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March 23, 2000


Q&A Responses


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

QUESTION #1 Is genetic engineering the only way of increasing food

No, there are numerous ways of increasing food production. They include, as
two examples, making more arable land by creating and using better
fertilizers. There is an exciting company in Maui that is creating products
for reforestation of otherwise unsuitable land. Precision agriculture and
better farm management practices will also increase production.

The key with biotechnology is that it is a very inexpensive way to increase
yields and reduce damage to pests. It also requires no training or knowledge
on the part of the farmer who merely replaces one type of seed with another.
Precision agriculture, on the other hand, can be extremely complex. Thus,
for developing countries, the ease of using GM seed inputs (especially not
requiring any specific technical assistance) and their ability to on a large
scale work in lands that would otherwise not be arable makes them a very
effective way of increasing food production.

Remember, it is one thing to increase food production in a country with an
over abundance of raw crops. It is far more important to create a product
that can be easily used in country's where increasing a yield can have a
substantial impact on avoiding famine.

QUESTION #2 Is it possible to deal with widespread malnutrition with genetic

There is no easy answer to malnutrition. One of the key issues is the cost
and difficulty of transporting agricultural products to those areas that are
in need. If genetic engineered seeds were only prevalent in America, for
example, it would be difficult to imagine large shipments of grains going to
Africa without significant government subsidization.

If the seeds are available to developing countries, then there could
potentially be an enormous impact on malnutrition. GM seeds can often
contain valuable nutrient content not found in traditional seeds. GM seeds
can often be designed to grow in harsher soils and climates. To stop
malnutrition you need to get higher yields and more arable land in proximity
to starving people. GM seeds have potential ton help do that.

Now comes the hard part. GM seeds must be protected by complex patent and IP
laws. Without the protection, hundreds of millions of dollars in future
profits could be wiped out. As American farmers know, you want Roundup Ready
seeds, you sign a technology license agreement. One of the principles of
contracts is the capacity of the party to enter into a contract. Likewise,
saving seeds is prohibited under these contracts (and for IP reasons almost
needs to be). To what extent would you be weakening or waiving intellectual
property rights by engaging in this kind of humanitarian effort? Rather than
handle all of the technical legal questions involved in this short answer,
let's say there are a number of challenges to making seed available in a
humanitarian effort. In fairness to agribusiness, they may have the desire
to do more humanitarian work, but they are limited by an intellectual
property system.

QUESTION 3 How can GE ensure environmental sustainability as well as
increase food production when pressure on environmental resources like land
and water is growing?

I would hesitate to say that GE or any one technique will ensure
environmental sustainability. There are numerous factors which lead to
environmental degradation. First, GE seeds often are resistant to a certain
type of pesticide. Often that allows you to applicate the pesticide once
versus two or three applications. GE seeds often can grow is less nutrient
rich soils. The effect is that you have more arable land and can engage in
better crop and land rotation. GE seeds can have a modest impact on the
environmental issues associated with livestock production. As many know,
animal agricultural waste is often far greater an environmental threat than
crop production. GE seeds can alter a swine's diet such that the manure is
less odorous.

QUESTION 4. How can GE deal with possible environmental threats such as
"super weeds"?

I have to defer to the scientists on this one. I would like to mention that
when you use the word possible we should ask how likely is the possibility.
What, if any, evidence do we have to support the notion that super weeds
would be created? Has traditional pesticide use created pesticide resistant
weeds, such that GE is going to pose no greater (and probably less of a
threat) than continuing to apply pesticide 2 and 3 times versus 1? If a
pesticide resistant strain developed, are there any number of other
pesticides which could be used to manage the situation?

QUESTION 7. Shouldn't it be possible to demand zero risks from GE?

No. Neither is it possible to say with certainty that life saving
antibiotics won't one day lead to the development of strains which are
resistant to the antibiotic. Every now and again, a drug that has entered
the market after extensive testing, will prove to have unintended
consequences. The analysis needs to focus on the risks associated with the
practices GE will help curtail. For example, what is the known risk of
pesticide. What are we gaining by having a GE seed which requires less
pesticide? Next, evaluate if the risk of GE seed is known or unknown,
probable or implausible. We need not forget about the real benefit of GE
foods. For example if you can increase nutrient content in rice resulting in
less disease or blindness, what risk are you willing to take to solve a known
problem? Too often when dealing with GE issues we forget to look at the
dangers we are reducing with the new inputs as well as forget to look at the
tremendous societal advantages that can come from GE seeds. Only when these
critical factors are examined alongside any possible risk of GE technology,
can we determine our risk tolerance level. We still use synthetically
produced antibiotics.

QUESTION 9 How can modern profit driven agro-biotechnology meet the basic
needs of the poor?

