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Going Global by FRAN WILDE, with ecoglobe comments

17 April 2000

Here's a transcript of Mrs Fran Wilde's gene technology infomercial in the NZ National Business Review of 7 April 2000, enhanced with some critical remarks by ecoglobe.

Kind regards ... Helmut Lubbers

"Going Global" by FRAN WILDE

[Transcript from The National Business Review, April 7, 2000, page 4] [ecoglobe's comments within square brackets inserted]

It's no wonder people are confused about gene technology with the plethora of public comment on the issue these days. The challenge for most of us is separating fact from fiction. Mendel's experiments with garden peas 150 years ago laid the foundation for modern biotechnology when he proved that with selective breeding certain traits could be passed on to future generations with predictable results. A century later, the 'Green Revolution' cashed in on this scientific knowledge with hybrid seeds, combining their use with agro-chemicals and new farming methods to dramatically increase yields. But it simply wasn't enough. [ecoglobe: The outcomes of the Green Revolution are debatable. It depends on what is measured. Higher yields in some crops are offset by reduced yields in others, as well as by environmental and social degradation.]

Population growth has outstripped production gains. New ways are needed to combat losses caused by insects, disease or weeds, reduced availability of fresh water and arable land, pollution, storage and transportation loss and general poor food quality - leading to malnutrition for millions.

[ecoglobe: This list of causes for malnutrition must be completed with social causes such as landlessness and poverty. It can be argued that many of these problems are a result of this very Green Revolution.]

Put simply, with no agricultural change during this century the world's rapidly increasing population will need two and a half times the current planet earth to feed itself.

[ecoglobe: At what point in time, at what population size and with what level of welfare? Even IF gene technology would really lead to increased crop output per hectare (without a further degradation of the environment and further decline of biodiversity), (1) who guarantees that the results of gene technology will be able to keep up with the population trends? (2) the higher yields will require higher nutrient inputs, i.e. resources. Two and a half times higher outputs would require two and a half times higher inputs, hence two and a half earths. (3) if we are able to feed all these people in 2050 or a few years later, what then? Resources are running out. The earth is finite. Beyond food people also require clothes, housing, education, work. How many earths will be required for all that? The whole focus on food for the future is incredibly short-sighted and intimately linked to the ideology that we must and can (economically) grow continuously.]

Now scientific research has given us an answer in gene technology but alas, affluent liberals are massing to deny this lifesaver to those in developing countries on the grounds that gene technology is inherently undesirable.

[ecoglobe: It is fiction that gene technology is a "lifesaver". Fact is that gene technology is being developed for the profit of the developers. Nothing against business and profits, but one cannot simply assume that the claimed benefits will ever reach the poor that would need them. Poverty and undernourishment are results of social structures and definitively not of lack of food. The results of gene technology are at least questionable and can certainly not be seen as a lifesaver for the poor.]

You have the luxury of this opinion if you have the privilege of living in an under populated country, but the arguments don't cut much ice for those trying to feed large populations on limited resources.

[ecoglobe: The earth's resources are limited and the rich use up to eighty times more resources per person than the poor. The arguments against gene technology are not mere opinion but well-founded.]

China is a good example - with 7% of the world's arable land supporting 20% of the world's population. The Chinese have approached gene technology methodically and scientifically. They have started to commercialise, with about 400,000 hectares of transgenic crops planted. Within ten years transgenic crops could reach up to 80% of their plantings.

[ecoglobe: With most GE science being practised in the OECD countries one could question why China should serve as an example to prove the case. That country does not have a reputation for allowing free public debate on developments.]

The risks --------- But of course, you say - they don't care about the risk. Well, those cautious Europeans have commented on the Chinese work. An EU scientific delegation visiting China in 1995 to evaluate biosafety gave the programme a tick, with their conclusions reflecting those of the Chinese scientists.

[ecoglobe: Who, where, what and how must be asked. Frankly, this is the first time I have heard that China would be setting the pace and be a benchmark in gene technology and its application in agriculture. Now we do neither live in China, nor in 1995. The year is 2000 and the past two years have seen a flood of scientific warnings and doubts about the wisdom of gene technology and its premature applications in agriculture and foods. The critique is voiced by respectable scientists and normal citizens with sound ecological understanding.]

