GENTECH archive


an open letter to Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher


Dear Sir:

The letter referred to above invokes a "strawman" in criticising GM crops,
that is, it describes an oversimplified version of the argument which is
easy to "blow down".  You wrote that  "The argument was that biotechnology
could solve
Africa's rural poverty and could eliminate malnutrition and undernutrition
if the development of their genetic engineering were not rejected in

We, as informed "Northerners", also know that the South's poverty is caused
by deep-seated structural economic imbalances from a colonial history, some
of which have been enhanced in recent decades by local despots and wars.
No one strategy will solve poverty and food shortages in the South.
However, there is a widespread evidence that GM crops can help reduce the
risks of pesticide use and increase food supply and quality, and I have not
seen a logical rebuttal of that argument.

You may be particularly interested in the use of GM insect resistant maize,
which  would likely eliminate the need for applications of carbofuran and
other pesticides to control African corn borer, and reduces the levels of
naturally occurring fungal toxins (fumonisins) resulting from insect
attack.  Herbicide tolerant non-transgenic maize is already being used to
improve control of devastating witchweeds (Striga) and it seems likely that
other herbicide tolerances could do the same in cassava, improving yields
and freeing women from weeding fields,

I draw your attention to the following news item recently circulated on the


Rick Roush
Associate Professor

July 17, 2000
Financial Express
June 2000 has seen a spate of acceptances of biotech crops in many countries
from Australia to Korea, China and even in the OECD region.

Director general of the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)
of the UN, Jacques Diouf, also gave the crops his backing, saying new plant
and animal varieties were needed to feed a burgeoning population.

Theoretically, hybrid and high yielding varieties developed during the Green
Revolution could feed the world's 800 million hungry people if they were
fairly evenly distributed across the developing world, he said. But a
shortage of land available for cultivation in the years to come would make
it impossible to feed the global population expected to peak at nine billion
in 50 years, without recourse to genetically engineered plants and animals,
Dioul warned.

"We cannot deprive ourselves of the potential to have crops that require
less pesticide, need less nitrogen and phosphorus to grow, and offer poor
people improved nutrition, whether added vitamins or oligoelements," Diuof
told the Financial Times of London.

He said the FAO was setting up a social "ethics committee" embracing
philosophers and religious representatives to study the human dimensions
raised by plant biotechnology.

Here is an overview of what happened in June, 2000:
An Australian Parliamentary Committee gave the go-ahead for biotech crops on
June 19, 2000 after a 15-month inquiry into their safety. It ruled in favour
of biotech crops as long as an independent regulatory process was involved.
Australia's only biotech crop of commercial significance is cotton - with
cottonseed oil used in cooking oils - but trials of canola, field peas,
wheat, barley sugarcane and lupins are underway. Canola is expected to be
Australia's next GM crop with production commencing in 2002.
The same day Australia's food regulator issued safety assessments for five
genetically modified food ingredients, approving them for human consumption.
These are insect-protected corn, glyphosate herbicide-tolerant cotton, corn
and canola and high-olcic-acid soybean. In the past year, the authority
issued safety assessments for Roundup ready soybean and insect-protected
cotton, two of a total of 19 genetically modified commodities it has been or
is assessing.

"All the scientific data presently before ANZFA indicates that the
(genetically modified) foods under assessment have all the benefits of the
corresponding conventional foods and no additional risk," he said. In the
next several months, the safety assessments for the remaining genetically
modified crops will be issued for public comment.

South Korea
The Korean Food & Drug Administration has ruled that 'Roundup Ready
soybeans' are safe. Last November, the KEDA appointed a 15-member evaluation
committee comprising professors and researchers in genetic fields, and
representatives from consumer rights groups to study the issue.
The agency will post the results of its evaluation soon on its website
( It is the first time that Korean food safety authorities
have officially judged as safe a genetically improved seed.

On June 14, Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, announced that China has begun
construction of a 300 million yuan ($36 million) facility in north-east
Jilin Province to research and produce pest-resistant genetically improved
crops containing the Bt gene. Production of these crops will begin next year
and the facility will initially turn out 270 tons of corn seed, 30 tons of
soy seed and 200 tons of rice seed. The crops developed by the Jilin branch
of the China Research Institute of Agricultural Science would be resistant
to pests and would help farmers save on pesticides, according to Liu Depu ,
one project expert.
The China Research Institute of Agricultural Science is setting up a new
company, to be named Jinong Hi-Tech Co Ltd, to take over the project after
2003. "We want to build an internationally competitive company", Liu said.
China is evidently getting ready to ensure its agriculture is globally
competitive now that it is joining the WTO.
Biotech crops already play a major role in food production in China which
has 20 per cent of the world's population and seven per cent of the land
The Chinese were the first to take up large scale cultivation of a biotech
crop - genetically improved tobacco. According to reports coming out of
China, it has already commercialised cotton, tomato, tobacco, cucumber, a
type of green pepper and morning glory as well. Cotton has been the most
successful biotech crop. In 1999, the country cultivated more than 300,000
hectares of Bt cotton.

Biotech crops that have already been approved for human consumption are as
safe as other foods, according to two reports of the Organisation for
Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published on the Internet in
June 2000.
"Those countries that have conducted assessments are confident that the
biotech foods they have approved are as safe as other foods," the OECD said.
The Paris-based OECD's reports, however, recommended that government
regulators pay closer attention to involving the public when assessing the
safety of future generations of biotech crops.