of Amyris and he is also the CEO of the US Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, founded in 2007.

In 2006, Keasling and others announced in Nature that Amyris had succeeded in significantly altering the metabolic pathways of baker’s yeast so that it would produce artemisinic acid. The work had been supported by a $53.3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Amyris handed the technology free of charge to the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi in 2008, who started commercial production of synthetic artemisinin in April 2013. Amyris meantime morphed into a biofuel company, or at least branded itself as one, even though it expected from the start to be reliant on the sale of higher-price specialist chemicals to break even.

Amyris’s underlying biotechnology has remained the same as that used by Sanofi to make synthetic artemisinin. Artemisinic acid belongs to a group of chemicals called isoprenoids or terpenoids. These are carbon molecules only found naturally in plants.

Isoprenoids are not just of interest for pharmaceuticals. They have been described as “ideal candidates for advanced biofuels that may act as ‘drop-in’ replacements for gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.”

The more they sold, the more money they lost

Amyris chose to focus on a particular isoprenoid called farnesene. Its genetically engineered yeast is capable of converting sugar (from Brazilian sugar cane) to farnesene. The gene that allows yeasts to turn sugars into farnesene was taken from sweet wormwood, i.e. from the plant from that the malaria drug artemisinin is made.

In other words, Amyris has merely had to tweak the GE yeast strain developed for artemisinin in order to produce biofuels and speciality chemicals instead.

In 2009, Amyris obtained a $22 million grant from the US Department of Energy. This presumably had nothing to do with the fact that the company’s co-founder Keasling works for the department.

In purely technical terms, Amyris’s farnesene fuels have been a success: Car manufacturers and aviation companies have tested their jet fuel and their synthetic diesel and found that it complied with and even exceeded technical and pollution standards. Commercially, the biofuels that Amyris has produced have been anything but successful.

In 2011, the company entered into contracts to supply its sugar-cane derived diesel to the transit authorities for use in buses in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. At an exorbitant cost of $7.80 per litre, this required a significant public subsidy. According to an investigative article by the business journal Fast Company, even this was well below the cost of manufacture.

Thus, the more farnesene-based diesel Amyris produced and sold, the greater the company’s losses were. According to the same article, Amyris’s directors had been hoping from the outset that their company could sell farnesene at its real production cost of $20 – $50 per litre, or $3,180 to $7,949 per barrel, which would mean selling it for use in expensive, niche products.

The ‘price breakthrough’ no one believed in

Clearly, the recent fall in oil prices cannot be blamed for Amyris’s troubles. The company has had to abandon a 100 million gallon a year refinery which it had started to build but never fully commissioned. And its stock price has plummeted from a high of over $37 per share in 2011 to a mere $1.50. Amyris’s sales are largely confined to personal care products now.

In November 2015, the company announced to investors that it had managed to improve its GE yeast strains and reduce production costs down to $2 per litre in 2015, and even $1.75 in September of that year. This would have implied a major breakthrough.

Judging by Amyris’s share prices though, investors have not been convinced. If Amyris had really made a commercial breakthrough then it is hard to understand why its sales almost halved during the first nine month of 2015 compared to the same period of the previous year, or why its losses from production have risen.

Amyris is not the only synbio company that has attracted major public and private (and in the case of artemisinin philanthropic) funding based on hyped up claims. Solazyme, who grow genetically engineered algae on sugar cane, have fared no better, as a recent report by Biofuelwatch shows.

‘Plug and play’ transgenetic microbes? Sadly for investors, it’s so not like that

Amyris (and for that matter Sanofi’s artemisinin project) is also not Jay Keasling’s only failed venture. Back in 2005, Keasling co-founded another synbio company, LS9, which used genetically engineered E.coli to convert sugar to fuels. LS9, together with partners HCL CleanTech (now called Viridia), were granted $9 million by the US Department of Energy to try to commercialise this process.

Backed by venture capitalists, they invested $81 million in a demonstration plant in Florida. By 2014, LS9 had failed and was forced to sell its equipment and technology to a larger firm, which has no plans to use them for biofuel production. Keasling admitted to MIT Technology Review:

“[Getting] the yields up to make them economically viable is very hard to do … We need to be as good at engineering biology as we are at engineering microelectronics”.

Keasling has been one of the most prominent believers that synthetic biology can replicate the successes of electronics, treating genes in living organisms as if they were transistors. In 2009, he told the New Yorker:

“The entire electronics industry is based on a plug-and-play mentality. Get a transistor, plug it in, and off you go. What works in one cell phone or laptop should work in another. That is true for almost everything we build: when you go to Home Depot, you don’t think about the thread size on the bolts you buy, because they’re all made to the same standard. Why shouldn’t we use biological parts in the same way?”

Evolution versus convolution – guess who wins?

His commercial ventures are failing precisely because living organisms are not electronics parts and because they don’t perform as predicted by computer models. As the author of the Fast Company article about Amyris concluded:

“When synthetic biologists announce they will treat microbes like tiny factories, investors and markets may be listening, but the microbes are not. Biology is not computing or engineering – at least not yet. Yeast has already been programmed by evolution.

“Inserting genetic instructions or working around ones already inside will be an uncertain business until scientists understand exactly how the organism functions. And that may take decades – if ever.”

Synthetic biologists simply cannot accurately predict how their GE microbes will behave and perform in an industrial environment. In a similar vein, they can’t credibly predict how they will behave and interact in complex ecosystems when they escape, either.



Almuth Ernsting is co-Director of Biofuelwatch.

This article was originally published by SynBioWatch, a collective of campaigning organisations that includes Biofuelwatch.


EDF’s leaked Board Agenda: Zombie nuclear projects and ‘beyond the grave’ reactors

You seriously wouldn’t want to be a Director of EDF at the moment. The agenda for an average Board Meeting must be seriously gloomy on each and every occasion.

