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Wireless Broadband: (Buy It and) Build It and They Will Come

The 700 MHz auction is winding down to a close, with experts saying it may well end in the next few days. Already the activity seems over in the critical C block, where itâ''s expected that a major carrier, probably Verizon, has won.

The bidding has been blind, and no one will know who bid what until itâ''s all over, but Google is believed to have bid to the point at which the FCC minimum of $4.6 billion was met. At that point, the open-access rules that the FCC imposed, at Googleâ''s behest, will govern the operation of the eventual network.

That is, whoever runs the network will have to allow its customers to use their own devicesâ''customers wonâ''t be limited to cellphones and data cards sold by the carrier. Similarly, developers can create applications and services for the network without having to work with the carrier, whether itâ''s a game like Tetris or a collection of ringtones.

The Register has an interesting article concluding that the C block winner just about has to be a major carrier. Itâ''s a long and complicated argument, but, briefly, it goes like this: The 700 MHz band being auctioned have been called â''the last beachfront spectrumâ'' because of its excellent propagation characteristics, but itâ''s not really ideal for all possible uses. In particular, its ability to transmit signals over long distances is great for rural areas, where carriers can cover more terrain with fewer base stations. But it can have problems in urban areas (even though does a better job of punching through apartment and office walls), because the very excellence of its propagation make it more likely that signals will trail into other nearby cells, causing interference there.

The upshot is that, in the view of the Register, the 700 MHz spectrum is probably best used in a nationwide network that blends other 3G spectrum, such as the 1.9 MHz bands that AT&T and Verizon already control, for urban areas, with 700 MHz spectrum in urban areas.

Increasingly in the world of cellular there are such combinations in existence already. A device may have a radio operating in 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1.9 MHz and shortly 1.7 MHz, 2.1 MHz and 2.5 MHz, all potentially in the same device. [....]

In the end it is more likely that a fat 2.5 GHz (90 MHz wide) will become the best way to transmit large chunks of two way mobile internet access in a town, and that networks will eventually emerge combining that with longer wavelengths (lower MHz) out of town. There are lots of combinations possible.

Which leads us to one of the first points we made, that 700 MHz is fundamentally a rural get out clause for operators that â''already haveâ'' networks. It makes rural build out cheaper, more effective, and it can happen more rapidly. So that in turn makes if more valuable to companies that already have nationwide wireless networks. As a result AT&T and Verizon are likely to be the major bidders.

The reference to 2.5 GHz is, of course, to Sprint and its under-construction 4G network, dubbed Xohm, which we picked as a winner in our January 2008 isssue (see â''Sprintâ''s Broadband Gambleâ'').

Recently thereâ''s been a lot of speculation that Sprint canâ''t afford to build Xohm, or that its shareholders wonâ''t let it. But, as CNet reported last week, Dan Hesse, Sprintâ''s new president and CEO,

indicated that Sprint is moving forward with its WiMax network, called Xohm. Previously, there had been some speculation that Sprint might abandon its WiMax efforts.

â''Leave no doubt that the first priority is our core business," he said. "But Sprint has an enormous asset in the 100Mhz of spectrum (that is being used to build Xohm), and we have a three-year head start with Xohm.â''

Getting back the Registerâ''s argument, Iâ''m not convincedâ''after all, the 700 MHz spectrum will have been bought and paid for in urban areas as well as rural ones, at premium prices, the spectrum will have to be used for there to be a return on that investment.

The conclusion seems right, thoughâ''the likely winner is either Verizon or AT&T, and thereâ''s reason to think itâ''s Verizon. First, they made clear before the auction that they would bid aggressively on the C Block, and it was Verizon that protested, initially, against the Google open-access rules. Second, experts expected AT&T to be more attracted to the piecemeal A and B block bands, which involves lots of little geographical areas. AT&T already has a robust 3G network which only needs to be filled in here and there, the thinking has been.

