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Sent: 19 November 2002 10:15
Subject: 8: Biotechnology research in the public sector
This is Miguel Altieri again. I have read with interest the comments so far and although many of you feel that biotechnology research should be encouraged in the public sector the following points have not been addressed or need further discussion:
a) How will poorly funded public research institutions be able to conduct independent, pro-poor biotech research in the midst of existing intellectual property rights (IPR) regimes controlled by multi-national corporations (MNCs) and also given that private sector funding of many public research centers and universities is increasingly biasing the research agenda?
b) How will public organizations deal with the royalties issue given that all complementary (markers, vectors etc.) technologies are patented? How can technology be made available to the poor? As in the case of golden rice, companies say that they will make it available for humanitarian reasons, but can the poor be dependent on the good will of corporations?
c) There are two major international public research bodies (the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and especially the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR)) that define research agendas for the developing world but they have very little participation from NGOs and farmers, are dominated by people from national agricultural research systems (NARS) institutions that are pressured to adopt a pro-biotech position and that are subjected to influences from the private sector, with influential members in their boards or key committees
d) The last point has to do with the issue of genetic contamination of landraces in areas dominated by biodiverse traditional agriculture. According to Chapela and Quist's highly controversial report in Nature (their results were also corroborated by 3 independent studies of the Mexican Ministry of Environment) there is a high probability that the introduction of transgenic crops will further accelerate the loss of genetic diversity and of indigenous knowledge and culture, through mechanisms similar, but more dangerous, to those of the Green revolution. The problem with introductions of transgenic crops into diversity regions is that the spread of characteristics of genetically altered grain to local varieties favored by small farmers could dilute the natural sustainability of these races. Although many proponents of biotechnology believe that unwanted gene flow from genetically modified (GM) maize may not compromise maize biodiversity (and therefore the associated systems of agricultural knowledge and practice, along with the ecological and evolutionary processes involved) and may pose no worse a threat than cross-pollination from conventional (non GM) seed. In fact, some industry researchers believe that DNA from engineered maize is unlikely to have an evolutionary advantage, but if transgenes do persist they may actually prove advantageous to Mexican farmers and crop diversity. But here a key question arises: Can genetically engineered plants actually increase crop production and, at the same time, repel pests, resist herbicides, and confer adaptation to stressful factors commonly faced by small farmers? Thermodynamic considerations suggest they cannot; traits important to indigenous farmers (resistance to drought, food or fodder quality, maturity, competitive ability, performance on intercrops, storage quality, taste or cooking properties, compatibility with household labor conditions, etc) could be traded for transgenic qualities which may not be important to farmers. Under this scenario, risk will increase and farmers will lose their ability to adapt to changing biophysical environments and produce relatively stable yields with a minimum of external inputs while supporting their communities' food security.
So, given the above considerations why do we insist in a technology that is expensive, controlled by corporations and complex patents that bias and limit what public institutions can do, and that can cause major ecological problems? Especially when there are hundreds of other less risky, less costly agroecological technologies that are pro-poor, do not cause environmental degradation and that are culturally sensitive and socially activating?
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
[The paper refered to above by D. Quist and I. Chapela (2001) was published in Nature, 414, 541-543. The topic of gene flow from GM populations was dealt with in the previous Forum conference held this Summer, see the archives, and should not be much discussed here, as the major focus of this conference is the role and focus of biotechnology in the agricultural research agendas of developing countries...Moderator]
Sent: 19 November 2002 10:24
Subject: 9: Fund public good biotechnology
This is from Martin Downes. I work with biocontrol organisms and gene flows in at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
Miguel Altieri (message 1, November 14) has just made a very strong case for devoting "very little public funds....to biotechnology", arguing essentially that it does not benefit the starving millions much. I want to accept the bones of his arguments without dispute, but they lead me to slightly different conclusions, or maybe a different emphasis.
If longer term sustainability in developing regions involves being able to make use of the wealth-creating capacity of trade, then we might think that feeding the starving, though a priority, is not the only priority of development aid. Biotechnology is generally judged to be at the beginning of extraordinary wealth (and health) creation in the rich world: should we be concerned that the poor regions may fall even farther behind in this area? Should they be assisted to access this wealth creation in their own regions? I cannot see why anyone should answer "No".