By having it be profitable to help these people. "Poor" countries are often
key marketing opportunities for a seed corporation such as Monsanto or
Novartis. While costly to create the seed, the increased yields and pest
resistance of the crops may well justify the additional cost of the
technology. One of the key concerns of developing countries is trying to
minimize the yield swing between good and bad years. GM crops can help
manage the feast or famine effect of having several inches too little of
rain. GM crops are only a tool in the struggle for sustainable agricultural
initiatives in developing countries, but they are a critical tool because of
their ease to use and their dramatic yield increases, especially when arable
land is scarce. On whole, the net increase in yield and crop protection
outweighs the modest cost of the seeds, even to developing countries. If
this were not the case, GM producers would have lots and lots of inventory
they could not sell.

QUESTION 10 Would not the poor farmers in developing countries become
dependent on commercial biotech corporations?

No more so then their reliance on pharmaceutical companies or companies
providing capital equipment for infrastructure work. Developing countries do
not find themselves dependent on pharmaceutical companies. They view
pharmaceuticals as important to maintain the health of their population.
Remember, there is no obligation to purchase GM seed, nor would their be a
lack of traditional seed available to developing farmers who save seed from
year to year. The only time a developing country or a farmer in a developing
country would purchase GM seed at a premium over traditional seed is if there
was a win-win relationship. The amount of additional crop produced by GM
seeds greatly outweighs the modest cost of the technology. Likewise, I
suspect there would and should be generous subsidies (governmental and
industry) for developing countries to purchase GM seed. Internationally, our
focus on agricultural aid needs to be less on "crisis management" during a
famine and more on sustainable agriculture which will avoid famines.
Monsanto, Novartis, ADM and Zeneca will have a hard time exerting control on
international relief agencies and foreign governments without a clear plan on
how each side gains.

QUESTION 11 How can the interests of developing countries be safeguarded?

The country itself safeguards its interest. For example, a particular
country may find that restrictions on saving seed is null and void.
HOWEVER, there must be a partnership between GM seed companies and food
processors using GM materials. The key for developing countries will be to
secure World financing for sustainable agriculture which should include GM
seeds. Current aid programs focus on providing assistance largely only when
there is an emergency. Developing countries definitely can benefit from the
yield increases of GM seeds. The question is how can we make it profitable
for seed companies to provide GM products to developing countries. Most
likely, the developing country's government with support from the World
community (UN or individual members) will have to help subsidize the cost of
the technology in their country. You can not fairly count on the
manufacturers providing free or subsidized seed except to truly
underdeveloped countries that will not be exporting grains. Monsanto,
Novartis etc. should not be in a position where they have to sell cheaper
seed to countries to compete against their core customers. An American
farmer would rightfully scream if they had to pay two or three times the cost
of seed going to a developing country IF that country was a market for
American products or was then going to export products to compete against
American goods.

QUESTION 12 Won't GM crops accelerate the trend towards fewer varieties of
crops? Will not such a loss of crop diversity make agriculture more

Quite frankly, GM crops can actually increase the diversity of crops. As GM
crops meet niche markets such as hi-oil or start to introduce traits to
resist certain pests in certain regions, you actually can get more variety.
Of course, it is enormously expensive to introduce a gene trait. A good
study would be to determine if the introduction of GM soybeans and corn has
itself reduced the number of varieties of corn and beans or increased them.
Variety will be even more emphasized as GM seed manufacturers introduce more
consumer traits over production traits.

One of the key features of GM seeds with production traits is that they are
designed to make agriculture less vulnerable by reducing the effects of
pests, drought conditions and the need for excessive fertilizer.

QUESTION 14 Shouldn't consumers have the right to know whether they are
consuming GE foods?

Absolutely. Should consumers be forced to accept the cost of this knowledge?
The consumer needs to be aware of the cost they would incur as a result of
their wanting this knowledge. The costs include: 1) farmers needing to
segregate corns 2) silos needing to be extremely careful about when they
take deliveries to keep GE and non-GE corns separate 3) food processors will
want to test shipments etc. etc. etc.

The question is should the majority of consumes who understand that there is
no health difference between GE and non-GE foods or simply could care less
about the issue pay this cost? I suggest that the markets rather than
government regulation should dictate whether or not consumers would prefer
low food costs or labeling. After all, if you ask 100 people if they would
want to know if there were GE materials in their foods most would say yes.
If you asked the same 100 people if they would want to know if there was GE
material in their food AND that finding out would cost them 5 cents a loaf of
bread and 25 cents a pound of beef many less would be interested. (Feel free
economists to redo the cost projections as I am just making an example here).

