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Sent: 26 November 2002 08:30
Subject: 48: Agricultural research in developing countries // cake icing
This commentary is from Prof Denis Murphy, Head of the Biotechnology Unit at University of Glamorgan, Wales, UK.
For over 15 years I have worked as a researcher and advisor in the area of agbiotech where my speciality is oilseed crops. I have advised numerous international government agencies and NGOs and more recently have been working in South East Asia, particularly Malaysia. I am clear that GM crops have the potential to contribute significantly to sustainable agriculture in the longer term but I am far less convinced about their much touted role as panaceas to many of the immediate challenges faced by agriculture in most developing countries.
One of the issues that I have advised on is how do deploy relatively scarce R&D (research and development) resources & manpower to have the most impact in crop improvement programs. To some extent, the answer will depend on the cropping system involved and the uses of the downstream products. For example, in Malaysia the oil palm industry occupies a dominant position in land use, as an employer, a generator of exports and has the potential to supply expanding markets from Europe to China and India. The country has an increasingly effective and diverse scientific infrastructure and is well placed to benefit from significant investment in agbiotech. Nevertheless, even here, one would council against a headlong rush into transgenic technologies. Huge yield gains can be obtained by improvement in plantation management and selection & cultivation of superior germplasm. Further gains will be possible by better knowledge of genetics (including genomics) and the use of mass-propagation techniques.
In short, what is needed is a diverse and well-resourced infrastructure to support the better understanding of crop performance and the development of advanced breeding technologies, including marker-assisted selection and tissue culture. In this context, transgenesis would represent something of a leap in the dark (especially for a long-lived perennial, which may not display a phenotype for 5-7 years). It is doubtless useful to develop the relevant expertise in gene transfer, but more immediate and dramatic crop improvements will probably be forthcoming by using the increasing arsenal of other (non-transgenic) biotech methods to facilitate advanced breeding programs.
The situation in other countries and with other crops will of course be different. Throughout Southern Africa, there are huge exports of horticultural crops, especially to Europe. Zambia alone exported over 8,400 tons of horticultural products in the 1999-2000 season, recording earnings of $63 million (almost 7% total exports). A substantial proportion of these crops is designated "organic" by the European supermarkets that buy them. This is one of the factors that may be motivating the reluctance of such countries to accept GM food aid from the US - lest it jeopardise their organic status and result in the loss of desperately needed export earnings. A GM approach to improving such crops is ruled out by the current "zero tolerance" rules specified by organic farming organisations in the West. Hence, there would seem to be little incentive for funding research into GM-related crop improvement programs in this context.
My overall gut feeling about agricultural research in developing countries
(DCs) is as follows:
* There is still a great dearth of basic knowledge about the agronomy, physiology and genetics of many major DC crops. More breeders and physiologists are needed.
* An appropriate infrastructure, both for education & training and for advice & outreach to farmers is still being developed.
* Many dramatic yield benefits may be possible by simple improvements in management practices and by better use of existing germplasm.
* In the longer term, DCs will need to deploy the full range of modern agbiotech methods and they should therefore foster a modest research effort in this area.
In summary, a headlong rush into GM technology is not called for at this stage (at least for the vast majority of DC crops). However, DCs would benefit from more resourcing of R&D across the spectrum of crop improvement - from basic physiology & biochemistry through to agronomy & outreach and extending to advanced breeding such as marker-assisted selection and eventually (perhaps) transgenesis. Transgenesis may be the eventual "icing on the cake" but icing alone is not very useful if there is no cake to put it on!
Professor Denis J Murphy
School of Applied Sciences
University of Glamorgan
Cardiff CF37 1DL
email: dmurphy2 (at) glam.ac.uk
phone: +44 1443 483 747
fax: +44 1443 483 554
mobile/cellphone 07714 105 381
web site: http://www.glam.ac.uk/saps/staff/MurphyDenis.php
news: http://www.glam.ac.uk/news/newsDetails.php?id=92 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/2240495.stm
Sent: 26 November 2002 08:36
Subject: 49: Re: Pooling together regional resources in agricultural biotech research
Regarding message 47 (November 25) by Marcel Nwalozie:
Respectfully, I find this is politizing what should not be politized!!!. Saying regional, sub-regional, national ...etc. All these terms is politizing the question. Why should we not adapt biotechnology developed in other countries? Why should we developing countries spend hundreds of millions of dollars on research that can be made by developed countries?, and receive it already made, only adapt it, and saving huge budget for our poor people. Why?
