Battling the Threat of Famine with One Hand Tied—Thanks Again Greenpeace and FOE

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A virulent strain of stem rust identified as Ug99 is spreading rapidly through wheat crops in Africa. For decades, this devastating fungal disease has been kept in check thanks to the work of plant breeders like Peace Nobelist Norman Borlaug. As the Washington Post reported earlier this week:

Eighty percent of Asian and African wheat varieties are now susceptible, and so is barley, FAO experts said. Scientists named the new menace Ug99 for its discovery in Uganda in 1999. But they say it probably started earlier in Kenya, where more wheat is grown.

The [International Wheat and Maize] research center in Mexico published a warning of "a pending disaster in global agriculture."…

Unlike common rust infestations, which reduce but do not wipe out yields, stem rust can topple a whole field. "It can take everything," said Robert McIntosh, former director of Australia's rust-control program. "It is the most damaging of the rusts."

As Borlaug warned in a New York Times op/ed last year:

If millions of small-scale farmers see their wheat crops wiped out for want of new disease-resistant varieties, the problem will not be confined to any one country. Rust spores move long distances in the jet streams and know no political boundaries. Widespread failures in global wheat production will push the prices of all foods higher, causing new misery for the world's poor.

Ug99 could reduce world wheat production by 60 million tons.

The good news is that wheat breeders have identified some varieties that contain genes that confer some resistance to the Ug99 strain. The bad news is that wheat breeders have to rely on slower traditional crossbreeding rather than faster modern biotech methods to get the fungus-resistant genes into productive varieties. As Nature reports:

All these approaches will probably rely on traditional breeding methods, and public reluctance about transgenic crops is likely to keep transgenic approaches off the table for some time. In 2004, Monsanto, an agricultural company headquartered in St Louis, Missouri, announced that it was halting development of transgenic herbicide-resistant strains of wheat after US farmers expressed concerns that they would not be able to export the crops to other countries. "The transgenic option is open," says [Beat] Keller [a wheat researcher from the University of Zurich in Switzerland], "but I don't think we're going to see that application very soon."

And just why is the public leery of using genetic engineering to improve crops? Because activist organizations like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Organic Consumers Association, have spent millions on unscientific campaigns (aka spreading lies) about biotech crops.

Let's hope that plant breeders constrained by politicized science will, nevertheless, succeed in developing rust-resistant varieties in time to prevent a stem rust famine.

NEXT: The Loophole Won't Be Any Smaller Next February

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  1. This is like No Blade of Grass. Creepy. And bad.

  2. You can blame the crop failures on the wing nuts who think that scientific genetic modification of plants is somehow bad. As the article states, it can be done through crossbreeding, a time honored slow but effective method. but science can transfer the genes in one swoop with a mod.

  3. er…. what my point was is that genetic enginering just speeds up the crossbreeding and the viral genetic drift. it does not replace it, or make the plants evil.

  4. This is like No Blade of Grass. Creepy. And bad.
    __________________________________________
    lets legalize hemp, the seed is food, the fiber is canvas and cloth, it is a weed. no sucsptible to grass diseases for the most part.the seed oil can be made into biodiesle, it is also a much sought after paint additive in art, because the hempseed oil will not cause the paint fade and crack up like linseed can in time. it is a medicine etc etc etc.
    sorry, just seemed like a place to plant some good info about alt crops, lol

  5. the hempseed oil

    I’ll stick with my rapeseed oil, thanks.

  6. I am sure you like rape more than hemp Epi, lol

  7. “Horizontal Gene Transfer”: nature does it all the time.

    Annual Review of Genetics
    Vol. 28: 237-261 (Volume publication date December 1994)
    (doi:10.1146/annurev.ge.28.120194.001321)
    Horizontal Gene Transfer: Evidence and Possible Consequences
    by M Syvanen

    “Progress in the field of molecular genetics over the last 25 years has led to many different observations consistent with horizontal gene transfers. It is not just that there are dozens of examples of likely horizontal transfers, but that the mechanisms which could accommodate horizontal transfer of DNA are observed everywhere. Multiple mechanisms for the physical transfer of DNA from one species to another are known. Recombination mechanisms that can absorb this DNA are ubiquitous. Examples of cells and organisms that will express and incorporate products from foreign genes are too numerous to list.”

