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Biotech In The Third World: A Hostage Of Eco-Propaganda

Agence France-Presse
July 20, 2001

The United Nations' recent intervention in the great debate over genetically-modified foods has provided a welcome boost to the embattled advocates of the technology.

Just a few weeks before the UN Development Program came out touting the benefits of GM crops for the developing world, biotech supporters had been pounding out the same message at an industry gathering in San Diego, California.

But where UN officials argued that Western-generated fears about biotech should not prevent the developing world from capitalizing on the technology, industry advocates say that this opposition has already put a crimp in research funding and closed borders to exported GMO products.

Environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, they charged, are standing in the way of scientific advances which could help meet the food needs of 1.3 billion people who live on less than one dollar a day.

"It's what's putting the brakes on further development of the technology in developing countries," said C. S. Prakash, director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama.

The groups are part of "a protest industry," whose main product is "fear," added Prakash, a speaker at BIO 2001 in June in San Diego.

Those fears have turned consumers in the West, notably in Europe, against foods which contain even the slightest trace of GMOs making some nations reluctant to allow the cultivation of GMO crops for fear of jeopardizing their export markets.

Thailand, the world's number one rice-exporting nation, banned commercial cultivation of GMO crops in 1999, but that was because of the uncertainty over the safety of GMO foods, Thai officials insist -- not worries about losing their lucrative export markets. The UN's Development Program went so far as to say that GMO crops could be a useful tool in dealing with the malnutrition that affects 800 million people worldwide, in a report issued July 9.

The debate about GMOs should not be driven by conservationists in the rich countries alone, it warned.

The GMO lobby, however, claims that is precisely what has happened in spite of a lack of any hard scientific evidence demonstrating that foods containing GMOs are dangerous to humans, according to the GMO lobby.

"There are 44 million hectares of GM crops under cultivation, up to 10,000 field trials of GM crops are carried out every year and yet there is no scientific evidence to show GMO products present a threat to humans," said Florence Wambugo, head of ISAAA, Cornell University's agri-biotech research center.

"All we have is hearsay."

GMO critics respond that the onus to prove these foods are safe lies with the producers and the Monsanto's of this world, not consumers.

"Where are the long-term studies on the impact of GM crops on human health or the environment?" queried Greenpeace spokesman Craig Culp.

"There is no mandatory labeling of foods containing GM products, so there is no way to identify the effect of those GMOs on humans."

GMO critics also worry about the manufacturers of GM seeds monopolizing the market in these agricultural inputs.

But scientists such as Prakash point out that public-sector institutions in countries such as the Philippines and Kenya are working on high-yield rice, virus-resistant sweet potato and more nutritious strains of cassava -- crops that are staples in developing countries.

Genetically-enhanced crops that are easier to cultivate (insect and pesticide-resistant), deliver higher yields and are less perishable, are an obvious way to boost local and regional agriculture in order to meet local food needs, he said.