Part three of three.
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Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:06:04 +0100
From: Richard Wolfson <email@example.com>
> ======#====== New Scientist October 31, 1998
Living in a GM world,
HEADLINE: Food for all
BYLINE: Debbie Mack
HIGHLIGHT: Crops that resist drought and disease promise to transform the
lives of poor farmers/if only they could afford them BODY: FIVE MILLION
Brazilians faced starvation this year. This time it was a drought related
to El Nino that halved grain crops in the northeast of the country, but
next year it will be something else. Famine is perennial in Brazil. In
September Monsanto, the world's largest supplier of genetically modified
seeds, announced it would invest dollar 550 million in Brazil to build a
factory producing its herbicide Roundup. Shortly afterwards the Brazilian
government made Monsanto's Roundup- resistant soya beans the country's
first legally approved, genetically engineered crop. The soya beans will
boost profits for the big landowners who grow them to feed beef cattle for
export. But most rural Brazilians are subsistence farmers who do not grow
soya. No help will trickle down from Monsanto's beans to the starving
millions. The story exemplifies the limited contribution genetically
modified crops have made so far to eradicating world hunger. It is not that
biotech companies are uninterested in the developing world. Far from it:
Brazil and other newly industrialising countries are in fact prime targets,
with their growing demand for agricultural products, little opposition to
biotechnology, and farmers who have risen above hard graft subsistence, but
have not yet become customers of the world's seed and agrochemicals
But who will benefit from genetically modified crops in these countries ?
The companies speak of feeding the starving millions, while conserving the
environment. They say that the new technology will have greater benefits in
the Third World than anywhere else. " Biotechnology is a key factor in the
fight against famine," claims the literature from EuropaBio, the
association of European biotechnology companies. " Biotechnology will help
increase the yield on limited land."
Critics maintain that there is little evidence of this. Instead, they say
most of the engineered crops developed or in the pipeline will benefit rich
farmers, not the needy. Worse still, they fear the biotech industry's
increasing domination of crop research will hurt, not help, the poor.
Agriculture does need a new technological saviour. Most of the world's food
calories come from grain. A simple redistribution of what we grow now, even
if it were possible, will not feed the 10 billion humans expected by 2030.
Traditional methods of improving crops seem to have gone about as far as
they can. "The fact that we start from the results of more than 5000 years
of selective breeding makes further staggering yield increases unlikely,"
says Lloyd Evans of the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry in Canberra,
Australia. "The biggest opportunity for increasing grain yields is to
produce varieties more precisely adapted to local conditions."
Yet few of these crops have emerged so far. Those that are on or near the
market aim to increase farmers' profits by cutting expensive "inputs", such
as pesticides. This is little help to farmers who can afford no inputs to
begin with, not even the reduced levels needed for these crops, and no help
if they cannot afford the patented seed. Steven Briggs, head of the
Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute in San Diego, which sequences
plant genomes, points to several innovations in the pipeline which might
help: fodder crops that contain more calories, so more meat can be produced
per hectare of corn or soya; crops that destroy toxins produced by moulds,
such as fumonisin, which cause massive crop losses after harvest; and
disease-resistant crops, such as sweet potatoes and cassava, staples of the
poor, which fend off viruses. Crops that thrive despite drought and salty
soils could also let farmers expand production into marginal lands. And the
nutritional content of staples could be improved. If maize, for example,
can be made to produce more of the amino acids it naturally lacks, the 80
million people who live almost exclusively on maize would get more protein.
Ganesh Kishore, head of nutrition at Monsanto, says: "We can make it into a
complete balanced meal." Briggs agrees that there are contradictions
inherent in bringing high- tech remedies to low-tech farmers. Breeding
crops for subsistence, he says, is "emergency aid, not a path to economic
growth". Pol Bamelis, from the German giant Bayer and chair of the German
and European biotechnology associations, says that the industry "cannot
help the fact that there are rich and poor in the world".
Buy out Biotech companies think genetic engineering will be in the best
position to help once farmers everywhere switch from small- scale
subsistence to large-scale mechanisation. But many activists fear just that
process. The high price of the technology could allow the few farmers who
can afford it to out- compete their poorer neighbours and eventually buy
them out, driving people from the land, says Hope Shand, of the Rural
Advancement Fund International in Canada.