Many feel that feeding the hungry without attention to infrastructure is a serious ethical issue, because lack of attention to infrastructure may sometimes result in larger populations starving later on. So, we must think in terms of long-term and continuing improvement in the lot of poorer regions: feeding the hungry is not enough, and raising people to subsistence level only is not enough. We need to think of infrastructure that may allow growing populations to escape from the pursuing threat of famine. Biotechnology, and business based on biotechnology, should reasonably be part of this.
It is not helpful to say that biotechnology is (or is not) a powerful tool for crop development. Biotechnology is at a very early stage in its own development. Pessimistically, though rightly, Miguel Altieri points out that organisms tend to gain a desired trait at expense to others. However, not all traits seem to be equally costly, and we may be prepared to sacrifice some existing characters if the corresponding gains are great. For instance, food quality may be more vital than food quantity in some development conditions, such as access to international trade.
Industrial applications of biotechnology are far in advance of field applications: we cannot "engineer" a sufficient number of genes in organisms to give us adequate control of multigenic characters: we cannot even insert and coordinate several major genes (e.g. vertical resistance genes) in plants in a way that would make them interesting for sustainable control of the development of resistant pests. So I emphasise that these are very early days and we can guess with some confidence that surprising advances will become possible. Is it important that developing countries should be in on these coming developments, whatever they turn out to be? Surely so, for long-term improvement.
Less well off regions are sometimes special repositories of biodiversity. Is it important that poorer countries should have the expertise to protect and develop their indigenous genetic resources, as equals of richer countries? Obviously, I feel so. They need expertise in biotechnology.
The involvement of corporate business must be managed very carefully indeed: the idea that profit-oriented corporations might control food supply is appalling and would surely cripple emerging democratic control of the destinies of developing countries. But how do we stop the process? By legislation - whose legislation? And who would enforce that legislation? Perhaps indigenous technical expertise and indigenous business would give better protection than attempts to legislate: I certainly feel so.
In summary then, I argue for much better support for biotechnology research (and teaching), carried out on a broadly public-good model, in developing countries and in partnership with them. This in no way denies the need for better more conventional technologies in food production. It supports indigenous control of food security, and education.
Professor Martin J. Downes,
Director, Inst.for Bioengineering & Agroecology,
Head of Population Ecology Laboratory,
National University of Ireland, Maynooth,
Tel + 353.1.7083837 (Direct)
+ 353.1.7083843 (Secretary)
Fax + 353.1.7083845
e-mail: martin.downes (at) may.ie
Sent: 19 November 2002 10:29
Subject: 10: Transgenic crop technology
I am Dr. Suleyman Karahan, Head of Dept at General Directorate of Agricultural Research, Ministry of Agriculture of Turkey.
I believe that, first of all, transgenic crop technology itself makes it possible for the developing countries to develop their infrastructure quickly and makes scientists aware of this technolgy. On the other hand, there has been heavy pressure, coming from commercial companies mainly from USA, Canada and others, on governments, related sectors and farmers to open doors for transgenics, but they have to take care about their citizens and environmental issues.
Dr. S. Karahan
General Directorate of Agricultural Research,
Ministry of Agriculture of Turkey
suleyman_karahan (at) ANKARA.TAGEM.GOV.TR
Sent: 19 November 2002 10:36
Subject: 11: GE vs. non-GE biotech research
I am Roberto Verzola from the Philippines. I just recently got a job as coordinator of the sustainable agriculture program of a national farmers' federation in the Philippines called PAKISAMA. The federation's concept of a sustainable farm is one that implements integrated diversified organic farming systems. I am joining this list in my personal capacity [Just a reminder that this last statement is not really necessary. Participants are always assumed to be speaking on their own personal behalf and not on behalf of their employers, unless they state otherwise...Moderator].
Biotechnology is such a wide field, and the term is often used to misrepresent the much narrower field of genetic engineering (GE). Some people who call for increased public funds for biotechnology research often really mean funds for GE research. This is like calling for more energy research, when one actually means research on nuclear power plants.
I think today that biotech research is too skewed in favor of GE, while non-GE areas of biotechnology get very little attention and funds.