Letâ''s consider again the fate of Xohm. Despite Dan Hesseâ''s assurances, Sprint faces some enormous challenges, as the CNet article spells out. Sprint posted â''a $29.5 billion loss for the fourth quarter of 2007 and warned that the company would continue to lose customers at an alarming rate in the coming year.â'' It eliminated its dividend and â''had to borrow some $2.5 billion just to get access to cash.â'' Churn is an enormous problem, having lost 683,000 customers in Q4 and â''likely lose another 1.2 million post-paid customers in the first quarter of 2008.â'' The old CEO was fired last summer. A planned WiMax partnership with Seattle-based Clearwire has fallen apart.

Not long ago, I went to an invitation-only press briefing by the high-tech analytical firm, ABI Research. We journalists, naturally, grilled the gurus there about Xohmâ''s prospects in the face of these difficulties.

We were told that Xohm is such a good idea, that the uses for wireless broadband are so great, and the need for a third, competitive, nation-wide broadband offering into each home beyond cable and DSL, so compelling, that Xohm will succeed even if Sprint has to sell it to someone who will build it. Craig McCaw, the founder of Clearwire, could buy it and build it. Or a group of investors could.

But it occurs to me that Google, having not bought the 700 MHz C Block despite seeming to have compelling reasons for doing so, could turn around and snap up Xohm. For a company thatâ''s worth more than twice the entire U.S. car manufacturing industry, stranger things have happened.

Responsibility of the failed Nanodynamics IPO points to underwriter

Despite a reasoned a conclusion that the failure of Nanodynamicsâ'' $100-million IPO on the Dubai exchange put forth on this blog may have been the result of poor underlying economics for the company, it appears that the fault may have instead been with the underwriter.

In an investigative piece by Alan Shalleck of Nanoclarity for Nanotech-Now, it is deduced that the lead underwriter, Global Crown Capital Ltd. (GCC), failed to put the underwriting funds into the issuerâ''s account, namely Nanodynamics, and this breach of the rules forced Nanodynamics to voluntarily de-list the stock and return the money to those who had purchased the stock.

It seems interest in the company was thereâ''all the shares were pre-sold, but according to the rules of IPOs the underwriter has to first buy all the shares and then sell them. According to the Shalleck piece, the problem was that GCC just never put the $50 million for purchasing the shares into Nanodynamicsâ'' accounts.

If this is indeed the case, as Shalleck points out, caveat emptor to nanotech startups. Make sure you have a good underwriter.

Taiwan claims almost $10 billion economic impact from nanotechnologies

After pouring in a reported NT$18.9 billion ($615 million) to a six-year program developed by the Council for Economic Planning and Development (CEPD) to support the application of nanotechnology for commercial use, the CEPD is now prepared to say that this has helped create NT$300 billion ($9.68 billion) in nanotechnology production value.

Weâ''ll certainly have to take the Taiwanese governmentâ''s word for this figure based on the published reports since there is little other data to support the claim.

The only specifics provided pertain to a commercial project that has not yet launched in the field of MRAM (magnetic random access memory) that is reported to have a production value of over NT$10 billion ($320 million).

The more general information claims that â''800 Taiwanese manufacturers mainly from electronic industries and traditional industries, which have upgraded these industries by making value-added products such as textiles with an anti-bacterial purifying finishâ'' make up this $9.68 billion impact.

There is no question that Taiwan has a well-organized (an actual strategic plan), well-funded and highly centralized nanotechnology initiative that has a native industrial base, primarily electronics, which will benefit from innovations provided by nanotechnology. So, if any country is going to reap the benefits of its nanotechnology initiative, it would likely be a country like Taiwan.

But it would be nice to support these numbers with some more specifics. It leaves me wondering where all the nanotechnology- economic-metric skeptics have gone.

Sony Pulls Plug on Historic Trinitron TV

As time marches on, even the best technologies fall by the wayside. So it is now with the storied Trinitron cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitor. On Monday, according to numerous sources, Sony Corp. said it will end production of all CRT television sets worldwide, closing the book on the Trinitron, which was considered the top brand name in TVs in its time.

