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INTERVIEW-GM foods may help feed developing nations
impacts yet of any geneticaly
modified organisms that we are aware of,'' Geoffrey Hawtin,
director-general of the Rome-based International Plant Genetic Resources
Institute (IPGRI), told Reuters in interview.
Hawtin said people in developed countries, where protests against GM
foods are on the rise, could afford to reject such food.
But countries like China and India or those in Africa could benefit
from GM crops which could produce high yields and are resistant to
diseases, he said on the sidelines of a conference on plant genetic
resources in Malaysia's capital.
``We (in richer countries) can afford to say no to genetically
modified organisms. For other people it's a matter of life and death,''
``Poor people pay 90 percent of their income for food. If you are in a
rich country...you say: 'We don't need to take the risk. We are paying just
a few percent...''' of our income for food, he said.
``If you are in Indonesia, China or Africa, you may say: 'Look!
That...risk is minute compared with the risk of having not enough food to
eat','' he said
Whbile environmentalists have raised concerns over possible health and
environmental risks, a number of scientists say GM crops can raise yields
and increase resistance to disease, potentially reducing world hunger.
GM crops contain genes from other organisms to render them resistant
to herbicides or to enable them to produce their own pest-killing toxins.
In many developed countries, GM crops are meeting increased
In France, for example, farmers were ordered to destroy crops grown
from rapeseed that was tainted with GM material.
The European Union has obliged food producers to label their products
as genetically modified if they cannot guarantee each of the ingredients
contains less than one percent of GM material.
Recently in Japan, confectionary maker Bourbon Corp (2208.T) said it
would stop using sweetener made from GMO corn.
Hawtin said fears of what GMOs could do to humans and religious
considerations were among fractors which sparked controversies in developed
``At one level is the fear of the unknown,'' he said. Another is the
idea of playing with nature, which offends many people's religious
``We haven't had these things around for so long, so we don't know.
But as we have them around for longer and longer, a lot of the early fears
so far don't seem to be true,'' he said.
``That doesn't mean that we can now sit back and say everything is
safe. We still have to be extremely vigilant and so on. But at least at
this point, it doesn't look like the worst scenarios are beginning to play
up in any way,'' he said.
GOOD SCIENCE REQUIRES PUBLIC TRUST Sunday, June 11, 2000
Recent surveys continue to show that scientists, as a group, have
high credibility when the general public is asked to identify someone
they trust. As one who has devoted my life to sound science, I take
but little comfort from such surveys, for I have become gravely
concerned that science may no
longer be the key factor in determining public policy on scientific
We in the scientific community must wake up to the fact that
scientific matters have become very political. And if we are not
careful, politics rather than science
will soon be the main determinant in how policies are implemented.
This has serious implications for many areas of research - global
warming, biodiversity, medicine, energy and so forth.
The issue bears on how our society uses science and technology to
create wealth, and I believe it will be one of the running issues of
the new century. How do we balance personal, national and
international needs in a world where all decisions are taken at the
global level, and where the use of new technology will be one of the
main drivers of economic growth but may also be a major cause of
During 1999, in the United Kingdom, we witnessed how activist
organizations, very skilled at exploiting fear and uncertainty, were
able to control the debate on the introduction of foods from
genetically modified crops. These groups took premature or incomplete
research results, found a willing partner in the British press and
whipped public concern into a frenzy.
By the time scientists became fully engaged in the debate, their voices
were futile against the winds of protest. Supermarkets have banned
these foods, activists have prevented imports and there is
essentially a freeze on the development of this new technology, a
technology that I believe holds such great promise for the future.
While I currently despair of the decision-making "process" in
Britain, I fear the same will occur on a global basis unless three
changes take place:
First, there must be a new style of decision-making that instills
public confidence while ensuring that the best science is understood
and fully considered.
Second, scientists must understand that the public has genuine
concerns about all new technology. We must realize that we cannot
emerge from our laboratories, make pronouncements and expect an
inspired public to applaud.