And thanks to an EDF mole (and to judge by the number of leaks to the French press and the UK’s FT there’s a lot of them) I can now state this as fact, not mere opinion.

An annotated copy of the Agenda items for their last meeting on 16th February mysterious showed up in my email today, helpfully summarised by Alexandre Perra, EDF’s Executive Committee Secretary.

Item 1: Existing EPR construction projects

1.1 Olkiluoto (Finland)
Continuing, horrendous cost overruns, leading to ongoing legal stand-off with Finnish partners. Already delayed by seven years, but (hopefully!) could be finished by 2018.

1.2 Flamanville (France)
Continuing, horrendous cost overruns. Already delayed by nine years, but (hopefully!) could be finished by 2018.

1.3 Taishan (China)
Serious problems with both reactors under construction, but, this being China, everything’s shrouded in secrecy. WARNING: This could be much worse than we currently understand.

1.4 Pressure vessels
Still waiting for final safety assessment from French regulators. WARNING: There could be really serious problems here, despite our best efforts to ‘work with’ the regulator.

1.5 Deadlines/UK Treasury
These deadlines are now CRITICAL – as in EXISTENTIAL.
UK Treasury’s loan guarantees are linked to Flamanville operating successfully. And if it is not working properly by 2020, loan guarantee will be completely withdrawn.

Item 2: New reactors at Hinkley Point, Somerset

2.1 Final investment decision

Postponed again – for the eighth time. Still unable to raise the €23.3bn (£18bn), despite our Chinese backers agreeing last year to provide one-third of the total sum, and despite the UK Government offering all but limitless subsidies.

CAUTIONARY NOTE: The true cost is of course much closer to €31 (£24.5bn) taking into account both the cost of construction and the costs of finance. This has been recognised by the EU Commission.

Have just released new announcement: construction will now not start until 2019. We should know by then whether the EPR will ever produce any electricity, with Olkiluoto and Flamanville both due to come on stream in 2018.

2.2 Media strategy

Must keep up a good front: have blamed the latest delay on the Chinese New Year. Crucial that CEO maintains the line: “We estimate the investment decision is very close.”

‘Stop Hinkley Point’ protesters occupied our offices in Bridgewater yesterday. Need to handle with care. Negative coverage increasing all the time, and people have started to talk about our ‘zombie reactors‘ at Hinkley Point.

Regrettably, our cohort of ‘green ambassadors’ (led by renowned UK environmentalist George Monbiot) has fallen silent. Very few advocates now for EPR. Even the FT has now joined the ranks of the critics stating “Politically painful it may be, but the case for halting Hinkley Point C is becoming hard to refute.”

Item 3: Extending the life of our UK reactors

3.1 Some good-ish news: we’ve negotiated extensions for four of our eight reactors in the UK: Heysham 1 and Hartlepool, through to 2024, and Heysham 2 and Torness through to 2030. There will be a significant financial outlay here, which has not yet been properly accounted for, but still relatively ‘small beer’ (as the English say) when looking at our overall finances.

3.2 The longer we keep these reactors ticking over, more or less safely, the better it will be. As soon as they come offstream, all the liabilities associated with decommissioning kick in. Reminder to the Board: managing our rising liabilities is now our most critical priority!

Item 4: Extending the life of our French reactors

Current operating fleet: 58 reactors. The Board has already signed off on a major life extension programme, with an estimate of €55bn of costs. Recent external assessments have put total costs at €100bn. Crucial to hold the line in the media at €55bn. In reality, we have no idea what the total outlay will be.

Item 5: Energy Transition Law (France)

5.1 This now represents A MAJOR RISK, with a direct mandate from our principal shareholder (the French Government) that the country must reduce its dependence on nuclear generation from 75% to 50% of total electricity demand by 2025.

5.2 The Cour des Comptes (state Audit Office) has just issued a new report challenging our long-held expectation that demand for electricity in France will continue to grow significantly through to 2025. If they are right, the energy transition law will mean:

  • Worst-case scenario: 20 reactors (35% of the fleet) will need to close.
  • Best-case scenario: 17 reactors (29% of the fleet) will need to close.

5.3 Lobbying relevant Ministers and Prime Minister to amend the Energy Transition Law now a TOP PRIORITY.

Item 6: Financial position

  • Current share price: down 50% on January 2015 position.
  • Current market cap: €22.5 (symbolically and very uncomfortably, less than the total projected costs of the Hinkley Point project).
  • Our €37bn net debt load also dwarfs our €18.5bn market capitalisation.
  • Current credit rating still at risk. Standard & Poors and Moody’s both looking wobbly.
  • Growing concern about perceived splits on the Board, especially as regards increasingly forceful hostility from our Trade Union representatives to Hinkley Point.

Merde alors! And now the FT reports that they have two EDF sources telling them that the final investment decision will be delayed until 2017! Nous sommes trahis! It will be soon! Very very soon! Call security!

The Champagne has lost its fizz

See what I mean? Not exactly a cheery occasion, even with the best of French lunches, and it must be a bit like that Board meeting after Board meeting.

So now shift the focus to London, to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Imagine for a moment the Permanent Secretary, metaphorically shitting himself as the single biggest element in the UK’s future electricity supply slides, slowly but ever more inexorably, down the pan. Wouldn’t he just love to get access to the (real) Minutes of EDF’s Board meetings!

The implications of all this for the UK couldn’t possibly be more severe. Initially, Hinkley Point was meant to be on stream by 2025, generating a whacking great 7% of total electricity supply. Earlier delays meant that this had already slipped to 2030. Now that the start date has slipped again, to 2019, at the earliest, that 2030 date looks insanely optimistic.

And that’s just the start. EDF’s meltdown at Hinkley Point is already having a significant knock-on impact on other would-be nuclear prospects in the UK – with Horizon, NuGen and even China General Nuclear Corporation beginning to get cold feet.

