GM seeds of hope

June 13, 2003

Europe's hostility to modified crops should not stop their use in the third world, says Sandy Thomas

The debate on genetically modified crops is now officially under way. Three years or so on from the vociferous exchanges that led to the withdrawal of GM food from our supermarket shelves, what can we expect this time? It is becoming increasingly difficult for the European Union to preside over the present impasse. A de facto moratorium on the cultivation of GM crops in the absence of proven harm to human health or the environment is probably not sustainable under World Trade Organisation regulations.

But it was consumers rather than rules that led to the demise of GM food in the UK and the rest of the EU. The organised national debate over the next few weeks is intended to allow members of the public to air their views.

Unfortunately, it is likely that what is arguably the most important use of GM technology will hardly get any attention - helping millions of small-scale farmers in developing countries improve their crop yields so that they can grow enough to defeat malnutrition and have enough left over to provide income.

The idea that GM crops "could feed the world" was given short shrift by Prince Charles, a keen advocate of organic food, as well as by Christian Aid and a number of journalists when the controversy was at its height.

Cynicism about the prospects of multinationals such as Monsanto forcing poor farmers to buy expensive seed that could not be saved for subsequent years, the dangers of releasing GM seeds into the environment in countries where regulations would be hard to enforce as well as worries about possible impacts on biodiversity all played a role.

But there was also, more importantly, a deep scepticism about the fact that the technology might actually work, reducing the need for insecticides or providing effective resistance to plant viruses. Few at the time spoke up for the urgent need to apply GM technology to problems of agriculture in the developing world. Three years ago, when the Nuffield Council on Bioethics launched its report stating that there was a moral imperative to make GM technology available to those developing countries that wanted it, it was a lone voice. Earlier this week, the Nuffield Council published a short discussion paper for comment reassessing those arguments in the light of recent developments.

It makes the crucial point that the views of the UK consumer have effects far beyond our shores. Aversion to the technology has turned Europe into a fortress, unparalleled in the rest of the world. Tough regulations that force labelling on food even when there is no GM material present - and that demand very stringent traceability standards - are largely the result of politicians responding to the anxieties of the EU consumer. But, as a result, several developing countries, hoping to secure increased access to European export markets, are reluctant to apply GM technology, even for domestic use.

How can small-scale farmers who grow coffee and bananas that are collectively exported possibly provide the traceability the EU requires? Fears of the loss of these markets was one of the main factors that led some African governments to decline much-needed US food aid in the form of GM maize grain. There were also health worries. Although it is a fact that millions of US citizens have been eating GM food every day without adverse effects, influential bodies such as the British Medical Association had cast doubt on the safety of GM food for human health when they reported on the topic three years ago.

So what has emerged since the furore three years ago? The Nuffield paper highlights seven examples that illustrate the real promise that GM crops offer the developing world. One of the most compelling is the now-widespread cultivation of insect-resistant cotton in China. This variety, developed by Chinese breeders, is being grown by more than 4 million small-scale farmers. It has reduced the use of insecticides by 60-80 per cent as well as the incidence of toxic effects on the farmers themselves (who are too poor to afford protective clothing).

Cotton-farming trials in South Africa are also very encouraging. GM virus-resistant bananas, vitamin A-enriched rice and crops that can withstand drought are in the pipeline. The key conclusion? The use of GM crops in developing countries is complex. Whether they can make a difference to small-scale farmers in poor regions can be decided only case by case. To condemn a whole technology outright is disingenuous.

Sandy Thomas is director of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. The draft discussion paper is available at www.nuffieldbioethics.org

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