Third, scientists must learn how to operate in an arena where public
relations firestorms have become the norm. We must learn how to
ensure that facts, not just fears, are communicated.
Failure on all these fronts has resulted in the current situation
facing crop biotechnology in the United Kingdom. The regulatory
system in the United States is more open than that in the United
Kingdom, with several opportunities for public input. Lack of public
involvement in the United Kingdom has inevitably led to public
Even a system that invites public participation can be improved. The "in" word
these days is "transparency," which means that the regulatory system
should be open to the point that the public can understand why and
how a decision has been made.
Take the monarch butterfly issue, for example. In approving
insect-protected corn, U.S. regulators considered that butterflies
could be harmed if they ate pollen from the corn, but they determined
there would be little risk of exposure in the environment. Had the
public known such a consideration had been made, there might not have
been a public relations firestorm last spring when a laboratory study
demonstrated what regulators already knew.
Timeliness also is essential. The Food and Drug Administration
recently held a series of public hearings, and within a few weeks
transcripts of all the hearings were posted on the FDA's Web site.
This change has also taken place in Britain, but too late to calm
fears, and after all, we have had
BSE (so-called mad cow disease), where the regulatory process failed
to protect the public and has profoundly affected public attitudes.
And the process must be inclusive.
We must evolve a new style for decision-making that opens up the process
but maintains the input of the scientific expert. Scientists must
become much more professional about our relationship with the public.
Too often we assume that when we explain what we are doing the public
will agree with us. This is not always true. Taking even the simplest
proposition, that scientific discovery is good for society, there is
now a substantial group of people who would not agree. We have to
where they are, and that is that the public only appears to welcome
new science and technology when it brings demonstrable benefits.
There are tremendous benefits from biotechnology,
and scientists must learn how to relate those benefits in interesting stories.
Scientists must also become as skilled at communications as the
activist groups. It is a plain fact that Greenpeace and Friends of
the Earth completely controlled the agenda in the United Kingdom last
year. Every couple of days a new issue broke, fueled by some
preliminary result distributed over the Internet.
The activists feel no restraint in exploiting a half-truth toadvance
their agenda. Occasionally, the media would ask for my response to
the latest accusation. Without information in front of me, I, like
scientist, would have to reserve comment. To not respond quickly is
the same as not responding at all.
Today, we scientists are getting better at this, with several e-mail
networks that provide us the information to respond truthfully and
promptly to activist allegations.
While concerned, I am hopeful that science can be the primary
determinant. Recently, the 29 nations comprising the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development met in Edinburgh, Scotland, to
discuss biotechnology. Greens and scientists, Europeans, Asians and
Americans all met together and talked for three days. No one walked
out, and there were no protests in the street. I think this is cause
DEREK BURKE Retired vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia in England
Following is the complete text of Bill Gates article in Time. May I
please request the AgBioView readers to write to Time's editors on
your thoughts on this article and also suggest that AgBioWorld and
similar pro-biotech sites, rather than the sites attacking
biotechnology would be a better link at the bottom of their page.
Letters should be sent via e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Time.com -- Visions of the 21st Century
Will Frankenfood Feed the World?
Genetically modified food has met fierce opposition among well-fed
Europeans, but it's the poor and the hungry who need it most
BY BILL GATES
If you want to spark a heated debate at a dinner party, bring up the topic
of genetically modified foods. For many people, the concept of genetically
altered, high-tech crop production raises all kinds of environmental,
health, safety and ethical questions. Particularly in countries with long
agrarian traditions-and vocal green lobbies-the idea seems against nature.
In fact, genetically modified foods are already very much a part of our
lives. A third of the corn and more than half the soybeans and cotton grown
in the U.S. last year were the product of biotechnology, according to the
Department of Agriculture. More than 65 million acres of genetically
modified crops will be planted in the U.S. this year. The genetic genie is
out of the bottle.