What is the point is spending millions of dollars on GE research when practically all honest surveys show consumer aversion for GE food and preference for organic foods? GE rejection has reached a point that countries threatened with famine are still extremely reluctant to accept GE food, even if it is given to them for free.
I would call for more research on organic biotechnologies and related areas, because organic, chemical-free agriculture is what consumers want, it is healthier for farmers and their families, and friendlier to the environment. This is the kind of research that farmers I work with need and want.
If these technologies received a fair share of the research budget and attention, they might easily exceed the promises -- so far unkept -- of GE research. For instance, there's a technology for rice management called SRI (system of rice intensification, first developed in Madagascar in the 1980s), where farm practice is way ahead of research, and yet has been showing up to 100% yield increases in farmers' (not research) fields. SRI can be applied organically, which makes it even more attractive. Furthermore, no patents are involved, so SRI is freely accessible to poor farmers, unlike the patented technologies which are commonly the result of GE research. If organic-oriented technologies similar to SRI got more research funds, who knows what kind of yields we would be enjoying today?
rverzola (at) gn.apc.org
Sent: 19 November 2002 11:31
Subject: 12: Re GE vs. non-GE biotech research
I am Dakarai Mashava from Zimbabwe. I work for Consumers International Regional Office for Africa as an information officer and am based in Harare, Zimbabwe.
I agree with Roberto Verzola (message 11, November 19) on his view that there is no in spending millions of scarce research dollars on GE research when survey after survey shows increasing consumer aversion for GE food. More reaearch funds should be channelled towards improving organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is healthier for both the people and the environment and therefore should be allocated more research funds because it promotes sustainable food production. More attention is being heaped on GE research because multinationals know that they will earn lots of profits by corporatising agriculture.
dmashava (at) ci-roaf.co.zw
Sent: 19 November 2002 14:44
Subject: 13: Multinational companies and research
I am Bob Howe, Independent Organic Inspector, residing in the Northeastern USA.
Let us not be unaware of the control exercised by the financially powerful companies who are in control of the great majority of the world's food supply. We are blind and deaf if we consider for one moment that these giants will do anything more than a token for the benefit of a poor population. These giants elect the governments that we expect to generate the legislation for controlling them, they fill the media with the advertising that makes them look like great benefactors that are in business for the good of all people. Do the scientists involved in this research think that they would be in a position to carry out the research if most of the money for the research came from public sources, and not from the giants? Let us be clear on this. The giants only fund the research because there is a competition going on for being on the cutting edge and making more money - the people be damned. I have heard the arguments presented so far, in favor of genetic engineering (GE) in foods, and they all are a mask for the corporate intelligence. The only place that there should be any funding of GE in foods is in controlling the monster that has been let loose. My vote is to stop the train and spend the money on trying to contain the damage.
28 Brodhead Road
West Shokan, NY 12494
Earthorganic (at) aol.com
Sent: 19 November 2002 14:54
Subject: 14: Farmers need more technology options
I am Saturnina Halos and I provide advice to the Philippine Department of Agriculture on biotechnology for agricultural development. I was trained as a plant breeder and geneticist and have been doing research in biotechnology for years. I prefer to have many technology options. My husband and I have invented (using public funds) and are developing the market for a microbial preparation (seed inoculant) that improves plant growth and yield and reduces fertilizer requirements. On the one hand, I conduct research using DNA analysis.
The Philippine government has adopted a policy to promote the safe and responsible use of biotechnology as one of the means to achieve food security. As a developing country, the Philippines has a large proportion (~40%) of its population dependent on agriculture. Individual farms are small, the average size is about 1.5 hectares (has) (~ 3 acres). Such farms usually support a family of 6-12 persons. These farms have variable soil fertility, some contain problem minerals. These receive variable rainfall. These may have easy or difficult access to markets. Furthermore, farmers' schooling ranges from 2 - 20 years, with many of the poor having at most 4 years of primary education. In short, conditions are so variable, it is folly to provide a single solution to problems of low productivity which, in general, characterizes Philippine agriculture. Hence, we believe that biotechnology is only one of the technological means to increase incomes.
