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Conference 1 - Background

How appropriate are currently available biotechnologies in the crop sector for food production and agriculture in developing countries

1. Background:

The biotechnology industry has developed in a very short time period to become a multi-billion dollar industry providing products for the areas of human health care, industrial processing, environmental bioremediation and food and agriculture. It is an industry that has developed, been financed and is firmly based in developed countries (especially North America). Whereas public funding for agricultural research has stagnated or declined, the biotechnology industry has continued to invest heavily in agricultural research due to the large advances made in the area and the strengthening of intellectual property rights for biological materials.

The biotechnologies used and developed by the industry reflect market realities and are used primarily to provide products for developed countries. The biotechnologies used for food and agriculture are no exception in this regard. In this e-mail conference we will discuss recently-developed biotechnologies that are currently available in the crop sector, in the context of how appropriate they are for food production and agriculture in developing countries.

2. Description of Currently Available Biotechnologies in the Crop Sector:

It is probably fair to say that the most significant breakthroughs in recent years in the area of crop biotechnologies have stemmed from research into the genetic mechanisms behind economically important traits. The rapidly progressing discipline of genomics, providing information on the identity, location, impact and function of genes affecting such traits, is producing knowledge that has driven and will increasingly drive the application of biotechnologies in crops. Here, we provide a summary of recently developed biotechnologies for the crop sector that could be used in practice for food production and agriculture in developing countries.

A. Biotechnologies based on molecular markers:

All living things are made up of cells that are programmed by genetic material called DNA. This molecule is made up of a long chain of nitrogen-containing bases (A, C, G and T). Only a small fraction of the sequence in plants makes up genes, i.e. that code for proteins, while the remaining and major share of the DNA represents non-coding sequences whose role is not yet clearly understood. The genetic material is organised into sets of chromosomes (e.g. 5 pairs in the much-studied mustard species Arabidopsis thaliana), and the entire set is called the genome.

Molecular markers are identifiable DNA sequences, found at specific locations of the genome. They may differ between individuals of the same population. Different classes of markers exist, such as RFLPs, AFLPs, RAPDs or microsatellites.

Molecular markers can be used for:

a) Marker-assisted selection, which is the use of markers to increase the response to selection. A quantitative trait (i.e. one such as fruit yield that shows continuous variation and cannot be classified into a few discrete classes) is usually controlled by many genes, called quantitative trait loci (QTL). By using molecular markers closely linked to, or even located within, one or more QTL, information at the DNA-level is used directly and selection response can be increased.

b) Marker-assisted introgression, where markers are used to increase the speed or efficiency of introgression (i.e. the introduction of new gene(s) from a population A to a population B by crossing A and B and then repeatedly backcrossing to B). Introgression may be of interest, for example, when wishing to introduce genes from wild relatives into modern plant varieties.

c) Studies of genetic diversity and of taxonomic/phylogenetic relationships between plant species or between populations (or varieties) within species.

d) Studies of biological processes, such as mating systems, pollen movement or seed dispersal, and of the genetic mechanisms behind physiological traits.

B. Genetically-modified crops:

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are those that have been modified by the application of recombinant DNA technology (where DNA from one organism is transferred to another organism). The term ''transgenic crops'' is also used for genetically modified crops, where a foreign gene (a transgene) is incorporated into the plant genome. It may help us to distinguish between 3 distinctive types of genetically-modified crops

i) ''Wide Transfer'': where genes are transferred from organisms of other kingdoms (e.g. bacteria, animal) into plants

ii) ''Close Transfer'': where genes are transferred from one species of plant to another

iii) ''Tweaking'': where genes already present in the plant's genome are manipulated to change the level or pattern of expression.

Transgenic plants have been the subject of much controversy, although they now cover large areas in certain parts of the world. Estimates for 1999 indicate that 39.9 million hectares of land were planted with transgenic crops. Of these, 7.1 (18%) were in developing countries, almost all in Argentina (6.7 million hectares) and China (0.3), while the US and Canada accounted for 32.7 million hectares (82%). Of the 39.9 million hectares, 28.1 million (i.e. 71%) were modified for tolerance to a specific herbicide (which could be sprayed on the field, killing weeds while leaving the crop undamaged); 8.9 million hectares (22%) were modified to include a toxin-producing gene from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, which poisons insects feeding on the plant, while 2.9 million hectares (7%) were planted with crops having both herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.

Most of the transgenic crops planted so far have thus incorporated only a very limited number of genes. However, some transgenic crops of greater potential interest for developing countries have been developed in the research laboratories but have not yet been released commercially, such as transgenic rice of high iron content developed by transferring the ferritin gene from soybean to rice, or transgenic rice producing provitamin A.

C. Micropropagation:

This is the in-vitro multiplication and/or regeneration of plant material under aseptic and controlled environmental conditions on specially prepared media that contain plant nutrition and growth regulators. The most commonly used materials are excised embryos, shoot-tips or pieces of stems, roots, leafs etc.

It is the basis of a large commercial plant propagation industry involving hundreds of labs around the world. The technique can be used to multiply, in large numbers, clones of a particular variety. Apart from its rapid propagation advantages, micropropagation can also be used to generate disease-free planting material, especially if combined with the use of disease-detection diagnostic kits. Micropropagation techniques have been developed and are applied for a wide range of crops, including woody and fruit plants.

3. Food and Agriculture in Developing Countries:

The emphasis of the e-mail conference is on developing countries. In this context, we should keep in mind that a tremendous variety of production systems and environmental constraints are found between different developing countries and even within individual countries. Four broad agro-ecological zones (humid and peri-humid lowlands; hill and mountain areas; irrigated and naturally flooded areas; drylands and areas of uncertain rainfall) account for 90% of agricultural production in developing countries. Within each of the zones, a range of farming systems are found as well as a mixture of traditional and modern production systems.

The global population size has passed the 6 billion mark and is increasing by roughly 80 million annually. Almost all population growth is in developing countries. While the number of inhabitants in the developing and developed world respectively is estimated at 4.75 and 1.31 billion respectively for the year 2000, in 20 years time it is predicted to be 6.15 and 1.36 billion respectively.

