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CTA. 2003. Bio-borderlines. Spore 105. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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For ages, biotechnology has been opening doors in food technology.
For ages, biotechnology has been opening doors in food technology. Now it promises even more, but can we be sure to stay on top of it? Scene One: In the teeming market place it is still early, in the cool that persists only until the sun forces open the doors of the day. Market women swap prices and excess supplies, some displaying new types of fruit and vegetables. A man dismissed as eccentric in his nearby village tries to convince seed merchants to try samples of his new seeds. Urchins scamper, and merchants amble, some into dark doorways whence pour the sounds of laughter and drinking vessels clashing. From behind the stalls of the fisherwomen emanate the odours of fermented fish, and through the doors of the bakeries comes the smell of fresh-baked bread. Where could this be, and when? Maybe in the bustling market of Babylon, thousands of years ago, in what is now Iraq? Or in the harbour of Moroni, in the Comoros Islands, twenty years ago? Or in the dapper little town of St Louis, on Senegal s northern coast, today? Scene Two: An open space, from which the market was banished to an out-of-town site, and where the railway station has become a shopping and conference centre. A single street vendor stands with his single cart, displaying the municipality s license to sell, proffering odour-free and probably not-too-fresh bread. Conference delegates, harangued by people shouting about their ideological wares, are allowed free passage through a police cordon after listening (or not) to a stream of passion, a lecture or, in some cases, an insult or two. Where? A dapper little town, St Louis, in the State of Missouri, in the United States of America. When? Over the third weekend of May 2003, scene of a world agricultural congress, barricaded by anti-biotechnology demonstrators. What links these two scenes, and countless others? Biotechnology. By definition, biotechnology is any technology that involves the manipulation of biological systems. Thus, whilst many people today use the term biotechnology to mean, solely, the genetic modification of organisms , it in fact covers a much wider range of interventions. Even before people could apply a scientific label to them, the ancient practices of fermentation still widely used today are in fact biotechnology. Simple acts of brewing or making bread are examples of a technology that, for some today, is a code word for danger. Biotech does not cover just in vitro techniques (p 1) which are now used, amongst thousands of other applications, to prepare elements of pharmaceuticals for growth in host plants such as tobacco pharming it s called. In Sidoma region near Awassa, Ethiopia, the corm or stem base of the ensete banana plant Ensete ventricosum is grated and then fermented with the decorticated leaf sheaf. The resulting kocho starch can be stored for long periods, and is used in bread-making. Photos: N.Cattlin © Holt Studios (top), CIRAD (bottom) Red, white In general terms, the definition of biotechnology prepared by the Convention on Biological Diversity is an apt summary: "any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use". In other words, it can apply to any sphere of life, and not only to agriculture. As in many a complex subject, people use the notion of colours to try to simplify the issues involved. Just as there are blue boxes and green boxes of resolutions to be addressed in the current multilateral trade negotiations (see Spore 100), so there are colours of biotechnology: red, white and green. Red biotechnology covers the group of biotechnologies used in the production of pharmaceuticals, for use by humans or other mammals (hence the red). Whilst not directly agricultural, they have obvious implications for veterinary services. White biotechnology is used to describe the emerging group of technologies that produce enzymes for such products as cleaning materials and that are expected soon to be used in the manufacture of fibres or bio-plastics; these, too, will impinge upon agricultural space. The scenarios may seem fantastic right now, but they are perhaps nearer than many would like to believe. A survey by The Economist in March 2003 concluded that "white biotechnology could revolutionise the use to which the countryside is put, shifting it away from growing food and towards growing raw materials for industry." and green Where do things stand with biotech applications in agriculture green biotechnology - in ACP economies? It is wise first to define the scope of the topic. The broad definition of biotechnology in fact covers many of the tools and techniques that are commonplace in agriculture and food production, according to a benchmark statement by FAO. "Interpreted in a narrow sense, which considers only new DNA techniques (see Spore 94), molecular biology and reproductive technological applications, the definition covers a range of different technologies such as gene manipulation and gene transfer, DNA typing and cloning of plants and animals." It is the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which has become the focus of a heated debate, involving the two most flammable fuels that can be thrown onto any fire morality and money. The FAO has argued that genetic engineering has the potential to increase production and productivity in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and help in the development of new vaccines. Tissue culture, continues FAO, has produced plants that are increasing crop yields by providing farmers with healthier planting material, of, for example, banana and maize. Genetic modification techniques also provide new research methods to assist in the conservation and characterization of biodiversity, and in refining breeding for some traditionally intractable agronomic problems such as drought resistance and improved root systems. Recent articles in Spore about taro, maize and various fruits attest to this, as more research is carried out on them in all ACP regions. From the tissue culture laboratories of the Science Research Council in Kingston, Jamaica, to the taro germplasm labs in Fiji, the extensive biotech work on maize in South Africa and the field trials of the African section of the International Service for Agro-biotech Applications in Kenya, there is no fear, there are no doubts, about the technology. The daily concerns of those scientists and their policy-makers are about developing sufficient technical capacity to master the technology, and maintaining ownership and control intellectually, economically, politically. There, public-private partnerships are far preferable to private research alone. Shouting matches There are broad concerns, or at least recognised doubts, about the implications of the spread of GMOs: with their increased resistance to diseases and environmental stresses, will they upset the ecosystem? Will their contact be benign, or contaminating? Will biodiversity be lost, and will traditional cultivars be displaced by genetically modified ones? A future issue of Spore will examine these issues in detail. It is, though, by asking such questions that we approach borderlines in discussions, where an ill-chosen word can turn a debate into a dialogue-of-the-deaf. Some recent dialogues and policy moves in southern Africa, where genetically modified cereals in food aid shipments were hastily barred, seem to have been stirred up deliberately, and sometimes a tad economical with the truth. Did they not know that we have nothing to fear, but fear itself? Under the recent Biosafety Convention, each nation is allowed to bar imports of foods containing GMOs, whilst elsewhere in the nation scientists seek to deepen their knowledge of, for example, tissue culture. As with many other conventions, the issue for many ACP countries is not so much content as implementation: institutional capacity and human resource development, in short. The European laws which require packaging to show the GMO content of food have had the effect of imposing a moratorium on GMO trade throughout Europe and in most ACP and other developing countries, as well as a moratorium on in situ research. How long this will last is an open question, if the anti-protectionist principles of the World Trade Organization (WTO) are applied with the fullest vigour possible. Whether through trade liberalisation, or market forces, or a tacit supremacy of scientific assurance over civil society paranoia, biotechnology in its various forms and colours will become more available in ACP countries. Holding up a panicky hand will not stop it. Being prepared, and being able to be master and mistress of our science, will enable us to control and channel it. Otherwise, our children will have the right to ask of us: Where were you in the moratorium, what did you do? The draft Code of Conduct on Biotechnology, currently moving through FAO s procedural channels, calls for: determining the benefits and risks of each individual GMO a case-by-case approach on the biosafety of each product or process prior to its release evaluating the effects on biodiversity, environment and food safety ensuring that developing countries, and resource-poor farmers in particular, benefit more from biotech research and continued access to diverse genetic material
SubjectsCROP PRODUCTION AND PROTECTION;
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