No GM on menu at food summit

At the World Summit on Food Security in Rome last week, hosted by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, global leaders, not surprisingly, called for additional aid to improve farming systems and help in mitigating the effects of climate change to solve the world's food crisis. But among all the speeches and discussions, one issue was noticeably absent from the meeting's agenda: genetically modified crops. Image: Flickr/expatwelsh "The FAO appeared eager to avoid any controversy at last we

By | November 24, 2009

At the World Summit on Food Security in Rome last week, hosted by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, global leaders, not surprisingly, called for additional aid to improve farming systems and help in mitigating the effects of climate change to solve the world's food crisis. But among all the speeches and discussions, one issue was noticeably absent from the meeting's agenda: genetically modified crops.
Image: Flickr/expatwelsh
"The FAO appeared eager to avoid any controversy at last week's summit," said linkurl:Robert Paarlberg,;http://www.wellesley.edu/PublicAffairs/Profile/mr/rpaarlberg.html a political scientist at Harvard University and author of the book, Starved for Science: How biotechnology is being kept out of Africa. "They wanted to convey an image of consensus, so they pushed increased aid levels as an alternative to short-term food aid solutions... while this is a worthy theme to push, technology also needs to be part of this plan." An estimated 1 billion people are currently starving, and GM proponents have suggested that biotechnology, with its promise of higher yields and enhanced nutritional value, could help mitigate this crisis. But the FAO has cautiously avoided discussing GM crops since the massive backlash to their 2004 State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) report, in which they announced their support of biotechnology as a solution to food insecurity, said Paarlberg. In response to the report, more than 800 individuals from hundreds of non-governmental groups wrote a linkurl:letter;http://www.grain.org/front_files/fao-open-letter-june-2004-final-en.pdf to FAO's director general, Jacques Diouf, expressing their "outrage and disagreement" with the organization's stance on agricultural biotechnology, arguing instead that a more sustainable, organic farming system is the way to improve food security. While many food and policy experts agree agro-ecological farming systems are useful tools in achieving sustainable food security, most still say strategies should incorporate GM crops, particularly if countries plan to meet the 2015 deadlines for the Millennium Development Goals, which include cutting starvation in half. Several African countries, such as South Africa and Kenya, have adopted agricultural biotech strategies to boost both their farming and science economies. But the complete disregard of the issue in Rome last week has some wondering what it will take to persuade still-hesitant heads of state of the benefits of GM crops. "Genetic modification in crops and other organisms will be indispensable tools to address the increasing needs for food security in developed and developing countries," said linkurl:Jose Falck-Zepeda,;http://www.ifpri.org/staffprofile/jose-falck-zepeda a biosafety policy leader for the International Food Policy Research Institute. "I find the lack of specifics -- targets and deadlines, funding amounts, technologies -- [in the meeting's linkurl:declaration];http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/Summit/Docs/Final_Declaration/WSFS09_Declaration.pdf troublesome, but not surprising. I don't think many countries are politically ready to make the jump in order to broaden the range of technologies."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Where's the super food?;http://www.the-scientist.com/2009/09/1/30/1/
[1st September 2009]*linkurl:Critics decry GM rule in Iraq;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/20051130/01/
[30th November 2005]*linkurl:Genetically modified crops;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/14424/
[16th February 2004]
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Comments

Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 8

November 24, 2009

"But the complete disregard of the issue in Rome last week has some wondering what it will take to persuade still-hesitant heads of state of the benefits of GM crops."\n\nThe answer is simple, yet impractical: remove patent-related restrictions. Allow farmers to save seed and replant year after year without paying money to the companies that developed the crops. Of course, that removes the primary incentive for companies to develop these crops in the first place.\n\nSo round and round we go. The anti-GM folks will be largely silenced if IP restrictions are removed. Not to say there aren't actual issues with GM crops (ie, open-pollinated plants or "roundup-ready" modifications), but much of the resistance to their widespread adoption is related to money.\n\nIf "feeding the world" is the priority, why aren't we massively funding IP-free GM food crops with public money instead of having private for-profit corporations doing it? I'm very enthusiastic about the potential of biotech to help with global hunger, but the seeds will have to be freely available to farmers for real change to begin.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