Farm sizes tend to be small, as reflected by a study of 57 developing countries which showed that nearly 50% of farms were smaller than 1 hectare. The increase in food production needed to cover the increased population size cannot come from recruiting new land for agricultural purposes. Most land suitable for agriculture is already in use. When comparing the total amount of land of crop-producing potential with the amount of cultivated land, there are however noticeable differences between regions. For example, in South Asia, 191 of the potential 228 million hectares were already under cultivation in 1988-1990, whereas in Latin America and the Caribbean only 190 of the potential 1,059 million hectares were in use. However, parts of these could not be readily converted to crop production as they are already used for other purposes such as forestry, animal grazing or conservation. Degradation of land already in use, due to overgrazing, deforestation and poor farming practices, is also an increasing problem globally. The increases in food production needed to feed the world's growing population must therefore come from increasing the amount of food produced per hectare.

Note, however, that the issue of world hunger may not be simply solved by increasing the world food supply. In the world today enough food is produced to feed all its inhabitants but yet it is estimated that in 1995-1997 there were roughly 790 million undernourished people in developing countries, i.e. whose food intake was insufficient to meet basic energy requirements on a continuing basis. Hunger and poverty are also influenced and determined by many different demographic, environmental, economic, social and political factors and these factors should also be considered when trying to reduce hunger in the world. Food needs to be available and accessible to the poor, wherever they may be.

4. Certain Factors that Should Be Considered in the Discussion:

The key question in this e-mail conference is how appropriate each of the different biotechnologies, mentioned previously in this document, may be for the crop sector in developing countries and regions.

The question of appropriateness should consider the following elements

- The factors determining or influencing the appropriateness of the different biotechnologies e.g. their environmental impact; their impact on human health; the status with respect to intellectual property rights; the status with respect to biosafety regulations and controls; the degree of access to the biotechnologies; the level of capacity-building or resources required to use them; their financial cost; their impact on food production and food security;

- The relative costs (financial, social, political or otherwise) of the biotechnologies versus the relative benefits (productivity, food security or otherwise);

- Whether they are more (or less) appropriate than existing conventional methods in the crop sector for food production and agriculture, given the realities of life in developing countries;

- Whether some of the biotechnologies are more (or less) appropriate than others;

- Whether some biotechnologies are more (or less) suited to certain regions in the developing world than others.

NB: When submitting messages, members of the Forum are requested to try and ensure that their messages address some of the above elements.

Summary (short)

The crop sector conference, entitled "how appropriate are currently available biotechnologies in the crop sector for food production and agriculture in developing countries", began on 20 March 2000, less than 2 weeks after the Forum was launched, and closed on 26 May. Over 300 Forum members registered and they posted a total of 138 messages during the conference. Africa, Europe and North America each provided roughly 25% of the messages posted, while participants in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) and Oceania contributed 18, 6 and 1% respectively. Forty-seven % of messages came from participants in developing countries. Messages were posted from 51 individuals (17% of all those who registered for the conference) in 29 different countries. The countries which contributed the greatest number of messages were the United States (34 messages), France (14) and Kenya (12).

The Background Document to the conference described three major kinds of recently developed biotechnologies that could potentially be used for the crop sector in developing countries: a) biotechnologies based on molecular markers b) genetically modified (GM) crops c) micropropagation. Although the three kinds of biotechnologies were discussed, the emphasis was overwhelmingly on GM crops. For some topics (e.g. effect on human health, intellectual property rights), messages representing strongly opposing viewpoints were posted, reflecting clearly the polarisation that may exist in this debate.

1. Some of the main factors discussed in the conference and considered to have direct importance for the appropriateness of crop biotechnologies in developing countries:

a) The status of biotechnologies with respect to intellectual property rights (IPR), and the potential power of multinational corporations (MNCs) as a consequence of IPR

The existence and impact of IPR over biotechnological products (e.g. plant varieties) and processes (e.g. techniques used in generating plant varieties) was probably the topic which attracted most discussion throughout the whole conference. The fact that a small number of powerful MNCs from developed countries had built up extensive patent portfolios meant that there was often a strong socio-political aspect to the discussion. Considerable differences of opinion were expressed about both the need for and consequences of IPR in the crop sector.

b) The level of resources or capacity building required for the use of biotechnologies in developing countries

It was argued that funds in developing countries are scarce and that often one of the first items in national budgets to be cut is 'research and development', making it very difficult for the countries themselves to develop biotechnology products that are suited to their own national needs. Despite this, some participants insisted that biotechnology should not be left solely to developed countries.

c) The impact of biotechnology products on human health

There was much discussion regarding whether GM crops, in particular those producing toxins of the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), hereafter referred to as Bt-crops, could be harmful or allergenic (i.e. inducing allergies) when eaten by humans. Large differences of opinion were expressed on this subject. Some participants maintained that they were at least as safe as non-GM food products while others argued that they were potentially highly allergenic. d) The environmental impact of biotechnology

As outlined in the Background Document, of the 40 million hectares planted with transgenic crops in 1999, 71% were modified for tolerance to a specific herbicide, 22% were Bt-crops while 7% were planted with crops having both herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Most of the messages posted concerning the environmental impact of new biotechnologies dealt with Bt-crops, while a minority dealt with herbicide-tolerant GM crops. Concerns were expressed that Bt-crops could accelerate the development of Bt resistance or have negative impacts on non-target organisms. Other participants emphasised the importance of finding alternatives to the current large-scale use of chemical insecticides or the need to increase food production per unit land area to meet the requirements of the rising population numbers, without encroaching further on the world's remaining forest or natural habitats.

e) The status of biotechnologies with respect to biosafety regulations and controls

Many participants maintained that the application and monitoring of biosafety regulations would be more difficult in developing than in developed countries. f) The role of biotechnologies as tools to increase food production, food security and to reduce hunger in developing countries

Some participants felt that biotechnology was an important element in the battle against hunger and poverty while others argued that social and political factors were of far greater importance.

