By Cat Lazaroff
Environment News Services
WASHINGTON, DC, (ENS) - An international group of scientists is calling for expanded use of biotechnology to create crops that could relieve hunger and poverty in developing nations.
The report urges governments to base their decisions regarding biotechnology on "sound science," and encourages private companies to share their technology with scientists and farmers in developing countries.
The report was issued by seven academies of science from around the world, including five from developing nations. It promotes the furtherance of genetically modified (GM) crops that can bring more food and medicines to developing nations.
"Foods can be produced through the use of GM technology that are more nutritious, stable in storage, and in principle health promoting - bringing benefits to consumers in both industrialized and developing nations," the position paper says.
"The obvious concern is that the recent backlash against GM technology will completely overshadow all the promise that the technology offers," said Bruce Alberts, president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and member of the Working Group on Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture.
"Our group concluded that the revolution in molecular biology provides the developing world with some important new tools for feeding and caring for its people. It will be critical to use the best science to make wise choices with respect to the application of these technologies," Alberts said.
The white paper was prepared by a working group of members from the Royal Society of London, the national academies of science of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and the United States, and the Third World Academy of Sciences. Because agricultural biotechnology has come under fire in recent months, the working group wanted to produce a brief report that lays out the potential for GM technology to assist developing countries, as well as the obstacles that stand in the way of its widespread use.
"It is essential that we improve food production and distribution in order to feed and free from hunger a growing world population, while reducing environmental impacts and providing productive employment in low-income areas," the paper states.
The authors argue that responsible research, development and implementation of genetic modification (GM) technology for widespread agricultural use, is key to reducing hunger and economic stress.
The working group points to a need for concerted, organized efforts on a global scale to identify potential health and environmental risks from GM crops. To that end, "public health regulatory systems need to be put in place in every country to identify and monitor any potential adverse human health effects of transgenic plants, as for any other new variety," the report says.
The report argues that with more than 30 million hectares (more than 12,000 acres) of GM crops planted worldwide, no human health problems have been identified.
Environmental concerns regarding GM crops must be assessed against the agricultural technologies currently in use that cause environmental problems, such as pesticides, the report says.
Not all scientists agree that biotechnology is the best way to solve problems of hunger and environmental degradation. Dr. Miguel Altieri of the University of California at Berkeley, who has worked for 20 years with non-governmental organizations in Latin America, suggests a different solution. Agroecology, a mixture of different approaches to agriculture that do not rely on pesticides or transgenic crops, could make a substantial contribution to world food production and is an alternative to biotechnology and the use of fertilizers, he told ENS.
"There are methods that are much more environmentally sound, socially and culturally acceptable, that can raise yields and at the same time conserve the natural resource base, increase income and also empower farmers," Altieri said.
The working group argued that GM technology just needs to be modified to meet Third World needs. GM technology "should be used to increase the production of main food staples, improve the efficiency of production, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and provide access to food for small scale farmers," the paper says.
GM techniques were developed primarily for large scale agriculture in the industrialized world - to make a small number of major crops more resistant to certain insects or viruses. The working group is urging invigorated research and development to address the special needs of developing countries and to enhance the yield of lesser known crops that serve as the basis for their incomes and their food supply.
GM crops could reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture by allowing greater crop yield from less land, and reducing the need to disturb the soil around crops, the report argued.
GM technology could also increase access to pharmaceuticals and vaccines by producing them in foods. Using molecular techniques, researchers have produced vaccines in potatoes and bananas that have the potential to prevent certain infectious diseases in humans. GM technology could also increase the yields of some medicinal substances naturally found in plants.
Opponents of this technology say engineered genes in biopharmaceuticals could be transferred to other plants, causing unknown environmental problems.
"We certainly think its a very bad idea," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Union. "You don’t want biotech vaccines out in the environment where exposure cannot be predicted."
Much of the funding for agricultural research in general - and GM technology in particular - has shifted from the public sector to private corporations in recent years, with an eye toward creating profitable products. At the same time, public and noncommercial research efforts have waned, a trend "that needs to be reversed," the working group advises.
Public sector funding for GM research is critical for meeting specific needs - those of small scale farmers, for instance - where profits for big agricultural corporations are unlikely to be forthcoming. Governments, international organizations, and aid agencies should encourage plant genomics research as an important area for public funding, and the results of such research should be placed in the public domain, the group argued. "Care should be taken that research is not inhibited by over protective intellectual property regimes," the paper says.
When it comes to the needs of Third World farmers, the issue of intellectual property rights deserves special consideration, the working group writes. Today, private companies can obtain plant varieties free from farmers and from noncommercial organizations, add a new gene, and then sell these seeds back to farmers with legal protections against copying or reuse.
"This heavily concentrates advances in research within companies whose legitimate search for profit naturally fails to focus their research on poverty and long term sustainability issues," the paper says. Poor farmers in developing countries must be allowed to save seed for future use if they wish to do so.
An international advisory committee should be created to assess the interests of private companies and developing countries with respect to transgenic plants that can benefit the poor - not only to help resolve intellectual property disputes, but also to identify areas of common interest and opportunities for public-private partnerships, the report suggests.
The position paper is available at: books.nap.edu/html/transgenic.