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Sent: 20 November 2002 09:30
Subject: 17: What should be the role of biotechnology in a country like Venezuela
My name is Dr. Diógenes Infante, investigator from the Institute of Advanced Studies (Instituto de Estudios Avanzados, IDEA) in Caracas, Venezuela. My experience and research focus is in plant molecular biology, micropropagation, molecular markers and transgenics.
The first point I want to address is the issue of biotechnology and poverty. In any discussion about biotechnology in the least developed countries (LDCs), poverty is nearly all the time in the debate, but poverty is not a technological problem, it is a social challenge. The main issue in poverty is the lack of knowledge, including the attitude of adopting new technologies. Consequently, biotechnology must be considered as the way to solve technical problems for agriculture, with the aim of developing new opportunities in economy. The benefit for the poor will be on the economic side and in the long term, because education is a long term issue, closely linked to a better economic performance.
Second, in the Background Document to the conference, we found a discussion about the expenditures in research, comparing the resources allocated in different parts of the world. [Document available here...Moderator]. This picture is incomplete, because it does not show an important point: in which fields the resources are allocated. If research agendas in Europe or USA address global problems, people in different parts of the world share the results. Example: If a vaccine for AIDS is available, people in Africa or in Brazil will eventually benefit. So, it is necessary to clarify in which field expenditures are going to.
What should be the role of biotechnology in a country like Venezuela, and others LDC countries?
Considering a crop like coffee, this is the first agricultural product for trade, but its impact in the global economy is not accompanied by the same impact in research. This point is very simple to measure. In any scientific database the number of papers published in coffee is quite small compared with other crops (corn, tomato, rice). The same applied for cocoa. It is very important for the economy, but not for the research agendas.
There is another example. In South America more than 20 million people live above 3000 meters of altitude, usually with the pattern of alimentation brought by the Europeans during the colonization. Productivity at this altitude is not the same as at lower levels. This issue is very important, but is not always in the agendas anywhere.
Therefore, there are specific problems to be addressed:
- Tropical crops, coffee, cocoa, sesame, agaves, bananas [Agaves are succulent plants, related to the lily, belonging to the genus Agave...Moderator]
- Crops designed to improve the environment or to cope with the limitations of the tropical soils (abiotic stress).
- Tropical fruits: controlling the ripening of many fruits will make them available for export to the global markets.
For many reasons, the improvement of crops like coffee or cocoa is difficult (if not impossible) using the classical breeding approach: narrow genetic bases (coffee), long agronomic cycles (coffee, cocoa, agaves), lack of sexuality (some agaves, bananas). In these cases, the modern technologies are an invaluable tool to improve the above mentioned crops, especially the possibility to introduce and express a particular gene to add new characteristics in a controlled way. Transgenic plants, probably the safer technology created by man.
Unfortunately, there is a big concern about transgenics, especially in Europe, and transgenic products will not be accepted by the consumers. Consequently, the discussion about (and actions again) are not affecting the farmers or the companies in the developed world, they are affecting the possibility of a country like Venezuela to introduce new products in the global market. This very important issue should be in the first lines of actions in FAO and other agriculture related institutions.
Dr. Diógenes Infante H.
Centro de Biotecnología
Instituto de Estudios Avanzados-IDEA
Apdo. 17606 Parque Central
Caracas 10151-A, Venezuela
Carretera Nacional Hoyo de la Puerta
Sartenejas, Caracas 1080, Venezuela
58-(0212)-906-4111 Ext. 6586
dinfante (at) idea.org.ve
Sent: 20 November 2002 10:59
Subject: 18: Biotechnology, liberalism and the poor
In this debate about biotechnology and the poor, I believe that we should think of the meaning of these terrific and unimaginable images of the children of Argentina suffering from severe hunger that have been forecasted recently. Of course, biotechnology is not responsible for this disaster. But, we must not forget that Argentina has adopted the GM soya at a very large scale as it has adopted liberal measures, pushed for this by the International Monetary Fund and by private capitalistic interests. The development of the transgenic technology is in Argentine, like in the USA, one visible sign of the renounciation by the politicians of insuring their role in the fight to assure the basic needs of the people. [Just to emphasise an important point, the central theme of this conference is not biotechnology and the poor but "What should be the role and focus of biotechnology in the agricultural research agendas of developing countries?". Note that Conference 5 of this Forum, which ran from 1 November to 17 December 2000, dealt directly with the theme of biotechnology and hunger/food security. It was entitled "Can agricultural biotechnology help to reduce hunger and increase food security in developing countries ?". See the background document, summary document and archived messages here...Moderator].
