GENET archive


2-Plants: The case for science-based agriculture

                                 PART I
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TITLE:  The case for science-based agriculture
SOURCE: SciDev.Net, UK, by David Dickson
DATE:   08 Feb 2006

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The case for science-based agriculture

Although GM crops are controversial, they can still play an important
role in meeting the world's food needs. But the controversies do
highlight the need for a robust regulatory framework.

There are several reasons why many poorer communities in the developing
world feel justified in regarding modern science and technology with
suspicion, if not scepticism.

Some of the reasons are based on practical experience. One example is the
fact that the fruits of science often fail to reach the poorest levels of
society. Think of the lack of even basic drugs in many parts of Africa,
and the widespread problems of disease that result.

Another example is that it is often the poorest communities that suffer
most from the side-effects of technology-based growth. Think of farmers
falling ill or dying after exposure to chemical pesticides. Or the way
that poor urban and rural communities in parts of the developing world
are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, itself largely the
result of the West's industrialisation.

But the distrust is also due to the fact that faith in scientific
solutions may clash with the comforting certainties of traditional belief
systems. This in turn means that these solutions may undermine not only
the social practices that belief systems support -- the most obvious
example being traditional medicine -- but also the social cohesion they

Put these factors together, and the result is that, for all its promises,
modern science often generates a sense of alienation, rooted in feelings
of a loss of control. In principle, we can all subscribe to the idea
that, as the philosopher Francis Bacon said, "knowledge is power". In
practice, scientific knowledge is frequently seen as reinforcing the
power of those who already have it -- and, as a consequence, further
disenfranchising those who do not.

Opposition to GM crops

Nowhere does this alienation appear more strongly than in the public
opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops. Critics frequently label
this opposition as 'irrational' or 'anti-scientific'.

Such thinking is reflected in yesterday's verdict by the World Trade
Organisation, which overturned European opposition to imports of GM crops
from Argentina, Canada and the United States on the grounds that Europe
lacked a sufficient scientific justification fior taking such action (see
WTO says Europe's GM ban broke trade rules).

To some extent, the critics are justified. The 'science' that opponents
of GM crops quote to support their cause is often misleading, incomplete,
or just wrong. Think of the mileage given to the work by immunologist
Árpád Pusztai, whose claim that eating GM potatoes can weaken the immune
system is contested by most experts in the field, but remains widely
quoted by GM opponents.

Or look at the claim that GM food can trigger allergies. The evidence is
no stronger than data supporting claims that carbon dioxide emissions do
not accelerate global warming. Yet those who readily reject the second
claim often have little difficulty in accepting the first.

All this, however, misses the point that the opposition to GM crops is
not grounded in a scientific assessment of their relative risks and
benefits. Rather, it is strengthened by deeper feelings of mistrust and
alienation, and the fact that GM technology meets many of the criteria
for triggering such a reaction.

The roots of alienation

To start with, intervening directly with the genetic make-up of plants
(and animals) is widely seen as a form of interference not only with
natural processes, but also with traditional farming practices developed
around these processes over centuries.

The crop science industry may claim that biotechnology has been with us
ever since humans learnt how to ferment alcohol. But the industry also
knows that when the techniques for manipulating genes were invented in
the early 1970s, they represented a technological watershed that has
transformed the sector.

Second, the international patent system, which controls access to
intellectual property, inevitably means that those who seek to use GM
technologies can only do so if they are prepared to give up some control
of the practices involved (or are prepared to risk using them illegally).

This is the main criticism of the 'terminator technology' -- crops
engineered to produce sterile seeds. Farmers using such seeds must buy
new ones every year, usually from multinational companies. This means
they cannot follow the traditional practice of saving seed from one year
to use in the next.

Third, people's sense of alienation can grow when foreign researchers
take genetic resources overseas to be studied -- with the potential for
multinational pharmaceutical and chemical companies to make profits by
incorporating the active ingredients into new products.

Opponents of this practice have successfully labelled it 'biopiracy'. The
word encapsulates the feeling that native communities have been deprived
of valuable possessions, often without permission, and with little or
nothing in return (see African 'biopiracy' debate heats up).

Confusing science and politics

The problem with all of these arguments is that, despite raising
legitimate concerns about how the modern technology is controlled, they
can demonise the technology itself. And in doing so they also implicate
the science on which it is based.

Sometimes linking the means with their ends is justified. The US National
Rifle Association may claim that it is people -- not guns -- that kill, but
that does not imply that guns are a neutral technology (significantly the
US patent system refuses to offer protection to clearly anti-social
devices, such as letter bombs).

For GM crops, however, this is far from being the case. The technology
may have associated dangers that remain unknown, such as the long-term
ecological impacts of growing GM crops.

But it is also clear that, provided the technology's use is properly
monitored and controlled, it has the potential to meet the needs of
farmers -- both large-scale and small -- as well as society's demands for
cost-effective food production.

No-one is pretending the dangers do not exist, any more than they do with
other modern technologies (such as driving cars or using contraceptive
pills). Nor is this to argue against using caution wherever possible,
particularly when some of the processes involved -- ecological disruption
is one example -- are not properly understood.

But there is no inherent reason to believe that, given sufficient
political commitment, the risks involved cannot be reduced to a socially
acceptable level, just as they have been with these other technologies.

In other words, as with any other application of science, careful
regulation can ensure responsible use of GM technology.

