TRACK: A cautious advocate of change: INTERVIEW GORDON CONWAY:
Michela Wrong finds the president of the Rockefeller Foundation
impatient with the polemics over GM foods
Times, May 5, 2000
At first glance he seems a tangle of contradictions. An
Englishman in New York. A radical turned member of the intellectual
establishment, with a multimillion-dollar budget to play with. A
scientist who rebuked Monsanto for arrogance extolling genetically
modified (GM) crops.
But the unconventional itinerary reflects a philosophical viewpoint.
For Gordon Conway believes in nuances, shades of grey. Indeed, it is
the lack of subtlety, the crude polarisation, that exasperates him when
it comes to the GM debate.
"The environmental activists draw a hard line - it is all bad - while
the biotech companies say it is all good. They have become like
professional wrestlers, with the whole thing made worse by PR men on
"The point is that it just ain't that simple. If we can only get people
to begin to understand that, it would be a real advance."
Prof Conway has played his part in trying to introduce a level of
complexity to the discussion.
As president of the Rockefeller Foundation, dedicated to improving "the
well-being of mankind", he has funded research into golden rice,
genetically engineered to tackle the problem of vitamin A deficiency
that blights the third world.
Much discussed - critics would say much-hyped - the rice undermines the
moral certainties of the anti-GM world view, in which biotech is the
enemy of the poor.
But if campaigners lambast his baby as a gimmick that leaves untouched
the root causes of poverty, Prof Conway is unrepentant. Those who claim
vitamin deficiency would be better tackled encouraging peasants to grow
gourds in their allotments are motivated by the best of intentions, he
says. They are also, he adds, "living in cloud cuckoo land".
"The activists say 'Third World malnourishment is just a matter of
inequitable distribution'. But that's like saying 'if people weren't
poor, they'd be better off'. Of course everyone would be happier if
food, health and wealth were divided up fairly. But there's no sign of
What makes his enthusiasm for GM rice impossible to dismiss is his
history. For Prof Conway is the man who not only rapped Monsanto
executives over the knuckles, but made sure his reprimand was
circulated to the world's press.
Invited to address the agribusiness board last June, the professor
accused Monsanto of rushing GM crops on to the market with unseemly
haste, denounced aggressive corporate patenting of crop staples and
listed, point-by-point, just how Monsanto should change its ways.
Monsanto hardly relished being dressed down in public. But it is a
tribute to Prof Conway's role as mediator in a debate nearly bereft of
middle ground that the company has spent the last 10 months putting his
advice into effect. From the disavowal of Terminator technology - which
would have prevented poor farmers reusing seeds - to the announcement
Monsanto would make a "working draft" of the rice genome freely
available, all bear the Conway imprint. Such moves gel with the
61-year-old professor's view of a future in which GM crops, far from
providing a panacea to world hunger, are just one of a range of tools
needed to feed a surging global population.
"It's important to realise biotech is not the only answer," says Prof
Conway. "We're working on nitrogen-fixing legumes, intercropping
techniques and traditional breeding. But biotech has to be part of the
For the professor, this is what "sustainable agriculture" is all about.
Now appropriated by the organic farming industry, whose "near-religious
fervour" he compares to Marxist rhetoric, the concept has been the
cornerstone of his career in agriculture. "I am not sure, but I think I
may have invented the idea."
One of a generation of ecologists that includes Sir Robert May, the
government's scientific adviser, and Sir John Krebs, head of the new
Food Standards Agency, he was a "political animal" in his youth. Stuart
Hall, the Jamaican-born sociologist, was an strong influence and Prof
Conway joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
He spent his formative years working in Thailand and Borneo, where he
registered the damage that pesticide was doing to the environment. His
response was the notion of integrated pest management, in which
pesticide use is kept as low as possible and natural predators
encouraged. Concern about pesticide is one of the reasons why he now
favours selective use of GM crops.
He ran the Ford Foundation in India before becoming vice-chancellor at
Sussex University, leaving in 1998 to become the first non-American to
lead the foundation launched in 1913 with an endowment from John D.
With assets of Dollars 3.5bn (£2.2bn) and Dollars 186m to spend this
year on projects ranging from school reform to affordable housing, the
foundation allows Prof Conway to give his youthful idealism teeth.
"When you are in my position you don't go on protests anymore. You use
your money and position to change things."
His experience in the Far East and Asia left him alert to the danger of
what has been dubbed "intellectual apartheid" developing over GM. Any
attempts by Western activists to deny poor governments knowledge they
feel they desperately need are already doomed, he believes, given the
level of interest. "There are about 1,000 Third World biotechnologists
working on crop varieties, mostly rice. The debate is going on in the
north and we're not hearing the voices coming from the developing
One of his strengths is his optimism. While an apocalyptic vision of
corporate monoliths rolling relentlessly over ordinary citizens haunt
the Greens, Prof Conway believes the biotech industry has proved its
responsiveness to criticism. Further movement, he is confident, is on
In a bid to combat fears of genetic "contamination", researchers are
exploring the possibility of modifying plastids in the plant cell,
leaving pollen unchanged.
Monsanto's sharing of rice genome data signals a new sensitivity to
worries about intellectual ownership. Prof Conway would like to see
companies move further down that path, making patents on crops that
matter to the developing world widely available. He also sees
encouraging signs of a two-tier marketing system, under which biotech
companies charge better-off farmers technology fees, while contributing
GM seeds for free to subsistence farmers.
"I'm not saying the risks have gone away. I still advocate caution,
government-supervised testing and full disclosure. But the biotech
companies are changing their game."
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