The transgenic technology will not contribute to this fight. On the contrary, the adoption of the transgenic technology will benefit more the wealthier farmers than the smallest and poorest. In this competition, the poor are the losers and the prices are decreasing at such a level than the poorest cannot survive.
I think that it is an illusion or a manipulation to claim that transgenic technology as any technology could be useful to the poor. This could be true only in countries where the market and liberalism would be strongly controlled by the politicians, in countries where the importance of the fight against hunger and for environmental protection would be really perceived as a priority. But there is a fundamental contradiction between liberalism, that is in fact a system done to make the rich richer, and giving the priority to improve the situation of the poor. It is interesting to see how much the USA government defends the transgenics and the free market and at the same time is one of the countries where more than 50% of the crops are cultivated for the export market and where subsidies to the farmers (the biggest, as always, benefit more) is the highest. With their fight to disseminate the GM plant at any price and at dumped prices, they are killing the smallest...as well as the development of the industrial farming systems is killing the poorest farmers in the developing countries.
To improve the situation of the poor, the governments must have more resources. They must increase the taxes and the regulation system. But first, the richest do not have much sense of solidarity and, secondly, they are not clever enough to understand that, in the long term, the defence of their profit, their conquest of more liberalism will lead to a social disaster. Argentina is a good example of this situation.
In such a context, I am afraid that promoting more research in biotechnology, except in some exceptional cases, will be at best useless to the poor and more probably prejudicial for them. We must not forget that 75% of the poorest are small farmers.
As money is rare, and more and more rare, in the research for the developing world, I do not believe that biotechnology constitutes at all a priority for the poor. The priority is much more issues where the participatory approach can be applied, where socio-economy and global approaches are developed, where at the end the poor get more power. Furthermore, I consider that the fight for the poor is very much linked to the fight to maintain the planet's environment. Not at all because I consider that the poor are degrading the environment (this is a myth well exploited by the propagandists of the GM plants), but because the richer, the wealthier, the obese have to decrease their consumption and their profit to avoid an environmental disaster, to improve the situation of the poor and to avoid a social disaster, which is where too much inequity is driving.
Station de Recherche sur le Palmier Dattier et les Systèmes de Production en Zones Arides
e-mail: m.ferry (at) wanadoo.es
Sent: 20 November 2002 11:09
Subject: 19: Complementary focus and synergy
I am Juan Izquierdo, Senior Plant Production Officer, FAO - United Nations, Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, Santiago, Chile.
Regarding, "what should be the role and focus of biotechnology in the agricultural research agendas of developing countries?" I strongly support to avoid polarization.
Research policy makers have to have "all" the alternatives on hand to establish priority areas and to commit in the short and long run available resources to biotechnology research and development (R and D), in order to pursue the final goal of sustainable agricultural development. This implies a strict interdisciplinary complementation considering conventional breeding, advanced genetic plant improvement and integrated crop management. This complementation has to be developed bridging advantages and opportunities among public and private sector.
Within the above context, demand-driven research and innovation projects, both for subsistence and export agriculture, has to be focused to a win-to-win optic supported by a harmonized regulatory framework. Biotechnology has to be considered in the wide view as a tool as organic gardening is.
Breeding for traits that are important for small farmers in marginal conditions for neglected crops like tolerance to drought; salinity; soil pH; pest resistance; food or fodder quality; post harvest keeping quality; as well as the traits mentioned by Miguel Altieri (such as competitive ability; performance on intercrops; storage quality; taste or cooking properties; and compatibility with household labour conditions)(message 8, November 19) requires a complementary approach.
Identification, transfer and expression of specific genes into old or advanced breed cultivars with peculiar adaptation is just the beginning, to be followed by an appropriate transfer of technology for water, organic matter and soil "environmental" management. Traditional biotechnology such as in vitro micropropagation; early plant disease diagnosis; bio-fertilizers; and bio-pesticides followed by molecular markers, genetic transformation and functional genomics, are needed in an integrated vision.
Let's feel apart from dogmatic views and cautivate us to promote multiple stake holders focusing in neglected crops.