The case for better communication

None of this, however, addresses the key issue of alienation identified
above. And until this is addressed satisfactorily, people will remain
suspicious of GM technology.

One step towards reducing this distrust is greater transparency.
Information about science -- and the technology based on it -- must be
communicated in an accessible way.

It also means that information must not be restricted to the positive
aspects of the technology, but must embrace all relevant data; nothing
generates suspicion more than a sense that unfavourable data is being

But communication has to take place in context. Preaching about the
virtues of science-based agriculture without taking into account people's
underlying concerns is unlikely to help.

Effective communication must involve an awareness of the factors that
generate alienation and cause distrust of science, which in practice
means giving people the information they need to retain a sense of
control of what is important to them.

Such a commitment lies behind SciDev.Net's dossier on agricultural
biotechnology (or 'agri-biotech'), as with the rest of our activities.
When the dossier was launched, it was called 'GM crops', and focused
exclusively on the scientific and political issues that need to be
addressed by those faced with decisions about how to handle this new

The decision to rename this dossier 'agri-biotech' reflects a recognition
that GM technology is not the only way that modern science can boost food
production. This is highlighted by a new policy brief outlining other
high-tech approaches to crop and livestock farming that do not
necessarily require GM techniques (see The role of non-GM biotechnology
in developing world agriculture).

Meanwhile, two new opinion articles capture the ongoing debate about
whether GM techniques are compatible with sustainable agriculture (see GM
crops and pest control).

Behind this expansion of the dossier lies the conviction that a
commitment to science-based agriculture is essential if the world in
general -- and developing countries in particular -- are to meet the
growing demand for food.

Equally important is a commitment to ensuring that new technologies are
applied within a political framework that encourages social inclusion
(for example, with adequate provision for benefit sharing, or for
moulding intellectual property laws to local circumstances). This will
minimise feelings of alienation and distrust.

Paying attention to one and not the other significantly reduces the
overall chances of success. Addressing the two simultaneously is a more
challenging task. But it is essential if the promises of agricultural
biotechnology are to be fulfilled. Shooting the messenger -- the science
on which these technologies are based -- is not the answer.

                                 PART II
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Genetically modified crops: a decade of disagreement
SOURCE: News Scientist, UK, by Andy Coghlan
DATE:   21 Jan 2006

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Genetically modified crops: a decade of disagreement

TEN years is a long time to be having the same argument. Yet a decade
after genetically modified crops were first cultivated commercially, the
debate over whether they should be grown at all still rages, with the two
sides as far apart as ever. Coinciding with the anniversary, two surveys
have revealed that many members of the public remain poorly informed
about the issue.

It was in 1996 that GM crops became an industry, when cotton and maize
engineered to be resistant to insecticides and soybeans resistant to
weedkiller were grown for profit in significant quantities for the first
time. Today some 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries grow GM varieties,
according to an audit released last week by the International Service for
the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a non-profit organisation
that promotes the use of biotech in developing countries.

Clive James, director of the ISAAA and author of the report, says there
is now substantial evidence that GM crops are safe and benefit both the
environment and millions of poor farmers. "The record is clear on food
safety," he says. "Three hundred million people in the US and Canada have
been eating it for 10 years with not even a hint of a problem." The
report also finds that over the past 10 years the cultivation of crops
modified to resist pests, such as Bt cotton, has meant farmers have
applied 172,500 million tonnes less pesticide than they would have used
on conventional crops. The major users and beneficiaries of GM crops are
small farmers, the report claims. It says 9 out of 10 farmers growing GM
live in developing countries.

But a report released by Friends of the Earth Europe contradicts these
findings. It says that multinational companies such as Monsanto, which
pioneered GM agricultural varieties, dominate the industry, and the
planting of GM crops encourages monocultures that damage the environment
and threaten the livelihoods of farmers who rely on conventional or
organic varieties.

"Most people remain sceptical because the industry has failed to convince
them there are benefits and it's safe," says Peter Riley of GM Freeze, a
UK-based organisation campaigning for a continued moratorium on the
cultivation and import of GM varieties in Europe.

Two recent studies show the public to be poorly informed about GM crops.
A survey published this month in the Journal of Rural Studies (vol 22, p
29) questioned people known to be strongly opposed to GM technology or to
be anti-GM activists. It found that 17 of the 38 people questioned
believed growing Bt crops does not lead to a reduction in the amount of
pesticide sprayed. Yet the overwhelming evidence indicates that farmers
growing these crops do use less pesticide (New Scientist, 7 May 2005, p 11).

Another survey, released in November 2005 by the Pew Initiative on Food
and Technology, a charitable trust based in Washington DC set up to
encourage public debate on biotechnology, revealed that almost 6 out of
10 adults in the US are unaware that GM crops exist, while only 25 per
cent realise that GM foods have been on sale in the US for the past 10
years. When further informed about the pros and cons of GM foods, more
than 6 out of 10 respondents said they would oppose the importation of GM
crops into the US.

"Only 25 per cent of adults in the US realise that GM foods have been on
sale in the country for the past 10 years"
Meanwhile the uptake of GM plants continues apace. Last year saw Iranian
farmers plant the first variety of GM rice, which contains an
insecticidal toxin to keep pests at bay.

From issue 2535 of New Scientist magazine, 21 January 2006, page 10


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