The secret of the Trinitron's rise to prominence was the revolutionary design of its CRT. Invented by E.O. Lawrence in the 1960s (who called it the Chromotron), it used a single emitter to fire the electrons that produce red, geen, and blue light and focused them on an aperture grille made of horizontal filaments, as opposed to the conventional shadow mask design then common. Sony patented Lawrence's design in 1967 and began a long marketing campaign that eventually resulted in the more-expensive Trinitron becoming a hit in the marketplace in North America and Europe in the prosperous 1980s. For years, owning a Trinitron TV was a status symbol in many countries.

The quality of the Trinitron's picture also induced many computer manufacturers to license its CRT technology for use in some of the first commercially successful integrated color displays, as well as later standalone monitors. Firms such as Apple Computer, Dell, Gateway, IBM, and Sun Microsystems were all early adopters of the Trinitron.

At the height of its popularity, Sony produced 20 million Trinitron units a year. All told, the company manufactured some 280 million Trinitrons over four decades.

In 1996, however, Sony's patent rights expired, and competitors such as Mitsubishi began incorporating the technology into their monitors and TVs. More importantly, the CRT itself began to be challenged in the late Nineties by new flat-screen technologies such as plasma and liquid crystal displays. Where the Trinitron had been the "must have" color monitor of a previous generation, the flat displays became the status symbol of a new one. And the bulky CRTs were slowly consigned to the garbage pile of history.

(For more on the transition from CRTs to flat screens, please see our feature article "Goodbye, CRT" in our November 2006 issue.)

Monday's news from Sony really concerned only the last manufacturing facilities the company employs to make Tinitrons, for retail in some Latin American and Asian nations. Sony had previously shuttered other facilities that sold into the Japanese, European, and North American markets.

"We are going to end production of cathode ray tubes at the end of March," a Sony spokesman said Monday.

It will bring to a close a fascinating chapter in the history of electronics. Farewell, Trinitron, you were once the best.

Climate Skeptics Show Force in New York

The Heartland Instituteâ''s International Conference on Climate Change (motto: â''global warming is not a crisisâ''), which ended yesterday in New York City, might be quickly written off because of the â''dizzying rangeâ'' and inconsistency of ideas expressed, as Andrew Revkin put in The New York Times, or the presumed vested interests bankrolling the meeting. But that is too facile. If nothing else, Heartlandâ''which describes itself as dedicated to â''promoting free-market solutions to social and economic problemsâ''â''mustered an impressive number of cosponsors: more than 50 organizations with a similar social philosophy, many of them in Europe.

Free marketeers have looked upon climate alarmism with a jaded eye, seeing it as a Trojan horse for statism, central planning, and internationalism. But can they actually muster credible scientists to support their suspicions? The Heartland meeting, which took place March 3-4, suggests that they still can.

To sample the situation, I attended a set of sessions about paleoclimatology, the study of the earthâ''s climatic prehistory, gleaned from study of tree rings, and ice cores, among other indicators. I found a good deal to support my skepticism about the climate skeptics: highly technical talks with eccentric claims by scientists who are not actually climate professionals; selective use of limited time periods and data sets to support sweeping conclusions; scant mention of the pioneering geologists, ecologists, and glaciologists who laid the foundation for whatâ''s been, in the last 50 years, a revolution in paleoclimatology.

In a whole morning of talks about paleoglaciology, I heard scant mention of the ice scientists Dansgaard and Oeschger, and no critical discussion of their work. Itâ''s as if one were to hear four hours of talks critiquing the revolution in modern physics without mention of Einstein and Bohr.

But it was not all eccentric, empty, or ill-informed, either. Commenting on the 650,000-year ice-core record of greenhouse gases and global temperatures, astrophysicist Willie Soon poked fun with a cartoon comparing the relative roles of the Sun and carbon dioxide: the former Chicago Bears tackle Refrigerator Perry represented the Sun, while CO2 was personified by an average-sized Asian, namely Soon himself. Soon, who works for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, asked pointedly why the record shows changes in temperature leading rather than lagging behind changes in greenhouse gas levels, if itâ''s the carbon dioxide and methane changes that supposedly cause climate change. â''Itâ''s as if we said that cancer causes cigarette smoking,â'' he said, echoing other speakers.

