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July 18, 2000


an open letter to Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher


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


Dear Sir:

The letter referred to above invokes a "strawman" in criticising GM crops,
that is, it describes an oversimplified version of the argument which is
easy to "blow down". You wrote that "The argument was that biotechnology
could solve
Africa's rural poverty and could eliminate malnutrition and undernutrition
if the development of their genetic engineering were not rejected in

We, as informed "Northerners", also know that the South's poverty is caused
by deep-seated structural economic imbalances from a colonial history, some
of which have been enhanced in recent decades by local despots and wars.
No one strategy will solve poverty and food shortages in the South.
However, there is a widespread evidence that GM crops can help reduce the
risks of pesticide use and increase food supply and quality, and I have not
seen a logical rebuttal of that argument.

You may be particularly interested in the use of GM insect resistant maize,
which would likely eliminate the need for applications of carbofuran and
other pesticides to control African corn borer, and reduces the levels of
naturally occurring fungal toxins (fumonisins) resulting from insect
attack. Herbicide tolerant non-transgenic maize is already being used to
improve control of devastating witchweeds (Striga) and it seems likely that
other herbicide tolerances could do the same in cassava, improving yields
and freeing women from weeding fields,

I draw your attention to the following news item recently circulated on the


Rick Roush
Associate Professor
July 17, 2000
Financial Express

June 2000 has seen a spate of acceptances of biotech crops in many countries
from Australia to Korea, China and even in the OECD region.

Director general of the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)
of the UN, Jacques Diouf, also gave the crops his backing, saying new plant
and animal varieties were needed to feed a burgeoning population.

Theoretically, hybrid and high yielding varieties developed during the Green
Revolution could feed the world's 800 million hungry people if they were
fairly evenly distributed across the developing world, he said. But a
shortage of land available for cultivation in the years to come would make
it impossible to feed the global population expected to peak at nine billion
in 50 years, without recourse to genetically engineered plants and animals,
Dioul warned.

"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," Diuof
told the Financial Times of London.

He said the FAO was setting up a social "ethics committee" embracing
philosophers and religious representatives to study the human dimensions
raised by plant biotechnology.

Here is an overview of what happened in June, 2000:

An Australian Parliamentary Committee gave the go-ahead for biotech crops on
June 19, 2000 after a 15-month inquiry into their safety. It ruled in favour
of biotech crops as long as an independent regulatory process was involved.
Australia's only biotech crop of commercial significance is cotton - with
cottonseed oil used in cooking oils - but trials of canola, field peas,
wheat, barley sugarcane and lupins are underway. Canola is expected to be
Australia's next GM crop with production commencing in 2002.
The same day Australia's food regulator issued safety assessments for five
genetically modified food ingredients, approving them for human consumption.
These are insect-protected corn, glyphosate herbicide-tolerant cotton, corn
and canola and high-olcic-acid soybean. In the past year, the authority
issued safety assessments for Roundup ready soybean and insect-protected
cotton, two of a total of 19 genetically modified commodities it has been or
is assessing.

"All the scientific data presently before ANZFA indicates that the
(genetically modified) foods under assessment have all the benefits of the
corresponding conventional foods and no additional risk," he said. In the
next several months, the safety assessments for the remaining genetically
modified crops will be issued for public comment.

South Korea
The Korean Food & Drug Administration has ruled that 'Roundup Ready
soybeans' are safe. Last November, the KEDA appointed a 15-member evaluation
committee comprising professors and researchers in genetic fields, and
representatives from consumer rights groups to study the issue.
The agency will post the results of its evaluation soon on its website
(www.kfda.go.kr). It is the first time that Korean food safety authorities
have officially judged as safe a genetically improved seed.

On June 14, Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, announced that China has begun
construction of a 300 million yuan ($36 million) facility in north-east
Jilin Province to research and produce pest-resistant genetically improved
crops containing the Bt gene. Production of these crops will begin next year
and the facility will initially turn out 270 tons of corn seed, 30 tons of
soy seed and 200 tons of rice seed. The crops developed by the Jilin branch
of the China Research Institute of Agricultural Science would be resistant
to pests and would help farmers save on pesticides, according to Liu Depu ,
one project expert.

The China Research Institute of Agricultural Science is setting up a new
company, to be named Jinong Hi-Tech Co Ltd, to take over the project after
2003. "We want to build an internationally competitive company", Liu said.
China is evidently getting ready to ensure its agriculture is globally
competitive now that it is joining the WTO.
Biotech crops already play a major role in food production in China which
has 20 per cent of the world's population and seven per cent of the land

The Chinese were the first to take up large scale cultivation of a biotech
crop - genetically improved tobacco. According to reports coming out of
China, it has already commercialised cotton, tomato, tobacco, cucumber, a
type of green pepper and morning glory as well. Cotton has been the most
successful biotech crop. In 1999, the country cultivated more than 300,000
hectares of Bt cotton.

