ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
22 January 2003


some interesting discussion has been going on on the BBC's science message board. Biotechnologist Denis Murphy's comments (item 2) come from there

1.EU commissioner slams US biotech/food aid claims
2.Denis Murphy on the value of GM crops in the south


1.EU/USA: EU commissioner slams US biotech/food aid claims

21 Jan 2003

The EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy has denied US accusations that several European countries were making economic aid to developing countries contingent on whether they prohibit biotech crops, calling the accusations "immoral".

Earlier this month, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick launched a scathing attack on the EU for what he called its "luddite" and "immoral" moratorium on genetically modified crops. He also threatened to file a complaint with the WTO against the EU, as well as alleging links between the use of biotech crops and the EU's granting of aid.

Lamy denied that there was any such link: "The fact that (Zoellick) made this link is very simply immoral," he was quoted by Dow Jones International News as saying. "Using the starvation in some countries to accuse the EU of being luddite is purely and simply unacceptable."

Lamy then launched a counter attack, accusing the US of using its foreign aid programme as a means to "dispose of its genetically modified crop surpluses."

"The simple solution is for the US to behave as a real aid donor," he said.

The commissioner said that by contrast the EU buys its food aid from the region it is trying to help, and leaves the decision on whether that will include or exclude biotech crops to the recipient country.

"If a country wants genetically modified organisms, it can buy genetically modified organisms," Lamy said.

The EU has come under fire from the US over its biotech policy after Zambia refused to accept the US's GM food aid. The famished African country refused to accept aid that may have included genetically modified crops due to fears the crops may contaminate its non-GM crops and thereby jeopardise exports to areas such as the EU.

*** Seeds of Trouble III denis murphy - 4th post - 22 Jan 2003

As a researcher and advisor in agbiotech, I believe that GM crops have the potential to contribute to sustainable agriculture in the longer term. But I am less convinced about their role as panaceas to many of the immediate challenges faced by agriculture in developing countries.

One of the issues that I have advised on is how do deploy relatively scarce 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 supplies expanding markets from Europe to China & 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 & tissue culture. 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 be different. Throughout Southern Africa, there are huge exports of horticultural crops, especially to Europe. Zambia alone exported $63 million worth of horticultural products in 1999-2000. A substantial proportion of these crops is designated organic by the European supermarkets that buy them. This is one of the factors behind the reluctance of such countries to accept GM food aid from the US - lest it jeopardise their organic status and lose export earnings. Even if it were practical, 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.

In summary:
*There is still a great dearth of basic knowledge of the agronomy, physiology & genetics of many major crops in developing countries. More breeders & 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, developing countries will need to deploy the full range of modern agbiotech methods and should therefore foster a modest effort in fundamental R&D in this area.

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