    Horizontal Gene Transfer: Evidence and Possible Consequences

  8. Some farmers should go ahead and plant the crop anyway.

    Then, when the non-resistant variaties are decimated, the guys who are opposed to genetically engineered food will face the choice between paying twice as much for an “unsullied” bushel of wheat than they would for a resistant bushed.

    I doubt their opposition to genetically engineered foodstuffs would overcome such a huge price differential.

  9. Greenpeace and FOE: Making the world a better place. One dead African at a time.

  10. I’ll stick with my rapeseed oil, thanks.

    I thought you cooked with opium latex and coca oil…

  11. I doubt their opposition to genetically engineered foodstuffs would overcome such a huge price differential
    _______________________________________________
    ever tried to reason with a peta person…..

  12. I don’t want to interrupt the Two-Minute Hate, but is sorghum susceptible to stem rust? How about oats, or rye, or millet?

    Is the choice really biotech wheat or dead Africans?

  13. oh and by peta person, i mean the way out there enviromentalist types, i just lump them all in with peta. 6 of one half a dozen of the other same same.

  14. Greenpeace and FOE: Making the world a better place. One dead African at a time.

    Don’t be unkind. It’s thousands at a time.

    Tens, sometimes.

    Progress!

  15. Maurkov, these are subsistance farmers. If their entire crop is destroyed, starvation could ensue long before the next growing season comes around for them to switch crops.

  16. a pending disaster in global agriculture

    is a feature of our policies, not a bug.

  17. It’s not quite true that direct genetic manipulation is just a faster version of crossbreeding. The former can create genetic codes that would never occur through crossbreeding no matter how long you did it.

  18. Is the choice really biotech wheat or dead Africans?

    Always a good question. But at this point, I’d have to assume that if simply planting another crop were the solution, I’m guessing that would have been done already, and we wouldn’t be reading about this.

    It’s probably way more complex than that. BakedPenguin’s comments on subsistence farmers being one of those issues.

  19. I propose banning the importation into Washington, DC of any crops, genetically modified or otherwise, and any animal or animal products that have been tainted with crops through feeding. Also, anyone who works in DC (specifically on Pennsylvania Avenue) but lives outside the city, should be forced not to consume any crops or animal products, with a strict testing regime in place.

  20. Maurkov,

    IANAF (farmer), but I’m fairly certain than some crops grow better in some environments, while other crops thrive in different environments.

    We don’t grow a lot of oranges here in Michigan.

  21. Is the choice really biotech wheat or dead Africans?

    Oh, the dilemma! How shall I choose?!
    The agony!

    Biotech wheat or dead Africans? I JUST CAN’T DECIDE which is worse!

  22. Every time I see The Assault on Reason by Al Gore, I chuckle because I assume the title is ironic in a way Mr. Gore wouldn’t see irony.

    I’ve never bothered to read it. Anyone know what his take on biotech is since he’s someone the new Admin would listen to?

    Of course, I can look it up right now. But thought I’d throw it out there for everyone to at worst, make me laugh, when this subject is so depressing.

  23. Hazel,

    Al Sharpton is busy prosecuting a political cartoon right now to weigh in on your current dilemma.

    He’ll wait until after the famine and then tell us we were all racists because we didn’t do anything.

  24. torpido sez:

    It’s not quite true that direct genetic manipulation is just a faster version of crossbreeding. The former can create genetic codes that would never occur through crossbreeding no matter how long you did it.

    Did you read the paper I cited and quoted from, along with all the other similar papers?
    Nature transfers genes between species all the time.
    It’s called “horizontal gene transfer”.
    So your point is invalid according to observational data.

  25. Paul, it probably is more complex. I’d like to read that article.

    It seems that if there’s time to plant a different strain then there’s time to plant a different species. I doubt subsistence farmers are going to run out in droves to buy the latest seeds.

    J sub D, we’re talking about cereals– grass, basically. There are varieties that grow from Siberia to Ethiopia. IANAF, either, but I am a gardener, and I’ve been disappointed with plants advertised as resistant to X. If I’ve got a problem with X, I’m usually better off with a crop that doesn’t get X than with one that can tolerate it.

  26. I thought you cooked with opium latex and coca oil…

    I didn’t say one word about cooking with rapeseed oil.