What should happen is that you have a traditional food market and a niche
market for non-GM foods similar to the niche market for organic foods. The
customer would pay a premium for non-GM foods and retail grocery stores would
have a much larger margin on such SKUs. Likewise, farmers would be paid a
premium for non-GM corns. If the issue really is of concern to consumers,
then consumers should be willing to bear the cost of labeling process.
Otherwise, we are dealing with an emotional paper tiger.

In short, the consumer should have the right to purchase lower cost food
products should they not be concerned about whether or not a product has GM
material. For those who still believe there is something sancrosant about
"organic" (I wish they would see the raw waste applied to organic lands),
they too should have the right to ask their grocery retailer to offer non-GM
SKUs and should pay a premium for this product. What should not happen is
that a government should decide for consumers on an issue that can not
fairly, at least at this time, be identified as a health or environmental
issue (of course I doubt it will ever become either).

QUESTION 15 Shouldn't GM crops be labeled? (See 14)

QUESTION 16 Shouldn't biotech companies bear total liability for any harm to
the environment and public health?

Certainly, that is an option. That is a very expensive option, however.
Companies are generally liable for their negligent acts and for products
liability issues. Each country has different standards. Certain industries,
particularly those subject to heightened governmental review, are given
limited immunity for the effects of their product should it pass the review.
For example, fungicides and herbicides in the US. The greater the exposure
for the GM company, the higher the price will be for consumers. You hurt
developing countries most with inordinate restrictions. Typically, you make
a company bear an unusually high level of liability when a product is known
to be dangerous or unsafe. For example, a transporter of nuclear waste
material may and should have the highest level of liability for any negative
environmental effect of his transportation. GM foods have not been shown to
have any inherent danger, and therefore, liability should be similar to that
of any other consumer food product. Remember the obvious, GM seeds reduce
some very real threats to the environment and human health by reducing the
amount of herbicide needed. I am sure others can list even more hazards that
biotech seeds help reduce reliance on.

QUESTION 17 If food security is primarily a question of distribution
insecurity, then how can increased production using GE address the question
of food security?

GM seeds allow you to produce food closer to the consumers. Land which once
would not grow corn may now grow drought resistant strains, etc. Larger
yields also provide greater amounts of food closer to the consumers in
developing countries. The key is to figure out how these developing
countries can get access and afford GM seed. Producing more grains worldwide
will not increase the availability of grains to underdeveloped nations.

Question 18 Is it fair to grant a patent on GMOs?

Absolutely. Not only is it fair, it is necessary. Patent protection is the
only protection a biotech company has for its inventions. Practically, there
is an enormous cost in creating a GM product, a cost borne by private
companies. Without protection to obtain a fair return on their investment,
the net result would be in the benefits of biotechnology being lost.
However, patents should only include anything under the sun made by man and
must never include rights to specific varieties of plants. To do anything to
threaten normal patent rights, would threaten to diminish the research and
development budgets of GM producers. In return, a number of highly
anticipated products would never come to the marketplace.

The key protection for developing countries is antitrust regulation. There
will always be a cost to purchasing a modified seed, but you want to make
sure that not all modified seeds are controlled by a single company.

The issues addressed by this question are not new. Certainly, developing
countries have often faced pharmaceuticals which are controlled by patent.

QUESTION 20 See Question 16

Question 21 Won't herbicide and pesticide resistant GE crops lead to
intensified use of agro-chemicals?

I would defer to the good folks from Monsanto who are on this list for this
answer. However, from the documents I have read from manufacturers, there is
the ability often to only apply pesticide once versus several times.
Generally, you do not need a post-emergence application. My understanding is
that the net result is not only a reduction in the total usage of
agro-chemicals but also better usage of the chemicals which will result in
less runoff.

Question 22 (I won't repeat the question) Intellectual property rights free
man's creativity and give him protection for the fruits of his creativity.
Plant Variety Acts and similar statutes do not allow you to get intellectual
property rights on plant varieties or "things of nature". Nature's
creativity is protected alongside man's creativity.

Question 23 (I won't repeat this question either) The key issue is that
there have been developed products by private corporations which would
enormously help developing countries increase their sustainable agriculture
programs. GM seeds are one such product, helping increase yields and produce
crops on lands that were once unareable or would often suffer from terrible
pest damage. This technology has a price and must have a price in order to
spurn new innovations. To the extent the World decides it is a priority to
help developing countries with their agricultural bases, it will likely need
to be governments subsidizing the cost of the technology which can be done
through a variety of means including a tax credit for companies donating seed
to undernourished countries. If you insist on making GM seed sales
unprofitable, you simply will deny future innovation. Again, developing
countries face the exact same problem with pharmaceuticals. The key is that
governments must decide to provide aid in the form of patented seeds or
patented drugs. Certainly, it is less costly to ship seed than food.