Thatâ''s not the only argument weâ''ll be hearing more and more, as the debate heats up in the next year over whether the United States should adopt a carbon trading system and commit to a Kyoto-like schedule of greenhouse gas cuts. To judge from my Heartland sample, weâ''ll also be hearing doubts cast on the generally accepted estimate of pre-industrial greenhouse gas levels, the magnitude and geographic extent of the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age, and the scope and significance of carbon uptake by the oceans.

The climate skeptics are complaining that they have trouble being heard, and they may have a point. On the eve of the Bali conference, with Australia and perhaps even the United States heading toward belated membership in the Kyoto regime, 100 scientists signed a petition to the U.N. Secretary General rejecting climate alarmism. Sure, a lot of them were the usual suspects, people like Fred Seitz, the distinguished semiconductor physicist who first emerged in the public arena as an enthusiastic adherent of Ronald Reaganâ''s Star Wars program, and in recent years has just as enthusiastically denounced climate alarmism. But there also were some eye-catching new names, notably Freeman Dyson, the maverick math and physics theorist at Princetonâ''s Institute for Advanced Studies who is always interesting and often right.

DVD copy protection goes to the dogs


The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has spent years trying to prevent copying of movies. It tried technological fixesâ''scrambling signals in prerecorded videocassettes, copy protection codes in DVDs. It tried legal fixesâ''going after people and tools that unlocked copy protection codes. It promotes legislation intended to stop copying. And while it succeeded in putting a some companies out of business and inconveniencing consumers all this effort hasnâ''t done much to stop those determined to copy movies.

Back a couple of years ago, someone at the MPAA came up with a different approach: train dogs to sniff out DVDs hidden in luggage.

You can see how this idea came about. Mass commercial copying of DVDs is happening outside of the U.S.; many of those disks get back to the U.S., either in bulk or as one-offs brought back by travelers. Stop those disks at the source, and you cut off at least some sales of pirated material. Iâ''m imagining the folks at MPAA had a brainstorming meeting to discuss possible solutions.

â''Iâ''m thinking Terminator,â'' says one guy. "We get a cyborg assassin, we send him back in time, and we eliminate every person who had a hand in the development of the DVD.â'' His colleagues gently remind him that robot assassins donâ''t exist, and even if they did, the DVD was a collaborative effort involving a dozen companies and countless engineers.

â''Wait, then, Iâ''ve got it, and I know this would really work. I think we need a dog detective. Iâ''m sure this would work. After all, Turner and Hooch did $71 million box office. And donâ''t forget Benji, or Lassie. Dogs are huge!â''

â''Yeah, thatâ''s it,â'' a colleague agrees. "Dog Detective. But itâ''s gotta be a buddy flick, you need two cute dogsâ'¿â''

In 2007 the MPAA did a pilot of the concept, training two dogs, Lucky and Flo, and sending them out to the Philippines and Malaysia, where they sniffed out unmarked boxes of DVDs from piles of packages. They reportedly even found a box containing one DVD under piles of dog food. During the six month test, the dogs reportedly sniffed out 1.6 million illegal disks. Lucky and Flo are now popstars, featured in an antipiracy campaign aimed at schoolchildren.

This week, the MPAA launched the sequelâ''Paddy and Manny. The organization donated these trained dogs to the Malaysian Government. They will be targeting suspect warehouses and retail stores, seeking the apparently unique smell of DVDs.

Thereâ''s no reason why DVD sniffing dogs canâ''t become as commonplace in airport luggage areas as drug-sniffing dogs. The problem is, however, that pirate DVDs smell just like legitimate DVDs. And that would definitely increase the hassle factor of air travel. I can totally see myself getting busted in an airport, not for DVD smuggling, but when Iâ''m traveling with my family Iâ''ve got DVDs and CDs stashed all over my luggageâ''audio books burned to CD for the rental car, a case full of movies for the portable DVD player, DVDs of the kidsâ'' latest school plays to hand out to grandparents. Those dogs would be all over me.

