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2-Plants: On Bt and organic cotton in Egypt

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TITLE:  Tough To Swallow
SOURCE: Business Today, Egypt, by Joseph Krauss
DATE:   Jul 2005

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Tough To Swallow

As America and Europe squabble over the viability of genetically modified
foods, Egypt is quietly developing modified corn and cotton crops that
have the potential to boost output and reduce chemical spraying. But even
if the crops prove safe, some fear GM production could interfere with
Egypts exports to the EU. Are GM foods worth the risk

In May of 2002, a number of southern African nations faced the worst food
shortages in more than a decade when crop yields already weakened by poor
management, political turmoil and the devastation wrought by AIDS were
further aggravated by a summer of severe flooding, followed by an equally
severe drought. Aid groups estimated that nearly 15 million people faced
starvation. The international community acted quickly, with the United
Nations World Food Program (WFP) promising a substantial amount of
emergency food aid in the form of surplus crops, primarily from the
United States, the WFPs chief donor. Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and
Mozambique politely declined.

Leaders said they could not accept food aid from America, because it was
contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which they
claimed made it hazardous to human health. The most outspoken was
President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia, who refused to admit even milled
grains from the United States. Simply because my people are hungry, that
is no justification to give them poison, to give them food that is
intrinsically dangerous to their health, said Mwanawasa, during a
development conference in Johannesburg.

Many speculated that African leaders opposition to the aid was motivated
by other concerns, namely the fear that GMO contamination could harm
their countries long-term ability to export to Europe, which at that time
had a strict moratorium on the import of genetically modified foods. The
United States implored the small African countries to accept aid,
claiming that there is no scientific proof that GM foods are harmful to
human health. The threat of famine is something we know, Andrew Natsios,
head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID),
told the BBC. We know what happens when people dont eat they die. Natsios
added that he and his family, like most Americans, have been eating
genetically modified foods for the last several years without any
noticeable effects on their health.

The countries eventually gave in and accepted milled GM cereals, but
Zambia refused to budge, and was only spared from the catastrophe at the
last minute when European donors stepped in to provide certifiably non-GM aid.

The Zambian case remains one of the most extreme and often discussed
events in the history of a controversy that has engulfed the entire
world, pitting the United States against the European Union and large-
scale agribusiness against the global environmental movement. As a
result, nearly every developing country in the world has had to carefully
navigate between the rival export markets, while making hard decisions
about a new technology that manipulates the building blocks of biological
life, promising big dividends and, critics allege, potentially
catastrophic long-term effects on human health and the environment.

Since 1990, the Agricultural Research Center (ARC), based in Egypt under
the leadership of Magdi Madkour, has been actively researching and
developing genetically modified crops that scientists believe can address
a host of problems faced by the agricultural sector, from insect
infestations to drought and rising soil salinity. But until now, the
country has refused to delve into commercial production, largely out of
the fear that doing so may shut down export markets in Europe, where
hostility to GM foods runs high. In recent months, however, as the
European Union has softened its stand by lifting a five-year moratorium
on GM crops, opened the door to 18 GM products including soybeans, maize,
and some vaccines and taken 24 more under review, Egyptian advocates of
GM technology have grown bolder, calling for the commercial production of
GM cotton and corn crops by 2006. Egypt would not be the first developing
country to embrace the technology China and Argentina have been growing
GM crops for years but the decision will nevertheless mark a crucial
juncture in the history of Egyptian agriculture. However, whether a
cautious majority of growers and consumers in Egypt will embrace GM
technology remains to be seen.

Sowing GM crops in Egypt

South of Cairo University, behind the tall concrete walls that separate
it from the bustling city, sits the Agricultural Research Center, a
sprawling commune of fields, greenhouses and administrative buildings.
Here scientists in lab coats and straw hats wander through narrow furrows
in several sequestered gardens, carefully monitoring and evaluating a
microcosm of Egypts agricultural landscape the size of a football field.
It was here that Egypt launched its own applied biotechnology research
program, the Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute (AGERI),
in 1990.

Anticipating the important role the burgeoning science of genetics would
eventually come to play in agriculture, the Ministry of Agriculture
partnered with USAID to establish the center. Now, nearly 15 years later,
it may be on the verge of launching the countrys first commercially grown
genetically modified crop, a strain of cotton that could save the
industry millions of pounds every year by boosting output and virtually
eliminating chemical crop spraying.

Cotton is a very safe product to start with, because the areas in which
cotton is grown are restricted to certain varieties, so each variety is
segregated, says Hanaiya Al Itriby, AGERIs director and one of the
pioneers of GM technology in Egypt. Every year theres a decree that comes
out that says the Giza variety so-and-so will be grown in this district,
so its allocated to specific areas.