If Hinkley Point does go down the pan, a project that has been given every conceivable financial inducement by both the UK and the French Government, who the hell is going to invest in different but equally dodgy reactor designs?

If the Permanent Secretary isn’t shitting himself about such a state of affairs, one has to ask where he’s getting his metaphorical Imodium from.



Jonathon Porritt is Co-Founder of Forum for the Future, and a writer, broadcaster and commentator on sustainable development. He is also Trustee of the Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy, and is involved in the work of many NGOs and charities as Patron, Chair or Special Adviser.

This blog was originally published on Jonathon’s website.

Also on The Ecologist:


Greens commit to Rights of Nature law

The Green Party of England & Wales yesterday became the first UK-wide political party to vote Rights of Nature into their policies.

The motion was passed overwhelmingly by the conference floor. The full text that was passed was worked on in coordination with Mari Margil from CELDF (Community Environmental League Defence Fund), and Mumta Ito from the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature.

Rights of Nature is a growing environmental movement calling for new legal tools to be developed to defend nature’s ecosystems. Central to this is the rejection of market valuations of nature and the recognition that nature will only be protected if we respect its innate value in law.

The proposer, Atus Mariqueo-Russell said: “With the adoption of Rights of Nature, the Green Party is once again at the forefront of advocating for exciting new ecological laws. In 2012 our conference passed a motion supporting the development of an international law of ecocide, and rights of nature is very much in the same vein as this.”

The co-proposer Rupert Read, a philosopher of science and ecology at the University of East Anglia, added: “Rights of Nature is a new way of conceptualizing our relationship with nature. What we are looking at here is no less than a fundamental paradigm shift away from the toxic perception of nature as an object to be consumed.”

Nature is priceless – not valueless

As Mariqueo-Russell and Read argued last week in The Ecologist: “We often hear the language of virulent capitalism seeping into our discussions of environmental conservation, with terms such as ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ becoming the lingua franca of international conservation bodies.

“This basically economistic approach will not protect the environment, because it involves a further commodification of nature’s ecosystems – embracing precisely the same framework that has failed us so miserably.”

The motion just passed at Conference, they explain, recognises this reality: “we cannot protect ecosystems with the same legal frameworks and monetised discourse that has been responsible for so much environmental destruction.

“The view of ecosystems as commodities to be consumed is not compatible with our moral responsibility to future generations, as the consumption of finite resources in the present will necessarily deprive future generations of access to enjoy the same resources. Furthermore, as you will be aware, the threat of environmental catastrophe is not an abstract problem for future generations.

“We are currently seeing ecosystems collapsing at an unprecedented rate, species extinction accelerating, and global warming advancing rapidly. So instead of measuring nature by its direct financial benefit to us – a task we have proven incapable of anyway – we propose to extend formal rights to ecosystems.”

Rights to Nature movement grows

The movement had its first major success in 2008, when Ecuador recognised Rights of Nature in their new constitution. The articles acknowledge that “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”

The Constitution therefore requires the State to “apply precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles.”

It is moreover ‘the people’ that have legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems: “Every person, people, community or nationality, will be able to demand the recognitions of rights for nature … The State will motivate natural and juridical persons as well as collectives to protect nature; it will promote respect towards all the elements that form an ecosystem.”

Nature also has the right to be restored following damage: “In cases of severe or permanent environmental impact, including those caused by the exploitation on non renewable natural resources, the State will establish the most efficient mechanisms for the restoration, and will adopt the adequate measures to eliminate or mitigate the harmful environmental consequences.”

The Green Party’s adoption of a similar policy follows on from the Scottish Greens unanimous decision to pass a similar motion in 2015. Molly Scott-Cato, MEP for South West England and green economist, said:

“It’s very exciting to see our Party leading the way as usual: Rights of Nature, as the people of Ecuador and other radical South American democracies know from first-hand experience, is an idea whose time has come.”



Also on The Ecologist:The Rights of Nature must be recognised in law‘ by Atus Mariqueo-Russell & Rupert Read.


Harnessing the power of evolution in participatory seed breeding

Five of the global issues most frequently debated today are the decline of biodiversity in general and of agrobiodiversity in particular, climate change, hunger and malnutrition, poverty and water.

Seed is central to all five issues. The way in which seed is produced has been arguably their major cause. But it can also be the solution to all these issues.

During the millennia before modern plant breeding began, farmers were moving around with seeds and livestock, and because neither were uniform, they could gradually adapt to different climates, soils and uses. Whenever farmers settled, they continued to improve crops and livestock.

In the case of crops, the way they did it can still be seen today in a number of countries and consists of selecting the best plants, which give the seed to be used for the following season. This process was highly location-specific in the sense that each farmer did it independently from other farmers and for his/her conditions of soil, climate and uses.

The enormous diversity of what we call ancient, old, heirloom varieties originated through this process.

Problems created by industrial agriculture

The transition to modern plant breeding was accompanied by a change from selection for specific adaptation to selection for wide adaptation: this became the dominant breeding philosophy and was the basic breeding principle adopted by the Green Revolution.

The term Green Revolution is used to indicate an agriculture development strategy based on the use of new varieties, in conjunction with the use of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation water and mechanization. It is now increasingly recognized that the short-term achievements of the Green Revolution had long-term penalties.

One was the reduction in food diversity with negative consequence on human health (von Hertzen et al. 2011). Another was the leaching into the ground water of fertilizers due to overuse (Good and Beatty 2011). But they also included water shortages, the emergence of pesticide resistance (Gassman et al. 2011), the increase in populations of harmful insects (Lu et al. 2013) and the bypassing of farmers in marginal areas (Baranski 2015).

GMOs, the latest addition to the industrial ‘toolbox’, are a short-term and unstable solution to these problems because they change the environment surrounding the organisms they intend to control (Binimelis et al. 2009).

