U.N.: Biotech ignores Third World

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The United Nations says that biotech crops have huge potential for developing countries but that the world's hungriest people are being ignored.

In one of two reports about genetic engineering issued Monday, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization encouraged more public investment in biotechnology.

It also challenged private companies, which have locked up large chunks of the technology as intellectual property, to target their know-how at important Third World crops such as millet, cassava and sorghum.

Biotech research funded by agriculture and chemical firms has focused on crops - corn, soybeans and canola - more likely to be profitable because they are grown on large farms in industrialized countries.

"There is clear evidence that the problems of the poor are being neglected," said the Food and Agriculture Organization in its most in-depth assessment of biotech crops to date.

Despite its critical tone, the report was welcomed by the biotech industry, which has been promoting the promise of biotech for years and now has official support from the highest U.N. levels.

At biotech giant Monsanto Co., Vice President Robert Horsch said that the report was "basically true" but that it underestimated the benefits already enjoyed by millions of small farmers worldwide whose biotech plants can kill insects, enabling farmers to use less pesticide.

"On the other hand," he said, "(solutions to) very difficult biological problems like drought tolerance are probably a decade off ... and it could be longer."

The Biotechnology Industry Organization said the FAO analysis should "quell the global war of rhetoric" over genetically engineering food crops and lead to the kind of political and scientific infrastructure that will "realize the promise of this technology."

An end to controversy doesn't seem likely, given the March rejection of genetically engineered U.S. food aid by Sudan and the recent restrictions put on such donations by Angola.

Hunger in African countries highlights some of the Third World obstacles that biotechnology can't solve: farm policy, natural disasters, poor food distribution and war.

"The answer is not a technological fix," said Bay Area activist Anuradha Mittal, whose Oakland Institute works with African countries to resist biotech food. "Where farmers' rights to seeds, to water and land are under threat, you will not see an end to hunger."

Despite unfulfilled expectations abroad, the biotech industry is gaining support in statehouses across the United States, according to a second study released Monday by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

It shows states trying to bolster high-tech businesses, but also highlights some of the conflicts generated by the widespread adoption of biotech crops. Among the chief concerns is keeping biotech products separate from conventional and organic products.

"The technology still is creating a lot of conflict on the ground, and the states end up being really the front battle lines," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew initiative.

The studies come on the heels of a major announcement last week by Monsanto that it has shelved herbicide-tolerant wheat, a move that signaled tepid demand for the product.

Consumer hesitance is due in part to uncertainty about the long-term health and environmental effects of crops that scientists have engineered.

Some people also are concerned that five or six multinational companies could control the food supply through patents and high fees for buying biotech seeds or licensing the technology.

The United Nation's analysis of the first decade of biotech crops addressed many concerns, concluding, for example, that there are no known health risks from existing products.

"There is less scientific agreement on the environmental impacts," FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said in a statement. "Careful monitoring of the post-release effects of these products is essential."

The FAO focused on opportunities for biotechnology to help rescue the world's 842 million chronically hungry people. It criticized the lack of progress in delivering the benefits of genetic engineering outside of corn, soybeans, canola and cotton.

"Only a few countries are benefiting so far," the FAO said. "A great deal needs to be done."

Prabhu Pingali, director of the FAO's Agricultural and Development Economics Division, was among the key figures in developing Monday's report. His team was advised by experts from the United States, Chile, India, the Ivory Coast and other countries.

Pingali said the reasons for the slow spread of biotech to Third World countries include roadblocks caused by companies owning intellectual property rights and decreasing public spending on agricultural research.

He urged the private and public sectors to work together. "Without that partnership, it would not be possible to get the technology to poor farmers," he said from his New York office.

The University of California, Davis, is leading a nascent nationwide effort to export biotech benefits abroad. It's unlikely the world's poorest farmers would have the money to buy biotech seeds, which adds pressure to an underfunded public research system to freely distribute its work.

The university effort could take years to deliver, given the host of scientific, legal and regulatory issues that complicate the spread of biotech crops.

"None of this is easy," said Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of UC Davis' biotech program. "All of us can see ... the need. It's just a matter of getting there."

Chris Novak, a spokesman for Switzerland-based Syngenta, called the FAO report an important acknowledgment of biotech's role in decreasing hunger. Like most big biotech companies, Syngenta donates research and intellectual property to humanitarian projects.

"Certainly, there is a need to do more and to look for those opportunities where our technology can play a role in the developing world," Novak said.


About the Writer The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or mflee@sacbee.com.


Related links:


• "The gene revolution: great potential for the poor, but no panacea," from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

• Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology: Analysis Finds Checkerboard of State Legislation