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September 24, 2000


National academies, McKnight Foundation


Scientists decry backlash against plant biotech

CALCUTTA: An international group of scientists from seven national
academies of science, including India, has expressed concern over the
recent backlash against plant biotechnology and called for concerted
efforts to identify any potential health or environmental risks from
genetically modified (GM) crops.

The working group, comprising members from the Royal Society of London,
the National Academies of Science of India, Brazil, China, Mexico and the
United States and the third world academy of sciences called for an
expanded use of plant biotechnology to create crops that will 'relieve
hunger and poverty in the world'.

Quoting a position paper released by the group, the biotechnology global
update published by Monsanto Group said, "foods that are more nutritious,
stable in storage, and in principle health promoting can be produced
through the use of GM technology and bring benefits to consumers in both
industrialised and developing nations."

The group, it said, was concerned over the backlash against plant
biotechnology that could overshadow the great promise it held forth.

The report urged governments to base their decisions regarding
biotechnology on "sound science" and persuaded private companies to share
their technology with scientists and farmers in the developing countries.

"Our group concluded that it will be critical to use the best science to
make wise choices with respect to application of these technologies,"
Bruce Alberts, president of the US National Academy of Science and member
of the working group on transgenic plants and world agriculture was quoted
as saying.

Stressing the need for organised efforts on a global scale to identify
possible health or environmental risks from GM crops, the group pointed
out that with more than 30 million hectares of GM crops planted worldwide,
no human health problems had yet been identified.

"Environmental concerns regarding GM crops must be assessed against
existing agricultural technologies that cause environmental problems," the
report said.

The group's white paper on the potential of GM technology and obstacles in
its widespread use said GM crops reduced the environmental impact of
agriculture by allowing greater yield from limited land and reduce the
need to disturb the soil around crops.

Cautioning on the shift of funding of GM technology from public sector to
private sector with an eye toward creating profitable products in recent
years, the paper said, "Care should be taken that research is not
inhibited by overprotective intellectual property regimes."

The report said public and non-commercial research efforts had also waned
and this "needs to be reversed" since public funds were critical for
meeting specific needs of small-scale farmers, where big agricultural
corporations are unlikely to be forthcoming.

The global working group of scientists noted that when it came to the
needs of the third world farmers, the issue of intellectual property
rights deserved special consideration.

"Today, private companies can obtain plant varieties free from farmers and
from non-commercial organisations, add a new gene, and sell these seeds
back to farmers with legal protection against copying or reuse... poor
farmers must be allowed to save seed for future use," it pointed out.

The group said an international advisory committee should be constituted
to assess the interests of private companies and developing countries with
respect to transgenic plants that can benefit the poor.(PTI)

Associated Press
September 24, 2000

McKnight Foundation defends GM foods

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - The McKnight Foundation says it will dedicate $41.5
million over the next nine years to research - much of it studying and
manipulating plant genes - that the foundation hopes will help feed the
world's hungriest people.
Foundation officials last week announced plans to expand a focus on
agricultural science that it started in 1993, with the goal of improving
food supplies and nutrition in developing countries.
The foundation's public relations firm called the outcry over genetically
modified foods "a creation of the well-fed privileged classes in Europe
and North America," in announcing a briefing on McKnight's renewed thrust
into agricultural research.
McKnight's directors decided early this year to expand their commitment to
the research despite the controversy surrounding crop biotechnology , said
Carol Berde, the foundation's executive vice president.
"We recognize that this is one of a range of tools that needs to be
available in the public domain for developing countries to feed their
people," she said.
Heated debate on genetic manipulation pits scientists and agricultural
officials against consumer and environmental groups that have declared war
on modern crop biotechnology .
The groups fighting crop biotechnology argue that the crops haven't been
adequately tested for their long-term effects on human health and the
environment and accuse government regulators of giving too much autonomy
to companies that stand to gain from sales of the crops.
Berde said the Minneapolis-based foundation is taking its cues from such
leaders in the developing world as Nigerian Agriculture Minister Hassan
Adamu, who has sharply criticized biotech foes.
"They claim to have the environment and public health at the core of their
opposition," he wrote last week in the Washington Post. "But scientific
evidence disproves their claims that enhanced crops are anything but safe.
If we take their alarmist warnings to heart, millions of Africans will
suffer and possibly die."
With world population expected to grow by 3 billion during the next three
decades to 9 billion, now is the time for major new investment in crop
research, the McKnight Foundation said in outlining the new effort.
The scientific leader of the project is Robert Goodman, a professor of
plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
The foundation this week will begin to evaluate 350 proposals that it has
received for research projects to be funded starting next year, Berde
A book documenting the crop-research projects that McKnight has funded
since 1993, "Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution," is to be
released by North Point Press in October.
The projects funded to date have linked researchers at major universities
in the United States with scientists in Ethiopia, Mexico, China, Peru,
Chile, Brazil, Uganda and India.
Some of the projects seek to preserve genetic diversity in crops or
manipulate genes through traditional breeding methods. Others involve
genetically engineering plants to help them resist pests or to improve
their nutritional qualities.