Thus, as predicted by a fundamental biological principle, namely the Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection, their use induces resistance (Ceccarelli 2014). It is the same process by which bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics, a phenomenon that is the cause of diseases affecting yearly two million Americans and causing 23,000 deaths in the USA (Frieden 2014; Reardon, 2014).

At best, GMOs can only be a short-term solution to any particular problem, but in every case they have created an often more serious problem (resistant weeds, insects or disease) that requires a new GMO and/or more chemical use. They also make a farmer completely dependent on the company producing the GMOs and chemicals (Pechlaner 2010).

Agroecology and alternative methods of plant breeding

Agroecological models of agriculture, such as organic agriculture, could be solutions to the most important problems affecting the planet, but they are often criticized for not being able to produce enough food for a growing population. We believe, however, that most of the meta-analysis showing lower yields under organic conditions are biased by the use of varieties which were not selected specifically for organic conditions.

Participatory and evolutionary plant breeding methods, while benefiting from advances in molecular genetics, reconcile increased production of more readily available and accessible food with increased agrobiodiversity. They also maintain the evolutionary potential of our crops, which is needed to cope with climate change (Seneviratne et al. 2016).

Being based on selection for specific adaptation, participatory plant breeding is not only more efficient than conventional plant breeding (Ceccarelli, 2015), but is able to produce varieties specifically adapted to both an agroecological agricultural model and diverse local climates (Ceccarelli et al. 2010). Thereby food safety is reconciled with food security.

Participatory breeding of tomatoes for organic farming

An example that this is indeed possible at low cost and in a short period of time is the following three year project of participatory tomato breeding for organic conditions.

In Italy, four single crosses representing four different tomato types, namely ‘cuore di bue’, ‘long fruit’, ‘cherry tomato’ and “green salad fruit”, were self fertilized to produce four F2 populations (Campanelli et al. 2015) (1).

These F2 seeds were distributed to four organic farmers located along a 450 km transect of the Italian Adriatic coast. Each farmer grew a random sample of 72 individual F2 plants for each of the four crosses, together with 18 individual plants of a commercial F1 hybrid of the corresponding fruit type for a total of 360 plants (4 crosses x 90 plants). The four populations were also planted at the research station.

In farmers’ fields, a group of farmers and a group of scientists conducted independently a visual selection on individual plants expressing their opinion with a 1 (= worse) to 4 (= best) score. At the research station, only scientists conducted the selection. After statistical analysis, seed was extracted from the fruits of the best plants and the corresponding F3 families (8 plants per family) were grown together with the same commercial hybrid as in the first year.

During the process the F3 seed of the selected F2 of the green salad population was lost because of poor seed germination. Selection was repeated with the same methodology and the best plants were used to obtain the seed of the F4 families of the three remaining crosses. These were compared with commercial hybrids in a replicated (3 replications) trial on the four farms and at the research station. The trials on farms had some lines in common (selected in more than one farm) but also the unique selections on that farm.

To assess yield, we measured the production of the first three fruit clusters. These are both very vulnerable to late frosts and very valuable to the farmers for the high prices of an early season tomato. It is thus a key commercial trait for farmers.

The result of the three years participatory selection were identification of three families which out-yielded significantly the respective commercial hybrid and another 12 families which yielded as much as the commercial hybrids. All the three families which significantly out yielded the respective commercial hybrid were selected from the same population (the ‘long fruit’ type).

Two of these families had a yield advantage over the commercial hybrid of between 43 and 44%. The third family out-yielded the commercial hybrid in two of the four farms by 62 and 76%, but it was significantly lower yielding (-22%) than the same hybrid on the research station. Had we conducted the breeding program only at the research station, we would have missed such a line (Campanelli et al 2015).

Part of the evaluation was a score for uniformity and none of these lines was phenotypically less uniform than the hybrid. This means that they can be immediately commercialized, thus capitalizing on the work done. The lines still conserve some genetic diversity, which allows farmers to continue to improve them by extracting seeds from the best fruits of the best plants.

The three advantages farmers derived from this work are:
1) higher yielding varieties;
2) saving on purchased seed as they can produce their own, and
3) using varieties specifically adapted to organic conditions.

Beyond participatory plant breeding

There are several other examples of successful participatory breeding programs, but despite these successes participatory plant breeding has a weakness in requiring the collaboration of a research institute to provide breeding material and technical support such as experimental design and statistical analysis (Sthapit et al. 1996, Witcombe et al. 2003). Therefore, the sustainability of a participatory program depends on the long-term commitment of a research institution.

An interesting alternative is offered by evolutionary (participatory) plant breeding – participatory is in parenthesis because, though desirable, the participation of an Institution is not indispensable. The idea is not new as it was proposed back in 1956 (Suneson 1956).

The method consists in planting in farmers’ fields with mixtures (evolutionary populations) of very many different genotypes of the same crop, preferably, but not necessarily, using early segregating generations.

These populations will be planted and harvested year after year, and due to natural crossing (higher in cross-pollinated and less in self-pollinated crops), the genetic composition of the seed that is harvested is never the same as the genetic composition of the seed that was planted.

In other words, the population evolves to become progressively better adapted to the environment (soil type, soil fertility, agronomic practices including organic systems, rainfall, temperature, etc.) in which it is grown.

As the climatic conditions vary from one year to the next, the genetic makeup of the population will fluctuate, but if the tendency is towards hotter and drier climatic conditions, as expected in view of climate change, the genotypes better adapted to those conditions will gradually become more frequent in this farming/breeding system (Ceccarelli 2014).

Evolution our friend, not our enemy

The evolutionary population, which can be made by the farmers themselves by buying seed of as many different varieties (including hybrids) of a given crop, can be used by the farmers (and by researchers if they are willing to participate) as a source of genetic diversity from which to select plants with useful traits.

