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Biotechnology and genetically modified organisms 

Christian Aid International Policy Briefing Jan00

Policy Briefings offer succinct summaries of important current policy issues relevant to the work of Christian Aid and its partners. They also offer a position on the issue and are designed to both inform and provoke discussion. They are produced by the International Policy Team. Contact details for further information may be found at the end of the briefing. http://www.christian-aid.org.uk 

Policy Briefing/Position Paper

This paper was originally written to support Selling Suicide - farming, false promises and genetic engineering in developing countries by Andrew Simms, a report published for Christian Aid Week, May 1999.

Biotechnology and Genetically Modified Organisms.

1. What is biotechnology?

Biotechnology refers to a range of engineering technologies concerned with the manipulation of biological material and organisms. However, the terms biotechnology, genetic engineering and genetic modification are all commonly used to refer to the artificial insertion of genes from one organism into another, resulting in the creation of a transgenic or genetically modified organism (GMO). The technology allows a selected characteristic or trait of one organism to be added to another - the toxin-producing trait of a bacteria, for example, to be given to a crop plant in order to deter insect pests.

Genetic engineering is a significant change from past methods of developing crop types which were based on crossing and selecting from existing and usually related organisms. The new technology enables totally novel combinations of genes, often from unrelated organisms, and therefore totally new combinations of characteristics.

In theory biotechnology could be of significant benefit to farmers, including to small and marginal farmers in the developing world. Apart from resistance to insect pests (thus reducing pesticide costs), it could create drought resistant crop varieties which would therefore not require the expense of irrigation, for example, or varieties which would grow in saline and other poor soils. However, in practice there are significant concerns about the risks involved in using GMOs in general and about its effects on small farmers in particular. There are also concerns about about ownership and control of the technology.

2. Concerns about biotechnology

There is widespread concern that, despite the benefits promised by the companies which are promoting biotechnology, including the claim that GMOs will be necessary to feed the world, there could be major harmful effects, particularly on the environment and on health.

The planting of large areas of pest-resistant crops, for example, might quickly lead, through the normal processes of evolutionary selection, to a new variety of "super-bugs" which are themselves resistant to the toxins added to the crop. Or, the genes which have been added to some crop plants to make them immune to the effects of particular herbicides might, through natural processes, end up in related wild plants, creating "superweeds", leading to the use of more and more harmful herbicides. There are also concerns about the effects of the particular herbicides on soil organisms, about which little research has been done.

While field trails are going on in the UK, for example, to test these possibilities - and even these trials are controversial - GM crops have already been commercially cultivated on a large scale in the US.

Furthermore, GM crops have already entered the global food chain, particularly in the case of US soya. Meanwhile, the necessary tests to discover whether or not GM foods may have harmful effects on health - through containing allergens or new toxins for example - have hardly been done.

There is also increasing concern at the degree of ownership and control over the whole food chain that is being rapidly built up across the globe by a mere handful of large corporations.

3. Christian Aid’s concerns about biotechnology

Christian Aid’s concern is with the implications and effects of biotechnology on developing countries, and on small farmers and the poor in those countries in particular. Our view is that, taken together, the possible environmental effects and the concentration of commercial control add up to a major threat to developing countries’ food security and to the sustainability of poor farmers’ livelihoods.

Christian Aid believes:

GM crops are largely irrelevant to ending hunger, and may even contribute to both hunger and poverty

too much power over the world’s food is ending up in too few hands

too little is being done to help small farmers to grow food in sustainable ways

4. Biotechnology, hunger and poverty

Biotechnology companies are of course driven by commercial interest. They are not motivated by a concern to "feed the world" or to alleviate hunger. In fact their commercial interests are often against the interests of those who are involved in food production, particularly small farmers in developing countries, and of food consumers, particularly the poor:

the major commercial GM crops so far have been soya, maize, cotton and tobacco. Tobacco, of course is not a food crop. Nor is cotton itself, although its seeds are used for animal feed. Soya and maize are grown (in the US and soon in Brazil) largely to feed animals. That is, they are aimed at developed country markets where people eat large amounts of meat. The soya which does go directly for human food goes largely into processed foods, again aimed at developed commercial markets, not at alleviating hunger.

A great deal of biotech research has been about meeting the needs of food processors and retailers in developed country markets - Flavr-Savr tomatoes, for example, bred for a longer shelf life (though now used for tomato purees). Other research is aimed at producing substitutes for tropical products, such as sugar or some vegetable oils, which can be grown instead in the north. Developing country farmers and economies will be undermined.

