Peace vigil Norwich 2.00pm, Saturday. City Hall Steps
A REAL ALLIANCE: Standing Shoulder to Shoulder
Can genetically modified organisms feed the world? Biotechnologies might usher in the next Green Revolution, but many wonder whether poor farmers will benefit. http://www.unesco.org/courier/2001_09/uk/planet.htm
The full content of The UNESCO Courier's September 2001 issue is now available at the following address : http://www.unesco.org/courier/2001_09/uk/index.htm
The controversy over biotechnologies is raging. Advocates claim they’re the only answer to malnutrition, while opponents warn that drought-resistant millet and vaccinated yams will only increase poverty
Near Africa’s mighty Niger River, farmers are anxiously waiting for rain to fall before they sow millet or sorghum, then hoe, harvest, feed their families and replenish their granaries. Meanwhile, researchers in Japanese, Chinese, Philippine, European and U.S. laboratories are making strides in sequencing the 12 chromosomes and 50,000 genes composing rice, the matrix of all grains and a staple for three billion human beings. In five to ten years, they hope to know enough to genetically modify not only rice, but millet, sorghum, manioc and sugar cane as well. The aim is to make them "naturally" resistant to drought, soil salinity, viruses, blights and other scourges.
Will these genetically modified organisms (GMOs) really guarantee "food security" in the short term for the world’s 826 million undernourished individuals?1 Will they help the small-scale farmers cultivating the Niger’s barren, powdery soil to feed their families? The controversy is raging. In its 2001 report, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says they will, emphasizing GMOs’ "unique potential" to feed the world. In 50 years, the Earth’s population will have soared to nine billion”” three billion more than today.2 And most of the newcomers will increase the already overwhelming pressure on the southern countries’ much-depleted soil. The alarm has already been sounded for sub-Saharan Africa where, unlike India and China, the population growth rate is still sky-high and the number of undernourished people is barely declining. GMO supporters say only a major, revolutionary "technological leap" will enable the planet to feed all its children.
Experimenting with miracle seeds
But others strongly disagree, arguing that low food production is not what causes malnutrition. There is enough to eat in the southern countries, they say. But the world’s poorest people, those with neither money nor land, living in disintegrating, war-torn countries, simply have no access to food. They argue that land-use conditions must change, poor people must have access to credit and local markets and small land-owners must be freed from money-lenders. Better use could be made of traditional seeds instead of importing high-risk technology with unpredictable consequences, most of whose patents belong to giant multinationals.
Advocates of the GMO revolution work in biogenetics laboratories, multinational seed and agrochemical companies, genome research, American foundations and some UN agencies, while most skeptics are out in the field. A case in point is Kanayo Nwanzé, a Ph.D. in agronomy who heads Adrao (Association for the Development of Rice Growing in West Africa) in Bouaké, CÃ´te d’Ivoire. "Are GMOs being developed for the needs of small-scale farmers or multinational corporations?" he asks. "If we manage to negotiate with these patent-holding multinationals a technology that meets the needs of small-scale farmers and that’s not under license, then ‘Yes!,’ GMOs will have a role to play in Africa. But their impact will have to come under careful scrutiny and the region’s countries must have safety rules and the means to enforce them."
Adrao researchers have experience with miracle seeds. With international funding, they have developed a revolutionary variety of rice called Nerica. Genetically unmodified, it is the result of a conventional cross between a high-yield but fragile variety of Asian rice and a local variety that has had 35 centuries to adapt to Africa’s stressful environment. Nerica offers tremendous possibilities. It reaches maturity in 90 days instead of the usual 120 to 150, resists insects, yields three tonnes per hectare with neither fertilizers nor irrigation””compared with 1.5 tonnes for traditional varieties””and grows like a weed. Ideally, it should improve life for hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers who practice pluvial rice farming on plots of land ranging in size from 20 to 200 square metres and help West Africa’s countries drastically cut their rice imports, perhaps even to export the grain.
Fear and red tape
However, this breakthrough is having difficulty leaving the laboratory. There are approximately 3,000 variants of Nerica, and for four years Nwanzé has been trying to involve small-scale farmers in selecting which ones to market. But in the summer of 2001, only a thousand CÃ´te d’Ivoire farmers grew this "miracle rice" on a total of just one hectare. . . . Red tape, administrative delays and lack of communication between ministries and farmers, seed-certification organizations and rural credit institutions are to blame. A "technological leap" is not likely to help matters much. On the contrary. "If we offer a farmer genetically modified seeds, he’ll say ‘no thanks, I don’t want to kill myself!’" says the head of Adrao.
Several African, Asian and South American countries have already passed laws regulating GMO production. But can they enforce them? Which laboratories will monitor the changes in biodiversity that might result from unforeseen crossbreeding between GMOs and related wild species? And with what funding? Who will see to it that pollen from GMOs capable of transmitting their defense mechanisms against insects and viruses do not spread? Researchers retort that it would be a mistake to focus on first-generation GMOs, which are necessarily flawed. "Soon we’ll see the appearance of the second, third and fourth generations, which will meet developing countries’ needs better," says Jean Claude Prot, who is currently dissecting rice’s 12th chromosome at the Development Research Institute, a French public outfit affiliated with the International Rice Genome Sequence Project.