2. Other main topics of discussion or recurrent themes from the conference:

a) The relative appropriateness (e.g. based on costs, when resources are limited) of different biotechnologies, such as marker-assisted selection, micropropagation and genetic modification, for developing countries.

b) The appropriateness of different biotechnologies for different parts of the developing world: Unfortunately, only a limited number of messages considered this aspect.

c) The appropriateness of new biotechnologies compared to conventional methods: The use of scarce resources on proven conventional methods rather than on new biotechnologies was discussed, as well as the need to ensure that an efficient breeding strategy is already in place before applying biotechnology.

d) Choice of traits for improvement in the crop sector in developing countries: The importance of developing biotechnology products that would address specific problems of developing countries (e.g. salt tolerance, drought resistance), rather than simply using those already available from developed countries, was underlined by several participants.

e) Polarisation of the biotechnology debate and the need for balanced information: Some of the reasons for polarity in the debate regarding agricultural biotechnology were discussed and the importance of the availability of good balanced information on a controversial topic such as GM crops was also emphasised in other messages.

f) The impact of the use of biotechnology in developed countries on the developing world: It was debated whether increased food production in developed countries due to using biotechnology was a necessity (to meet increased exports in the future to developing countries) or a danger (as it could depress world prices and consequently harm small farmers in developing countries) for the developing world.

g) GM crops and evolution: The evolutionary implications of transferring genetic material from one species to another were discussed in a few messages.

h) The relative roles of public and private research and investment in scientific development in developing countries: Comparisons of the current "biotechnology revolution" with the previous "green revolution" were discussed, as well as the relationship that the public sector should have to the private sector in developing countries.

Summary (long)

The Background Document to this conference described three major kinds of recently developed biotechnologies that could potentially be used for the crop sector in developing countries:

a) biotechnologies based on molecular markers
b) genetically modified (GM) crops
c) micropropagation.

All three kinds of biotechnologies were discussed in the conference. However, the emphasis was overwhelmingly on GM crops. In some topics of discussion, messages representing strongly opposing points of view were posted, reflecting the polarisation that exists regarding some elements of the debate on agricultural biotechnology.

In Section 1 of this Summary Document, we first describe some of the main factors that were discussed in the conference and considered to have direct importance for the appropriateness of the biotechnologies in developing countries. In Section 2 we describe some other main arguments and concerns raised during the conference. In Section 3 we present some information about the participants of the conference.

In this document, references are included to specific messages. The participant's surname and the date posted (day/month) are provided. In the web version of the document, the messages can be viewed by clicking on the date. In Section 4, we provide the name and country of the participants that sent the referenced messages.

1. Factors considered of direct importance for the appropriateness of biotechnologies in developing countries

a) Their status with respect to intellectual property rights (IPR), and the potential power of multinational corporations (MNCs) as a consequence of IPR

The existence and impact of IPR over biotechnological products (e.g. plant varieties) and processes (e.g. techniques used in generating plant varieties) was probably the topic which attracted most discussion throughout the whole 2-month long conference. The fact that a small number of powerful MNCs from developed countries had built up extensive patent portfolios meant that there was often a strong socio-political aspect to the discussion. Considerable differences of opinion were expressed about both the need for and consequences of IPR in the crop sector.

Some participants felt that IPR over biological materials were inherently wrong while others felt they were necessary. Berruyer (28/3 and 14/4) suggested it would be better if it was not possible to patent genes. Kumar (18/4) stated that the new seeds patented were developed from existing genetic material, often from developing countries, in a process involving very small (or no) genetic modification and so the patenting process converted something which was the "common heritage of mankind" into private property. She also argued that the process ignored the input over many generations from farmers in building up the base genetic material. Lettington (18/4) argued that enforcing IPR in developing countries created a net loss for humanity due to the lack of access to information.

On the other side, it was argued that farmers have always the choice as to whether or not to buy improved varieties from MNCs and that "those [companies] that invest in developing a product or technology should get paid for their creativity, capital risk-taking and simple hard work" (Laing, 17/4), a view that was also supported by Halos (4/4). Halos (17/5) suggested, in addition, that patenting genes did not mean that the major economic benefit went to the patent holder, but that many diverse groups, including farmers and consumers, also benefited from the GM varieties developed. Roberts (22/5) emphasised that business will only invest where it expects to make a profit and that in order for industry to invest in these technologies they should expect some financial return. Ashton (19/5) disagreed with this argument, maintaining that the nature of capitalism is that the developer bears the risk and nobody owes a return to the risk-taker.

The consequences of IPR were seen as being quite substantial. The point was made that the existence of strong IPR, and the fact that they are often owned by MNCs, would lead to (increased) dependence by developing country farmers on technologies owned by MNCs and developed countries. This was clearly expressed by Hongladarom (3/4) who indicated that "the fear [of biotechnology that has been aired in Thailand] does not so much concern the potential risks of the genetically modified crops as does the possibility that after a while farmers may have to rely exclusively on the technologies owned by these corporations". Berruyer (28/3) also made the same point saying "the problem with biotechnologies is not the tool, but who has the tool". Lettington (18/4) indicated that such dependency relationships were already being built up in East Africa. Salzman (24/3) feared that farmers in developing countries would be at the mercy of MNCs regarding pricing, seed supplies and the types of seeds provided. Reel (6/4) regretted the change by farmers from seed saving towards increased expense and dependence on outside seed resources. Schenkel (4/4), on the other hand, said that he did not see why farmers would become more dependent if the seeds were adapted to their needs.

Another consequence that was much discussed was that patents could be granted to companies from developed countries over genetic material from developing countries. Reel (6/4) provided information on specific examples, such as the yellow bean (Mexico) and basmati rice (India). Carneiro (13/4) pointed out that the recognition of IPR by developing countries opened up the possibility for developing countries to patent biotechnology products or processes either on their own or in joint projects. Munsanje (27/3), however, argued that developing countries lacked the financial resources required to "bioprospect" the large pool of biodiversity in their specific regions and to take economic and social advantage of their resources. Kumar (18/4) gave a concrete example of the problems raised by IPR, writing that each year in her country, Sri Lanka, many new tea and rice varieties are developed by national research institutes but they are never patented because the effective protection of a single variety in the major countries of the world would cost $ 75,000 - 100,000. She noted, however, that there was nothing to prevent a private company patenting these varieties in the West and that government institutes would not be able to find the funds (maybe $ 500,000 in the United States) needed to contest a patent. Ashton (19/5) said that measures to prevent "bio-piracy" were needed and that certain developments, such as the sale of some national seed banks in Africa to corporate interests, should be viewed with great concern.

