Expo a crossroad of ideas

Some attendees are straying from the ag event's theme

By Edie Lau and Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writers

Published Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Early Tuesday morning, four visitors from Sri Lanka in Sacramento for a conference on agriculture ducked out of the meeting to tour an organic rice farm.

Among the conference talks the Sri Lankans would miss was one by Monsanto executive Robert Fraley, explaining how genetic engineering could nourish the Third World.

It probably was a talk they wouldn't have attended anyway. Dharmassree Wijeratne, research director in the Sri Lanka agriculture ministry, said his government is pushing organic farming, attracted by growing consumer demand for organics and its reputation as environmentally safe.

"In organic," he said, "nothing can go wrong."

The Sri Lankans were lured on the farm tour by the Ecological Farming Association, one of numerous groups that have criticized the U.S.-organized Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology for not presenting a wider array of farming philosophies.

In particular, critics oppose U.S. policies favoring agricultural biotechnology, in which crop traits are changed by manipulating the plant's genes.

The three-day conference has been about much more than biotechnology. Its theme is using science and technology to ease world hunger. But genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have grabbed the most attention because of their economic and social implications.

For U.S. farmers, GMO acceptance means more exports of biotech crops such as soy, corn and eventually wheat. For the U.S. government, it means fewer hassles shipping food aid, which doubles as a relief valve for overproduced crops. For a few companies who hold key biotech patents, it means profits.

The stakes for biotechnology are highest in the Third World, where most of the 800 million hungry people in the world live, and where governments try to avoid anything that would undermine fragile political and economic institutions.

Such was the case last summer when drought-stricken Zambia rejected a shipment of genetically modified corn from the United States.

Chance Kabaghe, deputy minister of agriculture, said his country of 10 million people had little choice even though many were at risk of starvation.

If the corn had proved dangerous, fallout could have toppled the government and floored an already shaky economy, Kabaghe said.

"We didn't know the implications or the effects of GMOs," he said. "We have to move cautiously."

Now, Zambian officials are researching GMOs on trips to Europe and at this week's meeting.

Kabaghe expects Zambia eventually to accept genetically modified foods, and he doesn't hold a grudge against the United States, which paid his way to Sacramento.

"They mean well," he said, "but they are moving at a faster rate than ourselves."

The U.S. also paid the way for the Sri Lankans, who nevertheless slipped away from the conference to visit organic rice paddies at Living Farms in southern Sacramento County.

On the issue of biotechnology, Sri Lanka farm policy departs markedly from that of the United States. Wijeratne, who has a doctorate in food science from the University of Illinois, said genetically modified foods are too new to be declared absolutely safe.

"It's like margarine," he said. "All this time, we thought that margarine was this super (product). Now we find out that it's worse than butter."

So Sri Lanka is seeking a different route to farm prosperity. Agriculture Minister S.B. Dissanayake said his goal is to convert 30 percent of his nation's farms to organic in a decade.

Many developing nations lack the financial and technical support to quickly adopt or maintain many kinds of technology promoted at the conference, said Armand Renucci, a biotechnology specialist at the French Embassy in San Francisco.

"It looks to me to be very far from reality" for developing countries, he said.

Monsanto, the world leader in genetically modified crops, wants to change that perception.

"Every farmer in the world can use ... this technology," Fraley told an audience of 100 delegates, noting that Monsanto is working on new seeds relevant to the Third World.

For instance, he said, the company recently identified a gene that can be inserted into soybean or corn plants to make them tolerant of drought.

He told the ministers that the key to having such crops in their countries is establishing science-based regulations and a favorable business climate.

"I look at the audience and know that you have very influential positions," he said. "You have a choice. These regulations can become barriers to adoption or ... can encourage and enable the science to be developed."

Fraley did not give much advice about how poor countries could afford the technology. And to those who questioned the long-term safety of genetically engineered crops or the implications of having a multinational company controlling seeds, Fraley repeated a theme of biotech backers.

"Being a leader is risky," he said. "But the risk sometimes of not proceeding, of not using new tools, of not getting the benefit, is also significant."

The three-day conference ends today after delegates take field trips to a variety of undisclosed farms, research labs and food production facilities.


About the Writer The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or elau@sacbee.com.