ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

10 September 2002


"post-Enron, it's difficult to believe that companies can be trusted even to keep their own books, let alone save the world." - naomi klein in joburg
CNN International debate between World Bank and Friends of the Earth

12:30 PM Eastern Standard Time
September 5, 2002 Thursday

A look at the use of genetically modified foods to prevent famine in Africa and the ramifications of producing GM foods...........

VERJEE: Larry Bohlen, with Friends of the Earth, Robert Watson, the chief scientist of the World Bank, both of you speaking to me from Washington, thank you so much -- appreciate it....

VERJEE: Larry Bohlen, what are your concerns about GM food?

LARRY BOHLEN, FRIENDS OF THE EARTH: Well, Zain, Friends of the Earth sees this whole issue as a simple matter of right and wrong.

It's right for the United States to help starving people, but it's wrong to say that you have a choice between genetically engineered crops and starvation. There are more choices than that.

There are millions of bushels of non-engineered corn available on commercial markets today, including in the United States. We know this, because the major producers of taco shells, corn chips and tortillas, for two years have been using non-engineered corn in large quantities because of the massive contamination of the United States food supply by StarLink, the engineered corn not approved for human consumption.

VERJEE: But can you understand and appreciate the positive sides of genetically modified foods?

BOHLEN: There's been promises made, but also promises broken. The most prevalent genetically engineered crop, soybeans, actually produces lower yields per acre and results in higher pesticide use, not lower use.

So it's very important to look at the downsides as well as potential upsides.

I think it's also very important to look at the legitimate concerns that Zambia and peoples around the world have about the safety of these crops. It's very hard to understand, when major scientific bodies are saying more safety testing needs to be done -- it's hard to understand how the Bush administration can say these crops appear to be safe.

VERJEE: Robert Watson, give us some examples here, so it puts this into perspective for us. In which countries has the implementation of GM foods, GM crops, been successful?

WATSON: It depends what you mean by successful. GM crops are used very, very heavily in the United States. Not so much in Europe. There is definitely an aversion to eating GM crops in Europe.

There are a number of developing countries that clearly are experimenting with GM crops and are seeing this as one potential way forward.

What we need to do is to evaluate, how can we feed the world and how can we stimulate economic growth, especially in African countries, and improve the livelihoods of the rural poor. And so what the bank is proposing is we need to do a very broad assessment that looks at traditional plant breeding, organic farming, as well as all forms of biotechnology, so that we can assess what is known, what is not known.

A careful assessment of the benefits of all of these technologies, and the potential risks of all of these technologies, so that individual consumers, as well as individual nations, can make decisions of whether they believe that GM crops are or are not appropriate for them.

VERJEE: Larry.

BOHLEN: Zain, can I say.


BOHLEN: That's why it's a terrible shame for the United States to be saying that starving people have to take genetically engineered crops now when, as Mr. Watson put out, there's so many questions remaining about these crops.

One of the most important unresolved issues is a concern raised by scientific advisors to the United States EPA. They've said that the bacterial toxin put into most forms of engineered corn may be a human allergen, and there are dozens of reports of severe life-threatening allergic reactions to corn products in the United States that have not been adequately investigated.

The concerns by people around the world are real.

VERJEE: Robert Watson.

WATSON: Basically, what we're arguing from a World Bank perspective is, we need to assess the information. We understand that in some countries, genetically modified crops have been readily acceptable, i.e. the United States. We also understand that they actually have been largely rejected by the consumer, both for concerns on human health as well as concerns of environmental damage.

What we're arguing is, let's try to get past the potential ideology and use the best scientific knowledge, both here in the United States, in Europe, and throughout the world, to try and assess to what degree are there appropriate ways to use all forms of technology, whether they be old traditional plant breeding, or some other more modern forms of biotechnology, so that people will.

VERJEE: Robert -- I'm sorry. I just wanted to put forward, Robert, one argument that is often used when people say that, look, if we don't use genetically modified foods, we were going to run out of places of farm, and we won't be able to feed people. Do you think that that argument has credibility?

WATSON: Well, today there's plenty of food in the world. It's access to food by the rural poor, especially in Africa, some parts of Asia, Latin America.

There is also no doubt that over the next 20 to 40 years, we'll have to double food production. We have to ask ourselves, is there anymore land that we can farm without destroying some of the really precious biodiversity that we've got, and that's one of the real challenges.

How do we double food production in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner? There isn't very much more land. We've got to be very careful that many of the irrigation practices that we use today are leading to salinization of soils and land degradation. So this is the challenge.

And what we have to ask ourselves is, what is the appropriate role that can be safe, both environmentally and socially sound, of all forms of technology, including biotechnology. So, his is really the reason that we want to do this study, is how will we feed the world in the future, when we've got 2 or 3 billion more people that are also wealthier, and they'll probably demand different types of food.

VERJEE: Larry Bohlen, in the moments that we have left, I'll give you the final word.

BOHLEN: I think this is a reasonable approach, but peoples in developing countries are concerned that the sustainable agriculture solutions not be owned by companies like Monsanto, the same companies that brought the world the most toxic chemicals ever known to humankind, like PCBs, DDT, and Agent Orange. They want sustainable solutions, not crops that are genetically engineered, where they don't have control over their own destinies.

VERJEE: Larry Bohlen, with Friends of the Earth, Robert Watson, the chief scientist of the World Bank, both of you speaking to me from Washington, thank you so much -- appreciate it.

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