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close this bookNews & Views - A 2020 vision for food, agriculture, and the environment - September 1999: Pushing back Poverty in India. (IFPRI, 1999, 10 p.)
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Two Perspectives on Agricultural Biotechnology

Editor's Note: "2020 Views" seeks to generate dialogue and discussion through interviews with leading policymakers, researchers, and opinion leaders on 2020 Vision topics. For this issue, NEWS & VIEWS sought two perspectives on the important topic of agricultural biotechnology.

Anatole F. Krattiger

Anatole F. Krattiger is executive director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, c/o Cornell University, U.S.A.

NEWS & VIEWS: Currently, most bio-technology research is focused on developed-country crops. Is this likely to continue? What's on the technological frontier that could help developing countries?

Krattiger: The conventional wisdom is that biotech companies develop products first for industrialized markets and developing countries come much later. I would contend that the opposite should occur because developing countries have much more to gain from biotechnology. Proven applications can yield tremendous productivity increases in the developing world. Furthermore, Europe's lack of acceptance of transgenic foods means that little opportunity for commercialization exists there for the moment, so developing countries can soon expect higher investment from the private sector. That may be the positive aspect of the debate in Europe, but there is also the unfortunate risk that the European debate will slow interest in the developing world.

All the products commercialized today can make a significant difference to developing countries. Crops with insect-resistance, herbicide-tolerance, and virus-resistance can boost yields sharply. The next wave of products will include greater pest-resistance, improved nutritional content, and better storage quality, which will reduce post-harvest losses dramatically. A third wave, based-on applied genomics, will bring drought-resistance, cold-tolerance, better photosynthesis, and other enhancements. This third wave of products will begin to arrive in about 10 years and benefit developing countries much more than the developed world.

NEWS & VIEWS: So, is modern biotechnology important for future food production in developing countries? If so, who will develop that technology?

Krattiger: The short and long answer is yes, it is important. Critics say there is no need for biotechnology, that the world today can produce enough food without it. And they are right, but only if their point is taken in isolation, against the reality of poverty and malnutrition among several billion people. The new technologies are needed to improve productivity, thereby increasing income and alleviating poverty Productivity increases on current land can also help arrest its degradation and halt the shift to marginal lands. Developing this technology will require public-private partnership: Neither can achieve much alone. With appropriate incentives, public-private partnerships can meet commercial and noncommercial needs and thus serve national socioeconomic, food security, and equity goals,

NEWS & VIEWS: What kinds of health and environmental concerns does biotechnology raise? And how are these concerns best addressed?

Krattiger: Taking the second question first, I think there is already very good news - the products derived from biotechnology have been more extensively tested than any other food products. Throughout civilization we have introduced new crops and strains through trial and error, and people often had no clue about what they were doing. We are much more careful now, so the new products are probably the safest ever. The behavior of genes and crops has to be examined step by step, and in tens of thousands of trials there hasn't been a problem. The public is not willing to accept the negligible chance that something might go wrong. For the public to understand the impact of biotechnology, we have to better communicate the issues. Furthermore, the cost-benefit analysis of biotechnology that you have in Europe, where large food surpluses are produced and people are relatively well-off, is very different from the one in the developing world, with its far greater numbers of poor and malnourished people. Europe has no right to tell the developing world how to approach these issues.

NEWS & VIEWS: Do consumers have the right to have genetically modified foods labeled?

Krattiger: I think you are referring to moral, not legal rights, though laws eventually follow ethics. If labeling had been done in Europe from the start, the challenge over genetically modified (GM) foods would not be so great; I think it's the only option for maintaining the public's trust. Labeling will be costly, but failing to gain public trust, especially in Europe, will have a much higher cost for biotech companies and the world in general. Devising a scientifically sound labeling system will be a huge challenge. Alternatively we might simply wait until the nutritional quality traits come to the European market. Then everybody will be interested in the technology.

NEWS & VIEWS: A few corporations are beginning to dominate the market in all aspects of the GM food chain. Are you concerned about this?

