Podium: GM foods can help the Third World

From a speech given by the President of the Rockefeller Foundation to the board of the Monsanto company in Washington, DC

GM FOODS currently offer few, if any benefits, to European consumers. It is American farmers who benefit, largely from the reduced costs of growing GM crops. At the same time there are risks: some real, some imaginary. It is hardly surprising that GM crops are unpopular. But for the developing countries there are significant potential benefits. In the world today there are over 800 million people who are chronically undernourished and 180 million children who are severely underweight for their age. And by 2020 there will be an extra two billion mouths to feed.

Part of the answer lies in using ecological approaches, such as integrated pest management, that underpin sustainable agriculture. Another key ingredient is the development of participatory approaches that strengthen farmers' own experimentation and decision-making. But these alone will not be enough.

Biotechnology is going to be an essential partner, if yield ceilings are to be raised, if crops are to be grown without excessive reliance on pesticides, and if farmers on less favoured lands are to be provided with crops that are resistant to drought and salinity, and that can make more efficient use of nitrogen and other nutrients.

Over the past ten years, in addition to support for ecological approaches, the Rockefeller Foundation has funded the training of some 400 Asian, African and Latin American scientists in the techniques of biotechnology. They are now back in their laboratories, developing new crop varieties suited to local conditions.

Most of the new varieties are the result of tissue culture and marker- aided selection. One rice, called La Fan Rockefeller, and widely grown around Shanghai, has boosted yields by up to 25 per cent.

Another, developed at the West African Rice Development Association, is a cross between Asian and African rice species. It combines the best features of both - tolerance of drought and weed suppression - with high yields.

But we are also supporting the production of genetically engineered rices. There are now varieties that can tolerate aluminum toxicity, and others that are capable of withstanding submergence.

Perhaps a greater potential benefit will come from a new rice engineered for beta carotene - the precursor of Vitamin A - in the grain. Two million children die indirectly from Vitamin A deficiency each year. Beta carotene is in the leaves of rice. Getting it into the grain of the rice is where genetic engineering has succeeded where traditional plant breeding has failed. We now need to assess fully these potential benefits and to explore the likely risks to the environment and to human health.

Let me recommend some specific steps that you at Monsanto could take today that would improve acceptance of plant biotechnology in both the developing and the industrialised worlds.

First, consumers have a right to choose whether to eat GM foods or not. Monsanto should come out immediately and strongly in favour of labelling. Second, you should disavow the use of terminator technologies designed to prevent farmers from saving seed for next year's crop.

Third, phase out the use of antibiotic resistance markers. The likelihood of such genes generating antibiotic resistance in livestock or humans is small; but alternatives exist and should be used.

Fourth, the big seed companies could agree to use the plant variety protection system in developing countries, rather than the use of patents. This will allow farmers to retain the seed and public plant breeders to continue to innovate. Fifth, you and other life science companies should establish an independently administered fellowship programme for training developing country scientists in crop biotechnology, biosafety and intellectual property.

Sixth, donate a number of useful technologies, for example the agrobacterium transformation system, to the developing countries. Seventh, agree to share the financial rewards from intellectual property rights on varieties such as basmati or jasmine rice with the countries of origin.

Eighth and finally, we need a new way of talking and reaching decisions. You will not overcome public concern in Africa, Asia and Latin America simply by issuing statements reassuring poor people that you are committed to feeding them and caring for their environments. It would be better to treat them as equal partners in a dialogue.

This is not the time for a new offensive by a PR agency. It is time for a new relationship based on honesty, full disclosure and an uncertain shared future.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'