  27. IANAF, either, but I am a gardener, and I’ve been disappointed with plants advertised as resistant to X. If I’ve got a problem with X, I’m usually better off with a crop that doesn’t get X than with one that can tolerate it.

    Join the Peace Corps. Off you go Africa and teach the ignorant savages what is the best food to grow on the land their ancestors have farmed for centuries.

    Just don’t ignore that their customers want wheat, are used to wheat and will buy wheat from their neighbors until the blight hits and none is available. Thge sorghum planters will make a fortune then if his new crop actually comes in. I just hope he doesn’t starve waiting for the stem rust to wiupe out the competitors.

    Oh yeah, I garden too. Different grasses thrive in different environments. Anyone with a lawn will tell you that.

  28. It seems that if there’s time to plant a different strain then there’s time to plant a different species.

    So African farmers should be forced to switch to an entirely new crop, and experience a radical alteration in dietary habits, rather than subject them to the horrors of eating a plant with a miniscule genetic modification.

    Because it’s “unnatural” to modify plant genes.

    Yeah. Lets do that. Anything to avoid polluting the genetic purity of plantlife.

  29. No, the worse part is that gen alt strains would require the entire Continent to lose its designation as ‘organic’.

    Then Europe would stop importing those billions of metric tons of foodstuffs it does annually from Africa.

  30. Quiz Time:

    Which organized political groups wanted to use coercive means to enforce the genetic purity of certain strains of H. sapiens?

    Which organized political groups want to use coercive means to enforce the genetic purity of certain strains of T. durum?

  31. Hazel I think I love you.

  32. J sub D, how is suggesting a different crop (that many of them already grow) any more ‘teaching the ignorant savages’ than providing them with a new strain (that they didn’t develop)? Right or wrong, what I’m not ignoring is that their customers (in Europe) want GMO free food.

    Sorghum is native to Africa. Nigeria is already the world’s second largest producer of millet. I’m not suggesting a campaign of agent orange followed by a carpetbombing of quinoa. These are crops many Africans already grow.

    Hazel, have you noticed yet that I’m not railing against GMO crops? Keep arguing with the environmentalist in your head. You’ll convince him soon, I’m sure.

    GMO crops are one of Ronald Bailey’s favorite hammers. He has failed to convince me that this is a nail.

  33. “J sub D, how is suggesting a different crop (that many of them already grow) any more ‘teaching the ignorant savages’ than providing them with a new strain (that they didn’t develop)? ”
    I’ll answer this one.
    One: The genetically modified crops are essentially the same in food quality as the original crops. Most people don’t like being told to change what they eat, if there’s an alternative.
    Two: I highly doubt most of their customers in Europe really would be so averse to GMO crops as the environmentalists make them out to be. Otherwise, they wouldn’t buy these brands, which tends to put a damper on business.

  34. Malto Dextrin,
    Don’t Godwin the thread, dammit!

  35. Liberals killing poor people and getting off on it: part one million.

    Sick, sick puppies. Torture is too good for them.

  36. Do understand that in Europe Monsanto is not seen as a kindly group of pioneering scientists in leather-patched cardigans trying to feed the planet.

    Over here they have a major public image problem, all science aside. They have just about the same public image as the white-caots lunatics who work in Dr No’s laboratories at his evil lair under the watchful eye of fanatical and jump-suited armed guards.

    Everytime they try a charm offensive using the kinds of corporate methods that work in the States they come across as self-serving American imperialists selling snake oil. Whatever they do ,they aren’t cool or amusing enough and what they do does not impress anyone.

    I don’t have the answer to it, but I do see the problem. They ask the European public to trust them but the are too earnestly and proudly Corporate America for that to happen.

  37. So, what I’m hearing is that Greenism is the Eurotrash equivalent of Fundieism in the USA.

    I understand why the innumerate and barely literate proles hold these ideas. What I don’t understand is why well informed and educated people push them.

  38. Oh great, Greenpeace is up to no good again!

    RT
    http://www.anonymity.eu.tc

  39. and don’t forget about how gene technology is being blamed for the bees!