Being a dry-bean plant physiologist and breeder myself and devoted for the last 17 years to promoting networking to favour the development of an appropriate biotechnology, I dream of a "rustic" black dry bean able to produce "just but sustained" 40% more under drought-hilly conditions and to stand the myriad of affecting virus, fungi and insects. This is consistent with the idea of focusing the resources into biotechnology requires as also reinforcing the national breeding programmes with molecular biology tools, to accelerate the selection process at early stages or inclusively, via genetic transformation, to introduce new suited traits to national proved cultivars to be released after a careful biosafety and regulatory process.
Juan Izquierdo, Ph.D.
Senior Plant Production Officer
Technical Secretary of REDBIO/FAO Network
FAO Regional Office for Latin America and The Caribbean
P.O.Box 10095,Santiago, CHILE
Juan.izquierdo (at) fao.org
Sent: 20 November 2002 11:19
Subject: 20: Re: Farmers need more technology options
Saturnina Halos (message 14, November 19) claims that genetically-engineered Bt corn field trials in the Philippines averaged 40% yield gains compared to its non-GE counterpart. It is probably on the basis of these extravagant claims that some local corn farmers she cites are deceived into wanting to try these new seeds.
I was a member of the government body, the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP), as community representative when it approved the first field trials in the Philippines in 1999. In their public announcement of the results, Monsanto and the collaborating government scientists claimed that their field trials averaged yield differences of 35-40% in favor of GE Bt corn vs. similar non-GE corn lines. These claims are highly questionable. These yield differences were in all probability attained because Monsanto and government scientists *artificially* infested the test plants heavily with corn borer larvae. Obviously, such artificial infestation would result in heavy damage among the non-GE test plants, but not in the GE plants. However, such artifical infestation does not automatically reflect actual field levels of corn borer infestation. Therefore, the results cannot be a valid basis for making yield gain claims, especially when farmers start relying on these claims as basis for their decision to plant Bt corn. This example shows how research results can be misrepresented to make false claims to the public. [No further messages will be posted in the conference about these trials...Moderator].
Saturnina Halos denies that consumers are rejecting genetically engineered (GE) foods, and asks where the rejected GE foods are going to. Anyone who is even remotely familiar with the GE debate would know they are being consumed in the U.S. or exported to the Philippines and other countries where consumers are in no position to reject them because they are not labelled as such. Or worse, they are being sent as food aid to famine-threatened countries, though even some of these countries reject them or accept them with much reluctance, even when the GE food is given for free.
U.S. farmers continue to plant GE crops, despite the depressed prices and consumer rejection, because the U.S. government heavily subsidizes its farmers for market losses such as these. These subsidies mask what should be clear market signals to U.S. farmers to stop planting GE crops.
Most countries in the Third World -- including the Philippines -- have no such subsidy programs for farmers and the WTO makes it difficult for them to start one even if these countries had the funds to do so. Thus Third World farmers who go heavily into GE crops would feel the full brunt of depressed GE crop prices and market rejection.
rverzola (at) gn.apc.org
Sent: 20 November 2002 11:27
Subject: 21: The importance of biotechnology in rice research
I am Sabu, a postdoctoral researcher at the National University of Malaysia permanently associated with the Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute, Thiruvananthapuram, India.
One of the major crops which helped farmers a lot to persist their life is rice. But now in many developing countries, rice cultivation faces many serious threats. Rigorous selection processes for specific yield traits, which started centuries back, has continuously eroded the genetic diversity of cultivated rice. This is closely evident by the fact that rice productivity in a standard farm in Asia is badly affected by abiotic stress factors by 15% and biotic factors by nearly half of that. On the other hand, in Asia where rice is a staple food for most of the population, the productivity has to rise by 60% by the end of the decade. For economic cultivation, both the productivity and genetic diversity of the rice has to be increased. The diversity is essential for maintaining plant vigor which contributes to the resistance to the various stress factors. It can be achieved by identification and incorporation of 'vigor' genes from wild rice germplasm which is available in countries like India and Malaysia
Here comes the importance of biotechnology in rice research.