This has been done in Italy (data not published) using a zucchini (summer squash) evolutionary population obtained by letting 11 commercial hybrids to freely intercross. After only two cycles of visual selection, as in the case of tomato, the farmer in question selected two varieties, differing in color, yielding as much as the commercial hybrids. He has already started selling the two new varieties in local markets.

Thus evolutionary (participatory) plant breeding, being a relatively inexpensive and highly dynamic strategy to adapt crops to a number of combinations of both abiotic and biotic stresses and to organic agriculture, seems to be a suitable method to generate, directly in farmers’ hands, the varieties that will feed the current and future populations.

Combining seed saving with evolution and returning control of seed production to the hands of farmers, it can produce better and more diversified varieties.

These can help millions of farmers to reduce their dependence on external inputs and their vulnerability to disease, insects and climate change and ultimately contribute to food security and food safety for all.



Dr. Salvatore Ceccarelli lives in Hyderabad (India) and cooperates in organizing participatory and evolutionary programs with different organizations, with various crops and in a number of countries. He is associated with the organisation: Rete Semi Rurali, Via di Casignano, 25, Scandicci (FI) 50018, Italy. His website is at

Formerly Full Professor in Agricultural Genetics at the University of Perugia, Italy he has been associated with ICARDA since 1980, His pioneer work on participatory plant breeding has gained ICARDA world recognition as a leading center in participatory research. Among several recognitions are the CGIAR award for the Outstanding Scientific Article of the year 2000 and his appointment as plant breeding facilitator in the System wide Program on Participatory Research and Gender Analysis.

This article was originally published by Independent Science News under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.

Author’s note (1): These were produced at the Headquarters of the Consiglio per la Ricerca in Agricoltura e l’analisi dell’economia agraria- Unità di Ricerca per l’Orticoltura di Monsampolo del Tronto (CREA-ORA).




Give beavers permanent British residence!

Beavers have recently made a tentative return to Britain.

Scotland has led the way, with an official trial population in Knapdale, a remote area of lochs and forest in the west of the country; and another in Tayside to the east, suspected to come from private-collection escapees and unlicensed releases.

Further south, a small feral population in Devon in south-west England is currently being tolerated by officialdom and admired locally, while there are also plans for a trial in mid-Wales.

Should we let these beavers take up permanent residence? The Scottish government has first refusal. It is overdue to make a decision on the back of five years of scientific monitoring and other evidence.

While conservationists wait with bated breath, we think there’s only one sensible choice – beavers should be allowed back.

The EU’s Habitats and Species Directive has been the cornerstone of conservation policy in Britain for the last 30 years. It actively encourages member states to consider reintroducing formerly native animals. The Eurasian beaver is a good candidate, having dwindled in mainland Europe to a handful of small isolated populations by the late 19th century.

Thanks to the directive, it is now re-established across most of its former range, making Britain something of a laggard. The beaver became extinct here 400 years ago. In fact, Knapdale represents the first legal attempt to reintroduce an extinct native mammal to the country.

Beaver benefits

None of this is about nostalgia. Beavers are often referred to as ‘ecosystem engineers‘ and herein lies much of the reasoning and controversy behind their reintroduction.

There is extensive evidence from Europe and North America that wetlands created by beaver dams benefit everything from water plants, dragonflies and amphibians to fish and ducks to song birds and bats. In Knapdale, damming by beavers transformed a small pond into a wetland of a type and complexity probably unseen in Britain for centuries.

Beavers can also restore habitats without the need for a bulldozer or planning permission. On the Bamff estate on Tayside, we found that grazing by beavers trebled the number of wetland plants over a nine-year period.

Where raised water levels saturated a meadow thanks to damming of ditches, the number of plant species increased by 49% and the multitude of habitats created increased the total diversity of aquatic invertebrates by almost 30%.

Indeed the benefits were even further reaching. We found that the beaver dams also acted as a sink for agricultural pollutants, and may also help to reduce the risk of flooding. Individually these findings are not that surprising, though it is unusual to demonstrate them all in parallel.

Beavers, people and fish have co-existed for thousands of years

So it’s a no-brainer? While the Scottish public are broadly supportive of reintroducing these dog-sized, rather retiring herbivores, farmers, foresters and some anglers are less keen. Beavers get accused of damaging farm crops and commercial plantations through feeding, tree-felling, blocking streams, causing floods, undermining flood embankments and clogging up fish-spawning gravels.

These concerns are often legitimate and locally significant, and need to be addressed. Yet there are tried and tested ways of mitigating beaver impacts borrowed from the US and Germany that have already been trialled in Scotland, including live-trapping, electric fencing and so-called ‘beaver deceivers‘ for managing pond levels.

At the same time, beavers have been wrongly held responsible for some high-profile flooding incidents and there remains a widely held but entirely mistaken belief among some anglers that they eat fish. In fact, the most recent analysis in Scotland suggests that beavers generally have a positive impact on the likes of trout.

The reality is that beavers, people and fish have co-existed for thousands of years. There is no reason why in principle this should not continue, even if beavers change the landscape and the landscape itself has changed in their absence.

The successful reintroduction and effective management of beavers in central Europe testifies to their adaptability. Beavers bring multiple environmental benefits and the risk of local but manageable disruption shouldn’t eclipse these.

Bigger than beavers – what kind of country do we want?

In some senses the ‘beaver question’ is a metaphor for the much bigger question of what sort of environment we want in Britain in future. Beavers are potentially at the vanguard of a wider movement called rewilding – transforming landscapes through everything from less intensive farming to reintroducing keystone species.

Saying yes to beavers doesn’t mean opening the floodgates to all supposedly desirable species from bison to lynx, but it recognises that we can cope with changing how we run our land, and that the alternatives might be better. On the other hand, saying no to beavers would shut the door on any bigger ambitions, perhaps for decades.