Cotton is also a safe bet for export markets. Although exporting cotton
seed oil from genetically modified plants would qualify as a GM product,
the fibers themselves, especially when transformed into yarns and
fabrics, do not contain any genetic material that would shut them out of
European markets, and while many consumers refuse to eat GM products, few
object to wearing them.

Over the last decade, AGERI has been actively researching a wide array of
products everything from virus-resistant potatoes to bananas that contain
vaccines for hepatitis. But with cotton, the center has found a
commercial partner in the Monsanto Company, the US-based producer of the
worlds No. 1 herbicide, and anticipates Egypt will be able to start
growing GM cotton by 2006.

The new cotton crop will contain a gene purchased from Monsanto that
makes the plants resistant to certain insects, but Al Itriby maintains
that the crop will retain its unique Egyptian characteristics in every
other respect. In addition to collaborating with Monsanto, AGERI has also
cooperated with the Cotton Research Institute (also part of the ARC) to
insure that the new plants produce the sought-after long staple fibers
Egypt is know for. The breeders of the cotton are making sure that we
keep the Egyptian line with all its characteristics, Al Itriby says. The
selection was done by the breeders, so its a collaborative and multi-
disciplinary approach.

Although many in the cotton industry are optimistic about the new
technology, some wonder whether the idea will actually catch on among
Egyptian growers. The only thing they modify is the ability of the plant
to sustain the attacks of insects, so that means less spraying, less cost
and a better quality of fiber theoretically at least, says Amin Abaza,
the Managing Director of the Modern Nile Cotton Company, which is heavily
involved both in the agricultural and industrial side of the crop. But
all of this remains to be seen, it has to be tried. [The grower] has to
see it to believe it, especially our growers. They dont usually believe
what the scientific community tells them until they see it themselves and
they make sure that there really is a lower cost and a higher quality.

Abaza, who is in favor of genetically modified crops, believes that
resistance to the concept will not come from any widespread health or
environmental concerns, but from the increased price of the new seeds.
People have to be convinced that if they are paying a little more for the
seed, they are going to get their moneys worth in crop management and in
the quality of the crop, and this has to be seen in practice.

Because the new seeds contain a patented gene, anyone who uses them will
have to pay a royalty to Monsanto, but advocates say that increased
output, along with the amount farmers will save on chemical fertilizers,
will more than cover the price of the switchover. Al Itriby points out
that, in addition to developing the new crops, AGERI is also actively
working to ensure that they find both commercial producers and markets.
We are not doing research for research only, we are looking to put a
product out, she says.

Although Egypt will have to purchase the initial genes from an
international company, Al Itriby expects that the scientists at AGERI
will eventually be able to develop their own genes, and has created an
intellectual property rights office to help them to secure their own
patents. Once you have your own genes, you have something important that
you can use to barter if you want something that another person, or
another institution, or even the private sector has and is willing to

The debate

Outside of Egypt, the commercial production of GM crops has caught on
quickly since its inception in 1995, spreading to 18 countries and
growing by more than 10 percent over the last seven years, according to
the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech
Applications (ISAAA), an international nonprofit organization dedicated
to promoting GM technology. The United States retains the lions share of
production, but has recently been joined at the top by Argentina, China,
Canada, Brazil and South Africa, all of whom account for 99 percent of
production. According to the ISAAA, nearly one-third of GM crops and
nearly 85 percent of farmers are from the developing world, statistics
that GM food advocates point to as proof that the technology contributes
to the alleviation of world poverty.

Farmers have made up their minds, says Clive James, the chairman and
founder of ISAAA, in an official statement. They continue to rapidly
adopt biotech crops because of significant agronomic, economic,
environmental and social advantages.

Advocates of GM foods, particularly in the United States, have long
argued that the crops offer a way out of poverty for countries that rely
on agriculture. They point out that in addition to producing higher
yields, biotech crops reduce or even eliminate the need for chemical
fertilizers or pesticides, making them safer for the environment and
cheaper for growers. Many hope that the new technology can continue the
work of the Green Revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, which spurred
development in Asia and Latin America, nearly doubling the amount of food
production in much of the developing world.

All the countries who are involved in biotechnology are moving ahead at a
very fast pace, says one senior US official at the American Embassy in
Cairo, who asked not to be named. That clearly shows that there are
economic benefits in the development, production and trade of biotech
products. With its ever-growing population and dwindling land resources,
many believe that Egypt would benefit from following in the footsteps of
those who have already adopted the technology. If Egypt were to follow
the same path, it is very clear that they would derive enormous benefits
in terms of savings in the cost of production and market development
outside, the official says.

