1 November 2001
BIOTECHNOLOGY AND FOOD: VOICES FROM A SOUTHERN PERSPECTIVE
In this Online Debate which took place today at:
there was some very interesting discussion going on around four themes with the following lead-off statements from the panel chiefs:
1. Food Safety vs. Food Security
2. Local vs. Global
3. Organic vs. GMOs
4. Private vs. Public
1. Food Safety vs. Food Security: Theo van de Sande: The underlying dichotomy of this topic is based on the perception that the North can afford to focus on food safety, whereas in the South food insecurity is prevailing. Where food security is not an issue, any increased risk is not considered worth the while and the rejection of genetically modified food is understandable. Things might be regarded differently when food insecurity (as an euphemism for hunger) is prevalent, especially among the poor. Under these conditions, genetic modification might be considered a valuable additional tool to increase food production and enhance food security, even despite risks. The consideration, i.e. charting the benefits and risks and weighing them should be done by and in developing countries by those affected, by local NGOs, producers, consumers, researchers, policymakers and others; not somewhere in the North, neither by donors nor by NGOs. If needed, the capacities to reach informed and balanced decision-making and research in the South have to be strengthened, but lack of capacity should never be used as an excuse for paternalistic decision- making.
2. Local vs. Global: Victor Konde: Globalisation has blurred national boundaries enabling people to buy and sell products anywhere in the world. However, many developing countries that depend on agricultural exports may soon be losing their local markets and comparative advantage. There are fears that biotechnology will enable tropical crops to grow just as well in temperate zones leading to production dislocation and market losses. Some argue that biotechnology will benefit the poor while others argue that it will exploit the poor and threaten their livelihood. The livelihood of many small-scale farmers lies in the use of many crop varieties and mixed farming. What effect will genetically modified (GM) crop varieties have on genetic diversity? What are the implications for the dependency of poor nations on few large firms for their seed supplies? What are the implications for further local crop improvements visa-visa protection of intellectual property rights? Given the current GM debate, what are the benefits or risks for adopting GM export crops? How should governments balance national needs against international trade obligations?
3. Organic vs. GMOs: Elenita C. Dano: Can organic farming coexist with farming systems in which GM crops are used? In the USA and Europe, rocketing sales of organic products have made organic agriculture the fastest growing food sector. Though it still accounts for only a small percentage of total food sales, its public popularity is growing fast. Supporters of the organic market in the USA and Europe insist that no GM contamination should be allowed. Is this an opportunity for producers that can guarantee GM free products or is it a luxury for consumers in industrialized countries? Is segregation of GM and GM-free products lacking because it is unwanted or impossible? Who is responsible for GM contamination or adverse effects, both during field tests and after market approval? Implementing complicated monitoring and safety systems requires a variety of expensive resources and systems which are not available in many developing countries. For example the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety depends on successful capacity building for its effective implementation. Are complex monitoring and safety systems a way of excluding the South from participating in the growing organic food sector, or should this rather been seen as an opportunity to promote capacity building and good governance in the South?
4. Private vs. Public: Miguel Rojas: Private vs. Public Many observers argue that private 'for-profit' organizations are the leading actors behind new developments in biotechnology and criticize it on the grounds that private control of biotech research could have undesirable consequences like marginalisation of disadvantaged groups, welfare losses for society at large, and weakening of mechanisms for democratic control of technologies. Other observers contend that large profit margins should be recognized as a necessary means of financing the massive Research and Development (R&D) budgets of large corporations. The public-private dichotomy is frequently found in debates on biotechnology, but it has become increasingly blurred in recent years. Universities and national research systems confront the obligation to generate revenue, leading them to establish partnerships with private organizations. On the other hand, mechanisms to assure accountability of organizations, whether public or private is what matters most and here Southern nations confront huge challenges.
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