"terminator technology" or "the suicide seed" : although not yet commercially available, and although Monsanto have promised not to develop their terminator technology commercially, at least for the present, the top biotech corporations have each developed, or bought in, systems which prevent seeds saved from a farmer’s crop from germinating when planted. The prime purpose of this technology is royalty or profit protection, not food production. It will prevent farmers from saving seed for their next planting and force them to buy new seeds each year or to buy the proprietary chemicals needed to make the seeds germinate. Monsanto has already displayed a heavy hand in enforcing its rights over existing crop varieties in the US, prosecuting farmers who save their seed. Terminator technology would ensure compliance, not only in the US but also in the potentially enormous markets of India and elsewhere in the south where traditionally seed saving, especially among small farmers with limited funds, is the norm.

loss of agricultural biodiversity - farming based on GM crops threatens the world’s genetic storehouse on which we all depend. We have already lost at least three quarters of the world’s food plant varieties, mostly due to modern commercial and industrial farming - the Green Revolution - which promotes only a limited number of varieties over large areas. GM technology is set to continue this process and even intensify it, displacing still further traditional varieties which have been bred and selected by local farmers to suit local conditions. Furthermore, engineered immunity to proprietary herbicides threatens the elimination of other plants from farmers’ fields. The livelihoods of millions of small farmers and others who customarily plant a range of varieties as insurance against crop failure, or who make use of intercropping techniques, or harvest wild plants and animals growing among their crops, will be threatened.

India and Brazil, home to enormous numbers of poor farmers and others dependent on small scale agriculture, are major biotech industry targets. They also contain among the largest ranges of crop and other biodiversity. They are also in the top ten of countries with the highest number of crop varieties and other plants threatened with extinction.

Lessons from the Green Revolution - the loss of crop varieties has been only one effect of the green revolution:

the green revolution concentrated on wheat and rice, ignoring the traditional crops and staples of resource poor farmers such as sorghum, millet and beans. Biotechnology is already doing the same, concentrating so far on commercial crops like soya, cotton and tobacco.

hybrid seeds and the need for accompanying fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides could only be afforded by bigger farmers, who got bigger at the expense of poor farmers driven in to debt and unable to compete. The new technology, especially if it remains in the hands of corporate interests, continues the reliance on costly external inputs and will still further concentrate ownership of land and resources and widen the gap between rich and poor.

the application of artificial fertilizers and other chemicals has led to degraded soils, falling yields and to pest resistance. GM crops so far rely on essentially the same chemical approach. Artificial fertilizers continue to be used; pests are likely to become resistant to genetically introduced toxins (with the risk of creating "superbugs"); soil ecology is likely to be damaged.

while the green revolution increased food production - at least for a time - it did much less to eliminate poverty and hunger. In fact while the rate of food production increased faster than population, so did the numbers of people going hungry. The poor have been unable to buy the food that was produced. GM technology does not address this fundamental issue of inequality of access.

it has also been found repeatedly that, compared to large scale and high input agriculture, small farmers are more productive per unit of land, farm in more environmentally sustainable ways and are better guarantors of local food security and of the local economy generally through providing employment. (In India Monsanto have promoted their herbicide Roundup - a key part of their GM package - partly on the grounds that it will reduce costs by reducing the need for labour. That is, instead of income going to local people for weeding the fields wealth will instead flow out to the corporation). Already modern agricultural technology has led to the loss of large amounts of local knowledge which has been essential to the sustainable livelihoods of resource poor farmers.

in summary, GM technology, especially in the hands of corporate interests, threatens a continuation of an environmentally and socially unsustainable approach to agriculture and to the food security of poor rural communities.

The real causes of hunger

"Even though global food output is adequate to feed the entire world’s population, 800 million people are going hungry because they cannot afford to buy the food they or their families need", James Wolfensohn, World Bank President.

There is no shortage of food in the world. Hunger is the result of poverty - not having the land on which to grow food or not being able to afford to buy food. It is also the result of the fact that markets serve those who can pay, not those who cannot. Not only does biotechnology fail to concern itself with these underlying political and economic causes of hunger, like the green revolution before it, it threatens to further strengthen these causes by increasing landlessness, underemployment and unemployment, and therefore further diminish food security for the poor.

5. Control

"What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it's really the consolidation of the entire food chain" , a Monsanto executive.

A reckless concentration of ownership is taking place over how the world feeds itself, leaving the poor more vulnerable. No effective means exist to control emerging international corporations with near monopoly power. The corporations concerned are well established agro-chemical giants that have or are becoming still larger through mergers or acquisitions. US based Monsanto, for example, the most vocal of the biotech corporations, spent $8 billion buying seed and biotechnology companies from 1996 to 1998 alone. The recently merged Astra Zeneca, the former British and the latter Swedish, has now joined with Swiss based Novartis (itself a merger of the former Ciba and Sandoz companies) to form Syngenta, thus consolidating the biotech industry still further into fewer corporate hands. Syngenta will be the world’s largest agrochemical company, commanding 24% of the global market, and the world’s third largest supplier of seeds. A handful of agrochemical companies now control 85% of the global agrochemical market and almost the entire global transgenic seed market.

The biotech corporations have been spending vast amounts on promoting and lobbying for acceptance of their technologies, directed at the public as well as at governments, in both the north and the south. Although there has been strong resistance in the UK and Europe, and in India and elsewhere in the developing world, they also have powerful support in many countries, especially in the US. They hold out a promise of economic success which their home country governments find difficult to risk damaging.