Egypts hesitation in embarking on the commercial production of GM crops
largely springs from the fear that it could lose its European export
markets, where a solid majority of consumers and elected leaders have not
only rejected genetically modified foods, but have lobbied for stringent
regulations to govern trade with countries who produce such products, all
part of an attempt to prevent any contamination of non-GM foods.

Much of Europe refuses to accept advocates claims that GM foods are a
panacea for the developing world, insisting that world hunger is caused
by poor governance and inadequate distribution, rather than the inability
to grow enough food. Many are also jaded by the memory of the excesses of
the Green Revolution, which some saw as a scheme promoted by US farming
interests that resulted in widespread social inequality and environmental
degradation. Nowadays, many accuse US Agribusiness of foisting
genetically modified foods on unsuspecting countries in order to glean
royalties from patented seeds. Several aid organizations, including Oxfam
International, supported Zambias refusal to accept GM crops because they
feared that acceptance would consign the country to a dangerous cycle of
dependency on large foreign companies.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) is concerned that GM
technology favors large agribusiness at the expense of small farmers, who
are the most in need of increased productivity. Neither the private nor
the public sector has invested significantly in the new genetic
technologies for the so-called orphan crops, such as cowpea, millet,
sorghum and teff that are critical for the food supply and livelihoods of
the worlds poorest people, says FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf, in
the introduction to a recently released report entitled The State of
World Food and Agriculture 2004. The report, which encourages a cautious
approach to the spread of GM crops, accuses scientists and policy makers
of largely ignoring the problems of small farmers in poor countries.

Opponents have also expressed concerns about the possible environmental
consequences of GM foods. By manipulating the most basic building blocks
of biological life, they argue, scientists may at best hinder
biodiversity and, at worst, cause permanent damage to fragile ecosystems.
They are quick to point out that while some crops, like biotech corn and
cotton, are engineered to resist insects and viruses, others, like the
Monsanto Companys patented Roundup Ready crops, are designed to endure
one of the most potent herbicides on the market, Monsantos Roundup, which
is also patented. Opponents say this kind of tampering could give rise to
plants that are so resilient that they overwhelm their neighbors and
become weeds themselves.

Many in Europe also worry about the possible health effects of
genetically modified crops. Although people in the United States and many
other countries have been consuming GM foods for several years, many who
oppose the technology maintain that there is still too much uncertainty
when it comes to what they call Frankenfoods.

The US Embassy official says that such claims are unfounded, tied more to
a political agenda than to scientific fact. The scientists and
politicians in the European Union seem to be on two different tracks, he
said. In our own biotech-related seminars, when we talk about the
benefits of biotechnology, we have invited a number of scientists from
the European Union who have been able to come and talk about their
research and the benefits of biotechnology and what it can do for humanity.

In recent months, the scientists appear to have gained the upper hand, as
the European Union, once a bastion of the movement opposing GM foods, has
been slowly warming up to the idea. In May of this year, the European
Commission lifted a five-year moratorium on the import of GM foods,
putting a rigorous regulation system in its place. Now any member wishing
to import genetically modified products may apply for permission to do
so, but any product intended for human or animal consumption, even those
that contain only trace amounts of GMOs (the threshold is .9 percent of
the product) must be labeled as containing genetically modified
organisms. Given the distrust many in Europe feel towards genetically
modified products, officials in the European Union say the labeling is
necessary in order to allow consumers to make their own choices.

The United States has long rejected the rationale for labeling GM
products in Europe, maintaining that there is no reason to draw attention
to something that is not proven to be dangerous. The US position is that
one should label things if they are substantially different from non-
biotech products, the embassy official says. We dont put anything on the
label to say these fertilizers were used to produce those products,
whereas those fertilizers and chemicals could be more harmful than the
genetic modification.

Although the United States and the European Union officials continue to
disagree on what level of regulation is necessary when it comes to GM
foods, recent evidence suggests that the latter are gradually moving
closer to the position of the former. Since the lifting of the
moratorium, the European Commission has approved a number of GM products,
and both Spain and Germany are already growing their own GM crops, albeit
in small amounts. Earlier this year, the United Kingdom gave the go-ahead
for planting genetically modified corn after the British Medical
Association gave its approval, with Chairman David Carter saying it was
necessary to move away from the hysteria that has been so often
associated with GM foods.

But despite the recent movement towards GM foods at the policy level,
Europeans remain skeptical of the products, and if the EU maintains its
labeling policies, most consumers who do not share in the economic
benefits of the new technology are unlikely to purchase GM products.