Krattiger: I think that's one of the reasons why you have negative perceptions in Europe. But you need tremendous resources to develop this technology, develop the product, and get it through the incredibly complex regulatory process. Unless you're big and mighty you won't have the cash to bring the product to market. That's why biotech companies have merged and bought into distribution channels. My major concern is not size, but that there might be a legislative and consumer backlash. I think a stronger market position will not lead to abuse, certainly not for the moment, because biotechnology is far from being dominant in agriculture. Even if GM acreage increased tenfold, you would not have monopolies because the market and ownership structures are too complex to allow that. However, the bigger companies should do more than preach the benefits of biotechnology. They should show that they share humanitarian concerns. And one effective way they can do that is to engage in public-private partnerships, including with the centers of the CGIAR.

NEWS & VIEWS: Some people are saying that the current debate in parts of the developed world obscures the opportunities biotechnology holds for developing countries. Do you think this is correct?

Krattiger: Absolutely. I think it's a tremendous waste of opportunity to deny developing countries access. Some people say that food demand is already being met, but demand from the poor is lower than what they need. There is no question that biotechnology can help increase that demand and then meet it. We need to change the focus of the debate and demonstrate how the benefits can reach the poor.

NEWS & VIEWS: Is genetic engineering an important part of the solution for meeting the food security needs of the poor in developing countries? What are the key things that need to be done?

Krattiger: I'm glad you said part of the solution, because you do have to look at the whole system. The poor need access to food, basically purchasing power. To increase purchasing power you need to raise productivity, which involves markets, credit, and so forth, but the lack of proper seeds diminishes the roles the other factors play. In developing countries public-private partnership is critical for getting the seed to the farmer. The public sector should facilitate the distribution side, and the private sector should be responsible for the technological side. This is only a sketch of the global agricultural system, but you don't need a detailed drawing to see that the gaps in making appropriate seeds available are clearly visible. Public-private partnerships are not about handouts or dependency - they are two-way streets that benefit both parties. The public-private partnership is a road to the future of agricultural biotechnology that offers the world greater prosperity, dignity, and hope. It is a road worth exploring.


Krattiger

Flavio Luiz Schieck Valente

Flavio Luiz Schieck Valente, M.D., is secretary general of the Global Forum on Sustainable Food and Nutritional Security, Brazil.*

*Dr. Valente prepared for the interview in consultation with Jean Marc van der Weid of ASPTA (Association for Services and Projects in Agricultural Alternatives)/Brazillan Forum on Food and Nutritional Security and Karin Miyake of the Asian NGO Coalition for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development.

NEWS & VIEWS: Currently, most biotechnology research is focused on developed-country crops. Is this likely to continue? What's on the technological frontier that could help developing countries?

Valente: Research that genetically modifies developed-country crops to produce essences and flavors of tropical crops is well under way and gaining momentum in industrialized countries. These plants may replace imports from developing countries if put into production. They represent a risk to the food security and social sustainability of developing countries. According to ASPTA (Association for Services and Projects in Agricultural Alternatives), transnational corporations (TNCs) are already interested in producing transgenic Third World crops such as bananas, coffee, and cocoa. Monsanto, for instance, has proposed doing this with the Global Forum for Agricultural Research. They are interested in accessing Third World gene banks but are unwilling to transfer technology to Third World researchers.

This new "technological frontier" is risky and costly and has yet to prove its advantage for developing-country agriculture, and for developed countries for that matter. It is obviously good business for the TNCs, but farmers, consumers, and the environment are unlikely to benefit. In general, the developing-country community needs appropriate technology instead of biotechnology. Appropriate technology is ecological, people-centered, and sustainable. Its use optimizes and manages natural resources through community-based wisdom and production systems.

NEWS & VIEWS: So, is modern biotechnology important for future food production in developing countries? If so, who will develop that technology?