Depending upon market conditions, income increases can be achieved simply by targetting a niche market such as the organic produce market, where products are priced about twice as much as the non-organic ones. This market is limited to the higher income bracket (~5% of the Philippine population) and accessible to farmers mainly around urban centers. Because of lower efficiency, organic farming incurs higher production cost and lower yields due to insect pests and diseases which today are not reliably controlled by organic means. Tropical conditions breed so many insect pests and diseases.
Another means to increase incomes is to increase yields per unit area. A dramatic example is the use of hybrid corn compared with traditional varieties introduced by the Spaniards centuries ago. Hybrid corn yields range from 3-9 tons/ha whereas traditional corn varieties yield 0.3-2 tons/ha.
On the other hand, income increases can be achieved by preventing losses mainly from pests and diseases. These losses range from 35-100%. In corn, reports on yield losses due to the insect Asiatic corn borer range from 5-95%. Currently, farmers control this insect with a chemical pesticide applied by hand into individual plants. This chemical can cause nausea and vomiting among the applicators, death to farm animals, and can kill any insect species that encounters it. Moreover, for the chemical to be effective, it must be applied at a particular time within a short period during corn growth. Farmers are therefore looking for a better solution to the borer problem. Multi-location trials conducted with the GM Bt corn has conclusively shown that the borer cannot thrive on Bt corn and yield gains averaged 40% [Bt corn is genetically modified to include a toxin-producing gene from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, which poisons insects feeding on the plant...Moderator]. Hence, many corn farmers are looking forward to planting the Bt corn. These group of farmers would not mind paying for the seeds because they believe that their increase in yields will compensate for the additional seed cost.
Many people believe that farmers in the developing countries would not like to buy seeds preferring to produce their own seeds. What we have seen here is that many farmers would like to try new seeds. If provided credit, they will buy good seeds and, once they enjoy the benefits of assured higher yields, they would rather buy good seeds and would reject seeds of dubious quality even if provided free.
The increasing hectarage of GM crops (from 1.6 million in 1996 to ~50 million this year) implies that an increasing number of farmers see more benefits from planting these crops. Reports from South Africa and China show that small farmers benefit more from the technology than corporate farmers. I do not see why we should deprive farmers, especially those from developing countries, the benefits of the technology. And if it is true that consumers are rejecting GM foods, where do all these new GM produce go? No farmer is dumb enough to produce a non-marketable product.
Saturnina C. Halos, Ph.D.
Senior Project Development Adviser
Bureau of Agricultural Research
Department of Agriculture
Tel No. 63(2) 920-0239
halos (at) mozcom.com
Sent: 19 November 2002 15:59
Subject: 15: Re: Biotechnology research in the public sector
This is Sai YVST again. It is good to see that Prof Miguel Altieri (message 8, November 19) has focused on serious issues related to biotechnology. I share his concerns on several points and try to provide my point of view on the same.
a) There may be some force in the argument that multi-national corporations (MNCs) are trying to control the intellectual property rights (IPR) regime in developing countries. However, no MNC can force the governments against the will of their people. In this context, there is a need to educate the public of developing countries that they should have IPR regimes suitable to their needs. The TRIPS agreement (i.e. WTO's agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) defines minimum standards of compliance that are above the levels commensurate the benefits conferred on developing countries. As TRIPS is to be reviewed again, developing countries can rectify the anomalies or they can hold the ground at the present level. The final report of the Commission on IPRs (constituted by UK Government), published in September 2002, could be a guiding document in framing or changing IPR laws in developing countries. [The report, entitled "Integrating Intellectual Property Rights and Development Policy" is freely available at http://www.iprcommission.org/graphic/documents/final_report.htm ...Moderator]. For instance, Patent law of India as it stands today more or less falls into the spirit expressed by the Commission on IPRs except for the fact that there is a need to define what is a microogranism etc. In essence, what one can conclude is that there is no need for the developing countries to comply with the dictats of MNCs and that the present TRIPS agreement provides for enough flexibilities. One more point is that even today, funding of university research in developing countries is mainly through public funds and one need not have an illusion that MNCs would fund research in countries like India, even in private sector. Each developing country is bound to fund its own research.