Yet there are clearly some very real issues that need to be resolved. Like
any new product entering the food chain, genetically modified foods must be
subjected to rigorous testing. In wealthy countries, the debate about
biotech is tempered by the fact that we have a rich array of foods to choose
from-and a supply that far exceeds our needs. In developing countries
desperate to feed fast-growing and underfed populations, the issue is
simpler and much more urgent: Do the benefits of biotech outweigh the risks?
The statistics on population growth and hunger are disturbing. Last year the
world's population reached 6 billion. And by 2050, the U.N. estimates, it
will probably near 9 billion. Almost all that growth will occur in
developing countries. At the same time, the world's available cultivable
land per person is declining. Arable land has declined steadily since 1960
and will decrease by half over the next 50 years, according to the
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications
The U.N. estimates that nearly 800 million people around the world are
undernourished. The effects are devastating. About 400 million women of
childbearing age are iron deficient, which means their babies are exposed to
various birth defects. As many as 100 million children suffer from vitamin A
deficiency, a leading cause of blindness. Tens of millions of people suffer
from other major ailments and nutritional deficiencies caused by lack of
How can biotech help? Biotechnologists have developed genetically modified
rice that is fortified with beta-carotene-which the body converts into
vitamin A-and additional iron, and they are working on other kinds of
nutritionally improved crops. Biotech can also improve farming productivity
in places where food shortages are caused by crop damage attributable to
pests, drought, poor soil and crop viruses, bacteria or fungi.
Damage caused by pests is incredible. The European corn borer, for example,
destroys 40 million tons of the world's corn crop annually, about 7% of the
total. Incorporating pest-resistant genes into seeds can help restore the
balance. In trials of pest-resistant cotton in Africa, yields have increased
significantly. So far, fears that genetically modified, pest-resistant crops
might kill good insects as well as bad appear unfounded.
Viruses often cause massive failure in staple crops in developing countries.
Two years ago, Africa lost more than half its cassava crop-a key source of
calories-to the mosaic virus. Genetically modified, virus-resistant crops
can reduce that damage, as can drought-tolerant seeds in regions where water
shortages limit the amount of land under cultivation. Biotech can also help
solve the problem of soil that contains excess aluminum, which can damage
roots and cause many staple-crop failures. A gene that helps neutralize
aluminum toxicity in rice has been identified.
Many scientists believe biotech could raise overall crop productivity in
developing countries as much as 25% and help prevent the loss of those crops
after they are harvested.
Yet for all that promise, biotech is far from being the whole answer. In
developing countries, lost crops are only one cause of hunger. Poverty plays
the largest role. Today more than 1 billion people around the globe live on
less than $1 a day. Making genetically modified crops available will not
reduce hunger if farmers cannot afford to grow them or if the local
population cannot afford to buy the food those farmers produce.
Nor can biotech overcome the challenge of distributing food in developing
countries. Taken as a whole, the world produces enough food to feed
everyone-but much of it is simply in the wrong place. Especially in
countries with undeveloped transport infrastructures, geography restricts
food availability as dramatically as genetics promises to improve it.
Biotech has its own "distribution" problems. Private-sector biotech
companies in the rich countries carry out much of the leading-edge research
on genetically modified crops. Their products are often too costly for poor
farmers in the developing world, and many of those products won't even reach
the regions where they are most needed. Biotech firms have a strong
financial incentive to target rich markets first in order to help them
rapidly recoup the high costs of product development. But some of these
companies are responding to the needs of poor countries. A London-based
company, for example, has announced that it will share with developing
countries technology needed to produce vitamin-enriched "golden rice."
More and more biotech research is being carried out in developing countries.
But to increase the impact of genetic research on the food production of
those countries, there is a need for better collaboration between government
agencies-both local and in developed countries-and private biotech firms.
The isaaa, for example, is successfully partnering with the U.S. Agency for
International Development, local researchers and private biotech companies
to find and deliver biotech solutions for farmers in developing countries.
Will "Frankenfoods" feed the world? Biotech is not a panacea, but it does
promise to transform agriculture in many developing countries. If that
promise is not fulfilled, the real losers will be their people, who could
suffer for years to come.