Risk management is fundamental. If research and subsequent use are prudently supervised, the benefits will be limitless. Currently in the pipeline are plants that are disease resistant, tolerant of heat, cold, salt and water, or containing higher vitamin, protein and mineral content. Scientists are working on edible vaccines for common diseases such as diarrhoea (which takes three million lives a year, many of them children in developing countries) and food containing human antibodies for infectious and auto-immune diseases. Other work covers biodegradable plastics and plants that will clean toxins and heavy metals from the environment.

[ecoglobe: "Limitless benefits" is unlimited hype. The risk of the releases of genetically engineered organisms cannot be managed. Once a genetically engineered plant variety is out there in the fields, no authority can control its spreading and/or interference with existing plants, insects or soil bacteria. The risks are unknown and therefore enormous. None of the above developments are simply "in the pipeline", suggesting that it will all happen. Those benefits are merely cited to promote the industry and they ignore other, environmentally, socially and ethically more benign methods to deal with the problems cited.]

Whilst in New Zealand the challenge is not feeding our people, pharmaceutical and environmental applications would be welcome. In addition, gene technology is an opportunity for us to add huge value to our traditional land based exports.

[ecoglobe: Actually the markets point at the opposite direction. Genetically engineered crops and foods are boycotted and banned in an increasing number of countries. The demand for organic produce is booming. The real opportunity for New Zealand lies in becoming the one and only supplier of GE-free agricultural products for the rest of the world. For once our isolation at the border of the world creates huge opportunities. Genetically engineered crops will forever destroy the chance to enjoy a GE-free status and reap the benefits of this competitive advantage.]

The need for informed debate ---------------------------- The key to acceptance is information. Consumers are rightly demanding to know the facts. They need to have confidence in the safety and integrity of their food.

[ecoglobe: We could not agree more. Unfortunately, the regulatory procedures have been grossly insufficient; the genetically engineered foods being admitted in our country based on assessments by the US Food and Drug Administration and the questionable model of 'substantial equivalence'. The US FDA has come in the limelight of heavy critique because of their flawed methodologies. The claims that genetically engineered foods have been seriously tested are simply wrong. The consumers are the laboratory rabbits. For this reason it's not a matter of creating acceptance. The issue is the lack of serious scientific testing of the safety of genetically engineered foods and crops. Consumers and citizens, all of us, need the certainty that gene technology is not harming and will not harm our health and our environment. That's why the Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering is being formed. That's why we require a moratorium on the field trials of genetically engineered crops and organisms (NOT a moratorium on all gene research, as some ill-informed parliamentarians told the media in their press releases).]

Consumers tend to distrust the motives of business, be cynical of government and misunderstand science, so all these parties must ensure informed debate. Unfortunately, those responsible for releasing the facts have not always behaved admirably witness the mad cow disease debate in Britain.

[ecoglobe: We agree. The Going Global article is a case in point - biased and scientifically shallow and flawed.]

Spending on information has been scant. This must change. We need to distinguish the different issues - ethics, safety, social/cultural needs - and discuss them all. Intellectual property and who will benefit (and profit) from this technology need to be identified and resolved, not confused with the scientific debate on safety.

[ecoglobe: Again, we agree. ecoglobe was the first to organise a major public forum debate in Wellington, a year ago, with a balanced forum of prominent people. Since that date we have not seen unbiased information from the authorities. The ERMA - Te Papa gene workshop of June 1999, as well as the infamous supermarket leaflet distributed by the Groceries Association, were biased and scientifically debatable.]

Of course the critics also have a responsibility to tell the truth - and half-truths have been the hallmark of much of the criticism of gene technology.

[ecoglobe: This is an unqualified discrediting of serious scientific critique. We invite the writer to specify where the critics have been telling half-truths. The GE industry is excelling in hyped-up propaganda.]

But then, if you don't have to worry about where your next meal is coming from, self-indulgence can take many forms!

[ecoglobe: Exactly, Mrs Wilde. Be my guest to discuss the science and its implications over a cup of coffee. It's worth four per cent of the author's weekly income.]

[Byline: Fran Wilde is CEO of Trade New Zealand.] [Logo: TRADE - Trade New Zealand Development Board.]

Helmut E. Lubbers, BE MSocSc DipEcol, trustee

ecoglobe - ecology discovery foundation new zealand (charitable trust) P. O. Box 24184 Wellington tel. 04 - 3843269, fax 04 - 3898922 email: welcome@ecoglobe.org.nz internet: http://www.ecoglobe.org.nz

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