The impact of IPR on plant breeding research in developing countries was also discussed. Carneiro (13/4) wrote that biotechnology research in developing countries was traditionally based on the transfer of technology but, following the adoption of IPR in developing countries, this approach was obsolete and therefore new products and processes specific for agriculture in developing countries had to be generated. Berruyer (14/4) argued that if patenting of genes was not allowed, then technology transfer would still be possible. Berruyer (14/4) also noted the difficulties of this new situation as developing countries now had to discover and develop the use of new genes, which is the most expensive part of the transgenic process, and, in addition, this had to be done in the context of competition from MNCs.

Some participants maintained that, in the light of this situation, MNCs had to take special consideration of developing countries. Fauquet/Taylor (26/5) proposed that MNCs should offer relevant technologies within their portfolios for use in developing country crops that do not represent a market to them in the near future. Olivares (12/5) proposed that, to encourage such measures, science policy in developed countries should support public science with the idea that the biotechnology products or processes obtained could be transferred free of charge to developing countries.

Others, instead, maintained that a new IPR system was needed. Munsanje (27/3) argued that IPR should be enhanced in developing countries in order to protect their products before they were exploited and patented. Lettington (18/4) argued that the whole current IPR system was developed in the North to serve a series of very particular purposes and that developing countries should develop their own parallel patenting system which would, for example, ensure that the holder of a patent on a traditional variety would compensate and recognise the developers of the variety. Kumar (25/4) supported this view but felt that developed countries would strongly oppose the establishment of such a system.

b) The level of resources or capacity building required for their use in developing countries

It was argued that funds in developing countries are scarce and that often one of the first items in national budgets to be cut is 'research and development', making it very difficult for the countries themselves to develop biotechnology products that are suited to their own national needs (Nwalozie, 23/3; Halos, 23/3; Lettington, 24/3; Kuta, 30/3). Schenkel (22/5) emphasised that today the production of GM crops is still "very, very expensive".

Kiggundu (19/5) noted that third world governments typically do not have the finances to support conventional plant breeding activities and that, in this context, the availability of GM crops would be a breakthrough. However, Schenkel (22/5) argued that when there were insufficient resources to sustain conventional breeding, a country should not spend money on GM activities - a viewpoint strongly supported by Khan (22/5). Wingfield (13/4) noted that using biotechnologies in developing countries can be too expensive, especially when equipment has to be imported, and indicated that there was a definite niche available for people to develop procedures to apply biotechnology using locally available material.

Despite the lack of resources in many developing countries, Rebai (9/5) urged that, given the importance of agricultural biotechnology for food security, all developing countries "should keep trying to stay in the biotechnology train as drivers and not as spectators, as active makers and not passive consumers". Schenkel (22/5) also argued that the lack of resources should not mean that biotechnology would be exploited only by developed countries and that there was an obligation on developed countries to make biotechnology available to developing countries.

c) Their impact on human health

There was much discussion regarding whether GM crops, in particular those producing toxins of the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), hereafter referred to as Bt-crops, could be harmful or allergenic (i.e. inducing allergies) when eaten by humans. Almost all contributions were from participants in developed countries. Large differences of opinion were expressed on this subject. Some participants maintained that they were at least as safe as non-GM food products while others argued that they were potentially highly allergenic. Some messages went into detail regarding testing procedures for allergenicity and, in some cases, links to websites providing further information were included.

Crystal proteins from Bt are toxins that kill insects feeding on the plant by binding to and creating pores in their midgut membranes. Both Reel (7/4) and Salzman (10/4) argued that there was no evidence that ingestion by humans of plants producing the toxin was safe. Roberts (10/4) stated that, based on the concept of "substantial equivalence", edible GM crops were tested in comparison with their non-modified counterparts and that, in general, no relevant differences in food quality were found and that neither the GM nor the non-GM plants were guaranteed to be "completely safe". Reel (3/4) pointed out that human testing, that might normally be carried out for a new food additive, was not required for GM foods and that testing them on animals (such as mice) was insufficient. Roberts (12/4) counter-argued that the digestive systems of humans were fundamentally different from those of insects and that results of testing with animals could be treated with confidence because of their close relationship to humans.

Berruyer (12/4) and Berruyer and Bucchini (in a joint message of 17/4) then provided more technical details regarding the working of the toxins, describing how most proteins, including Bt toxins, are denatured (i.e. the specific activity is destroyed) by the acidity of the human stomach. Bucchini, in the joint message (17/4), concluded that it is unlikely that the toxin endangers human health but urged caution. He argued (19/4) that there are no direct methods to assess the potential allergenicity of proteins from sources that are not known to produce food allergy. Berruyer, in the joint message (17/4), suggested that the risk of an allergic reaction that endangers human life is low and quite difficult to measure. De Kochko (13/4) argued that Bt had been used for years in organic farming and that "any product, absolutely any product and not only Bt toxin, can be allergenic for someone in particular. Bt toxin has not been shown to be more allergenic (and certainly less) than chocolate or peanut butter!!!"

Some specific concerns were expressed about Cry9C, one of the Bt toxins, which is heat- and digestion-resistant (Bucchini, 17/4; Berruyer/Bucchini, 17/4). The gene producing the toxin has been transferred to GM corn which has been under consideration for use as human food in the United States. Lin (18/4) argued that the fact that it had so far only been approved for animal feed and industrial uses (and not for human consumption) suggested that the regulatory system in the United States works.