Universidade de Brasilia
nagnassa (at) rudah.com.br
website on the subject where many questions are being answered: www.geneconserve.pro.br
Sent: 26 November 2002 08:40
Subject: 50: Farmers making choices
My name is Tamala T. Kambikambi an agronomist currently lecturing at the University of Zambia. However, I have spent many years working in a private seed company.
From a scientific point of view, I have no problem with biotechnology, since as already pointed out, it is but just one tool in a tool box that can be used in our bid to improve food production and help to alleviate poverty.
However, once we move on to the farmers use of the technology, there are a number of assumptions that are sometimes wrongly drawn. For example, there has been discussion on the fact that farmers have choices and should hence be given that choice to choose. That unfortunately is not always true for a number of our countries. I will be definite - for Zambia, that is not true. That is why even in our seed certification system we opt for certification by minimum standards rather than by truth in labelling, since most of our farmers have not reached that level of literacy. Therefore, if GM seed is released on the market, very few of the small scale farmers will even know that it is GM and even if told, they may not comprehend. So, I think as we discuss this very important topic, it is equally important to know what assumptions hold and which ones do not.
University of Zambia
tkambikambi (at) agric.unza.zm
Sent: 26 November 2002 09:51
Subject: 51: GM crop research and field testing
There is a basic dilemma in genetic engineering (GE) research I hope participants in this conference can help clarify. The dilemma is the field-testing of live GMOs.
Many farmers, including Pakisama, the national federation of farmers I work with, are opposed to field-testing of GMOs, because of the real danger of genetic contamination, which will expose farmers to unforeseen environmental and health side-effects of GMOs as well as make their product less marketable. Yet, some researchers insist that field-testing is necessary for overall testing, to resolve some of the environmental and health issues against GMOs.
Here's a situation where it seems that uncertainty can be resolved only through field-testing. This in turn exposes farmers and the environment to that very uncertainty through likely genetic escape and contamination, as has happened in the Starlink, Mexican Bt corn, Nebraska/Iowa pig vaccine cases and other cases of contamination. If it should eventually turn out that the undesirable side-effects of GMOs are confirmed through field-testing, and genetic escape and contamination occurs, then the testing itself would have caused the very harm it was supposed to verify, and made it a permanent, irreversible problem in the countryside. This is particularly true in the Philippines and other countries where many farmers still save their seeds for the next planting season.
This very real research dilemma must be seen beside another real consideration: that U.S. and biotech GE corporations do have a motive to contaminate GE-free countries with GMOs. Widespread GE contamination in soya- or corn-exporting countries like Brazil, for instance, can eliminate the competitive advantage these GE-free countries enjoy vis-a-vis the U.S. Widespread contamination will also render moot and academic some of the debates on GMOs now going on, with the biotech corporations winning by force not of argument but of circumstance.
Thus, researchers must be aware that their efforts at field-testing, even if driven by purely scientific considerations, can be used to carry out a hidden agenda of deliberate contamination of GE-free countries and areas to undermine export competitors or to moot opposition to GMOs.
Please be aware that "research" can be used in a deliberate effort to contaminate GE-free fields, precluding from us the option to stay GE-free and enjoy the expanding and premium markets for GE-free products. Researchers can unwittingly play a role to play in this agenda.
rverzola (at) gn.apc.org
Sent: 26 November 2002 16:22
Subject: 52: Focus of biotechnology research in developing countries
I agree with several messages that biotechnology research in developing countries should focus on solving technical problems of each country's agriculture. In addition, research should also address biosafety issues including setting up the necessary infrastructure to comply with biosafety regulations. That is, when a country decides to invest in biotechnology research it should also establish biosafety regulations. In this manner, issues raised against biotechnology are scientifically addressed. Although this raises the cost of the technology, it does provide assurance to the public that proper measures are adopted to ensure that biotech products are safe.
The Philippines has adopted biosafety regulations covering biotechnology research since 1991 and has recently established regulations covering the import, commercialization and release into the environment of biotech plant and plant products. These regulations define the biosafety research agenda in developing a biotech crop.
Another research focus should be edible vaccines for humans as well as animals. The development of edible vaccines is undertaken primarily by researchers in industrialized countries, supposedly for developing countries. To hasten this development, it is about time that we in the developing world should actively participate in developing the effective edible vaccine for our own country needs.
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