    P&T interviewed Borlaug on one of their better shows 🙂

  40. Sorghum is native to Africa. Nigeria is already the world’s second largest producer of millet.

    Africa, the second largest continent, has a wide variety of soils, climate conditions, growing season lengths, native pests etc. This dictatesor at least strongly influences what crops are planted. Africa is a big fucking place.

    North America is already the world’s largest producer of wheat. Why don’t they grow it in Nunavut? Jesus H. McChrist, different parts of a relatively small state like Michigan are suitable/unsuitable for different crops.

  41. North America is already the world’s largest producer of wheat. Why don’t they grow it in Nunavut?

    That’s not a fair comparison. North America has a much wider variety of climates than Africa (for instance, nothing grows in Nunavut). No one is saying they should try growing sorghum in the Sahara.

  42. mein gott… ist zur?ck…

  43. Aktualisieren Sie Ihren Filter, Bitch.

  44. That’s not a fair comparison. North America has a much wider variety of climates than Africa (for instance, nothing grows in Nunavut). No one is saying they should try growing sorghum in the Sahara.

    No shit, Sherlock. I was pointing out the fallacy of Nigeria growing millet means “African” farmers can just switch willy nilly from wheat to other grains, lumping a continent’s farmers and environments together.

    BTW, More than lichens and reindeer grow in Nunavut.

  45. understand why the innumerate and barely literate proles hold these ideas. What I don’t understand is why well informed and educated people push them.
    __________________________________________
    to keep controll of the proles

  46. @Technomist

    We’re quite happy to take huge swathes off tech off teh yankie corpurayshuns though eh?

    We’re actually pretty happy to smoke genetically modified skunk, (probably more so the fuzzy middle class kids who are most active in spreading the propaganda against GM).

    I think Greenpeace have just got alot more clout over here and they got in fast with the propaganda,
    Then you’ve got that ex-imperialistic condescending attitude to Africa where “we know best” what the poor victim african’s should do
    I actually think most europeans care more about the elephants than the people and kind of think that there’s something noble about poverty.

    I’ve got no probs with alot of what greenpeace do, saving the whales seems reasonable and being pro alt-energy is cool but the anti-GM stuff is just messed up

  47. MaterialMonkee,

    You have stumbled over a pet peeve of mine. Alternative energy? If there was a good alternative to fossil fuels, we would be using it now. Until the market can find a suitable alternative energetically superior while being cost effective, any lobbyist pressures at all will only delay it’s implementation.

    Whew! That was a lot so . . .

    DRINK!!!

  48. Our counterparts in Europe are definitely more ‘green’ (on avg.). Like us, they have powerful farm lobby, but a farm lobby that differentiates itself with the word ‘organic’ or (in France) ‘artisanale’ whereas ours is all ‘agribusiness’ (quantity over quality.)

    Feeding the world, I think it’s fair to first worry about quantity, but when you look at Europe you see that they are protecting their version of farm lobby. It’s why they obsess so much over ‘origine’.

    Here in America, of course, both quantity and quality exist although our lobby is more about the quantity sector. If you want to blow your whole paycheck at Whole Foods, go for it. If you want to economize and eat Ramen with MSG, that’s an option.

    Unfortunately, the battle of the lobbies has spilled over into the LDCs in a farm version of the Cold War.

  49. The US Civil War probably did more to save whales than anything. It got us off of our whale oil habit and into petroleum. Had that change not occurred in the 1860s, whale pops prolly woulda been decimated long before the hug-a-whale campaigns got into gear at elementary schools around the world.

    I think it shows that Naga is right about his alt energy comment as well.

  50. It’s misleading to say that the only reason that foreign countries what biocrops banned is because of leftist environmentalist organizations. Another big factor is that Western countries often insist that poorer countries respect their intellectual property “rights” with respect to these seeds. If Monsanto were to give up its government-sanctioned monopolies, poorer countries might be more willing to let in their seeds.

  51. More on intellectual property and seeds here and here.

  52. In 2007 the global planting of biotech crops rose to an all time high of 282 million acres, a 12 percent increase over 2006. In addition, the number of farmers choosing to grow biotech crops rose from 10.3 million in 2006 to over 12 million in 2007. The ISAAA report notes that 11 million of the biotech growers are resource poor farmers in developing countries, the majority of whom cultivate insect-resistant cotton. Biotech crops are now planted in 23 countries, and 29 others have approved the import of biotech food and feed.