This is also not about going back to the Stone Age – indeed taking land out of production might require more intensive farming elsewhere to address concerns about food security. Instead of imposing rewilding, we must seek the cooperation of landowners.

We might incentivise this with subsidies to recognise the ecosystem services that species like beavers provide, while compensating inconvenienced landowners. And as well as mitigating against the impacts that reintroduced creatures can cause, we’ll need to think more about the wider risk of further divorcing people from nature by creating wilderness areas.

But be all that as it may, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives. When it comes to conservation, we have lacked ambition for too long. Saying yes to reintroducing beavers is the sort of bold and forward-looking move that would resurrect the UK’s conservation credentials.



Nigel Willby is Reader in Freshwater Ecology, University of Stirling.

Alan Law is Post-doctoral Researcher, University of Stirling.The Conversation

More articles about beavers on The Ecologist.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


World Trade Organisation smashes India’s solar panels industry

On Wednesday the 24th February, it ruled against India’s National Solar mission, which aims to rapidly increase the country’s renewable energy and bring energy to millions of people by generating 100 gigawatts of solar energy annually by 2022.

The reason? A small portion of the program would have actively supported the creation of local renewable energy jobs.

This is hard to believe given the director of the WTO, Roberto Azevêdo, recently said “The challenge is not to stop trading but to ensure that trade is an ally in the fight against climate change.” Yet with this decision the WTO is effectively driving a financial bulldozer through India’s homegrown solar panel factories.

The ink is barely dry on the already weak UN Paris Climate agreement, but clearly trade still trumps real action on climate change. This is in spite of a report by Friends of the Earth International which found that transferring the world’s energy to 100% renewables, could be possible within 15 years.

The case was thrown out because India wanted to support its own people

In 2013 the United States initiated a case in the WTO against India’s Solar Mission, because the government-funded program included what they believed to be a ‘discriminatory’ domestic content clause, requiring that a paltry 10 % of the solar cells be produced nationally.

India tried to defend their case by arguing it was part of their commitment to UN sustainable development initiatives and international climate agreements. Yet this cry fell on deaf ears.

The WTO found strongly against India’s National Solar Mission, and is now trying to reach a settlement with the US. India may now have to adjust its solar mission to comply with WTO trade rules or risk sanctions. The local renewable energy industry is obviously worried about the effect of this ruling.

Yet for the ideological corporate traders this is a win for the ‘efficient green economy’. US Trade Representative Michael Froman stated, “This is an important outcome, not just as it applies to this case, but for the message it sends to other countries considering discriminatory ‘localization’ policies.”

The US Solar Energy Industries Association also stated the WTO ruling is a step in the right direction and hopefully will remove any obstacles to a constructive US presence in India’s solar market”

A dangerous and self-serving position used to justify attacking common sense renewable energy policy in a developing country which has other competing priorities including serving its people. Irononically, many US states also use similar buy-local clauses to support their solar industry. Climate change is one of the biggest examples of market failure and cannot be left to big business to solve. Governments must be free to implement sound climate policy.

At a time of mass global unemployment, one of the main reasons why governments and the general public do or will support a transition to clean energy is if it creates jobs. If India or other developing countries cannot enact policy to support the creation of domestic industries, it is substantially less likely green policies will ever see the light of day.

The car industry has enormous power and influence, not just because people drive cars, but because car manufacturing creates jobs. Countries producing high levels of renewable energy, like Germany, also seek to accompany their energy transition with policies that create renewable energy jobs.

This WTO ruling sets a dangerous precedent for countries wanting to support homegrown renewable energy initiatives.

Not the first time trade agreements have blocked environmental policy

Trade agreements are often stumbling blocks for action on climate change. Current trade rules limit governments’ capacity to support local renewable energy, undermine clean technology transfer and empower fossil fuel companies to attack climate protection in secret courts. Trade policies are preventing a sustainable future.

In 2012, the WTO ruled against Ontario’s innovative Green Energy Act, which intended to help boost renewable technologies and clean-energy jobs. Similar to the Indian case, part of the program included a ‘feed-in-tariff’ that supported local suppliers. The policy was changed to comply with WTO rules.

In just the last three months, Ecuador was ordered to pay $1 billion dollars for canceling a petrol contract under a Bilateral Investment Treaty, and TransCanada announced it would sue the US government in a trade tribunal for $15 billion for rejecting Keystone XL pipeline to transport dirty Tar Sands.

As ludicrous as this sounds, this is allowed to happen because corporations can use so-called investor protections in trade agreements to sue governments for introducing rules that protect citizens’ health, rights the environment, or the climate.

The Indian WTO ruling highlights the severe dangers posed by more wide-ranging trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) and Transatlantic Trade, Investment Partnership (TTIP), which will liberalize trade in dirty fossil fuels and restrict government options even further.

In the face of a growing climate emergency, we need a trade system that helps rather than hinders the development of sustainable societies, by supporting local economies, sustainable jobs, a clean environment and more responsible energy.



Dipti Bhatnagar is Climate Justice & Energy Co-coordinator for Friends of the Earth International, based in Maputo. Tweets at @diptimoz.

Sam Cossar-Gilbert is the Economic Justice Resisting Neoliberalism Program Coordinator for Friends of the Earth International based in Paris. Tweets at @samcossar.

Also on The Ecologist:


Zika, microcephaly, and pesticides: half-truths, hysteria, and vested interests

I recently published an article on reports by the Argentine doctors’ group, Physicians in the Crop-Sprayed Towns, and the Brazilian public health researchers’ group Abrasco, which raised the issue of the potential role of the larvicide pyriproxyfen in the apparent surge in babies born with birth defects involving abnormally small heads (microcephaly).

Pyriproxyfen is added to drinking water stored in open containers to interfere with the development of disease-carrying mosquitoes, thus killing or disabling them.

The Ecologist published a version of my article which, together with the original publication on GMWatch, quickly went viral, triggering a lot more media coverage.