Another specific product that was discussed was a transgenic soybean crop, developed as a potential animal feed, containing a gene transferred from the Brazil nut species that expresses a high-methionine protein. A study published in 1996 revealed that the protein was allergenic and Reel (7/4) suggested that this finding was a cause for concern regarding the cultivation of GM crops. Wingfield (10/4), on the other hand, argued that this showed that science works since the results were the consequence of efficient testing of the crop before release and that, from the results of the trials, the crops were found to be unacceptable and were not then used commercially.

d) Their environmental impact

As specified in the Background Document, of the 39.9 million hectares planted with transgenic crops in 1999, 28.1 million (i.e. 71%) were modified for tolerance to a specific herbicide, 8.9 million (22%) were Bt-crops while 2.9 million (7%) were planted with crops having both herbicide tolerance and insect resistance. Most of the messages posted concerning the environmental impact of new biotechnologies dealt with Bt-crops.

i) Pesticide-resistant GM crops

Some participants expressed the fear that large-scale planting of Bt-crops would accelerate the development of Bt resistance among pests. Geiger (24/3 and 4/4) was one of these, adding that in tropical areas, with several generations of pests per year, this would happen quickly. Reel (29/3) maintained that major companies in the field of agricultural biotechnology were aware that resistance was inevitable and were thus already developing successors to Bt-crops. Geiger (4/4) said that the loss of Bt as an insecticide would be a major loss for farmers and for society. Smith (27/3) counter-argued that the selection pressure on insects to develop resistance would not be any greater than with the use of chemical pesticides.

Another potential concern with Bt-crops (Lettington, 28/3; Srinivasan, 3/4) was raised by a study published in the scientific journal Nature on 2 December 1999 which indicated that the Bt toxin exudes from the roots of Bt-corn and that it might therefore have negative consequences on soil ecosystems. Lin (4/4) emphasised that the authors could not indicate how the soil communities might be affected. Halos (17/5) suggested that these results from the laboratory were not supported by field experiments.

The positive impact on the environment of finding alternatives to the current large-scale usage of chemical insecticides was also discussed. Halos (24/3) wrote that corn farmers in the Philippines admit to using a lot of pesticides and that, until the possibility of Bt-corn arose, they saw no alternative. Srinivasan (3/4) reported from a FAO press release that global insecticide sales amounted to about $12 billion in 1995; that more insecticides were used on cotton than on any other crop and that over two-thirds of the global cotton area treated with insecticides was in India, China and Pakistan. He argued that the introduction of Bt-cotton in these countries would be expected to reduce insecticide applications and their adverse environmental implications. Several other participants also said they expected that Bt-crops would lead to reduced insecticide use (e.g. Halos, 23/3; Açikgöz, 24/3; Smith, 27/3; Berruyer, 28/3; Bartsch, 31/3). However, there seemed to be disagreement about whether the Bt-crops grown so far had in fact resulted in such reductions. Lettington (3/4) cited a study on soybean crops where pesticide use was higher, while Smith (27/3) quoted from an American newspaper article indicating reductions in insecticide sales following use of Bt-corn.

Lettington (28/3) noted that both chemical insecticides and Bt-crops had some problems, such as development of resistance by the insects, and proposed that integrated pest management (IPM), although more time-consuming, might be preferable to GM crops. Halos (27/3) described the situation in the Philippines where corn farms tend to be no bigger than one hectare and, since farmers often have other jobs, she argued that they find IPM too time-consuming.

ii) Herbicide-tolerant GM crops

There was much less discussion about herbicide-tolerant crops than Bt-crops. Schestibratov (9/5) argued that GM crops resistant to non-selective herbicides (i.e. that kill almost all plants that are sprayed) meant that fewer and less-expensive herbicides could be used. Srinivasan (3/4) suggested that growing them resulted in an increased use of herbicides. The potential spread of herbicide resistance to other plant species was a cause for concern. Kumar (31/3) said that the development of a fast-growing herbicide-tolerant weed could have very serious implications in a small developing country. Berruyer (28/3) suggested that such GM crops should be forbidden in areas containing related wild species.

iii) Impact on biodiversity

It was suggested that biotechnology could have a positive impact on biodiversity in the environment, by increasing the amount of food produced per unit of land area and thus reducing the need to use forest or natural habitats for additional food production in the future (e.g. Paiva, 3/4; Wingfield, 6/4; Roberts, 12/4).

Regarding within crop species diversity, Laing (17/4) indicated that the increasing loss of diverse germplasm was a cause for concern. He said that the availability of improved varieties, often developed using new biotechnologies and producing higher yields, resulted in small-scale farmers neglecting their traditional varieties. Yibrah (25/5) predicted also that the use of GM crops, coming from a narrow genetic base, would lead to genetic erosion.

e) Their status with respect to biosafety regulations and controls

It was suggested that the application and monitoring of biosafety regulations would be more difficult in developing than in developed countries. Thus, Kumar (31/3) wrote that "developing countries possess limited scientific infrastructure and expertise and do not have the wherewithal to monitor such experiments or the products of such experiments. Furthermore they are ill equipped to deal with any environmental disasters emanating from these products." Sivaramakrishnan (14/4) argued that even in a country with a strong biosafety system in force, such as India, the monitoring process would not be very easy. Yibrah (25/5) maintained that the lack of finances would make it extremely difficult to assess or monitor GM crops. Ashton (19/5) said there had been insufficient consideration given to the ability of developing countries to cope with potential negative consequences and that those promoting the use of GM crops would not accept the risks which, in his country, would instead be borne by the farmers, retailers and consumers of South Africa. Lettington (28/3) emphasised the need for capacity building in developing countries in the area of biosafety.

f) Their role as tools to increase food production, food security and to reduce hunger in developing countries

As indicated in the Background Document, the global population is increasing, the amount of land available is finite and more food per hectare is needed in the future, to avoid growing crops on land currently devoted to functions other than food production. Some participants felt therefore that biotechnology was an important element in this process (e.g. Lin, 30/3 and 31/3; Paiva, 3/4; Fauquet/Taylor, 26/5) and that it would help to maintain or increase food security in developing countries (Schenkel, 16/5; Alexandratos, 16/5; Halos, 17/5).