    “Who Benefits from GM Crops?” As the ISAAA report clearly shows, millions of farmers around the world think that they benefit from biotech crops. Since this is so, FOE can only conclude that these farmers are either stupid or deluded or both. If biotech crops did not deliver their promised benefits, farmers around the world would not be adopting them at exponential rates. Not even FOE’s most determined efforts to spread anti-biotech misinformation can obscure this plain fact.

    From here. IOW, the farmers of the world are increasingly willing to pay Monsanto for their innovations/inventions.

    I don’t know why I’m wasting my time arguing the point. Farmers like biotech as it improves the bottom line. The biggest implement to biotech adoption by poorer countries is the knowledge they won’t be able to export to Europe. That barrier will fall to economic reality in a decade or too. Greenpeace and FOE might as well raise the white flag now.

  53. It isn’t just leftist environmentalist. They merely help along the rationale of the European Farm Lobby. The propaganda the avg. European is subjected to in terms of ‘organic’, etc. is stunning. In America, not choosing organic might limit what social circles you can run around in. In Europe you’d probably be ostracized by just about everyone. The fact that European gov’t wants to even take that choice from its consumers is an illustration of that intense pressure.

    I must admit that leftist environmentalists are consistent. DDT ban vs. millions each year dying of malaria. They really at least the shrillest among them don’t shrink from declaring the world would be a better place with few or no humans.

  54. @NS

    “If there was a good alternative to fossil fuels, we would be using it now”

    Its starting, at least during the oil peak last year wind was cheaper than oil and gas. I think solar convesion tech (as in not solar cells but focusing light onto a heat conductive chemical to turn a turbine) was pretty close aswell. Geothermal has always been cheaper but its only available in a few places. Biofuels would be cheaper than fossil fuels if it wasn?t for mercantilist agricultural subsidies. Most cars manufactured in Brazil nowerdays can run on them. Solar cells (photovoltaics) the type you get on your calculator won’t be competitive for a long time.

    I don?t think anything is ever (our life time) gonna be cheaper than coal for many parts of the world USA, China. Western Europe’s pretty much out of the stuff though.

    Alt-energy is awsome thought for survivalist types

    “Whew! That was a lot so . . .

    DRINK!!!”

    man the in laws are round so I’m as sober as a judge 🙁

  55. “Biofuels would be cheaper than fossil fuels if it wasn?t for mercantilist agricultural subsidies.”
    No it wouldn’t. For one, you can’t put ethanol through a pipeline (it leaches impurities and spoils the fuel), so the cost of transport is much higher. Then there’s the costs of growing the crops that get distilled into ethanol. This involves a crapload of energy inputs that are long to list here.

    For the short term, I’m thinking fission as an alternative source of electricity, and possibly a supplement to gasoline (more hybrid vehicles). In the long term, I think someone will finally effectively control nuclear fusion for energy purposes.

    Wind, solar, and geothermal might work as stopgap measures in some places, but I don’t think they will be the replacement (or even the major supplement) for fossil fuels.

  56. For a poster called Rationalite…

    Are you saying that those poor countries would rather watch their citizens starve than respect a patent?

  57. First, the Greens eliminated the most effective disease control method ever developed by mankind (DDT). Then they shutdown development of the only energy source that could demonstrably replace everything else (nuclear). Then they shut down development of hydro, the only really reliable “renewable” source. Then they started to go after the only remaining energy source, fossil fuels. They are trying (and succeeding) in driving the humans on this planet back to a subsistence level, with a VERY low population level.

  58. “man the in laws are round so I’m as sober as a judge :(”

    ohnoes! where are you?

    rxc: don’t forget about wind turbines and birds!!

    an “Du weisst wen” – servus scheisskerl.

    Naga – for that (since Material can’t), you have to do two extra at some point during the week. preferably something different, and dammit, without those goddammmmmm umbrellas you’re so fond of.

    AND NO APPLE-TINIS.

    NONE WHATSOEVER.

  59. . They are trying (and succeeding) in driving the humans on this planet back to a subsistence level, with a VERY low population level.

    Nuclear waste disposal, disruption of river flow affecting silt deposition and fish reproduction, and carbon emissions are all legitimate environmental concerns. Let’s not impute sinister motives to the people we disagree with unless there’s some independent evidence of that, K?

