ROME, Italy - The controversy over the acceptability of genetically modified varieties of food is a divisive issue percolating near the surface of the international campaign against world hunger.
It was on display in early November as agriculture ministers, food bureaucrats and activists gathered for a week of meetings hosted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which is organizing the anti-hunger campaign.
United States agriculture secretary Ann Veneman used a speech to the biennial convention of the FAO to endorse biotechnology as an answer to world hunger.
"To take advantage of the potential benefits of biotechnology, developing countries face a challenge in establishing biosafety laws and regulations," Veneman told FAO delegates. "Effective science-based laws and regulations are still needed in many countries so field trials of products of particular interest to developing countries can begin."
Linda Elswick, an American Humane Society worker and activist in the group International Partnership for Sustainable Agriculture, was appalled.
She is an opponent of genetically modified organisms in the food system and worked during the FAO week with other activists to prepare a position for next June's World Food Summit in Rome. Among their key demands will be for a moratorium on approval and spread of GM varieties and products.
"That speech was terrible," Elswick said in a later interview. An advisory group of American activists and academics had seen an early draft and counseled Veneman against using the FAO as a pro-GMO pulpit.
"She ignored us," said Elswick. "It was an inappropriate speech."
The split in American opinion is a reflection of a debate within the FAO itself as it tries to figure out how much to promote biotechnology as a solution to world hunger and poverty.
FAO director general Jacques Diouf has tried to take a middle ground, although anti-GM activists accuse him of being too positive about the technology.
"We have no problem with genetically modified organisms, as long as they are proved to be safe to human beings and have no negative impact on the environment," Diouf said last year.
But critics say there are no guarantees about long-term impacts.
Still, the qualified FAO endorsement has been embraced by the industry as added legitimacy to their claim that biotechnology is an answer to world hunger.
Inside FAO, opinion is split.
Peter Kenmore, co-ordinator of a global integrated pest management program with FAO, said in an interview he embraces Diouf's statement and considered biotechnology an important tool for farmers in the developing world.
His concern is that private companies hold too many patents on the processes of biotechnology, depriving developing world farmers of the benefits.
"I think a good part of the answer is public sector science where the benefits are generally available," he said. "Public sector science has to be defended."
In another part of the FAO complex, fishery specialist Devin Bartley said he too can support Diouf's statement, but more for the qualifications it contains.
He is uncomfortable with the assumption that the consequences of genetic manipulation or gene transfer can be predicted. As the official charged with defining the FAO position on GM in the fishery, he remains cautiously in the middle.
"We definitely have developing countries that want GM technology and others that say it is too early," he said. "Those two extremes are pulling and I think it is creating a balance. We have that same debate in the FAO and I think that balance is appropriate at this time."
"...the qualified FAO endorsement has been embraced by the industry as added legitimacy to their claim that biotechnology is an answer to world hunger." (article above)
"There are 800 million hungry people in the world; 34,000 children starve to death every day. There are those who consider this a tragedy, and then there are the biotech companies and their countless PR firms, who seem to consider it a flawless hook for product branding. It is an insult of the highest and most grotesque order to turn those who live from day to day into the centerpiece of an elaborate lie. ...the companies who make [GE foods], and the flacks who hawk their falsehoods, offer us a new definition of depravity, a new standard to plunge for in our race to care least, want more, and divest ourselves of all shame."
Michael Manville - Welcome to the Spin Machine