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9-Misc: Nobody's afraid of Gm crops, it's all a media scare

-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Nobody's Afraid of Gm Crops, It's All a Media Scare
SOURCE: The East African, Kenya, by Bamuturaki Musinguzi
DATE:   6 Sep 2004 

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Nobody's Afraid of Gm Crops, It's All a Media Scare

Prof BRUCE M. CHASSY, executive associate director of the Biotechnology
Centre at the University of Illinois in the, US, recently conducted a
media discussion on biotechnology in Kampala. He talked to Special
Correspondent BAMUTURAKI MUSINGUZI about the benefits of biotechnology to
the African farmer

What is biotechnology?

It is simply using living systems for useful outcomes. We manufacture a
lot of antibiotics using micro-organisms. In homes, we use yeast to rise
bread; that is biotechnology.

There is a whole area that most people don't know about called cell
culture and blood cell propagation where we grow cells, say for example
blood cells, that we can give to people and use in plants. A lot of
plants are propagated using micro propagation or cell techniques and that
is biotechnology. Biotechnology also involves moving genes around between
organisms to create transgenic organisms.

Why is biotechnology controversial?

Well, because there are some people in the world who think that we
shouldn't interfere with nature, that nature knows best how to do things
and that when man starts manipulating biology, he will make mistakes.

What other options do we have available in crop breeding?

I would call all crop breeding biotechnology because the objective is to
change the genetic structure of a plant. So it's all biotechnology, but I
think you are asking about the specific business of moving a gene from
one organism to another, making a transgenic plant - what most people
call a GMO (genetically modified organism) or GM plant.

There are a variety of other techniques to help improve breeding, one of
which uses biotechnology but does not transfer genes the same way - it is
called micro-assisted breeding and it is growing in popularity.

Is biotechnology going to solve production limitations such as pests,
diseases and water resources facing Africa?

I like to think of biotechnology as a tool that is used to solve a
specific problem on a case-by-case basis. So, biotechnology is not a
panacea to every problem and I don't think you should listen to anyone
who claims that it's the only way to do things or the best way to do things.

But if you asked me, "Can we control sweet potato weevils using
biotechnology?" I would say yes. We do have a good weevil control
strategy in the US with biotechnology and I think it would actually work
very well here.

To take another case, if we are looking at some viral diseases, I might
say, "You know, there is a good virus-resistant example of that plant
over in Kenya, so why don't we get the Kenyan plant and see if we can
cross your plant with it and produce virus resistance that way?"

Would biotechnology reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment?

It can be used that way. It's always foolish to make sweeping
generalisation, but our experience in the United States has been that we
use far less chemicals in agriculture and we don't have to plough our
fields as much in many cases, so we have less erosion and a number of
other benefits. But if you are not using chemicals, then that chemical
reduction wouldn't be realised here.

Would it improve agricultural productivity in Africa?

It certainly can. I know that there have been experimental maize and
cotton fields grown in a number of countries in Africa - there are
probably other crops too that have done quite well. In South Africa, the
experience in maize and cotton has been very good. I don't see any reason
why it should behave any differently in Africa than it does anywhere else
- this is all biology and it's all about the weather, soil and all the
factors that go in agriculture.

What has been the role of the media in this controversy?

Well, the media basically is a conduit of what they hear; they try to
tell the public everything that they are hearing about a particular topic
of interest. In this case, the opponents of biotechnology have persuaded
the people not to use this technology through the media, which the media
has done because it does not judge whether the technology is good or bad
and the story is true or false. They just report the story. And that has
certainly caused a lot of fear because people have said a lot of scary
things about the technology using the media.

What are the major barriers to agricultural biotechnology?

Well, one real barrier is certainly customer resistance. If people are
afraid of the technology, it's pretty hard to deploy it, making it quite
different from the other barriers. The other barriers are the same you
have with the development of anything new and diffusion of that
technology. It costs money to invest in new technology: you need human
capacity, physical facilities, research and then to develop it into a
useful product and get it marketed.

At any point in the chain, you may find out that it has not really worked
the way you hoped, or it was a bad investment. So, these are hurdles even
a developed and prosperous country may face and it would be worse where
resources are thin.

Consumers believe it's unsafe.

I don't think consumers believe it's unsafe. Its opponents have convinced
some consumers of biotechnology products that they are unsafe, yet at
least half of all consumers believe it's safe and are not concerned about
it. If I did a poll asking people what they think is unsafe in the food
supply, they would almost certainly never say it's biotechnology, but
illness or food poisoning. So, I am not sure that biotechnology has
scared consumers as much as you might think. If they can get good
information and they are convinced that the particular product is really
okay, they will accept it.

Would growing enough food fight hunger in the world, especially Africa?

I think growing enough food can help a great deal because in other places
in the world, let's take for example China and India, smallholder farmers
who couldn't feed their families in previous years can now do so. With
the green revolution, they also produce excess crops, sell them and
generate rural development and enterprises, and this has actually fuelled
the development of the Chinese and Indian economies. That said, simply
growing enough food doesn't guarantee that you will deal with issues of
poverty, civil strife and diseases that may come to the plants. You have
a variety of externalities that just having a good crop yield cannot deal



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