Who s splitting whom?
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CTA. 2003. Who s splitting whom?. Spore 106. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Genetic modification (GM) is a scientific technique about which society has a right to express an opinion, in an informed way. And one which ACP farmers and those who support and need them have a right to know more about, on their terms, without t
Being an editor of Spore demands the patience of a near-saint on occasion. At times you want to shout out loud at those locked in the battle of words about genetic modification (GM): "It has been a tragedy of the absurd, an original comedy of errors, and, my dear poor friends, it is time to stop!" But you know that shouting serves no purpose and will only encourage the protagonists. Every article in Spore provokes comments from readers, sometimes critical, always constructive the sign of a magazine living healthily. Only one has ever led to hate mail. Which one? On GM, in Spore 88, some 3 years ago. By not denouncing outright what the (ex-) reader saw as the devil s work, by trying to explain the what-who-why-when of GM, the editor had apparently crossed the line. The debate still rumbles on, as does science, and the need for cool clarity on GM is ever greater. The quality of the debate has, with a few notable exceptions, not improved over the past 3 years. Activists still rip up GM crops planted in trial plots. The plant sciences industry still make radical analyses of the world food situation, and Northern lobby NGOs still respond half-heartedly to industry s invitations to dialogue. Some producer NGOs plough themselves deeper into a corner with their obsessive faith that GM-free, organic agriculture can feed the world. Governments, once the last bastion of steadfastness, allow themselves to get blown this way and that by the lobby of the day or by the international community , depending on which country they head. Meanwhile, the questions of many farmers and researchers in ACP and other developing countries pile up, unanswered, as to when they can take a sane decision themselves about the issue. To modify is to change Genetic modification is, for starters, the preferred term for the process of improving an organism such as increasing the drought tolerance of a plant or improving its protection against predator insects by adding a gene from within the same species, or between species (transgenic engineering). Terms best avoided are genetic manipulation with its connotations of evil scientists up to no good, and genetic enhancement , surely the creation of a public relations company. And GM is but one part of modern biotechnology (see Spore 105), with other thrusts including tissue culture, commercial plant breeding through micro-propagation and cloning. The potential benefits of GM for farmers in developing countries include improved yields through greater insect and disease resistance and weed control, improved quality of soil nutrients and increased productivity and profitability. In South Africa, one of the few ACP countries to have advanced in the GM field, smallholder and emerging farmers have quickly taken up GM cotton, although environmentalists have questioned the economic viability, and environmental impact, of their enthusiasm. In the Makhatini flats of northern Kwazulu Natal province, these cotton farmers have increased yields by one-third, and have saved six sprays on their plants a year. Part of the extra income and saved capital has been used to increase their cultivated area from an average of 4 hectares in 1996 to 20 hectares in 2002. It is also claimed that the use of fewer inputs and the reduction of risk associated with weeds and pests will contribute to improved biodiversity. Risks yes, but poisons? The perceived risks are, in the field, the transfer of allergens, the introduction of new toxins, and cross-fertilisation through pollen passing from one plant to another of the same species (gene flow) or from one species to another. There is only one way to evaluate these risks: trials. First in controlled circumstances, and then in field trials to measure how much, if any, contamination there actually is. This issue unleashes an almost metaphysical debate, since any proof would come too late to halt or reverse any contamination and may have this is the fear consequences decades later. Some purists, passionately opposed to contamination , therefore wish to stop field trials, and their logic is surely crisp. In reality, trials are going ahead, as much in Africa as in Europe or Asia: in South Africa, there have been extensive field trials of drought-tolerant cotton and maize; in Kenya, the GM sweet potato is being tested in several, publicly known locations this year. On the farm, there is a strongly felt fear that the use of GM seeds will lead, ultimately, to the farmer losing control of seed production to the commercial seed producers. The latter, such as the Monsanto corporation, deservedly attracted much attention some 5 years ago for their proposed Terminator seeds, which were genetically programmed not to regenerate, thereby forcing farmers to purchase new seed stocks from the company in every planting season. This was, many scientists and farmers organisations pointed out, anathema to the cultural practices and the cash flow of the African farmer, and the company has backtracked a long way on that approach, removing the Terminator from their discourse. On the plate of the consumer, many health concerns have been expressed, all projecting anxieties onto the future. Are GM food really poisons , as Zambia s President was led to believe by foreign NGOs and stated loudly at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August 2002? Do they carry long-term hazards? With considerable scientific caution, the International Council for Science (ICSU) has concluded that currently available GM foods are safe to eat. Their June 2003 report on New Genetics , evaluating 50 other reviews, states that there is no evidence of harm from consuming GM foods, and considerable direct and indirect benefits could result from growing GM foods. They stress the need, though, to review new foods on a case-by-case basis. Guidelines looking for capacity The principle risk, then, on which the jury is still out is in the vexed issue of contamination. The government of Mexico, under pressure from scientists of the action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC formerly RAFI), conceded in May 2003 what many scientists in international agricultural research centres had concluded: that traditional strains of maize had been contaminated by GM maize during field trials. ICSU tends to lean the other way: "Currently available evidence suggests that genes can move from GM crops into landraces and related wild species, generally at low frequency and in areas where compatible wild relatives are found. However, there is no evidence of any deleterious environmental effects having occurred from the trait/ species combinations currently available." Which, in turn, is challenged by other scientists who point to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds and the consequent need to apply more herbicides. Already some steps have been taken to address contamination in research and field trials. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has drawn up guidelines for GM tests, and CropLife International, the socially aware association representing the plant science industry, made public its own operating guidelines in May 2003. Guidelines are one thing, but the greater challenge now is for ACP bodies such as farmers organisations, the research community and the regulatory legislators to apply guidelines and draft regulations which put the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (see In Brief) into practice. As with the technology, the instruments for wise application are also available and ready to use the capacity to do so, however, is not yet there. Our terms, not EUrs And therein lies the source of frustration which some progressive farmers, bio-technologists and GM researchers in ACP countries are starting to give voice to in no uncertain way. In research for this article, the depth of their resentment at being thwarted in experimenting widely with GM was palpable. The reason? The de facto moratorium on research and trade in GM imposed by the EU almost 5 years ago and part-lifted in July 2003 after being seriously challenged by the United States of America. By being by-and-large closed to GM products, and publicly hostile to any GM research, the EU in effect has been dictating the terms on how other countries, including ACP States, should trade with, and relate to, Europe. Seeming to dictate terms, an accusation made of most parties with strong opinions in this debate, is never warmly appreciated. This latest injustice results from EU steps taken under pressure from some civil society groups, whose representativity of society as a whole is increasingly questioned. It hurts all the more in the light of a Europe-wide public opinion survey of consumers by the MORI company in 2002, which reported that 18% would never eat GM food, 33% would prefer not to, 40% do not mind and 3% opt for it. Not exactly a clear-cut case. When Spore asked Jennifer Thompson, a South African micro-biologist conducting GM research (see Publications), how she would categorise the impact of European decisions about GM on developing countries, she had but one word for it: "immoral". Perhaps it is even more fundamental. Perhaps the fears and anxieties which the Europeans are, like it or not, projecting onto much of the rest of the world are not about scientific choices, but about the way they want to organise their society. Fine, Europe, enjoy your independent spirit, and now please let us have ours!
Organizations Affiliated to the AuthorsTechnical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation
- CTA Spore (English)