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World needs GM crops, says UN food chief
By Michela Wrong, Food and Biosciences correspondent
Published: June 28 2000 20:35GMT | Last Updated: June 28 2000 21:00GMT
The head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) gave
genetically-modified (GM) organisms his backing on Wednesday, saying new
plant and animal varieties were needed to feed a burgeoning world
Speaking ahead of next month's Group of Eight summit in Japan, where GM
crops will be on the agenda, Jacques Diouf acknowledged that conventional
crops developed during the Green Revolution could feed the world's 800m
hungry people, if only they were fairly distributed across the developing
But he predicted that a shortage of land available for cultivation would
make it impossible to feed a global population expected to peak at 9bn
without recourse to genetically-engineered plants and animals.
"We cannot deprive ourselves of the potential to have crops that require
less pesticide, need less nitrogen and phosphorus to grow and offer poor
people improved nutrition, whether added vitamins or oligoelements," the
director-general said in an interview with the Financial Times.
"We need to take all the necessary precautions to protect human health
and the environment. But in the long term, I believe this is a vital tool
in the fight against hunger."
The GM issue looks set to divide opinions at the G8 summit in Okinawa.
European nations have invoked the "precautionary principle" to justify
rejection of the new crops.
But politicians in North America, where vast tracts of land have been
sown to GM soya and maize, accuse them of using consumer anxieties as a
pretext for covert trade sanctions.
Mr Diouf said he believed consensus on GM norms could be reached in the
framework of Codex Alimentarius, a body established by FAO and the World
Health Organisation in 1962 to agree international food standards.
He said FAO, which is based in Rome and is the UN's largest specialised
agency, was setting up a special "ethics committee", embracing
philosophers and religious representatives, to study human dimensions
raised by GM agriculture.
But he was wary of a proposal, due to be discussed in Japan, to create a
broad-based international panel which would collate latest scientific
thinking on GM products, warning this should not attempt to replicate the
role played by Codex Alimentarius.
Subj: Comments on Mr. Beant Ahloowalia's views / correction
Date: Thu, 29 Jun 2000 11:25:05 PM Eastern Daylight Time
From: "John W. Cross"
From: Beant Ahloowalia
"...So far, the plant breeders have used genes freely from gene pools,
without patents. Why should the developing countries be now be asked to
create new laws to protect and pay for a few novel genes, when rest of
the world have used and are still using plant germplasm produced in the
Mr. B. has it that plant breeders got their germplasm from the developing
How far back do you want to go Mr. B.? Consider the case of corn. Corn
breeding has been a profession in the United States for well over 100
years, and the germplasm that breeders were using even then was derived
from landraces of corn (Northern flints and Southern dents) that had been
in the US since at least Colonial times. Mr. B. keep in mind that patents
expire after a short period, 20 years in the US for a regular patent or a
Plant Patent (on asexully-propagated plants). Reference:
"The law also provides for the granting of a patent to anyone who has
invented or discovered and asexually reproduced any distinct and new
variety of plant, including cultivated sports, mutants, hybrids, and newly
found seedlings, other than a tuber-propagated plant or a plant found in
an uncultivated state." It is clear that these patents cannot apply to a
previously known cultivar or an uncultivated plant. Those patents are
also for a period of 20 years. Reference:
For seed- or tuber-propagated cultivars, there are also patents under the
The Plant Variety Protection Act (Public Law 91577). The term of
protection is 20 years for most crops and 25 years for trees, shrubs, and
vines. Reference: http://www.ams.usda.gov/science/pvp.htm
Thus, even supposing that the Native Americans who bred the original
landraces of maize could have taken out patents, they would have expired
Mr. B. also calls for certain criteria for use of novel genes:
>"The use of all new genes in plants should be based on some of the
>criteria as Ingo has listed for.
> 1. No dependency of the farmers on anyone- they own the material once
>they have bought and use their own harvest for the next sowing.
> 2. No need for any additional inputs.
> 3. Free access to transfer genes into local varieties.
>In return for free novel genes, there is free access to all the
>germplasm held in trust by CGIAR and FAO for humanity."
Basically, Mr. B. wants plant genetic engineering to be in the public
domain. That would mean that the people who do the hard work of
engineering and breeding new varieties would not be paid for their work.
I cannot disagree more. If some charitable individuals or government
breeding organizations want to give away their rights, that is fine, but
otherwise, the user (farmer) should pay. If a user can reproduce a
product freely, as in the case of a seed (or a music CD for another
example), the party who created the product does not enjoy the fruits of
their labor. I do not understand how intelligent people can fail to
understand that free-copying of other peoples' intellectual property is
dishonest to the core.
There is also a pragmatic objection. As I mentioned in an earlier
posting, free-copying of intellectual property is known and acknowledged
to be inhibiting the internal development of technology in many nations
around the world. In those countries' self-interest, the sooner respect
for intellectual property is encouraged, the better.
John W. Cross
Disclaimer: I have no financial connections to the agricultural seed
industry. My views are my own.