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Sent: 14 November 2002 09:46
Subject: 1: Very little public funds should be devoted to biotechnology
[Thanks to Professor Altieri for the first message in this conference. Remember that messages should not exceed 600 words...Moderator]
My name is Miguel A Altieri, Professor of Agroecology at the University of California Berkeley, United States. Below are some of the reasons why I think very little public funds should be devoted to biotechnology, a science promoted by the corporate world, with funds that top many times the budget of all NARIS put together. Instead such limited funds should be used on appropriate technologies that are out of the realm of the private world, but that are pro-poor.
All biotechnological innovations available today bypass the majority of farmers in the developing world, who are poor farmers, as these farmers are not able to afford the expensive transgenic seeds, which in addition are protected by patents owned by biotech corporations. As experienced with the Green Revolution, extending modern technology to resource-poor farmers has been historically constrained by considerable environmental obstacles. There is no reason to expect that the Gene Revolution will not experience the same problems. An estimated 850 million people live on land threatened by desertification. Another 500 million reside on terrain that is too steep to cultivate. Because of those and other limitations, about two billion people have been untouched by modern agricultural science. Most of the rural poor live in the tropics, a region that is the most vulnerable to the effects of global warming. In such environments, a plethora of cheap and locally accessible technologies must be available to enhance rather than limit farmers options, food must be produced where the poor are, using participatory approaches. Biotechnology does not fit any of these criteria.
Biotech researchers pledge to counter problems associated with food production in such marginal areas by developing genetically modified (GM) crops with traits considered desirable by small farmers, such as enhanced competitiveness against weeds and drought tolerance. However, these new attributes would not necessarily be a panacea. Traits such as drought tolerance are polygenic, determined by the interaction of multiple genes. Consequently, the development of crops with such traits is a complex and expensive process that could take at least 10 years.
In addition, genetic engineering does not give you something for nothing. The second law of thermodynamics suggests that when you tinker with multiple genes to create a desired trait, you inevitably end up with sacrificing other traits, such as productivity. As a result, use of a drought-tolerant plant would boost crop yields by only 30 to 40 percent. Any additional yield increases would have to come from improved environmental practices (such as water harvesting or enhancing soil organic matter for improved moisture retention) rather than from the genetic manipulation of specific characteristics.
Even if biotechnology could contribute to increased crop harvests, poverty will not necessarily decline. Many poor farmers in developing countries do not have access to land, cash, credit, technical assistance, or markets. The so-called Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s bypassed such farmers because planting the new high yield crops and maintaining them through the use of pesticides and fertilizers was too costly for impoverished landowners. Data shows that, in both Asia and Latin America, wealthy farmers with larger and better-endowed lands gained the most from the Green Revolution, where farmers with fewer resources often gained little. The Gene Revolution might only end up repeating the mistakes of its predecessor. GM seeds are under corporate control and patent protection, consequently making them very expensive. Since many developing countries still lack the institutional infrastructure and low interest credit necessary to deliver these new seeds to poor farmers, biotechnology will only exacerbate marginalization. Moreover, many countries have not in place acceptable biosafety regulations to assess and monitor environmental impacts of GMOs.
Poor farmers do not fit into the marketing niche of private corporations, which focus on biotechnological innovations for the commercial-agricultural sectors of industrial and developing nations, where these corporations can expect a huge return on their research investment. The private sector often ignores important crops such as cassava, which is a staple for 500 million people worldwide. The few impoverished landowners who will have access to biotechnology will become dangerously dependent on the annual purchase of GM seeds. These farmers will have to abide by onerous intellectual property agreements not to plant seeds yielded from a harvest of bioengineered plants. Such stipulations are an affront to traditional farmers, who for centuries have saved and shared seeds as part of their cultural legacy.
Some scientists and policy makers suggest that large investments through public-private partnerships can help developing countries acquire the indigenous scientific and institutional capacity to shape biotechnology to suit the needs and circumstances of small farmers. But once again, corporate intellectual property rights to genes and gene-cloning technology might play spoiler. For instance, Brazil's national agricultural research organisation (EMBRAPA) must negotiate license agreements with nine different companies before a virus-resistant papaya developed with researchers at Cornell University can be released to poor farmers. Instead of paying royalties to multinationals, those funds could be devoted to scale-up already proven agroecological technologies that really benefit the poor.
