TCS Daily

Coalition of the Tilling

By Waldemar Ingdahl - May 14, 2003 12:00 AM

European debates on the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO) and their use in agriculture tend to become rather predictable, considering that most of the pro and con arguments are fairly well known and the opposing sides are firmly entrenched. So it is good sometimes to get out of those trenches, and re-connect with the real issues at stake. Now that the US and several other nations have decided to lodge a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization against the EU moratorium on GM crop approvals, the issue is sure to become even more emotional and politically charged.

At a recent seminar in Stockholm sponsored by the Eudoxa think tank, participants attempted to break the mold of the debate. Participants tried to recapitulate where science is at present, what options there are for GMO crops now and in the future, and what can be achieved with a positive agenda in developing countries, where GM crops can prove especially beneficial.

The GMO issue is a rather complex one in which science, economics and politics often blend, so we invited speakers from three different fields: genetics, politics, and the role of developing countries in GMO issues.

Christer Jansson, professor of plant genetics at the Swedish Agriculture University at Uppsala, pointed out that conventional crops are also the product of quite extensive tampering, just over a longer time span than GM crops. Pre-Columbian Indians bred maize from inedible teocinte grass over centuries. Wild cabbage has been bred so extensively that it has given us broccoli and cauliflower (actually, cauliflower is a cancerous mutation of wild cabbage). Thus conventional breeding is also a very powerful method of changing nature, with a wide variety of risks that should be accounted for, and not the simple choice between GM/conventional breeding that Greenpeace posits. The improvement in modern biotech agriculture over what farmers have been doing for centuries is that now we know what genes we are affecting.

The first generation of GM plants encountered resistance since it did not offer any immediately apparent benefits to consumers. The increased tolerance towards biotic and abiotic stress has mainly been beneficial to farmers in producing virus-resistant papaya, herbicide-resistant crops, drought-resistant cotton, and salt-resistant tomato plants that store excess salt in their leaves.

The second generation has been about getting bigger and better harvests. This is vital especially to poor countries trying to feed their growing populations on less arable land. GM plants are not the only solution to world hunger, Professor Jansson pointed out, but they are an important part of one, particularly since the second generation also offers the benefits of functional food. Biofortification, such as with vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice, could solve many problems of malnutrition.

The third generation could be the real GM revolution, eclipsing the effects of the previous generations. Plant production of non-food applications gives value to farmers immediately, and is especially beneficial to farmers in poor countries. Plant-derived renewables like bioplastics are degradable and cheap. Plant production of edible vaccines, antibodies and blood proteins could solve medical problems.

Ewa Bjorling, Member of the Swedish Parliament and professor of microbiology at The Karolinska Institute, discussed the politics of GMO. Views, obviously, are divided. Biotechnology's benefits to development issues are recognized, and the UN sees it as an important player in fulfilling the Millennium Goals of halving world poverty before the year 2015 and reversing the spread of diseases like HIV and malaria. But trade issues and concerns of ensuring environmental sustainability often block initiatives on GMO, and many poor countries feel that the use of GM plants is being forced upon them. Thus Bjorling stressed the importance of not solving GMO questions bilaterally (as has often been done) but through the UNDP.

Anil Trigunayat, commercial counsellor at the Indian embassy in Stockholm, discussed India's rapidly expanding biotechnology industry. India has a long experience of biotechnology since the Green revolution of high yield crops in the 1960s. Today, India is a net exporter of wheat, rice and sugar; but with a growing population and less arable land, biotechnology is necessary to further improve Indian agriculture.

There are now about 150 biotechnology companies in India, of which 75 percent have been founded during the last five years. India's biotechnology companies make yearly revenues of $150 million, of which $60 million are export revenues. This has been achieved with a modest venture capital funding of $20 million, and together with India's edge in bioinformatics and more than 1,500 PhDs in biosciences, the potential for a globally competitive industry is certainly there.

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