Others argued that social and political factors were of greatest importance (e.g. Lohberger, 31/3; Lettington, 3/4; Reel, 3/4), which could be seen by the fact that, even today, when sufficient food is produced globally, there is still hunger and poverty in many developing countries (Yibrah, 25/5). Some messages went a step further and suggested that, in some cases, pro-biotechnology parties argued that biotechnology could reduce world hunger for public relations purposes (Lettington, 3/4; Yibrah, 25/5).

Lin (31/3) and McGuire (31/3) emphasised that biotechnology alone could not solve the problem of world hunger but that it could contribute to solving it. McGuire also pointed out that "it is unrealistic (and unreasonable) to expect Southern agricultural scientists to become political activists as well, especially in charged settings". Reel (6/4) agreed that biotechnology researchers tended to be reluctant about getting involved in the politics and economics of their field, but argued that economic imperatives governed the benefits of their research.

2. Other main arguments or recurrent themes from the conference

The conference was moderated and every effort was made to ensure that participants kept their contributions strictly to the subject of the conference, although in some cases this was difficult. Here, we have tried to summarise some of the other main or recurring themes from the conference.

a) The relative appropriateness of the different biotechnologies

This topic was addressed in several messages. Yibrah (25/5) insisted that developing countries should select the techniques that are most relevant to their own situations and priorities and that, in this context, marker-assisted selection (MAS) and micropropagation were more suitable than the development of GM crops. Srinivasan (12/4) maintained that the application of marker-based quantitative trait locus (QTL) studies had so far proved unsatisfactory, as it had resulted in few examples of new genetically improved varieties, especially for crops in developing countries. He agreed with comments in a 1996 scientific paper that this was due to the fact that QTL detection analyses and variety development were two different processes and that most QTL studies were directed towards elite genetic material.

Schenkel (12/4), using the example of a QTL analysis project in Indonesia which had limited success, argued that the marker-based approach might be limited because of the extensive field-testing required for QTL analysis and the large amounts of time and money required. This time aspect was also emphasised by Rebai (25/4) who indicated that it would take at least four years to develop improved varieties by MAS, whereas genetic modification could give improved varieties in one or two years. However, he also pointed out that MAS could do some of the same things as genetic modification and even more. Thus, for traits controlled by many genes, such as disease resistance, he suggested that MAS might be more useful than genetic modification.

Ashton (19/5) proposed that micropropagation was a more suitable technology for developing countries than genetic modification from a risk point of view and that many centres in Africa had developed capacity with micropropagation technology. He also argued that technologies involving molecular markers should not be emphasised as they were complex and not well understood. Wingfield (13/4) argued that micropropagation was a low-level technology that had tremendous benefits to offer for developing countries, citing the production of virus-free sweet potatoes in Zimbabwe as a good example. Loebenstein (29/3) also suggested that the combination of efficient virus assay procedures with rapid propagation technologies could have large advantages for sweet potato and the potato in developing countries.

Wingfield (13/4) mentioned that for cloning of eucalyptus trees in South Africa, cuttings were mostly used rather than micropropagation, due to costs. Halos (17/5) also agreed that micropropagation could be very useful in developing countries but added that, in her experience, labour and electricity were the major costs and thus the technology might only be profitable when the product involved is traditionally expensive, such as banana. Halos (17/5) considered that the use of DNA markers was still too expensive at this stage for breeders in developing countries.

Some participants (Guiltinan, 24/3; McGuire, 31/3; Wingfield, 3/4) highlighted the fact that genetic modification is not the only biotechnology available to the crop sector in developing countries. They argued that it represents just one of a suite of available technologies and that the often controversial debate on GM crops should not inhibit the use of other non-GM biotechnologies in developing countries.

Srinivasan (25/5) provided a reminder that there is also a regional or local dimension to the relative appropriateness of different biotechnologies: that more complex biotechnologies might be appropriate in high-producing regions while low-level technologies should be emphasised in areas of low productivity.

b) The appropriateness of different biotechnologies for different parts of the developing world

Lin (30/3) proposed that the appropriateness of different biotechnology products was a complex issue, often depending on factors specific to the country or region. Moscardi (28/3) said that it was useful to distinguish between two regions in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The first, including countries located outside the tropical belt, is a more temperate region where modern technologies are available and well integrated with the agro-industry and where they have put together IPR and biosafety rules. In the second, including countries between the tropics, there is little application of biotechnology and little private or public sector investment in agricultural research.

Srinivasan (25/5) proposed that a division into high and low potential productivity regions would be useful. In the high producing areas, such as South Central China or Northwest India, biotechnologies should be developed both to maintain the existing high levels and to raise the yield ceilings. In the low producing areas, such as Southwest and Northeast China and parts of Africa, the emphasis should be on low-risk/low-cost biotechnologies such as micropropagation

c) The appropriateness of new biotechnologies compared to conventional methods

Yibrah (25/5) said he was not convinced of the relative advantages of GM crops compared to conventionally improved or even local varieties. He proposed that for poor countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia it "may be better to rationally use the scarce resources available on more conventional, but appropriate technologies than advocating the use of GM crops". His views corresponded with those of Schenkel (4/4) who stated "I believe the cost effectivity of any technology should be the determining factor in developing countries. If there is an easy and cheap way to achieve a goal, first use this before applying the high tech expensive one !!!". Schenkel (4/4 and 22/5) argued that if there was a lack of basics - such as seed supply, extension services or breeding - then it was not appropriate to spend scarce resources on biotechnologies, since the best return from these resources would be got from conventional methods of agronomy and breeding.