b) Professor Altieri is very correct in asking why the poor should be dependent on the goodwill of MNCs. In fact, some of the experts feel that to consume required quantities of Vitamin A, one has to consume extraordinary quantities of Golden Rice. This proves that public organizations in developing countries should have their own agenda (unfortunately, at present, most of them ape western needs). I would not see much problem on account of royalty issues because non exclusive licenses at low cost could be given to several firms so that healthy competition would grow and at the same time governments generate revenues for further research. This has happened earlier also in countries like India without any problem.
c) Professor Altieri is very right in stating that CGIAR (the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) and GFAR (the Global Forum on Agricultural Research) have very little participation from NGOs and farmers. I do not want to talk about their agenda but I can state with confidence that the contribution from these organizations to countries like India is not much and real contribution is from organizations like ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural research) or BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Center) or other National research bodies who have enough funds of their own and are not guided by CGIAR or GFAR research. As far as India is concerned, these two bodies have virtually no role to play now and we need not bother about them.
d) I am happy that Professor Altieri points out the paper of Chapela and Quist. Careful examination would reveal that even remote fields in Mexico were contaminated. Surely this is not due to spread of contamination from fields where GM crops are grown. This contamination is solely due to the fact that GM seeds/grain were carried by traders/farmers to Mexico for food purposes and as the farmers found that these seeds are attractive, probably some intended or unintended mixing with local seed occured and this led to genetic contamination. In fact, this kind of contamination is possible because of lack of education and awareness amongst farmers and also negligent attitude of regulatory agencies. Please do not blame genetic engineering for human fallacies. Had there been a proper regulatory regime to identify and protect local landraces this would not happen. Moroever, the contamination occurred despite a ban in Mexico on growing GM crops. This clearly shows that prohibition is no solution for contamination unless effective implementation measures are in place. On the other hand, a healthy awareness campaign combined with freedom to choose would help a lot. A national gene bank could be established to preserve landraces and surely poor farmers cannot be entrusted with such a technical task.
e) Surely, most of us in countries like India would not favour an expensive and MNC controlled technology. We have enough means under our IPR laws to develop and protect our technology. Probably, whatever Prof Altieri is talking about is applicable to citizens of developed North and I agree with him on the count that it is the duty of the citizens of the North to see that monopolistic tendencies of MNCs are curbed.
f) If there is a single less risky, more economical and more productive technology compared to GM technology, no farmer, at least in India, would grow GM crops and, let me reiterate again, that farmers are capable of choosing the right kind of technology based on economic assessment. The whole issue is that whatever is claimed to be alternative technology as of today is highly impractical, demands high technical skills and irrational on economic considerations. If it were not so, there was no need to have a discussion on GM crops. This statement is not made out of fancy ideas or illusions but after years of practical interaction with small farmers in India. I request Prof Altieri and other interested persons to kindly visit the website of www.sisshyd.net and see my contributions on Agriculture and WTO related issues to gain more knowledge of the day-to-day problems of Indian farmers which are reflected from our surveys.
Y.V.S.T. Sai, IRS
Deputy Commissioner of Income Tax
D-8, I.T Quarters, Road No. 12, Banjara Hills
Phone: +91-(40)- 3303223, +91-(40)-6828689
saiyvst (at) hotmail.com
Sent: 19 November 2002 16:56
Subject: 16: Re: Biotechnology research in the public sector
My name is Wytze de Lange and I work for XminY Solidarityfunds in Amsterdam, Netherlands. My work is to follow developments in gene technology.
So far, I have not seen much developments that are really worthwhile to invest large sums of public money. I agree with Dr. Altieri (message 8, November 19) that there are much more ways that are less risky, cost less and are probably more efficient than transgenic plants ever will be. For example, in an article by Lim Li Ching, entitled "Sustainable Agriculture Pushing Back the Desert", the author says that "New research reveals that in many of the poorest African countries along the Sahara's edge, in Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Kenya, integrated farming, mixed cropping and traditional soil and water conservation methods are increasing per capita food production several fold, keeping well ahead of population growth. (see http://www.i-sis.org.uk/desertification.php ).
Wytze de Lange
De Wittenstraat 43-45
1052 AL Amsterdam
wdl (at) xminy.nl