It has been scientifically proven that quantitative traits for yield or disease resistance are under polygenic control. But now, powerful screening techniques are available which help to focus the gene of interest. The Advanced Backcross Quantitative Trait Loci Analysis (AB-QTL) is one such strategy which can simultaneously map QTLs of interest while carrying out some favourable selection. [AB-QTL is a breeding strategy that combines line development and QTL (i.e. individual genes influencing quantitative traits) detection, proposed by Tanksley SD and Nelson JC. in Theoretical and Applied Genetics 92 (1996) 2, 191-203...Moderator]. This is a very useful functional genomic strategy for fishing out useful genes from wild germplasm and, if techniques can be further improved, will be able to clone the genes behind the QTLs.
The developing countries should give priority for applying the biotech tools for their local requirement. They must stop importing technologies from multi-national corporations or do not allow them to market their ready-to-use packages like 'killer seeds'. International agencies like FAO can stand as a mediator to acquire knowledge and training to researchers from the developing nations. So that they will also enjoy the fruits of biotechnology for the benefit of the poor farmers.
KK Sabu PhD
Post Doctoral Fellow
Plant Genetics and Biotechnology
School of Environmental and Natural Resource Sciences
Faculty of Science and Technology
National University of Malaysia
43600 Bangi, Selangor
Tel: 603-89215870, Fax: 603-89253357
kksabu (at) yahoo.com
Sent: 20 November 2002 11:36
Subject: 22: Re: What should be the role of biotechnology in a country like Venezuela
My name is Nagib Nassar, Professor with the University of Brasilia, geneticist and plant breeder, dealing principally with the maipulation of cassava genetic resources for improvement of the crop with emphasis on apomixis and interspecific hybridization (see my site: www.geneconserve.pro.br).
What I wish to comment is that Dr Infante (message 17, November 20) forgot staple and pulse crops, particularly cassava when speaking on tropical crops needing biotechnology. Cassava is one of the most important foods in.....Venzuela!! and all the South America, Central America, Asia and Africa tropics.
University of Brasilia
nagnassa (at) rudah.com.br
Sent: 20 November 2002 11:57
Subject: 23: Asian needs
I am Swapan Datta, Plant Biotechnologist at the International Rice Research Institute, Manila, Philippines.
I would like to emphasize the following:
1. One should not confuse the European attitude (policy makers) and views of European scientists. I have been working with European scientists since 1985 and I know most of the scientists working in molecular biology have a positive attitude for the Biotech, particularly transgenic products. The biggest dilemma is now moving around the world whether the transgenic products would be accepted by the Europeans. This may not be any more a scientific issue, rather trade or policy issue.
2. Asian needs are different as we are more dependent on agricultural products, practice and commerce for the livelihood. China is set for their use of Bt-crops, India is moving slowly towards its utilization and other Asian countries (many of them) are carefully watching and looking forward for its use. Often they were told about European's negative attitude (some policy makers) or American's way, high-tech business (multinational companies), but the reality remains at a different level. Asian countries must look at their needs and the way of delivery of the products, efficient way. Technology is neutral, one should look scientific way to evaluate the technology and its products.
3. Intellectual property rights, regulatory issues, biosafety and food safety issues are created by us with time. Concerns of risk, gene flow, environmental damage/impact etc. also are created by us. National governments in Asia and other developing countries must set up their standard institutes where all those issues can be discussed and resolved and get their own understanding and adopt the technology suitable for them. The regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may be suitable in USA but need to be evaluated in Asia and other countries with their own understanding and infrastructure. They can take help from the European Community or the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) or ask grants from the national governments to study those issues. For example, DBT (Department of Biotechnology), India is spending a substantial amount of money on those studies related to transgenic crops. China is spending even much more money on biotechnology. This is important to develop and evaluate the new products before rejecting them without knowing. A few good examples of field evaluation and commercialization of transgenic products in India and China may turn the discussions in different directions which may focus business of equality with private sectors and provide the benefit to the people who need them most.
4. Glad to see that FAO is now ready to address many pending issues to resolve and to help developing a neutral and positive attitude towards decision making.
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI),
S.DATTA (at) CGIAR.ORG
Sent: 20 November 2002 13:11
Subject: 24: Other areas of biotechnology
My name is Bert Collard. I am a Research Assistant working in Melbourne, Australia.