This in turn met with a furious backlash involving what has seemed at times like a ‘shouting brigade’ condemning anyone who thinks the Argentine report worth taking seriously.

Yet at times this chorus of condemnation has been extraordinarily hypocritical, condemning the Argentine doctors as enemies of fact and accuracy while getting the most basic of facts wrong about what the doctors are actually suggesting.

Pesticide defenders invent ‘pesticide causes Zika’ conspiracy theory

Take, for instance, the Washington Post food columnist, Tamar Haspel. Haspel tweeted: “No, GMOs and pesticides aren’t the Zika culprits. Could we evaluate groups by how often they spread fact-free theories? A cred rating.”

Andrew Noymer, a social epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine, replied: “Pesticide is not Zika culprit but it hasn’t been definitively ruled out as birth defect culprit. Got it? Good.”

In response to Noymer’s challenge, Haspel claimed that she was just using Zika as Twitter “shorthand” for microcephaly! Noymer retorted, “Well then you’re just misinformed.”

It wasn’t just Haspel who seemed to accuse the supposed ‘conspiracy theorists’ of linking the pesticide to Zika. Grist food writer Nathanael Johnson also appeared to fall into the trap with a headline attacking a “bogus theory connecting Zika” to the pesticide industry.

But the Argentine doctors only ever suggested the larvicide pyriproxyfen might be a culprit in microcephaly. Nobody ever claimed pesticides cause the Zika virus!

Another well-known GMO supporter, Julie Kelly, made a similar mistake when she damned the Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo for tweeting what she said was an “egregiously inaccurate” article that blamed “pesticides – not mosquitos – for transmitting the Zika virus”.

Just good friends

This is not to say that some of the initial coverage of the pesticide hypothesis didn’t suffer from real inaccuracies. One red herring was set running by the Argentine doctors themselves when they wrongly identified the company that makes the larvicide as a subsidiary of Monsanto.

In fact, Sumitomo Chemical is a long-term strategic partner of Monsanto’s – they’ve been working together for nearly two decades, but Monsanto doesn’t own the company. Even so, it’s a perhaps understandable error given the closeness of the companies’ cooperation in Brazil and Argentina.

In any case, it’s an error that I was careful to avoid in my Ecologist piece, which correctly identified the larvicide manufacturer as only a strategic partner.

Nevertheless, it’s an error that was seized upon by Nathanael Johnson, for instance, with his headline, “A bogus theory connecting Zika virus to Monsanto could give mosquitoes a boost”.

Ironically, that headline, as we’ve noted, is more misleading than the error about the extent of the Monsanto connection.

‘Pesticides could be involved’ – leading scientists

What is also misleading about Johnson’s headline is the suggestion that the pesticide theory (in relation to microcephaly, of course, not Zika) can be batted off as ‘bogus’. The idea that this particular pesticide – and/or other pesticides – could be linked to the birth defect problem in Brazil is not something that can simply be dismissed out of hand.

For example Dr David Morens, of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said of the pesticide claim to Public Radio International: “It’s certainly plausible, but we haven’t heard enough scientific information to weigh in on whether it’s real.”

Like some viruses, he continued, some toxins have been associated with microcephaly. “So the theory that a pesticide could do it is not totally out of line.” More study is needed to determine the truth, he insisted – and precisely the same is true for the Zika hypothesis:

“I can say that what we’ve heard about these cases of microcephaly and the epidemic of Zika, and now the possible chemical or pesticide exposure, are claims and statements that don’t yet have scientific backing.”

And while it has been claimed that Dr Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, “spoke out against the ‘sketchy’ report” of the Argentine doctors, Collins actually described their theory not as bogus but as “interesting”.

The biologist Dr Pete Myers, in an editorial comment posted on the online news service Environmental Health News, pointed out that the reason the pesticide hypothesis is, as Collins rightly says, “sketchy”, is the lack of adequate investigation of pesticides before they are released on to the market:

“[These are] dueling hypotheses [as to whether the Zika virus or the larvicide is responsible for the microcephaly increase] with great consequences for getting it right, or wrong. We would be in a better position to make the choice if pesticides were tested more rigorously before being used.”

In fact, one of the world’s leading virologists, Dr Leslie Lobel, recently told the Guardian that it is not clear that the microcephaly cases in Brazil are linked to the Zika virus and that there was “a strong possibility pesticides could be involved and this needed to be studied”.

The reason it needs to be studied is because, as Myers’ points out, there’s a relative lack of hard and independently generated data on pesticides like pyriproxyfen, thanks to an inadequate regulatory system.

The Argentine doctors are not to blame for this regulatory failure and they should not be censured for flagging up questions about the chemical.

Axes to grind

Why are some people so keen to dismiss the doctors’ suggestion out of hand? It has been suggested that those flagging up the possibility of a connection between pyriproxyfen and microcephaly have a hidden agenda.

For example, Professor Andrew Batholomaeus, one of the “experts” quoted by the Science Media Centre of Australia in defence of the larvicide’s safety, said: “Journalists covering this story would do well to research the background of those making and reporting the claims as the underlying story and potential public health consequences may be far more newsworthy than the current headlines.”

But it’s surely no surprise if Argentine physicians, who have had to deal at first hand with the suffering caused by the GMO soy revolution in Argentina with its accompanying pesticide onslaught, should be particularly alert to the role of pesticides in health and development issues in Latin America – and suspicious of the safety claims of chemical corporations.

The doctors say their local communities are facing an exploding health crisis, which includes children suffering unusual birth defects. And in neighbouring Brazil the country’s National Cancer Institute says the release of GM crops has helped make the country the largest consumer of agrochemicals in the world.

Industry-friendly attackers

Also, some of those leading the attacks on the pesticides hypothesis could also be accused of having an agenda.