Monsanto also argues that helping poor farmers would reap another kind of
benefit: richer peasants who no longer need to destroy forests to get more
land. But this could be simplistic. Steve Vosti, of the International Food
Policy Research Institute in Washington DC, has studied poor farmers and
deforestation in Amazonia. He says any technology that increases a farmer's
profits, or reduces the labour needed per hectare, will cause the farmer to
cut down trees to get more land. It is not clear whether the kind of farmer
who needs to fell forests to get land, or who eats little but maize meal,
will ever be able to afford genetically modified crops. But even if only
rich farmers benefit, says Vosti, their expansion would tend to push poorer
farmers into forest margins.
And there are other disadvantages for the poorest farmers.
"New biotechnologies threaten to aggravate problems of genetic uniformity,
and increase the dependence of farmers on transnational corporations," says
Shand. Even in the industrialised world, people are worried about genetic
uniformity arising from the widespread introduction of genetically modified
crops. In Missouri this summer, half the soya plants on some farms died of
"Fusarium" mould, after three- quarters of the land was planted with
Roundup-resistant varieties which turned out not to resist mould.
The handful of modified varieties offered by biotech companies will
inevitably be more genetically uniform, hence more susceptible to
unforeseen stress, than the plethora of classically bred varieties grown
now. That problem could be worse in the tropics, where there is more
existing crop diversity together with stresses that seed breeders based in
the North may not have anticipated. Tropical countries will also have less
money to pay multinationals for the rights to incorporate proprietary genes
into several local varieties.
The last problem stems from the big companies' growing control of both
markets and plant genes. Crop scientists must continually breed new crop
varieties to meet the ever-evolving threats of pests and disease. In the
Third World, this is mainly done by government-funded institutions, and the
Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research. But public
sector breeders are losing funding, while companies such as Monsanto are
rapidly becoming the only source for improved varieties. It already, for
example, sells half the maize seed in Argentina.
Losing access The public breeders are also losing access to plant genes.
Last May the CGIAR completed a detailed study of the problems posed by the
fact that the genes it needs to do its work are increasingly available only
at a price, because companies hold the patents. India recently declined to
pay Monsanto dollar 8 million for the use, by its state-owned crop
laboratories, of Monsanto's "Bt" insecticide gene. Those labs will not be
able to provide Indian farmers with cheap, locally bred insect-resistant
crops. Farmers who can afford to will have to buy whatever Monsanto has to
Even if Third World breeders get access to patented genes, they may be
forced to protect them in ways that put them out of reach of the poor.
"Terminator", a gene owned by Monsanto, keeps a plant from producing viable
seed. So farmers cannot save seed from patented, genetically modified
varieties for the next harvest. It also keeps farmers from crossing
patented strains with other crops to create new varieties. "Public sector
breeders could be under great pressure to use "Terminator" to protect
patented genes in the breeds they produce, in exchange for access to those
genes," says Shand. The overall effect could be that breeders will not be
able to create new varieties to meet evolving threats unless they pay for
the genes, and couple them with technologies to prevent the saving of seed.
That means fewer, more expensive varieties, plus increased costs for the
1.4 billion poorest farmers who grow 80 per cent of subsistence crops from
saved seed. As big northern companies expand their control of crop genes,
their choice may be to buy seed, or die.
For more science news see
> ======#====== New Scientist October 31, 1998 Ineligible potatoes
BYLINE: Peter Baker (London)
BODY: Robin Oakley-Hill need have no concerns either for the expertise of
Britain's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment or for
potential problems arising in his garden due to crossing between his
potatoes and other members of the family Solanaceae (Letters, 10 October, p
54). In a recent study published by the OECD, attempts to cross-cultivated
potatoes with either "Solanum nigrum" or "S. dulcamara" produced no viable
seeds or plants.
Embryo rescue resulted in hybrids which were found to be less vital,
male-sterile, formed no tubers and showed less female fertility. After
pollination (backcross) no viable seeds were formed.
The recent statement from the Royal Society (" Genetically Modified Plants
for Food Use", September 1998) also confirms that potatoes have no sexually
compatible wild relatives in Britain.
For more science news see
Richard Wolfson, PhD
Consumer Right to Know Campaign,
for Mandatory Labelling and Long-term
Testing of all Genetically Engineered Foods,
500 Wilbrod Street
Ottawa, ON Canada K1N 6N2
tel. 613-565-8517 fax. 613-565-1596
Our website, http://www.natural-law.ca/genetic/geindex.html
contains more information on genetic engineering as well as
previous genetic engineering news items
Subscription fee to genetic engineering news is $35 for 12 months
See website for details.
--Dan in Sunny Puerto Rico--
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