Biogenetics makes it possible, for example, to insert an insect’s gene into a plant or vaccines into bananas or potatoes. To create a variety of rice that needs no more water than a camel (instead of the 4,000 to 5,000 litres necessary to produce one kilo), or again, to enrich plants with vitamins and minerals and develop others that revitalize acidic soil devastated by over-farming. So why not carry out the wildest projects?
It is easy to understand the enthusiasm of certain researchers and philanthropic institutions. For example, the Rockefeller Foundation sees what it calls the biotech-driven "second Green Revolution" as a way to make up for the first one’s mistakes and tragedies. True, in the 1960s, the Green Revolution helped double food production by creating high-yield varieties of wheat and rice, keeping pace with the world’s population growth. But these seeds, which need plentiful inputs (irrigation, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides), have primarily benefited farmers who could afford to invest. Africa and the poorest areas in Asia and Latin America were left out. Moreover, the results for beneficiaries, such as China and Vietnam, are mixed: traditional varieties have vanished, irrigation has increased soil salinity, and farmers have over-used herbicides and pesticides to the detriment of their health and the environment.
Supporters of the "second Green Revolution" say GMOs should spark an explosive increase in yields without inputs and in extreme farming conditions. But will they benefit the poorest farmers? Until now, multinational agrochemical companies converted to the "life sciences" have focused all their investments on intensive crops with close connections to industry and built a wall of prohibitively-expensive patents around their discoveries. Only publicly-funded research has taken an interest in indigent farmers living in tropical areas. Strapped for cash, the public sector has been forced to sign cooperation agreements with the private sector at the risk of losing its independence.
Major biotech companies are accused, of producing "Frankenstein food," especially in Europe. They quickly caught onto the image-enhancing advantages of helping to develop GMOs for the Third World. In 2000, amid a blaze of publicity, biotech heavyweights granted the free use of 70 patents to help develop a genetically-modified variety of rice enriched with beta carotene. The grain was heralded as a "miracle rice" capable of conquering Vitamin A deficiency, which kills one to two million children each year. But so far, the "golden rice" has fallen far short of expectations. The publicly-funded, Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) estimates that it will take five to ten years before seeds can be distributed free to farmers with annual incomes of under $10,000, in line with the agreements signed with industry. Furthermore, it is still unclear how much of the rice has to be consumed to make up for a Vitamin A deficiency.
For non-governmental organizations campaigning to protect the environment and preserve biodiversity, such as the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) network, this deal "could kneecap other, low-tech and more cost-effective solutions, such as re-introducing the many vitamin-rich food plants that were once cheap and available."
Lessons from the past
Will GMOs help wipe out malnutrition? The golden rice episode has set the tone for the debate. Advocates say it would be utopian to wait for a better world while existing technology can help solve the problem here and now. "Some argue that lack of food is simply a problem of unequal distribution.
If poor people were not poor, they could buy the food they need," says Rockefeller Foundation president Gordon Conway. "This is true, but oversimplistic. There are no signs the world is about to engage in a massive redistribution of wealth."
Adversaries of the "GMO revolution" have diametrically opposed priorities: equity first, technology later. Otherwise, they say, the same mistakes that were made during the 1960s will be repeated. The Green Revolution "increased production and the number of poor people at the same time," says Jean-Pierre Roca, director of France’s Institute for Training and Support to Development Initiatives. "Where there isn’t a credit system, middlemen and the powerful are the ones who appropriate improved seeds and the use of pesticides. The poorest farmers must go into debt and sell their land to wealthier ones. GMOs are hazardous if measures aren’t taken to go along with them."
A pragmatic Nwanzé says that "GMOs aren’t a priority. First it is necessary to improve the conditions of agricultural production and soil management, keep the ground from getting hard after clearing and decrease rice imports by impoverished West African countries. All that can be achieved without GMOs, which run the risk of impoverishing biodiversity."
1. In 1996-98, 792 million of whom live in developing countries (34% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, 35% of the population in Asia) and 34 million in the developed countries (source: FAO, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization).
2. U.N. World Population Prospects: the 1998 Revision (United Nations, New York, 1999). OGM, le champ des incertitudes ("GMOs, a field of uncertainty," published in French by UNESCO-Solagral, 2000).
non-violence for a change:
For more information about nonviolence training contact: Turning the Tide - 020 7663 1064.
Tony Benn said: "This is a very remarkable film that should be shown in all schools and form the basis of discussions wherever people meet to talk about our future.
The emphasis on nonviolence is of the greatest importance, especially after the horrific scenes we have been watching recently on TV from America.
The horror there was compounded by hearing those voices raised demanding equally undiscriminating reprisal raids that could cause even more deaths of innocent people.
What the world needs now is reassurance to give us a credible hope that peace and justice can be won by co-operation, for without that hope, many will sink into despair."
“This is a beautifully made and inspiring video, which everyone involvedin campaigning should see.” George Monbiot - Guardian columnist