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June 23, 2000


Responses to 'Hungry for Biotech'


AgBioView - http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

From: "Robert Vint" Subject:
Re: Hungry for Biotech

Dear Prakash,
I read your article from Technology Review with interest and agreed with
much of it.

You made the important point that the biotechnology industry is not seen
to be demonstrating a social conscience and that investment in
biotechnology goes to developing commercial crops for Western countries
rather than to meeting the needs of developing countries such as Ethiopia
or Bangladesh. Ethiopia's food and agriculture spokesman, Dr Tewolde
Egziabher, and the FAO representatives of the African nations seem to
share a similar view:

"....We agree and accept that mutual help is needed to further improve
agricultural production in our countries. We also believe that Western
science can contribute to this. But it should be done on the basis of
understanding and respect for what is already there. It should be building
on local knowledge, rather than replacing and destroying it. And most
importantly: it should address the real needs of our people, rather than
serving only to swell the pockets and control of giant industrial
corporations." [ www.oneworld.org/panos/news/biodoc5.htm ].

As you make clear, it is the international patent regime and industry
'ownership' of genes that prevents knowledge being shared with these
nations - and it is the Patent issue (from Basmati patents to 'Terminator'
technologies), rather than food safety, that lies at the heart of Third
World concern about the use of the technology [
www.wdm.org.uk/cambriefs/GMOs/farmers.htm ]. Reversing the World Trade
Organisation's regulations on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights
(TRIPS) would be a major step towards ensuring that technology is
distributed fairly in poor nations.

However, I'm not sure how the issue of liability, which you mention,
prevents the sharing of this technology and I do not understand why you
feel there is a need to 'indemnify companies from liability suits' if
evidence already exists that GM food and crops are completely safe. Surely
if biotech companies, and their directors, were seen to accept full
liability this would provide poor nations with more reassurance about the
safety of these crops than would any statements from international

A major PR setback for the industry was the failed attempt by the
GM-exporting nations, at the Biosafety Protocol meeting in Montreal in
January, to deny Third World nations the right to choose for themselves
which GM crops to import[
]. At that meeting the 'Like-Minded' group of 130 developing nations made
it clear that whilst they certainly want access to technology, what they
want more than anything is the freedom to decide for themselves what kind
of development path will best meet the needs of their people - and
biotechnology is only one of the choices. As Steve Smith of Novartis has
said " If anyone tells you that GM is going to feed the world, tell them
that it is not. Equinox was a mistake and went too far. To feed the world
takes political and financial will, it's not about production and
distribution. It is not the single answer, it is one of many areas that is
being investigated. It may produce more for less and create more food but
it won't feed the world."

Surely the key to allowing the potential benefits of agricultural
biotechnology to the Third World to be realised is to listen to people
(especially small farmers) from these nations, to allow them to define
their own needs and priorities then to help them to obtain the
technologies that they themselves choose - and to remove the Patent laws
and WTO trade obligations that are such an imposition on their nations.
Surely the biotechnology industry would improve its public image by
promoting such a strategy.

Yours sincerely,
Robert Vint.
From: Andrew Apel Subject: Re: Hungry for Biotech

Dear Dr. Vint:

I, too, agree with Dr. Prakash. I think we need to bear in mind, however,
that things are vastly complicated when it comes to helping developing
nations with biotechnology. First of all, activist groups will oppose this
form of aid every step of the way. Already, they have been quite effective
in scaring people in the developing world. I would be inclined to ask: If
they will not consume the products of modern genetics, will anyone in the
developing countries plant it?

Then there is the issue of "building on local knowledge, rather than
replacing and destroying it," while allowing farmers to choose the
technologies they themselves want. The result of this, inevitably, will be
discarding much local knowledge, i.e., knowledge which modern technology
makes obsolete. In addition, farmers will inevitably adopt high-production
agricultural practices; no matter how primitive or advanced the technology
in the farmers' hands may be, they are always striving for the highest
production possible. This means replacing and, to use the perjorative
term, "destroying" local knowledge and subsistence farming practices.

I am deeply suspicious of rhetoric regarding swelling "the pockets and
control of giant industrial corporations," which is supposed to contrast
with addressing "the real needs of our people." If farmers are supposed to
make their own decisions about what technologies they want to use, and
decide they like Monsanto technology, must we then conclude that some form
of corporate evil is afoot?

I am not sure that criticism of the international patent regime is
well-founded. The fact of the matter is, the protection of intellectual
property is what spurs invention. Furthermore, protection of intellectual
property is what makes technology transfer possible throughout the
developed world.

It is precisely the disdain for protection of intellectual property in
developing nations which makes intellectual property problematic.
Obviously, it is attractive to dress up technology theft by attaching to
it some noble purpose, but that does not change its fundamental nature.
The corporations which come up with these marvelous inventions are not
charities, and do not survive on donations, nor could they. They rely on
producing things which people find valuable enough to buy.

Accordingly, technology transfer to the developing countries will need,
one way or another, to take into account, and to honor, the intellectual
property biotechnology represents. Activists, and sometimes even
well-meaning persons, are fond of saying that the rights of farmers in
developing nations to germplasm they have bred for hundreds of years
should be respected by those in the developed nations. So be it; and let
the respect be mutual and reciprocal.

I, too, am mystified by questions of liability. It is beyond doubt that
biotech companies are financially liable if their products, used as
intended, cause harm. This has always been the case, and if they were
concerned about liability for a product, it would never reach the market.

The Biosafety Protocol was a terrible setback, indeed. The notion that
people should be able to import what they want was badly undercut by
provisions which are quite obviously anti-choice and anti-free trade.
Farmers and food manufacturers who, we suppose, should have access to
various technologies will now have terms dictated to them which are not
necessarily science-based.

This means, sadly, that even if Prakash can put together all the pieces it
takes to allow developing nations to take advantage of biotechnology, the
Biosafety Protocol is the factor most likely to doom such a noble effort.

Robert Vint wrote:

>Dear Prakash,
>I read your article from Technology Review with interest and agreed with
much of it.
>You made the important point that the biotechnology industry is not seen
to be demonstrating a social