Photo credit: MPAA

Video Killed the Radio Star, But Free Isn't Killing the Rock Star

Back in October, the music group Radiohead released a new 10-song album that fans could download for free. Now the group 9 Inch Nails is doing the same thing.

According to NME News, for Radiohead, fans were given a set of choices, including, for £40 the CD, a pair of old-fashined vinyl records, photographs and liner notes, and a second CD containing 8 more new songs, all in a beautiful box.

NME now reports that 9 Inch Nails, led by rock star Trent Reznor, has a similar strategy:

The 36-track instrumental record, recorded in a ten-week period last year, is available in a variety of download options and as a physical copy.

Nine Inch Nails fans have even more options than Radioheadâ''s. They include

a free download featuring the collection's first nine tracks, a $5 download featuring the whole album, a $10 two-CD set (either via the website or in shops from April 5) and a $75 deluxe edition, including a hardcover book and a data DVD and a Blu-ray disc featuring high definition recordings and a slide show.

There is also an â''ultra deluxeâ'' limited edition version for £300 which features the same items as the $75 version, but also signed and numbered by Trent Reznor himself.

The strategy of offering something for free in order to make more money from may have been scary when it first started, but we have quite a bit of experience now that says it works. Back in 2002, I asked the question, â''Does file-sharing of copyrighted material harm sales today?â''

The movie, music, and book trade associations say it does. But for each form of entertainment, a growing body of evidence suggests otherwiseâ''and not all of the evidence is anecdotal. In an April 2002 study of about 3000 individuals, research firm Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. (New York City) found that â''experienced file-sharers are more likely to actually increase the amount of money they spend on CDs.â'' Thirty-four percent said they spent more than before on music, twice as many as said they spent less (15 percent).

Even back then, I found plenty of examples from the movie and book industries that argued for the same case. And even earlier, in October 2001, I argued that complicated digital rights management schemes might be self-defeating, inhibiting sales to such an extent that companies would make more money by letting music go free, especially if other sources of revenueâ''concert tickets, memorabilia, perhaps even a tax on blank mediaâ''could be found.

Certainly the most successful digital rights management systemâ''the FairPlay system used in Appleâ''s iTunesâ''places the lightest burden on consumers. Once you buy your songs, you can burn them them to a CD and then convert the files to MP3s(I use Switch Plus ). The resulting files can be copied anywhere, anytime, with no further ado.

As simple as that process is, Steve Jobs proposed last year to do away with DRM entirely.

Radiohead and 9 Inch Nails are doing just what seemed, even back in 2001, to make the most sense. Theyâ''re giving up the façade of DRM and finding alternative ways to make money off their music, including these elegant boxed sets, high-definition videos, detailed lyrics and liner notes, and more. In fact, the £300 limited edition has already sold out its run of 2500. Doing the math, thatâ''s a quick $1.5 million. They will, of course, make another fortune off the tours associated with the new music.

Not every music group has as much name recognition and marketing muscle as these two. Not every group will succeed with quite the same strategy. But the old strategies are faltering, and musical groups, and eventually movie studios and book publishers, will need new ones. For the next few years at least, theyâ''ll have to be as creative as the acts, actors, and authors theyâ''re selling.

Study: U.K. Girls Best Boys in Computer Skills

In Britain, the girls are beating the boys these days when it comes to information technology. A new study by a foundation that raises money for computers in the classroom has found that school-age girls perform basic tasks such as downloading online files better than their male counterparts.

The U.K. study was undertaken by Tesco Computers for Schools, an organization sponsored by Tesco, a commercial retailer based in Hertfordshire, England. It questioned 1024 U.K. parents with children ages 7 to 16 by phone. The results of the survey found British parents gave higher marks to their daughters than their sons straight across the board when it came to understanding fundamental user skills.