The organic option

The discussion of genetically modified foods in Egypt has largely
mirrored the international debate, with a small number of detractors
gradually giving way to a growing majority that favor the technology. One
advocate is Adel Yaseen, chairman and managing director of Fine Seeds
International, who describes himself as probably the biggest and most
enthusiastic supporter of the technology in Egypt today. Yaseens company,
which supplies seed varieties to farmers, is spearheading the drive for
GM crops on the part of the private sector. Yaseen hopes to complete the
application process and begin marketing GM maize by the end of next year,
through a partnership with Monsanto.

I know that the matter of GMO is highly controversial, but deep inside of
me I feel the controversy is more political than scientific, Yaseen says.
I think its a fight between the Americans and the Europeans and I dont
think we have anything to do with it. They can go and bang their heads
against each other it has nothing to do with us.

Over the last few years the dynamics of maize farming in Egypt have
changed, Yaseen says, with more and more farmers trying to plant earlier
and later than the high season for growing, leaving their crops open to
infestations of insects that bore into the stems and eat away at the
insides of the plant. There are chemicals on the market to deal with the
pests, Yaseen says, but they are only 20 percent effective. The new crops
promise to deter the bugs and eliminate the need for chemical pesticides,
allowing farmers to extend their growing season and maximize output.

Other growers disagree with that logic, claiming that the real problem is
not the bugs, but the attempt to artificially maximize output at the
expense of the natural environment. Helmy Abouleish, the Managing
Director of Sekem, is one such critic. As a grower and producer of
certified organic foods, Abouleish says GM crops pose problems, not only
for his worldview, but also for his business, which would be forced to
carefully insulate its own crops from even trace amounts of genetically
modified organisms.

While Abouleish thinks it is important for Egypt to continue researching
GM crops, he believes that a much better understanding is necessary
before any crops are grown commercially. As we all know, science is
dynamic and developing, and the latest technology and the latest
scientific results are outdated two years later, Abouleish says. DDT at a
certain stage was a very safe pesticide. Ten or 20 years later, it was
found to be a very terrible pesticide which stays in the soil for 200
years. So when they recommended it, with the latest knowledge and
results, everyone thought it was safe. Ten years later, 20 years later
everyone knows that it is one of the deadliest of poisons. DDT was banned
in Egypt in 1996.

Yaseen doesnt buy that argument, pointing out that people in the United
States, which he considers highly health conscious, have been consuming
such products since at least the middle of the 1990s. Moreover, Yaseen
says, if GM crops are indeed a Pandoras box, then the lid has already
been lifted with respect to both Egyptian and European consumers.
Europeans are putting their heads in the sand, and so are we, here in
Egypt, because most of the corn imported into Egypt, five and a half
million tons every year, comes from the States, and 80 percent of it is
genetically modified. So we know for a fact that we already have [GM
foods] in Egypt, and the Europeans know it as well. They call it
Frankenstein or whatever, but it gets imported into Europe and it gets
into their poultry and ultimately into their houses, so its a
hypocritical position.

Yaseen believes that if Egyptians are willing to import GM maize for
human consumption, then there should be nothing stopping them from
growing it themselves. As an Egyptian, I dont see why we should import
from somebody while we sit here hopelessly and without producing our own
maize. If we can do it, then why let the American farmers produce it

AGERIs Al Itriby understands the concerns that some have expressed about
the new technology, but thinks progress on GM foods has been stymied more
by general hysteria than any specific concerns. There are issues [when it
comes to GM crops], but you have to state them, and then from there you
address them, she says. At least you identify exactly what youre scared
of, and then you can say what needs to be done. But I cant just ignore
technology that is going to be useful, especially in developing countries
like ours. We are looking at things that are tolerant to drought and
salinity. These are major problems in Egyptian agriculture.

As a farmer, Abouleish understands the problems facing Egypts agriculture
sector, but believes that the organic movement offers a cleaner and safer
alternative, both for supplying Egypt and for tapping overseas markets.
The organic movement today is capable of producing healthy crops of most
of the plants that I know about in the world, and without any impact on
the environment or human health. So if we can switch today, in a safe
manner, to organic farming and organic food production, and could feed
the world population with healthy food, then why should we search for
something with this high amount of risk, to do the same things we are
able to do without it

For now at least, it appears that the rival schools can continue to
coexist alongside each other. Those who favor the commercial deployment
of GM crops in Egypt admit that the country cannot afford to lose its
export markets in Europe, but they nevertheless maintain that the new
technology offers, if not a cure, then at least a reprieve for Egypts
struggling agricultural sector.


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