The analysis of dozens of NGO-led agroecological projects show convincingly that agroecological systems are not limited to producing low outputs, as some critics have asserted. Increases in production of 50 to 100 percent are fairly common with most alternative production methods. In some of these systems, yields for crops that the poor rely on most - rice, beans, maize, cassava, potatoes, barley have been increased by several-fold, relying on labour and know-how more than on expensive purchased inputs, and capitalizing on processes of diversity and synergy. In a recent study of 208 agroecologically based projects and/or initiatives throughout the developing world, researchers at Essex documented clear increases in food production over some 29 million hectares, with nearly 9 million households benefiting from increased food diversity and security. Promoted sustainable agriculture practices led to 50-100% increases in per hectare food production (about 1.71 Mg per year per household) in rain-fed areas typical of small farmers living in marginal environments; that is an area of about 3.58 million hectares, cultivated by about 4.42 million farmers. Such yield enhancements are a true breakthrough for achieving food security among farmers isolated from mainstream agricultural institutions. This in my opinion is where limited public international and national reserach funds should be invested. There is a rush to catch the biotech train, nobody is asking who is driving the train and what about if the train is going to the wrong station.
Miguel A. Altieri, Ph.D.
Professor of Agroecology
Division of Insect Biology
201 Wellman Hall-3112
University of California
Berkeley CA 94720
tel 510 6429802
fax 510 6427428
agroeco3 (at) nature.berkeley.edu
Sent: 14 November 2002 09:53
Subject: 2: Disapponting benefits from GMO research
My name is Bob Howe, I am an independent organic inspector. I live in the Northeast USA.
I have been following GMO developments for about three years. In that time I have been disappointed by several claims of benefit from the research in the field. The issues are clear; we do not know how to control the escape of engineered organisms and attempts to confine test organisms have been unsuccessful. The makers of GE organisms claim that they do not present any health threat. We do not need extensive testing to prove otherwise, the information in dispute of that claim is coming in from all over the world. These GE experts claim, also, that these organisms are beneficial, will be required to "feed the world". Also a hollow claim, also proven false - research shows that Roundup Ready Soybeans are 20% less productive than conventional - golden rice is a failure for a number of reasons - crops that allegedly will grow in severe environments are far less than nutritious- etc. etc.
Another objectionable side to the whole issue is the patenting of nature's creations. How is it ethical that someone or some entity can lay claim to a plant that has existed for as long as there has been recorded history? At the very least, if the GE train is going to continue down the track, the companies that are in the field need to be held accountable, they need to pay for damage done and pay for whatever prevention of damage is required. Further, GE foods must be labeled so people can have an informed choice.
Earthorganic (at) aol.com
Sent: 14 November 2002 17:09
Subject: 3: National breeding programmes
My name is Elcio Perpetuo Guimar„es, Senior Officer Cereal/Crop breeding at FAO, Rome, Italy.
Scientists need to be open minded to new technological developments and be prepared to take advantage of them whenever they became available and when they are the most suitable way to achieve the proposed breeding objectives. When I started as a rice breeder, at EMBRAPA, in 1976, the best alternative available to meet farmer's demand was the development of fixed lines through pedigree selection. Today, rice breeders are able to produce hybrids, improve populations through methods earlier used only for cross-pollinated crops and use a number of modern biotechnological tools. Even though this tremendous methodological progress was accomplished, only a few national rice breeding programmes around the world actually take advantage of it. What we see, when visiting developing countries, is that many traditional rice breeding programmes have been dismantled and resources are diverted to different research areas, such as biotechnology. Presently, very limited resources are still going to the traditional or conventional rice breeding. Now it is much more difficult to train a young scientist in conventional rice breeding methods than it was a couple of decades ago. [The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) is a subsidiary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Supply of Brazil...Moderator].
The central question now is how would these new technologies help the poor? Who will work these new traits into the old/new cassava or Phaseolus varieties? What are the balances and priorities given to biotechnology versus conventional breeding by developing countries? What is the role of international research centres and the donor community in guiding/assisting agricultural research systems into taking full advantage of new biotechnologies? What are the role and the focus of biotechnology in the agricultural agendas of these developing countries? [Phaseolus is a group of mostly climbing, twining plants, including many important vegetables such as the Scarlet Runner Bean, Lima Bean, Butterbean, Kidney Bean and String Bean...Moderator].
This electronic conference is proposing to discuss this issue. I would like to see comments on how biotechnology can help the poor farmers if putting the resources into biotechnology means neglecting the national breeding programmes? We cannot close their doors to technology, we must provide them with tools to take advantage of these technologies; one of the basic tools is to provide support to these national breeding programmes. The international community should be aware of it and should make funds available, if biotechnology wants to make an impact in poor farmer's agriculture.
Elcio Perpetuo Guimar„es
Senior Officer Cereals/Breeding
FAO - AGPC
Viale delle Terme di Caracalla
00100 Rome - Italy
Phone: (39-06) 5705.3926
Fax: (39-06) 5705.6347
elcio.guimaraes (at) fao.org