Grains of truth 1
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CTA. 2000. Grains of truth 1. Spore 88. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Grains of truth The world has listened to several years of acrimonious and zealous debate about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) inwhich some politicians, scientists, consumers and corporations have done little justice to truth or to...
The world has listened to several years of acrimonious and zealous debate about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) inwhich some politicians, scientists, consumers and corporations have done little justice to truth or to themselves. It is time for them to stop. Let us move on, indeed back, to the core business of making science work safely and effectively for us for the ACP producer and the consumer. Illustration: S. Dessert/ Science & Vie Welcome to the point of no return. This is the point where, as one Zimbabwean agriculturist put it, the fear of the unknown ends and the big bold leap forward begins. This is the point where we agree that, impotent as we are to redistribute overnight the world s food supply, we must now grow more food, sustainably, in ACP countries. And that GMOs will become part of the scenery. The most recent surge in world food production came with the Green Revolution of the 1960s. It never took hold in Africa, principally, it is argued, for institutional reasons. Now its gains elsewhere are running out, as world demand for food continues to grow. It is time for higher yields per unit of land, water, energy and time, according to M S Swaminathan, one of the architects of the 1960s breakthrough (see Spore 84 Millennium issue). For most agricultural scientists, genetic modification (see box) is the way forward. It was once just an evolutionary process before mankind a species in nature, remember created agriculture. Why is it now unleashing such controversy? The stakes are high: economics, emotions, ethics and survival itself are all involved. The real culprit is not progress itself, but the alarmingly rapid increase in the pace of progress a common enough complaint these days. Traditional plant breeding techniques to produce new varieties are slow and continuous affairs, involving mass gene transfers between plants. Since the 1970s scientists have been able to engineer the genetic composition of plants by inserting a specific gene from another organism. The feasibility of producing transgenic plants was illustrated in May 1998, when China announced the development of a frost-resistant tomato plant which had been produced by splicing genetic material from a coldwater fish into tomato pollen. It withstood temperatures below -4° C for six hours, allowing it to survive late frosts. Its seeds were cold-resistant and could be planted out earlier. Potential benefits, to be sure. But fish and tomatoes don t interbreed in nature, and many people started to worry, despite the acceptance in their daily lives of a great many unnatural processes. Among other potential benefits of genetic engineering (GE) are increased resistance to drought and to disease and pests, which, together with storage problems, cause losses of up to 40% of some harvests in ACP countries. The very idea of decreasing reliance on pesticides not only promises less pollution of soils and groundwater: it also opens the way to enhancing biodiversity. There are also possibilities for enhancing other physiological characteristics of plants. In March 2000, scientists from the USA and Japan announced how they had increased yields by inserting genetic material from maize: 'We took maize photosynthesis genes and introduced them into the rice plant from Japan. That increased their photosynthetic capacity [the process plants use to make their life-giving sugars] and grain yield.' At the consumer end of the chain, as well as possibilities of adding dietary supplements to certain plants, crop quality improvements will have the potential to reduce losses in transport and to prolong shelf-life. Not all risks are equal These persuasive benefits are weighed down by potential risks often presented to the public as fact, despite the very considerable lack of experimental evidence. There is an risk of genetic pollution where GE crops contaminate neighbouring non-GE crops. Here the fear of small farmers is that GE crops will destroy their own traditional seed supply systems, a concern that must be addressed. Behind the debate on seed supply is the issue of ownership, of indigenous intellectual property rights. This goes beyond current GMO concerns, and is being resolved at global governance level, through multi-party stakeholder dialogues under United Nations auspices. The difficulty in assessing these and other risks is that there is very little sound experimental work on which to base conclusions. Uncertainty pervades the food industry: food giants like McDonald s fry GM-free potatoes in vegetable oil made from GM crops. Similar ambiguities abound amongst consumers who see organic products as alternatives to GMOs, unaware that the next generation of higher-yielding organic crops will need to undergo intensive modification and selection, if not engineering. Traditional breeding simply will not keep up with market requirements. Regulation, not avoidance We are well into the engineering chapter of genetic modification and it is difficult to see what purpose would be saved by turning back the pages and trying to introduce bans or suspensions. Extensive research is underway (see box) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research recently made a bold call for increased public and private biotechnology research. The importance of African involvement in GMO research has been widely stated (see box) Jamaica recently expressed similar concerns and will require investment in research infrastructures. An even greater challenge for Third World countries will be to set up and run regulatory mechanisms for GMO research and applications, a hard task even in the West. Exacting standards are required for laboratory testing and releases, assessing environmental impact and evaluating food safety. As well as raising complex issues of institutional development, finance and control, the operation of regulatory bodies in ACP countries will require, according to the Overseas Development Institute of London, access to regulatory and market information from all over the world. A recent seminar of the South Pacific Commission stressed the need for inter-country cooperation. Information sharing is also key to the Biosafety Convention signed early in 2000 by 150 signatory states of the World Convention on Biodiversity. It allows a country to dictate how it adopts GMOs (if at all) by denying entry to any product labelled as 'may contain GMOs' under the protectionist precautionary principle . However, the Convention still needs to be fully harmonised with the rules of the World Trade Organisation. In this era of globalisation, it is not only governments and their alter egos in civil society who make the running. Virtually all commercial GM research is in the hands of six multinational corporations: Astra-Zeneca, Aventis, Dow, Dupont, Monsanto and Novartis. Whilst this worries some people, there is a growing opinion that such giants can in reality be more accountable to the market and to shareholders than many a government or NGO. There must be dialogues and partnerships on GMOs between public and private research and between government and civil society, in ACP countries as elsewhere. There is no evil intent on the part of any stakeholder, but there is much at stake. As one GMO campaigner, Jeanot Minla Mfou ou of the Cameroonian group Agriculture Farmers Modernisation put it, it is a question of 'Food for all'. And 'the means of production' for all too, Jeanot? To know more: - Biotechnology Advisory Center Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Box 2142, S-103 14 Stockholm Sweden Fax: +46 8 723 03 48 Website: www.sei.se - International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA AfriCenter), Regional African Office, c/o CIP PO Box 25171 Nairobi Kenya. Fax: +254 2 631 599 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Websites: There are many Websites on GMOs. Surprisingly perhaps, this is one of the most helpful, with clear links to all aspects, opinions and overviews: www.potatocongress.org/ newsletters/aug99_1.htm#Biotechnology
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