The girls topped the boys with the following grades:

  • Find what they need on a search engine: 83%

  • Create and edit a word document: 73%

  • Download photos: 52%

  • Create a social networking profile: 44%

  • Use and manipulate photography: 25%

The survey also asked the parents to rate themselves in comparison to their children at performing the same tasks and found the youngsters were in charge when it came to IT in the household. Only 40% of parents judged themselves as superior at computer use, with 57% admitting they relied on their kids for advice on doing things online and off.

The Tesco poll found that British boys and girls are as plugged into the information age as just about any other nation's. It stated that 76% spend up to 3 hours a day at the computer, with 41% responding that they "couldn't live without the Internet."

"It's great to see children really getting to grips with technology and being creative with it," commented Debra Stones, the manager of the Tesco Computers for Schools project. "Whilst most children now have access to computers, whether that is at home or at school, this is not necessarily the case when it comes to digital multimedia gadgets and other creative equipment."

She added that it is vital to equip schools with the latest educational hardware and software to foster technological "growth and development."

If you would like to participate in this worthy project, you can get onboard at a Tesco outlet by simply purchasing goods and services and redeeming special Computers for Schools vouchers. To learn more about the campaign, visit its How It Works site on the Web.

If you have any trouble finding it, you can always ask one of your children for help.

Out of Africa: the Evolving Web Cafe

Mark Davies is one of the great unsung heroes of the information-technology scene in Africa.

The founder of the finest Internet café in the sub-Saharan â'' the spacious and stimulating Busyinternet café in Accra, Ghana â'' Davies is true original character who recognizes the monumental deficit in African scientific and technological communities. The signal problem is not money, or opportunity or â''bandwidthâ'' or even brain drain. Rather the big deficit in Africa for technical people is social networking.

Everything Davies does in Africa is based on his shrewd understanding that until Africans communicate with one another more effectively â'' and build fluid networks that can improvise and tackle urgent problems â'' technological innovation will always lag in the region. Creating ad hoc, ever-evolving teams of African innovators is the key -- a form of social knowledge more important than any electronic tool or service.

BusyInternet has been a smash hit in Ghana -- and drawn accolades around the world -- not because of its computers or connectivity, but because this spacious meeting place in the middle of Accra has served to link talented young people together, permitting them to grow in unexpected ways by drawing on each other's talents.

Davies, who hails from Wales and came to Africa by way of California, is a relentless experimenter, always trying to upend African stereotypes. His new project is called TradeNet, that tries to leverage the mobile phone and agriculture â'' the fact that many successful African farmers now own phones and use them to help conduct business.

Hereâ''s how Ethan Zuckerman, who follows technology matters in Africa closely, describes Davies, whom he's spent time with in Accra (as I have):

â''Mark is one of the key figures in Ghanaâ''s IT scene. After retiring from the dotcom world in 2000 (he was one of the founders of Metrobeat, which became part of CitySearch), he poured his energy into the founding of BusyInternet, a remarkable cybercafe and business incubator in downtown Accra. In more recent years, Mark has been helping to build software businesses in Ghana, working with programmers around the world, but especially focusing on African software developers. Given the model I started Geekcorps with - encouraging local IT entrepreneurship - I canâ''t help but be a fan.

â''TradeNet is designed to take advantage of the boom in mobile phones on the African continent, a boom thatâ''s put mobile phones in the hands of 10% of Africansâ'¿ an amazing growth over the number of people connected via wired telephony. TradeNet is designed to be an open marketplace for buyers and sellers of agricultural products throughout West Africa. The reason for this is simple: most farmers sell their goods to wholesalers located near to them. They might get much better prices for their goods selling to customers located elsewhere in the country or the region. But without accurate pricing information, itâ''s difficult for a farmer to invest the money neccesary to bring goods to a faraway market.