Current international trade disputes - over bananas, for example, or over GM growth hormone for cattle - suggests how these corporations could succeed in getting GM crops introduced into poor countries. They could use their power and influence to get international trade rules applied to force countries to accept GM crops and food, overriding their right to choose. The requirement from the WTO for countries of the south to adopt patent systems which would protect the rights of foreign companies over biotech and other products is still being pushed, despite the opposition of many developing countries.

Farmers in these countries, meanwhile, will be subject to heavy and persuasive marketing techniques as they have been with the green revolution - free samples, guaranteed inputs, cheap credit, promises of higher yields, for example (or even an invitation to a Monsanto golf tournament!). With government agricultural extension services - where they exist - pushing the same technology, the biotech corporations will have a more or less clear field.

As with the green revolution, but even more so, farmers and whole countries will become increasingly dependent on the corporations. Choice will be increasingly restricted. The corporations will be able to control the agricultural and food system in their own interests.

Biotechnology companies - backed by the US government - are attempting to gain increased legal rights over living things, at the expense of poor countries, communities and farmers. The Convention on Biodiversity signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 by 170 countries - but not ratified by the US - and the FAO Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, seek to protect the rights of countries and farmers over their genetic resources. Meanwhile, the WTO’s rules on Trade Related Intellectual Property (TRIPS) require that all countries have uniform patent laws in place by the end of 1999. The corporations and the US government are pressing hard for these laws to follow the US model which allows the patenting of life forms.

The ability to patent life forms is a precondition for the growth of the commercial biotechnology industry. Without the ability to "enclose the genetic commons" corporations cannot ensure a profit. However, this puts private, commercial interests and rights above those of the public and works against cooperative, indigenous farming systems based on seed saving and sharing generally. The fact that a great deal of biotech property is based on genes and on traditional knowledge and products from the south is also largely ignored. Many instances of bio-piracy have already occurred where northern corporations have patented life forms or products which they have simply taken from developing countries without payment - patents on neem tree and turmeric products, for example, which have always been known to and used by Indian communities, or even on a new strain of basmati rice, India’s traditional top quality variety.

In response to the above, attempts continue to establish a strong Biosafety Protocol which would provide a counterbalance to the rights of corporations by excluding patents, increasing protection for biodiversity, and respecting small farmers’ and developing countries’ rights over their genetic resources and rewarding communities for their role in conserving genetic resources. The US led Miami group of food exporting nations has argued that trade rules should take priority over any Biosafety Protocol and have so far succeed in preventing agreement. However, it is crucial to developing countries and poor communities that their rights are secured, to prevent biopiracy, to allow choice about private versus public rights and to retain control over agriculture and food.

6. Alternatives

Biotechnology and GM crops are taking us down a dangerous road, creating the classic conditions for hunger, poverty and even famine. Ownership and control concentrated in too few hands and a food supply based on too few varieties of crops planted widely are the worst option for food security. The new technology does not address the growing gap between rich and poor and is in fact likely to increase poverty.

Research efforts in agriculture and food production have been almost entirely directed at high tech solution - first the green revolution , now biotechnology and GMOs. However, there are now a growing number of farmers and researchers exploring alternative and sustainable approaches, partly based on traditional knowledge and practices, but also involving new methods, such as Integrated Pest Management. They tend to avoid or be far less reliant on chemicals, to involve multiple rather than mono-cropping, to enhance rather than deplete soil fertility and to reduce dependency on external inputs and commercial interests. They are still only a small part of agricultural production as a whole, but small farmers in India, for example, are abandoning failed green revolution technology for these sustainable alternatives, and organic produce is of course finding a rapidly expanding place in northern markets. Many Christian Aid partners are involved in promoting these alternatives, and some are also enhancing local food security and crop biodiversity through establishing village seed banks.

7. Conclusions/recommendations

Christian Aid has signed up to the call for a five year freeze on the commercial applications of GM technology in the food system. Scientific, environmental, economic and social uncertainty about the impact of GM crops, and the absence of appropriate regulation, means that the precautionary principle should be applied

appropriate anti-monopoly and regulatory action must be taken to prevent the world’s food supply falling under corporate control. No effective international mechanisms exist at present. Future global trade talks should tackle this issue urgently

a strong biosafety protocol is needed to create a framework to contain problems with trade in GMOs and related products which would allow developing countries to choose what to accept or reject, and what should be public as opposed to private rights. This must include the right to reject patents on living things. Trade rules should not contradict agreements aimed at protecting biodiversity and the rights of small farmers and developing countries. The right to food security, particularly for the poor, should be paramount

public investment and aid should be redirected towards research into and the promotion of sustainable alternatives for agriculture and food production, and particularly towards alternatives which meet the needs of the poor.

Kevan Bundell - International Policy Team (kbundell@christian-aid.org)

source: http://www.christian-aid.org.uk/indepth/0001biot/biotech.htm 6feb02

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