I believe that research in biotechnology is biased towards genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Other areas of biotechnology include molecular markers, mutation breeding and tissue culture, which have enormous potential for crop improvement and increasing food security. Research in these areas may be more relevant to developing countries than transgenic crops because they may be: (1) cheaper to use; (2) require less sophisticated equipment; and (3) have more immediate practical applications. For example, molecular markers may be used in breeding programs to select for specific traits (simple of quantitative) dramatically reducing the time required for the development of new cultivars (called marker-assisted selection). Perhaps the 'non-GMO' areas of biotechnology could be reconsidered for research agendas?
However, all of the above areas of biotechnology may provide only medium to long term benefits to agriculture at best. Given that today, more than an estimated 800 million people do not have food security, research providing short term benefits are essential to agriculture. As other conference contributors have emphasised, this research may not necessarily involve biotechnology (such as conventional plant breeding, intercropping, agroforestry etc.). I strongly agree with Guimaras and Beach (messages 3 and 4, Nov 14th and 15th respectively) that biotechnology must complement conventional breeding but not substitute it.
In summary, appropriate research areas in biotechnology (i.e. other than GMOs) should be considered on research agendas but only in conjunction with non-biotechnological areas of agricultural research.
Dept of Biotechnology and Environmental Biology
RMIT University, Bundoora
VIC 3083 Australia
Tel: +61 3 9925 7140
bcycollard (at) hotmail.com
Sent: 20 November 2002 15:37
Subject: 25: Necessity of the participation of the poor to define the right research priority
I am Michel Ferry from INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) France in charge of a research station on date palm and oasis farming systems.
I want to thank FAO for this new opportunity to debate once more on biotechnology. I consider that it is a very important question for the developing world, as for the so called developed countries, because it constitutes an emblematic issue of the debate on the consequences to leave the market deciding which society and planet we need.
I want also to react to Diógenes Infante (message 17, November 20). He has said: "The main issue in poverty is the lack of knowledge, including the attitude of adopting new technologies. Consequently, biotechnology must be considered as the way to solve technical problems for agriculture, with the aim of developing new opportunities in economy. The benefit for the poor will be on the economic side and in the long term, because education is a long term issue, closely linked to a better economic performance". The perception of poverty expressed by Diógenes is very contemptuous and wrong but unfortunately very common. Poor farmers have often a knowledge and an experience of plants, animals and ecology that is very elaborated and precious. Of course more knowledge would be useful for them...as for many scientists locked in their narrow speciality. Poverty is generally the consequence of lack of power over land, water resources, market and credit access, political decision (lack of democracy) monopolized by the richer. That is why I consider that a research issue in which the poor can not participate will not be useful to the poor most of the time.
I also wish to thank the moderator for recalling within message 18 the theme of the conference: "What should be the role and focus of biotechnology in the agricultural research agendas of developing countries?". But precisely, I consider for my part that if the agricultural agendas of developing countries are not focused on the poor they are not adapted to the priority needs of most of the developing countries (I do believe that, in the developed countries also, the priorities should also be the poor, the marginalized people, the jobless...all these people forgotten by the growth who, more and more often, in our unjust opulent societies, place their hope in extremist position and groups). That is why it seems to me evident that the pertinent debate is in fact biotechnology and the poor.
Research Station on date palm and arid land farming systems.
E-mail: m.ferry (at) wanadoo.es
Sent: 20 November 2002 16:10
Subject: 26: Re: Other areas of biotechnology
This is from Swapan Datta from IRRI, Philippines.
I was reading Bert Collard's view (message 24, November 20), interesting but a few points are missing:
1. Marker assisted breeding is good if markers are available and can be applied. For example, sheath blight disease (a disaster disease in rice) or stem borer in rice (causing tremendous yield loss in farmers' fields) do not have any markers that plant breeders can use. Biotechnology for the first time has opened up the possibility to help poor people in the developing countries to combat vitamin A deficiency by engineering rice with genes for beta-carotene biosynthesis.
2. I agree that biotechnology should always work with conventional breeding so that important genes (traits) which are lacking in the best available cultivars may be incorporated by genetic engineering for further improvement of crops and what exactly is happening.
3. Cost and time required for marker-assisted selection and other techniques can be comparable with transgenic research and often transgenic research will lead to the product development. In general, all such techniques are required for modern and efficient breeding. Each has its own merits and disadvantages. At IRRI, we work on all techniques and apply them in our conventional breeding including anther culture and I feel that's the way we should take the advantage of modern tools.
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI),
S.DATTA (at) CGIAR.ORG