  60. VM,

    No appletinis? At all? What about champagne? The bubbles tickle my throat on the way down.

  61. perhaps some bubbly.

    and we can all raise our glasses to glaring at dickheads everywhere! (*fixes glare on bicycler who ran stop sign*)

  62. VM,

    I was jesting. I drink wine(mostly red), bourbon, and pale ale beers. Bout it. Though a 15 year Dom P. is fantastic stuff. I’ve gotta get my girlfriend the Rose’ Dom P. But in such a setting as it makes everyone around us weep with envy. That’s how I roll.

  63. good. goooooooooooood.

    then you’re forbidden from sniffing at a saucy white zin.

    and have a double booker’s and you’ll be fine.

    it scares the zombies.

  64. White zin?

    *shakes head and walks away*

  65. VM,

    What are you doing here, anyway? Your girl Uma Thurman is on right now in Kill Bill vol 1 and 2. Then again Verminators is also on. Choose wisely, grasshopper.

  66. Technically, a double is two drinks.

  67. Sorry to interrupt your playful frat boy banter, but I thought this thread was about environmentalists and GMO foodstuffs. If you guys want to exchange sly, pithy and extratopical email messages fine, but there’s no need to force the rest of us to read it by posting it here.

    Thank you.

  68. Since when have H&R postings have to be consistent?

  69. Joe’z law strikes again! Damn his legacy!

  70. Naga – exactly!

  71. VM,

    You gotta hide your comments when they don’t have a “Rabscuttle thread approved” stamp on em.

    Example:

    I feel that GMO’s are good and will help poor, starving Africans.[You gotta hide the comments here, friend. He’ll never figure it out.] Enviromentalists hate poor, starving Africans because they oppose GMO’s.

    You can feel like Anne Frank.

  72. CHECK THE ATTIC! THEY’RE IN THE ATTIC!!!

  73. Naga, I’m just saying what everyone else is thinking but doesn’t want to rock the boat.

    People like you and VM are the reason we have to have red ammonia indicator in swimming pools.

  74. Rust spores move long distances in the jet streams and know no political boundaries…this just in…., PETA signs non-aggression pact with UG99, rust spores promise not to damage anY more crops in exchange for a date with Angelina Jolie

  75. You know what they say about the size of African fungi’s spores….

  76. Rabscuttle –

    You must have been a hall monitor – just remember now though – you’re not in charge of these halls.

  77. I feel that GMO’s are good and will help poor, starving Africans.
    Enviromentalists hate poor, starving Africans because they oppose GMO’s.

    I’d put it more like this. The arguments against GMOs are so blatantly stupid and unscientific that a four year old could refute them.

    Hence the anti-GMO environmentalists have to be either criminally retarded, or deliberately lying.

    I’m actually paying them a compliment by assuming they are lying malicious assholes.

    Cause I’m a nice person, and hence try to avoid assuming that other people are mental defectives.

  78. *sigh*

    Whenever this topic comes up, I grow wistful and nostalgic for my years of work with Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Yep, I found a gene that, when overexpressed, increased the pathogenic efficiency of the Agrobacterium.

    Agro is the most beautiful (imho) example of a natural genetic engineer. It infects a plant wound and inserts a set of genes into the plant’s DNA. It’s gorgeous, really. The DNA has to be processed and travel across bacterial membrane, plant cell wall, cytoplasmic membrane, nuclear membrane… Anyway, the genes are then expressed by the plant, yielding a cancer-like growth of cells that produce scads of food for the bacteria.

    Plunk your gene of choice into that transferred packet of DNA and you have… a genetically modified plant.

    It’s easy.

    It’s also perfectly natural.

    If only the OTT at IU could be convinced of my super-transformer’s abilities, I’d be sitting pretty with Monsanto right now.

    Alas…

  79. “Biofuels would be cheaper than fossil fuels if it wasn?t for mercantilist agricultural subsidies”

    What a fascinating example of wishful thinking. If that were the case, they why aren’t people in other countries which can’t afford mercantilist agricultural subsidies all using biofuels?

    The fact is, oil is still cheaper than the alternatives. If and when that ceases to be the case, we’ll switch, and it won’t take tax money to make it happen.

    -jcr

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