Crop engineering `failing' the hungry

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The Independent Online
BIOTECHNOLOGY COMPANIES that claim their genetically modified plants will feed the world are being disingenuous, according to a leading crop scientist.

Professor Dick Flavell, of the John Innes Centre for Plant Breeding, said yesterday that while the technology used to create transgenic plants could eventually reap bigger crops in developing countries, "the product those people need isn't the same as the products that the multinational companies are making". He added: "Unless they can get a financial return, why should companies like that be there?"

GeneWatch, a pressure group, also claimed that sustainable agriculture methods, rather than genetic engineering, have already shown benefits by increasing crop yields in countries such as Honduras, India and Burkina Faso. "However, despite their clear advantages, and in contrast to the promotion of genetic engineering, these alternative approaches to agriculture have been starved of resources and research."

Professor Flavell said: "It is the governments and people dealing with the local plants' germ plasm, which doesn't have a commercial base, who hold the keys to continuing improvement of farming and agriculture." Every year the John Innes Centre, Norwich, trains 30 or more scientists from developing countries in gene transfer technology, which can be applied to plants to improve yields, he said. Better yields are needed to feed the growing world population, presently about 5 billion and expected to double in 50 years.

The criticisms emerged as research from the United States showed that genetically modified crops are more promiscuous than ordinary crops. Thus they are more likely to create hybrid breeds of superweeds, which can spread unabated in the countryside.

The findings raise fresh doubts about the risks attached to growing crops with foreign genes. The fear is that the genes could ``escape'' into wild plants, creating superweeds resistant to control.

Joy Bergelson, assistant professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, said a field experiment on mustard plants in 1996 showed that there was an unexplained increase in the ability of transgenic plants to spread their pollen to nearby wild plants.

The experiment, reported in the journal Nature, found genes conferring resistance to a herbicide were 20 times more likely to pass from genetically modified plants than from naturally occurring mutants with the same resistance.