GENET archive


2-Plants: GE crops will fight hunger (2) - Rockefeller Foundation

mailinglist genet-news
-------------------------- GENET-news ---------------------------

TITLE:  Food gains for the world's poor are being threatened by
        furor over genetically modified (GM) foods
SOURCE: Rockefeller Foundation Press Release
DATE:   June 28, 1999 (web version)

----------------- archive: ------------------

Food gains for the world's poor are being threatened by furor
over genetically modified (GM) foods

Terminator seeds should be dropped, and labeling added, says
foundation leader

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Promising advances that may help improve the
food supply to poor people in developing countries are under
threat from the increasingly passionate rhetoric over genetically
modified (GM) crops, according to Professor Gordon Conway,
president of the Rockefeller Foundation. However, many concerns
from consumers and environmental groups are legitimate and need
to be properly addressed and monitored.

There also needs to be a change in policy by the Monsanto
Company, the largest player in commercial plant biotechnology, to
enter into an open and honest dialogue over the issues -
including a commitment to drop the idea of "terminator" seeds and
to invest more in strengthening plant science research in
developing countries. Conway also came out in favor of labeling
food products not because GM foods are inherently dangerous, but
rather because consumers have a "right to know" what they
purchase and consume.

Conway, in a speech to Monsanto's board of directors in
Washington, D.C. said a more responsible approach to the
introduction of GM technology is needed. Unless this happens
there is a real danger that the potential benefits of the
technology will be lost in an increasingly hostile consumer or
legislative backlash. Conway pointed out that the Rockefeller
Foundation has funded more than $100 million of plant
biotechnology research and trained more than 400 plant scientists
from Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Rockefeller Foundation's
grantmaking in biotechnology supports advances that the
Foundation believes will be particularly important to the world's
poor and excluded, especially those living on less favored
agricultural lands.

Prior to widespread European outcry, real gains from GM
technology were near, especially for use in developing countries.
These included insect and disease resistant rice - but also rice
with added beta-carotene, which is turned into Vitamin A in
humans. In developing countries 180 million children suffer from
Vitamin A deficiency and each year two million die from it.
Adding different genes to rice could boost its iron content by
three-fold. Some two billion people worldwide suffer from anemia,
a condition caused by iron deficiency. Rockefeller Foundation
funded researchers in Mexico have added genes to rice and maize
to increase tolerance to aluminum - a soil toxicity problem that
blights vast areas of the tropics. In India, scientists have
added two genes to rice which appear to help the plant survive
being submerged for long periods, a common problem in Asia.

"We believe these achievements hold the real promise of
considerable benefits for the people of the developing countries.
However, the use of this research, particularly by the poor and
excluded, is being threatened by the mounting controversies in
Europe and to some extent in the United States. There is a real
danger that the research may be set back, particularly if field
trials are banned. It is, of course, only through field trials
that we can truly assess both the benefits and the risks," said
Conway. He added: "The controversy in Europe and the developing
world over the use of plant biotechnology is intensifying and
science is not at the center of it. There is now a real danger
that research will be delayed, field trials will be stopped and
irrational restrictions will be imposed on the use of foods
produced by new technology."

"Much of what is being said in Europe is driven by passion. Some
of it is motivated by simple anti-corporate or anti-American
sentiment. But underlying some of this rhetoric are genuine
concerns about the ethical consequences of biotechnology, about
fear for the environment and about the potential impact on human
health." Conway said the commercial rush to get products to
market had resulted in mistakes, misunderstandings and a backlash
against plant technology. There were concerns about the unequal
negotiating position of poor farmers and plant breeders in
developing countries against the might of giant industrialized

Conway said fears that genes added to new crops could spread to
nearby weeds or other plants had to be taken seriously, as did
possible fears of creating new strains of viruses from using
viral genes in plants. The technology needs to proceed cautiously
under close monitoring. However, fear that GM crops could
increase antibiotic resistance could be easily resolved by
dropping the antibiotic markers inserted in such plants, as these
were not necessary for the crops to grow.

As to wider public fears about the harmful effects on human
health, including cancer risks, Conway warned that such concerns
cannot be dismissed simply because of an absence of evidence.
"You will not be able to cope with these fears by saying you see
no evidence of harm. Remember, this is what the British
government said about eating meat from BSE-infected cows and what
the Belgian government said, until a few weeks ago, about animal
feedstuffs containing petrochemicals." Conway said there needed
to be a new approach of watching, openness and discussion about
the possible health effects of the technology.

"There must be a new culture, with appropriate systems and on
going institutional support, that provides careful monitoring,
open reporting and transparency, and a place for public
participation about the impact of plant biotechnology on human
health. Only if you are seen to be careful, concerned, interested
and open-minded will you convince the reasonable majority that
you are a partner to be trusted in looking for new ways to feed
people without creating health problems that are worse than

"It is true that the risk-benefit equations may be different in
developing countries. Those faced with malnutrition or starvation
may be less worried about the incompletely-defined health risks
cited by American and European pressure groups. "But the poor
have a right to decide for themselves and they need the
information and tools with which to do so. Their decisions must
be based on their own analysis of their own needs and priorities.
They cannot be bribed into becoming guinea pigs for the North."
Conway said the patenting of new plants utilizing GM technology
should be restricted. There is a danger of trying to place
intellectual property protection rights on knowledge rather than
on invention. There is also a need, in addition to scientific
studies, to study the economic impacts of such technologies on
developing countries.

Conway called for greater consumer choice and labeling over
whether to eat GM foods or not, and the end of research into
terminator technology. "The agricultural seed industry must
disavow the use of terminator technology to produce seed
sterility." Agro-industrial companies should not simply respond
to criticism by issuing statements "reassuring poor people you
are committed to feeding them and caring for their environments."
Offering advice to Monsanto's board of directors, he added: "It
would be better to treat the poor as equal partners in an honest
dialogue. Acknowledge that you are concerned about returns on
investment, market penetration, continued growth and other
commercial issues. Admit that you do not have all the answers but
set out those which you do have and commit to prompt, full and
honest sharing of data as you get it."

"This is not the time for a new issues management program or a
new offensive by a public relations agency. It is time for a new
relationship based on honesty, full disclosure and a very
uncertain shared future." Conway concluded: "The clients of the
Rockefeller Foundation are the poor and excluded, those who
remain untouched by the benefits of globalization. I believe that
much of what you have found could be important to these clients
of ours. Monsanto needs to speak and to act differently if GM
technology is to be a part of the solution to the problems faced
by the most disadvantaged and the most vulnerable of our fellow
human beings."

* * *

The Rockefeller Foundation is a global foundation with a mandate
and commitment to enrich and sustain the lives of the poor and
excluded throughout the world.

* * *

Professor Gordon Conway is also author of The Doubly Green
Revolution: Food for All in the 21st Century, a recently
published book on global food security and is the former vice
chancellor of the University of Sussex. He is a noted authority
on agriculture in the developing world.

* * * 

-| Hartmut Meyer
-| Co-ordinator
-| The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
-| Reinhaeuser Landstr. 51
-| D - 37083 Goettingen
-| Germany
-| phone: #49-551-7700027
-| fax  : #49-551-7701672
-| email:

Genet News