Schenkel (12/4 and 22/5) also emphasised that molecular techniques should be applied within a sound conventional breeding programme, since strategies such as MAS cannot replace conventional breeding but merely supplement it and they can only be successful if an efficient breeding strategy is already in place. To use QTLs, he therefore proposed (12/4) that an efficient breeding programme be first established, that initial efforts should focus on single gene traits that are difficult to select under normal circumstances (e.g. sex determination in nutmeg, where farmers are unable to determine sex until flowering, which takes about 6-8 years (Srinivasan, 12/4)) and that, having found markers for these traits, they should be used in national breeding programmes

d) Traits that are most relevant for improvement in the crop sector in developing countries

This topic was raised indirectly in many different messages, and was occasionally seen in a socio-political dimension. In the context of herbicide-tolerant GM crops, the potential benefits of selecting for labour-saving traits in developing countries were addressed. Lin (30/3) suggested that these crops would eliminate the use of labour for weeding and thus lower earning potential and poverty reduction in many instances, although in other sectors of developing countries where labour was scarce they would be advantageous (he contrasted this with insect resistance which he indicated was a desirable trait for both small and large-scale farmers in developing countries). Salzman (24/3) argued that labour in itself was not a bad thing and that farmers in developing countries would prefer to work on the land than to migrate to urban areas. Halos (27/3) argued that increasing the amount of labour in farms would not reduce poverty in her country, the Philippines. Smith (27/3) suggested that migration of the workforce from rural to urban areas is an inevitable feature of the economic maturation of a nation. Lettington (24/3) maintained that herbicide-tolerance would have little relevance in developing countries because most farmers would not be able to afford the herbicide.

Fauquet/Taylor (26/5) highlighted the fact that in developing the first generation of transgenic crops, scientists had considered traits, such as herbicide tolerance and insecticide resistance, which would be of interest within the economic realities of industrialised countries and that the products were never intended to address the needs of developing countries. Srinivasan (18/5) supported this view, saying that the current products were not directly relevant to the needs of small farmers in developing countries. The importance of developing biotechnology products that would address specific problems of developing countries (i.e. with improvements in the traits of major interest in these countries), rather than simply using those that are already available from developed countries, was underlined by several participants (e.g. Munsanje, 27/3; Lettington, 3/4; Wingfield, 3/4; Mwangi, 10/4). For example, Archak (22/5) noted that crops with improved salinity tolerance were keenly awaited in countries such as India.

There may be limits, however, to the traits that may be incorporated into the new biotechnology products. Kiggundu (19/5) argued that in his country, Uganda, there were serious agricultural problems due to factors such as land fragmentation, increasing population pressure and soil erosion and that GM crops with appropriate traits could help to alleviate these problems. Both Schenkel (22/5) and Yibrah (25/5), however, counter-argued that these kinds of problems would not be solved using GM crops but through changing detrimental agricultural practices and that investments in improving the extension services would be more worthwhile.

e) Polarisation of the biotechnology debate and the need for balanced information

When this FAO Biotechnology Forum was established, it was recognised that in some areas of agricultural biotechnology, the debate was quite polarised and it was hoped that, by providing a neutral forum for different parties to exchange views and experiences, this polarisation might in some way be reduced because, in the words of Lettington (27/3), "as soon as the different interest groups refuse to talk and acknowledge each others concerns we are all in trouble". The large differences between the sides can be seen by comparing some of the messages posted in the conference. For example, both Reel (6/4) and Halos (17/5) consider the impact of GM crops on areas such as the environment, human health and society and come to totally opposing conclusions regarding their impacts and consequences, with numerous references provided from the scientific literature (both refereed and non-refereed) to back up their respective cases.

Some of the factors leading to this polarisation were discussed. Salzman (22/5) suggested that polarisation was inevitable as GM crops had been grown commercially without sufficient consultation and before there was a thorough investigation of the potential hazards and problems. Srinivasan (18/5) argued that recent developments in "terminator gene" technology, with MNCs claiming numerous patents in the area, had further polarised public opinion.

Archak (9/5) argued that polarisation had implications at the farmer level, since government organisations were influenced by the political party in power while non-governmental organisations (NGOs) tended to oppose biotechnology. Thus, correct information about biotechnology rarely reached the farmers. The importance of the availability of good balanced information on a controversial topic such as GM crops was also emphasised in other messages. Knausenberger (15/5) said that fora such as this one, would help public understanding of the issues and that a publicly funded agency, such as FAO, should remain objective and not commit itself to any paradigm. Towards the end of the conference, Ashton (19/5) said that although many of the messages posted had reflected the polarity of the debate, it was "refreshing to see some meeting of minds. Dogmatism and polemic do little for the debate from either side but instead we should concentrate on the common ground."

It is obviously difficult to measure whether the conference had some impact on polarisation. However, in the current "electronic age", e-mail conferences such as this can also reach audiences beyond the actual participants. The conference was discussed in an article in the scientific journal Nature (1 June), it was used as the basis of an article in the Spanish national newspaper El Pais (19 July), referring especially to the message of Yibrah (25/5), and as research material for a series of Finnish television programmes on GM organisms.

f) The use of biotechnology in developed countries to feed the developing world

Alexandratos (15/5) argued that a consideration of the welfare and food security in developing countries should not ignore the fact that they are net importers of food and that the amount imported, coming mainly from North America, Europe and Australia, had increased in recent years and was predicted to increase even further towards the year 2030. He suggested (16/5) therefore that the application of biotechnology in developed countries, to allow them to meet these expected export requirements, was thus important for food security in developing countries. Yibrah (25/5) rejected this line of argument and suggested that increased food production in countries such as Argentina and the United States and its cheap export could not solve the hunger and poverty problems in developing countries, since it did not address their cause - lack of fair trade and justice. Lettington (24/3), furthermore, suggested that the use of biotechnology in developed countries could have a negative impact on small farmers in developing countries, by increasing oversupply in developed countries and consequently depressing world prices.

g) GM crops and evolution

In transgenic crops, a foreign gene (or genes) is incorporated into the plant's genetic material. The gene may be from the same species, a related plant species or even a species from another kingdom (e.g. from winter flounder fish to the strawberry or from Bt to corn). The evolutionary implications of such across-species transfer of genetic material were discussed in a few messages.