Julie Kelly, for instance, uses her National Review article to attack Mark Ruffalo not just for drawing attention to the larvicide theory but also over his campaigning on climate change and fracking, his support for sustainable energy, and his publicly confronting the CEO of Monsanto over the impact of his company’s products:

“None of that is true, but you can’t really expect a guy who thinks 322 million Americans can survive on wind turbines to actually deal with reality. This week, though, Ruffalo’s arrogance and ignorance caught up with him. He tweeted out an egregiously inaccurate article blaming pesticides – not mosquitos – for transmitting the Zika virus and causing certain birth defects (it was retweeted more than 500 times). Ruffalo eagerly put the blame on a Monsanto subsidiary (which also turned out to be false) and called it the ‘true cause of Brazil’s microcephaly outbreak.’ The actor was called out by the New York Times and other news outlets for spreading the conspiracy theory; Ruffalo later retweeted an article debunking the rumor yet refused to acknowledge his mistake.”

Kelly, who is married to a lobbyist for the agricultural commodities giant ADM, is a self-declared member, along with Monsanto personnel, of the Kevin Folta ‘fan club‘ – Kevin Folta being the GMO-loving / Roundup-drinking scientist who denied having any links to Monsanto even though he’d received $25,000 from the company for his biotech communication programme and had other notable industry connections besides.

Interestingly, Tamar Haspel appears far from keen to explore the ties between companies like Monsanto and academics at public universities like Kevin Folta, and has herself been accused of collaborating closely with the agrochemical industry and of batting for Monsanto.

And perhaps the most virulent attack on the Argentine doctors, published predictably in Forbes, was contributed by another Folta fan. Kavin Senapathy also regularly co-authors pieces with Henry Miller, a climate skeptic and staunch defender of DDT and other controversial pesticides, not to mention the tobacco industry.

So where does this leave us?

Yes, the Argentine doctors and some of their supporters may be said to have an agenda, but as we have seen, that charge can just as easily be levelled against some of those keen to debunk their concerns.

The connection to Monsanto may have been overstated by the doctors, and even more by some news outlets, but it wasn’t invented – Sumitomo Chemical is Monsanto’s long-term strategic partner.

There has also been a misplaced attack on those of us who have drawn attention to the concerns of the Brazilian public health researchers about pyriproxyfen and other chemicals. I’ll be looking at that in a subsequent article.

And as one of the world’s leading virologists has also flagged up the need to take seriously that notion that pesticides could be involved, I’m going to be looking more at this critical issue, including what scientists do and don’t know about pyriproxyfen.



Claire Robinson is an editor at GMWatch.

This article was originally published by GMWatch.

Also on The Ecologist:Argentine and Brazilian doctors suspect mosquito insecticide as cause of microcephaly‘ by Claire Robinson.


Another 15 years? EU set to relicense glyphosate

The European Commission plans to give a new 15-year lease to a controversial weedkiller that was deemed probably carcinogenic to humans by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

A draft implementing law seen by the Guardian says the Commission has decided it is appropriate to renew the licence for glyphosate after a lengthy review, which sparked a scientific storm.

EU national representatives will vote on whether to relicense glyphosate at a meeting of the Council of Ministers in Brussels on 7th March.

Glyphosate is a key ingredient in bestselling herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup brand and is so widely used that traces of its residues are routinely found in British breads.

The EU’s food watchdog, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) ruled in November that the substance was unlikely to be carcinogenic, in a move welcomed by the agricultural industry.

But that advice triggered a backlash, with 96 prominent experts, including almost the whole IARC team, taking the unusual step of calling for the EFSA decision to be disregarded.

EFSA view based on unpublished industry studies

The EFSA ruling had relied on six industry-funded and partly unpublished studies and was “not credible because it is not supported by the evidence”, the scientists wrote in a letter (pdf) to the EU’s health commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis.

Earlier this week, another 14 scientists signed a consensus statement in the journal Environmental Health, saying regulatory estimates of tolerable exposure levels for glyphosate were based on outdated science.

The Labour party’s shadow environment secretary, Kerry McCarthy, said the public had understandable concerns about the possible impact of substances such as glyphosate on their health.

She told the Guardian: “Public policy should always be evidence based and guided by the best available science. There must be transparency and accountability throughout the process, with the evidence behind the policy making published and made available, so that the public can have full confidence in – or the information they need to challenge – this decision.”

The Commission’s draft renewal says there was an “extraordinarily high” number of comments from the public and member states during the review.

Monsanto used to claim it was ‘as safe as table salt’

The paper does propose some restrictions on the use of glyphosate. National authorities should enforce risk-mitigation measures such as protective clothing for crop sprayers, and ensure the glyphosate used in herbicides they may authorise is the same formulation as was tested by EFSA.

The renewal calls for further studies on the endocrine disrupting potential of glyphosate to be completed before August.

However, environmentalists said the proposal flew in the face of a censure of the commission by the EU ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, earlier this week for accepting proof of a pesticide’s safety after its use had already been authorised.

Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU‘s food policy director, said: “Glyphosate was once described by Monsanto as ‘safe as table salt’. Now science is telling us that it’s a serious threat for our health and the environment. Ignoring the evidence for another 15 years will cost us dearly. Europe needs an exit strategy from chemical pesticides.”

A spokesman for the European Crop Protection Association said: “If the European Commission deems a renewal appropriate, we would hope that EU member states would then support such a proposal.”

Public fears about glyphosate were evident again this week as about 3,000 boxes of ‘organic’ women’s panty liners were removed from store shelves in France and Canada after they were found to contain traces of glyphosate.



Arthur Neslen is the Europe environment correspondent at the Guardian. He has previously worked for the BBC, the Economist, Al Jazeera, and EurActiv, where his journalism won environmental awards. He has written two books about Israeli and Palestinian identity.

This article was originally published on the Guardian Environment and is republished with thanks via the Guardian Environment Network.