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
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The Independent Culture
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.