Biotech crops that have already been approved for human consumption are as
safe as other foods, according to two reports of the Organisation for
Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published on the Internet in
June 2000.
"Those countries that have conducted assessments are confident that the
biotech foods they have approved are as safe as other foods," the OECD said.
The Paris-based OECD's reports, however, recommended that government
regulators pay closer attention to involving the public when assessing the
safety of future generations of biotech crops.

On 18 Jul 2000, at 6:58, Biotech Activists wrote:

> Biotech Activists (biotech_activists@iatp.org) Posted: 07/18/2000
> By mritchie@iatp.org
> ============================================================
> Dear Colleagues,
> Whilst I was in the UK recently, I watched a documentary on British
> Channel Four Television, which portrayed Africa's poverty and implied
> that the average British housewife's resistance to genetically
> engineered (GE) food would prevent the South from receiving the
> benefits of GE. The argument was that biotechnology could solve
> Africa's rural poverty and could eliminate malnutrition and
> undernutrition if the development of their genetic engineering were
> not rejected in Europe. Interviews with scientists from Kenya, India
> and Mexico were used to show what wonderful solutions to these
> problems would come from genetic engineering. This was supported by
> the enclosed article in The Times newspaper.
> We, as informed Southerners, know that the South's poverty is caused
> by deep-seated structural economic imbalances which were established
> during the periods of slavery and colonialism and are continuing now.
> We know that though individual technological inputs can help in food
> production, given that other conditions are equally as important,
> those single technological inputs are insignificant on their own.
> Since it is the transnational corporations which are the beneficiaries
> of the long history of inequity that has plagued us in our position of
> disadvantage, I believe that it is our responsibility to reject such a
> misleading oversimplification of the solution to our problem;
> especially the use of our condition, by those very beneficiaries of
> the inequity, to justify the continuation of the benefits that they
> derive.
> Action:
> For this reason, I have drafted the attached letter of protest and
> request that you please sign on to this. The advantage of a joint
> letter is that we can use it in other fora should it be necessary to
> counter such misinformation. To sign on please send a note to me
> (sustain@telecom.net.et) and copy to The Gaia Foundation
> (gaia@gaianet.org) and include your name, profession and country. If
> you have time please also send your own letter to the Editor of The
> Times Newspaper (letters@the-times.co.uk).
> Best wishes,
> Dr. Tewolde Behran Gebre Egzhiaber
> Spokesperson for Africa and the Like-Minded group in the Biosafety
> Negotiations Institute for Sustainable Development P.O. Box 30231,
> Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Tel: 251-1-204210 / 251-9-200834 (mobile) Fax:
> 251-1-552350 / 251-1-610077 e-mail: sustain@telecom.net.et or
> Dear __________,
> We the undersigned are appalled at the use made of the poverty of the
> rural people of the South to justify genetically modified food to
> Northern consumers. We are appalled for the following reasons:
> 1. Poverty in the South is structurally rooted in the prevalent
> North-South relationships. The present systems of international
> resource control, commodity pricing, education, training, research,
> finance, banking, insurance, transportation etc. are all components of
> the system that controls wealth and poverty, and which started being
> put in place during the slavery and colonial periods and have matured
> in this post-colonial period. Southern poverty, especially rural
> poverty, is a consequence of this.
> 2. As such, the solution to rural poverty lies in a multidimensional
> corrective measure that would enable sufficient local control of the
> appropriation of the benefits that arise from the use of and trade in
> resources, as well as the application of labour.
> 3. The assumption that the complex rural poverty that afflicts the
> South would be amenable to solution through single technological
> inputs is grossly incorrect and totally objectionable since it would
> misdirect efforts.
> 4. Though technological inputs have a role to play in rural
> development, and genetic engineering could be a technology to
> consider, it would remain but one technology among many. For example
> even if potential yields of food crops were to be dramatically
> improved, if storage, transportation, marketing, distribution, and the
> ability to buy the food were not simultaneously improved, the effort
> would still remain ineffective. In fact, as we keep pointing out, it
> is not shortage of food that is the problem, but it's distribution.
> More GE food is not the point: it is improving access and local food
> security. But corporations do not profit from such solutions.
> 5. There are high yielding varieties in rural areas but their impacts
> remain limited by the bottlenecks imposed by many of the other
> variables. The agricultural research stations that are found in
> Southern countries have also produced many such varieties and the
> potentials of these varieties remain unrealised because of the other