Salzman (30/3 and 31/3) argued that crossing the species barriers is non-adaptive and contradicts the process of natural selection and that the creation of GM crops such as Bt-corn runs counter to the normal tendencies of nature and evolution (which tend to minimise the opportunities for crossing the species barrier) and so there is therefore the risk of a global ecological disaster. Knausenberger (15/5) expressed the same fears because "million of years of co-evolution are being circumvented". Both Schenkel (30/3) and Rebai (28/4 and 9/5) argued instead that crossing the species, genera and, sometimes, family barrier was something that happened naturally in nature (although rarely) or that could be achieved artificially. It was pointed out that some common food crops (such as bread wheat and canola) contained genetic material from more than one species and that some crops created by plant breeders and used already for many years were interspecies hybrids, such as triticale (a hybrid of Triticum aestivum and Secale cereale).

h) Public versus private sector

Lin (30/3) argued that whereas the "green revolution" was based on the results of scientific research carried out in public institutions, the new age of agricultural biotechnology was driven by tools developed and patented by private, and not public, institutions and that a second "green revolution" would depend on a rethinking of the role of public research and on incentives to the private industry to make the tools available. McGuire (31/3) supported these views, emphasising that the role of public research needed to be both rethought and revitalised. Carneiro (13/4) noted that investment in science and technology was much lower in developing than in developed countries and that the public research sector needed to find new ways of promoting scientific development in developing countries. He argued that there was a need to build up relationships between public and private sectors at both the national and international levels, and between the scientific and production sectors. Fauquet/Taylor (26/5) also emphasised the need for collaboration between the public and private sectors in developed countries with policy makers, scientists, breeders, extension workers and farmers in developing countries. Berruyer (14/4), however, warned that co-operation between public research institutes in developing countries and powerful MNCs might be biased by foreign private interests and would not favour small farmers in developing countries.

3. The participants

As this was the first conference of the Forum, an analysis of the participants was carried out. Within a week of launching the conference, 200 people had registered and after a further 3 weeks the numbers had stabilised at around 300. Very few people unsubscribed themselves once it had started. At the end of the conference, there were 306 people registered and a rough analysis of their e-mail addresses is described here.

There were 103 of unknown country - these were from MNCs, from companies (with ".com" addresses), from Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centres or from personal e-mail accounts (yahoo, hotmail etc.). Of the 203 people with addresses that could be attributed to a country, 43% were in Europe; 14% each were in North America, Africa and LAC; 9% from Asia and 6% from Oceania. 58% of participants were from developed countries while 42% were from developing countries (definitions follow the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, see www.oecd.org/dac/htm/daclst2000.htm).

The conference was open for messages for roughly 2 months, from 20 March to 26 May 2000. An analysis was also carried out on the country of sender of the 138 messages posted during the conference. Roughly 25% each were from Europe, Africa and North America, while Asia, LAC and Oceania contributed 18, 6 and 1% respectively. Thus, Africa and North America provided only 28% of participants, but they contributed roughly half-part of all messages. Asia had only 9% of participants, but 18% of messages. 42% of participants were from developing countries, but they were responsible for 47% of messages posted.

Obviously, the results presented here are only an approximation of the relative contribution of the developing versus developed world to the conference. People from developing countries may be currently living in developed countries (and vice versa) while people with addresses in developed countries (such as the 15 in FAO headquarters in Italy) may be actively involved in projects in developing countries. Nevertheless, they suggest that about 40% of participants and 50% of messages came from developing countries.

Messages were posted from 29 different countries. Countries with the greatest number of messages posted were USA (34), France (14) and Kenya (12). 51 different people sent messages (17% of all registered) while the greatest number from any one participant was 12. Eighteen of the 51 people worked in universities while 13 were in research institutes (some of which were national research centres); 4 were from international organisations; 2 from CGIAR centres; 4 from NGOs; 3 from private industry; 5 from government organisations/bodies; 1 was a patent lawyer while 1 was a spokesman for a political party.

4. Name and country of participants with referenced messages

Açikgöz, Nazimi. Turkey
Alexandratos, Nikos. Italy
Archak, Sunil. India
Ashton, Glenn. South Africa
Bartsch, Detlef. Germany
Berruyer, Romain. France
Bucchini, Luca. United States
Carneiro, Mauro. Brazil
De Kochko, Alexandre. France
Fauquet, C.M./Taylor, Nigel. United States
Geiger, Chris. United States
Guiltinan, Mark. United States
Halos, Saturnina. The Philippines
Hongladarom, Soraj. Thailand
Khan, Iftikhar Ahmad. Pakistan
Kiggundu, Andrew. Uganda
Knausenberger, Walter. Kenya
Kumar, Vijaya. Sri Lanka
Kuta, Danladi Dada. Nigeria
Laing, Mark. South Africa
Lettington, Robert. Kenya
Lin, Edo. France
Loebenstein, Gad. Israel
Lohberger, Ben. Australia
McGuire, Shawn. Netherlands
Moscardi, Edgardo. Colombia
Munsanje, Elliot. Zambia
Mwangi, Peter. Kenya
Nwalozie, Marcel. Senegal
Olivares, Jose. Spain
Paiva, Edilson. Brazil
Rebai, Ahmed. Tunisia
Reel, Jeffrey. United States
Roberts, Tim. Britain
Salzman, Lorna. United States
Schenkel, Werner. Germany
Schestibratov, Konstantin. Russia
Sivaramakrishnan, Siva. India
Smith, Jay. United States
Srinivasan, Ancha. Japan
Wingfield, Brenda. South Africa
Yibrah, Haile Selassie. Ethiopia

5. Abbreviations

Bt = Bacillus thuringiensis ; CGIAR = Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research; FAO = Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; GM = genetically modified; IPM = integrated pest management; IPR = intellectual property rights; LAC = Latin America and the Caribbean; MAS = marker-assisted selection; MNCs = multi-national corporations; NGOs = non-governmental organisations; QTL = quantitative trait locus

Archives

How appropriate are currently available biotechnologies in the crop sector for food production and agriculture in developing countries

Archives from the moderated email discussions are available here, sorted by day. They can also be retrieved in plain text format by month: March April May.

Archives March 2000

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Summary update 1 from the Forum Administrator on March 30.

Archives April 2000

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Summary update 2 from the Forum Administrator on April 11.

Archives May 2000

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Summary update 3 from the Forum Administrator on May 7. The main aim of this update is to attempt, in a rough and approximate way, to summarise the main aspects of Conference 1 so far.

Conference 1 was concluded on May 26, 2000.

Conferences

Agricultural Biotechnologies in Developing Countries (ABDC-10) Conference