Valente: Modern biotechnology, at its present level of development, is more of a risk to food security and food production in the Third World than a benefit, especially in the case of small-scale farmers, who still make up a significant part of the economically active population in developing countries. These farmers are more susceptible to the economic risks caused by the higher production costs and the economic dependence on suppliers of the seeds and chemical inputs needed for the new transgenic varieties. This economic vulnerability can increase exclusion of smallholders from the market and from the land itself. Moreover, most of the transgenic plants have been developed in northern ecological environments, very different from those of the South. The environmental impact and adaptability tests are not a guarantee against possible serious hazards to southern ecosystems; But due to economic pressures southern governments have allowed the use of transgenic varieties without further testing.

For the moment developing-country authorities should not permit the use of transgenic animals and plants in areas other than controlled experimental plots. Developing countries should make a strong effort to develop biotechnology expertise, especially in health-related areas such as vaccine and medicine production, but this should not be a first priority in agricultural development strategy.

NEWS & VIEWS: What kinds of health and environmental concerns does biotechnology raise? And how are these concerns best addressed?

Valente: TNCs argue that no proof exists that transgenic crops harm the environment Or the health of producers and consumers. Recent medical and other scientific publications have, in fact, raised a series of questions about the direct and indirect health and environmental hazards of the new plants. These hazards include increased food allergies, cross breeding with nontransgenic crops, genetically transferred antibiotic resistance, ecological imbalances caused by the killing of animal or plant species sensitive to genetically engineered pesticide toxins, greater abuse of the environment by herbicides, and so on. More than ever we need to subscribe to the "precautionary principle" proposed by the Convention on Biological Diversity, which States that it is the obligation of the TNCs to prove that no harm will result now or in the future from GM foods. Some civil society organizations call for a 15-year moratorium on the commercial use of this technology; some set no time limit, conditioning its commercial use in agriculture on scientific proof of safety.

NEWS & VIEWS: Do consumers have the right to have genetically modified foods labeled?

Valente: They certainly do. They should have the right to full labeling about how different food products are produced, what pesticides and other biocides are used, and what the possible risks a re of existing chemical residues. Full labeling is also the only way to trace back possible food causes of health problems. U.S. authorities affirm that consumers in the United States have been eating transgenic food for a long time and that no health problems have arisen as a result. This is a false affirmation from the epidemiological point of view; Only after knowing what is in each food could we link new disease processes or prevalences to transgenic foods.

NEWS & VIEWS: A few corporations are beginning to dominate the market. Are you concerned about this?

Valente: Monsanto, Novartis, and a few other TNCs already have an almost complete monopoly on transgenic seeds. This in itself should not pose a problem if governments could stay free of pressures from TNCs, Bretton Woods institutions, and the United States and forbid the use of seeds until they are proven safe. If TNCs are given a free hand they will destroy both the biological and social basis of a nontransgenic agriculture. Traditional seeds will disappear, and so will environmental sustainability. The patenting of life forms already goes against sustainability because it reduces biodiversity and restricts the traditional, free process of access to and improvement of species and varieties by farmers and scientists. The patenting and marketing of "death forms," such as the "Terminator" and "Verminator" technologies, may mean the annihilation of developing-world family farmers and food security.

NEWS & VIEWS: Some people are saying that the current debate in parts of the developed world obscures the opportunities biotechnology holds for developing countries. Do you think this is correct?

Valente: Opportunities in the developing world may exist when science can dominate this new technology with enough certainty about its harmless-ness. For the time being, other alternatives have more potential and less risks, like natural resources management and agroecology.

NEWS & VIEWS; Is genetic engineering an important part of the solution for meeting the food security needs of the poor in developing countries? If so, what are the key things that need to be done?

Valente: For the moment genetic engineering is more a risk to food security than a potential means for increasing food production, even though TNC propaganda presents it as the solution. It is well known and scientifically accepted by now that food production increases, by themselves, contribute very little to household food security when not associated with land entitlement, adequate and sustainable production systems, access to credit, access to basic public services, and equitable income and wealth distribution, among other factors. If controlled solely by private interests, with no public control at national and international levels, biotechnology can significantly harm well-being through direct interference in all of the factors that produce food security, while not necessarily guaranteeing increased food production or food quality.


Valente