GM foods can save lives - if we use them sensibly

`Daffodil genes can make rice rich in vitamin A, lack of which kills two million children annually'

EUROPEANS HAVE been unusually eccentric about their food recently - at least, that's the view from America. There was mad cow disease, then tainted Coca-Cola, followed by an uproar over genetically modified soya beans. One English woman sued the US biotech giant Monsanto for not labelling GM foods. She wished to be compensated for the time spent searching supermarket shelves for GM-free products. It has all added up to a new, healthy distrust of big agribusiness and of governments that fail to impose sensible regulations. It has been a much-overdue wake-up call.

The GM revolution has galloped along at such a pace that concern about these foods has played second fiddle to the profit motive.

It is time to slow down the biotech revolution, to provide a bit of breathing- space to debate three critical issues: food security, government regulation, and the participation of poorer countries.

It is clear that developing countries need more food - some 800 million people are chronically undernourished and 180 million children are severely underweight for their age, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. By 2020, there will be an extra 1.5 billion to feed. It is also clear that genetic modification of plants, alongside sustainable agriculture techniques, can help to provide this extra food.

However, northern hemisphere views on GM foods should not be imposed on developing countries. These nations must have a say about their special needs. They must have access to improved genetic material. And they must be protected from "terminator technology" - by which agribusiness corporations would force the farmers to buy new seed each year.

Take the case of vitamin A deficiency. More than 100 million children suffer from lack of Vitamin A and two million die each year as a result, according to the United Nations. Estimates also put the number of women of childbearing age who are iron-deficient at more than 400 million, and anaemia is a major cause of infant mortality.

Beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A, is present in the leaves of the rice plant, but conventional plant-breeding has been unable to transfer it to the rice grain. With support from the European Union and the Rockefeller Foundation, Dr Ingo Potrykus, of the Swiss Institute of Plant Sciences in Zurich, has used genes from daffodils to modify a rice plant in such a way that the grain contains beta-carotene.

The modified rice grain has a light golden-yellow colour, like a daffodil, and contains enough beta-carotene to meet human vitamin A requirements from rice alone.

Our vision is to explore the potential for vitamin A rice for developing countries, and, if it proves to be useful after extensive tests, we hope to make it freely available for the world's plant-breeders and farmers so that they can save the seed and replant it year after year.

But the new rice grain should not be promoted as a golden bullet for food security. Some societies may choose, despite the cost and logistics, to provide their children with vitamin A tablets instead of genetically modified rice; others may decide that it is preferable for their children to get vitamin A from home-grown leafy vegetables. I would favour such an option, but it may be many years before farmers in semi-arid regions can grow vegetables all the year round.

The challenge is to use new communication channels to bring developing countries into the debate, rather than continue to marginalise them. For biotechnology issues, there is no integrated institutional global framework within which open policy dialogue, negotiation and rule-making can take place.

Kansas farmers who benefit from the reduced costs of growing GM crops may find the furore in Europe somewhat quaint, but European hostility to GM foods is understandable; they currently offer few, if any, benefits to European consumers. Big agribusiness cannot overcome European opposition simply by hiring a new PR agency; consumers everywhere have a right to choose whether to eat GM foods, and to know what they're buying.

European opposition underscores the need for greater public knowledge of not only the potential risks but also the potential benefits of modifying plant genes. Yet, in its rush to expand global markets, the biotech industry has assumed that public concern in developing countries can be overcome by issuing statements reassuring poor people that they are committed to feeding them and caring for their environment. It is time for a new dialogue based on honesty and full disclosure, and time for governments to insist on tough regulations - including full labelling on GM products.

Outside America, countries may be forgiven for fearing that the world will one day be run solely by giants such as Microsoft and Monsanto (although, it should be noted, several European companies have large holdings in the biotech industry, which they have managed to keep quiet). In big agribusiness, powerful corporate entities are already trying to protect their global reach through patents that will make the new technology inaccessible to some of the very people who need it most.

Slowing down the biotech revolution will not be easy; the corporations will resist it and governments will continue to be tempted by corporate lobbying to bend the rules. But all these issues must be dealt with by consumers, environmentalists, ethicists, the industry, scientists and farmers from both developed and developing countries.

Decisions about the use of biotechnology cannot be left solely in the hands of agricultural, chemical and pharmaceutical giants; nor should public protests be allowed to hold undue sway. We need informed discussion, not corporate greed or theatrical antics.

Professor Gordon Conway is president of the Rockefeller Foundation

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