â''TradeNet tries to solve this problem by letting farmers and customers post their products and find each other via the web and SMS. Theyâ''re building a set of server software that NGOs or for-profits could use to build local or national exchanges. As the software gains popularity, it should become increasingly possible to search for products both locally and internationally using little more than a mobile phone and an account.â''

The code for TradeNet was written in Accra by African codewriters -- another hallmark of Davies' approach. He nurtures local talent. While commercial success has yet to come for TradeNet, the project is both a dazzling example of whatâ''s possible in Africa â'' and a reminder of how technologists can easily get ahead of their times. Information is a big issue for African farmers, and there is no question that the mobile has helped keep African farmers informed as never before.

But the problem of selling crops â'' and food products generally â'' is not solved by identifying customers and making deals. TradeNet indeed helps this process enormously and deserves being tested widely. But the problem moving material goods from one place to another remains. The cost of transporting goods is quite high in Africa â'' when it is even possible to do. Too much produce still spoils in Africa for lack of ready transport. And the Internet, not even linked to the mobil phone, wonâ''t change that.

Out of Africa: is the cult of organic keeping people poor?

Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, thinks he knows why African farmers are poor: they've been systematically denied the benefits of biotechnology, cut off from modernizing forces by a cabal of European donors and stupid African governments. In his new book, "Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa," Paarlberg makes a cogent case for why how genetically-modified seeds and biotech generally can help African farmers. He also examines the perverse incentives African governments receive for continuing to oppose GM crops.

Paarlberg wrote in The International Herald Tribune on Friday: "In Europe, meanwhile, some official donors and nongovernmental agencies are working to block farm modernization in Africa. Despite Africa's worsening soil nutrient deficits, European donors like to promote costly organic farming techniques as the alternative to chemical fertilizer use. This is not how European farmers escaped poverty. Only 4 percent of cropland in Europe is currently being farmed organically (and less than 1 percent in America), but European NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace tell Africa's poor this is the path they should follow."

I've seen first-hand in Africa some of the costs of promoting organic crops: lower yields often mean less money for farmers, even when their organic crop fetches higher prices. Mark Wood, an agricultural expert from Zimbabwe who most recently has done wonders in Uganda, is fond of telling people that the organic movement is immoral so long as it continues to deliver lower incomes -- and more poverty -- to Africans.

The answer isn't always to say no to organic crops. In Uganda, the Memphis cotton trading enterprise, Dunavant, has shifted nearly all of its production to organic, in one swoop becoming the largest single buyer of organic cotton in all of sub-Saharan Africa. Dunavant's Uganda chief, Pacu Patel, and I discussed the shift on my recent visit to Kampala. Patel waxed enthusiastic about the potential for "inter-cropping" other organic crops along side of cotton. Dunvant, he promises, is prepared to buy and market these crops internationally.

So there are organic success stories in Africa. Paarlberg is wrong to dismiss these. He also overlooks the costs of importing exotic biotechnologies into Africa. Some of these costs will fall onto farmers themselves, not their governments. And these farmers must ask, are the benefits (in higher revenues from crops) worth the added cost? Often additional "input" costs are not recouped in Africa.

To be sure, I have advocated myself that the biotech revolution must come to Africa in an essay for Arizona State University's Consortium on Science, Policy & Outcomes, "GM Comes to Africa (sort of)." The time is surely right, what with prices of wheat, corn and coffee -- all grown in Africa -- at very high levels. There is no question that GM seeds will make African farmers more competitive in cotton, for example. Important work is also being done by Ohio State University in cassava, a root crop that is a basic staple in many parts of west and southern Africa. Monstanto, meanwhile, continues to push governments in Africa to follow the lead of South Africa, where biotechnology is being used to good effect.

The potential for massive gains in African output seems only possible with an assist from biotechnology. But Paarlberg's argument is not simply about science and technology, of course, but about politics. African politics is strange indeed, and the role of donors in pushing their own agendas hardly stops with agriculture. So I am unconvinced that the situation is as dire as Paarlberg insists.

Biotechnology is coming to Africa, and should make a larger impact, sooner, than many think. Professor Paarlberg, understandably, is impatient.


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