> negative factors. But research must continue so that there will
> always be higher yielding varieties to have their potential impacts
> realised as and when conditions allow it. It is a gross
> oversimplification to state that such seed would solve rural food
> problems. The picture is the same with seed of improved nutritional
> quality such as vitamin A rice.
> 6. At the heart of the inequity that maintains the present poverty of
> the South is the inherited positive advantage that the Northern
> transnational corporations enjoy. We consider the use of the South's
> rural poverty to justify the monopoly control and global use of
> genetically modified food production by the North's transnational
> corporations, not only an obstructive lie, but a way of derailing the
> solutions to our Southern rural poverty. It is the height of cynical
> abuse of the corporations' position of advantage. Channel Four
> Television and The Times newspaper should be ashamed for allowing
> themselves to be so manipulated into trying effectively to emotionally
> blackmail the UK public into using GE.
> Yours sincerely,
> The Times, UK, 21 March 2000: GM foods and the luxury of choice
> By Joe Joseph.
> I know this is a little unscientific, but look at Monica Lewinsky,
> think of Marlon Brando's waistline, look at even the slimmed-down
> Vanessa Feltz: I don't know what these people eat, but just how much
> scarier could they possibly look if fed on a diet containing
> genetically-modified ingredients? How much unhealthier could it make
> them?
> Supermarkets are stacked with genetically-unmodified food items that
> are as nutritious as roofing tar. So what is it exactly that we are
> risking with GM? The debate about GM foods has been conducted most
> noisily among well-off Westerners, such as you and me. Are we keen to
> eat genetically-modified tomatoes? Not especially. There seem to be
> plenty of the other variety about. Why take the risk: even if there
> isn't one?
> But when you ask people in developing countries, you hear loud voices
> pleading for GM crops. The problem is that this isn't a decision those
> countries can take in isolation. If the West won't grow GM crops and
> won't buy GM foods, then Africa and Latin America can't grow them,
> either; because while developing countries would reap bigger harvests
> using GM seeds, they wouldn't be able to export any surpluses to
> GM-averse Europe or America. Bang goes a source of foreign income,
> leaving them poorer than they were before.
> So are we in the West, by spurning GM foods even though there is no
> scientific evidence to suggest they are dangerous to eat, condemning
> millions in the Third World to starve, and condemning the children of
> those nations to staying ill-educated because they have to skip school
> to help their parents weed the fields, since local farmers can't
> afford pesticides and herbicides?
> Scientists and farmers in developing countries seem to think so, at
> least on the evidence of Equinox: The Rise and Fall of GM (Channel 4).
> You can hardly blame them. How many of us, given a choice, would
> reject GM technology in favour of totally natural starvation? "It is
> nice to be romantic about not using chemicals, not using fertilisers,
> not using transgenic technology," Dr Cyrus Ndirtu, director of the
> Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute, said in Martin Durkin's sober
> and uncomfortable film. "But just remember, for some people in the
> rural areas of Africa, and maybe even Asia and Latin America, the
> choice is between life and death."
> And anyway, just how rigid are we Westerners, who can afford the
> luxury of choice, in our abhorrence of GM crops? What if, say, tobacco
> could be genetically-modified so that cigarettes were no longer
> carcinogenic? Would we be in favour of that? Without much of a doubt,
> I'd guess. Cigarettes are killing us anyway, so we'll consider
> anything that allows us to retain the pleasure of smoking without at
> the same time propelling us to an early grave.
> That must, surely, be the way hungry people in developing countries
> think when they see their children going blind through vitamin
> deficiency: we're in a bad way as it is, so how big a risk can GM
> foods be?
> Very big, insists Mae-Wan Ho, a biologist from the Open University,
> who told us that: "Organic farmers are artists and poets. They have a
> certain relationship with their land, and the trees are poems the
> earth writes to the skies. They have a love affair with their land.
> Peruvian farmers adopt plants in their garden as family members."
> Yeah, but those poor Peruvian farmers have been chewing coca leaves
> all day to dull the tedium of not being able to go to the movies, or
> to phone for a takeaway when they're feeling too lazy to cook. "What
> intensive agriculture does is to mechanise the whole thing," Mae-Wan
> added. "They convert these poets into taxi-drivers." Give me strength.
> South American farmers understandably think that this is romantic
> tosh; that Westerners like to keep the Third World as a savage,
> natural tourist park which they can visit before returning home to
> enjoy the benefits of bounteous agriculture and full bellies. This was
> an intelligent, unhysterical documentary. Pilger without the
> piousness. We may still be right to reject GM technology. But we are
> now more aware of the moral burden that decision puts on our Western
> shoulders.