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2-Plants: Is GE research approriate and fast enough for Third World problems?

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TITLE:  GM crop research slow to reach hungry Third World
SOURCE: Reuters, posted by
DATE:   November 7, 2001

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GM crop research slow to reach hungry Third World

LONDON - With thousands of the world's poor dying from starvation every day 
and millions going to bed on an empty stomach, many desperate voices are 
calling on richer countries to use genetic science to wage an all-out war 
on famine. In Africa, one in three children is underweight and malnutrition 
contributes to nearly seven million child deaths each year in developing 
countries. This, according to the United Nations children's fund, UNICEF, 
is more than any infectious disease, conflict or natural disaster.  The 
developing world's heavy dependence on staple foods such as rice, soya, 
wheat and maize makes for a precarious existence if these crops are ravaged 
by unexpected drought, disease, flood or freak weather -- not uncommon 
events in poor countries. 

Some say this is where the controversial research area known as 
biotechnology can help feed the starving millions, by engineering plant 
strains with improved resistance and yields. 

"By bringing in this technology to make the same crop that people eat and 
grow, make it more insulated against some of the elements of nature, more will improve local production," said Channapatna Prakash, 
professor in plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University, Alabama.  "If 
it does make a difference in their overall health and well-being with the 
least intervention, it needs to be looked at very carefully," he said. "If 
it does provide some solution in certain places and circumstances, then why 
not?"  Prakash is also a member of the U.S. Agriculture Department's 
agricultural biotechnology advisory committee. 

Genetic modification (GM) involves exchanging or splicing genes of 
unrelated species that cannot naturally swap with each other and scientists 
say the applications are almost limitless.  The species can be vastly 
different, for example, inserting scorpion toxin or spider venom genes into 
maize and other food crops as a 'natural pesticide' to deter insects and 
birds from feeding on the plants, or fish antifreeze genes into tomatoes. 


The tangible progress made so far is hard to assess as the various 
applications of biotechnology to Third World staple crops are still being 
developed. Scientists say the measurable results and possible benefits to 
farmers are still years away. Test projects already underway include virus-
resistant strains of sweet potato in Kenya, insect-resistant rice in China 
and papaya in southeast Asia, as well as various cassava and maize projects 
in other African nations. 

Perhaps the most famous to date -- and also controversial -- is 'golden 
rice', which many see as having come to represent the hopes and fears about 
biotechnology, even though not one single seed of it has yet to be planted 
commercially.  Rice is the most important crop in the developing world and 
is eaten by close to four billion people every day. It accounts for around 
80 percent of the total calories consumed by 2.7 billion Asians, or half of 
the world's population. 

In 1999, Swiss and German scientists developed a variety of rice engineered 
to produce beta-carotene, a substance which the body can convert to Vitamin 
A. In this way, they hope to stave off malnutrition in poorer nations where 
rice is a staple food.  'Golden rice', named for its yellow hue, is 
produced by splicing two daffodil genes and a bacterium gene into japonica 
rice, which is a variety adapted for temperate climates.  However, experts 
say many more years are needed before the Vitamin A trait can be worked 
into the thousands of other varieties grown in countries such as India and 

With such an important crop, genetic scientists are also keen to develop 
rice strains with resistance to insects, which can eat away yields in 
tropical Asia by more than 30 percent.  Many crops grown in Third World 
countries are effectively organic as smallholder farmers lack the money to 
buy pesticides and other chemical treatments -- thus bringing more 
significance to crops which can resist insects and the usual field 


Other areas under intensive study include ways to improve resistance to 
drought and flooding, and tolerance to salt and high concentrations of soil 
metals. But the specific problems involved might prevent ultimate success, 
some scientists say.  "Most traits of resistance to insects or diseases, or 
adaptation to drought or salt tolerance, are multigenic traits," said 
Barnaby Peacocke, rural livelihood advisor at the British non-profit 
development organisation ITDG.  "Even with resistance to pests and 
diseases, you run the risk of introducing monocultures into areas where 
they can't really take the risk of a monoculture, rather than building up 
on some good local varieties they may have already," he said. 

Soil toxicity from the presence of metals is also a great problem to 
farmers in developing countries who cannot always choose where they can 
grow their crops. Acidic soils, for example, often contain high levels of 
aluminium which hinders plant growth.  With enough time and money, Peacocke 
said, some progress might eventually be made -- but not for several years 
at least.  "I wouldn't be surprised, if billions of dollars are spent on 
the research, they might be able to get some kind of tolerance to heavy 
metals," he told Reuters in an interview.  "But I just haven't seen the 
evidence. They (GM scientists) are talking about it, saying these will be 
the answers they can provide. As a plant scientist, I know that they've 
been looking at this for decades and they've just got nowhere really." 


Not everyone agrees that GM food will necessarily become the saviour for 
the world's hungry and critics insist that there is, as yet, no conclusive 
evidence of the touted benefits. The whole GM issue arouses strong emotions 
on both sides of the divide, particularly among the more militant opponents 
to the technology who march across fields and rip up fledgling test plants, 
demanding that governments put a stop to "Frankenstein" foods by banning 
the import and the commercial use of GM crops. Apart from their charge that 
nobody yet knows how safe GM crops are, they also accuse powerful biotech 
multinationals of using poor countries as a 'dumping ground' for products 
which have failed to sell to lucrative but sceptical European markets.


While some say increased funding should go into GM research for the staple 
foods of the developing would such as cassava, sorghum and corn -- as 
opposed to crops more used in developed countries -- others say the 
resources would be better used to promote sustainable agriculture in the 
world's poorer nations. "I think the developing world would probably be 
better off putting its research resources somewhere else, other than in 
biotechnology," said Jane Rissler, senior scientist at the Union of 
Concerned Scientists, a prominent U.S. environmental group. "There are many 
sustainable agriculture areas that probably would be much better for them 
in the long run," she said. "We're not sure yet that the (GM) benefits are 
going to be there." 

Despite the financial clout of some of the agribusiness giants, research 
into plant genetics still suffers from a lack of funding, which delays 
field trials and safety tests. "The reason why we are not seeing cassava, 
sorghum or chickpeas being grown in Vietnam, Kenya or Peru is because of 
lack of funding -- these technologies don't come cheap -- and lack of 
expertise, and they go together," said Prakash. "Ten years from now the 
problem is not going to go away. But at least we can start thinking about 
it now."


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