November 24, 2009

We hear a lot of hype about the potential of biotech to improve nutritional quality and increase yields of food crops, but what evidence do we have that this is true? To date, the most common use of biotech is to create herbicide-resistant crops. This is only indirectly related to increasing yield and is not related to nutritional quality. We need proof of concept in the U.S. before we push biotech as the answer to food problems in the developing world. At least the sustainable ag people can deal with problems now.\n\nPeg
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 6

November 24, 2009

Once we see the consequence, rich countries would not work on it. They are more concerned to protect their IPs.\nHow long has it been for golden rice getting onto the field?\nDo we need to learn more lessons?\nIt's hard to believe that people in poor countries are starving and suffer from malnutrition.\nPublic is not educated enough to know what GMOs are.\nThat's a part of scientists' fault as well as politicians involved in science policies, etc.\n

November 24, 2009

While I agree with the arguments of "Anonymous" on the obstacle created by IP rights and the theoretical benefits of GM crops, I would like to stress that neither conditions would be sufficient to solve the hunger problem. \n\nThe hunger problem is not a technical one: it is almost entirely dependent on bad politics and bad governance. No amount of "green revolution" will compensate for corruption, bribery, lack of education, civilian unrest, war, insecurity, lack of storage infrastructures, agricultural subsidies in the developped countries and the like.\n\nThe way food security is seen by biotech is similar to the way biotech medicine sees an illness: it tries to fix it with it's own tool. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But hunger is not caused by a lack of appropriate crops, so it cannot be solved by a new one. \n\nHealthcare plays a minute role in keeping people healthy: it's the personal and social determinants upstream that play the major role. The role that the agro-biotech could play to solve the "hunger problem" is also minute. \n\nThe article doesn't frame correctly the problem. It perpetuates a mistake.
Avatar of: Tony B. Rich

Tony B. Rich

Posts: 2

November 24, 2009

We know, from European studies, that GMO food crops do two things: 1) Rats fed a diet of GMO products grow livers, kidneys and spleens THREE TIMES their normal size and 2) GMO crops in their 3rd and subsequent years yield LESS than organic or standard agricultural crops.\n\nWhy would countries who have not succumbed to the practices of predatory capitalism allow GMO products into their countries? Especially those countries who have healthcare for every citizen? Why would they want toxic food which cause disease, and why would they wish to DECREASE their farming yields three years after they institute a GMO plan?\n\nPretty easy stuff to figure out.\n
Avatar of: Jan Braakman

Jan Braakman

Posts: 1

November 25, 2009

I read in the declaration: "We will seek to mobilize the resources needed to increase productivity, including the review, approval and adoption of biotechnology and other new technologies and innovations that are safe, effective and environmentally sustainable."\nSo who says GM is not on the menu? Maybe not the main course, but certainly a side dish.
Avatar of: Janet Texas

Janet Texas

Posts: 1

November 25, 2009

The GM proponents who have suggested that biotechnology, with its promise of higher yields and enhanced nutritional value, could help mitigate this crisis are the agro-chemical companies who own the patents and sell the seeds and chemical herbicides/pesticides/fertilizers needed to grow them. Other than research done or funded by these gene giant corporations there is no evidence that GM crops have either higher yields or enhanced nutritional value.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

November 25, 2009

I agree with the other commentators here that monetary and political motivations are driving most of the debate while the principles pretend that they don't exist. \n\nWhat's needed is an panel of independent science experts (with no dogs in the fight) with publicly stated (debatable) criteria for judging the appropriateness of specific crops for specific fields. The criteria may be complicated, but that is the nature of the problem. Embedded into those criteria could be restrictions on over-reaching limitations of some current property rights. If the criteria were public in advance, big-agra would know where not to go in terms of R&D. I believe that genetic science is moving along well enough that the need for granting excessive IP rights is not necessary for dedicated scientists in public institutions of learning to move the science along without guarantees of regal (v. reasonable) rewards.

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