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Report Challenges U.N. On Genetic Engineering

Think Tank Report Challenges U.N. On Genetic Engineering

FULL REPORT ON-LINE: "Genetic Engineering of Food Crops for the Third World: An Appropriate Response to Poverty, Hunger and Lagging Productivity?" by Dr. Peter Rosset

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OAKLAND, CA: Comments about genetically engineered (GE) crops expressed in the just-released "Human Development Report 2001", the flagship publication of the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), reveal a shocking lack of understanding of the production problems that must be confronted by poor farmers in marginal environments in the third world, according to a crop science expert at a U.S.-based think tank.

The authors of the U.N. report urged rich countries to put aside their fears of genetically modified organisms and help developing nations unlock the potential of biotechnology. "Biotechnology offers the only or the best 'tool of choice' for marginal ecological zones, left behind by the green revolution but home to more than half the world's poorest people," they said.

The reality of farming in these regions, however, is such that GE crops are likely to do more harm than good, according to a report from a leading food policy think tank, the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First), based in in Oakland, California, USA.

In this report, "Genetic Engineering of Food Crops for the Third World: An Appropriate Response to Poverty, Hunger and Lagging Productivity?," the Institute's co-director and author of the report, Dr. Peter Rosset, argues the approach of genetic engineering, which is to produce single, genetically uniform varieties, ignores the needs of farmers in complex habitats for multiple varieties fine-tuned to local soil and climatic conditions. "Genetically engineering is just not capable of producing what poor farmers need," said Dr. Rosset, an agricultural scientist himself. "Hands-on participatory plant breeding, where farmers themselves take the lead, has been shown to be far more effective in producing the crop varieties needed by poor farmers in marginal environments. Furthermore," he added,"the risks associated with GE crops are likely to impact poor farmers more than rich farmers."

According the Dr. Rosset's report, small and peasant farmers, despite their disadvantaged position in society, are the primary producers of staple foods, accounting for very high percentages of national production in most third world countries.

Their agriculture is complex, diverse and risk prone. This is because they have historically been displaced into marginal zones characterized by broken terrain, slopes, irregular rainfall, little irrigation, and/or low soil fertility; and because they are poor and are victimized by pervasive anti-poor and anti-small farmer biases in national and global economic policies.

In order to survive under such circumstances, and to improve their standard of living, they must be able to tailor agricultural technologies to their variable but unique circumstances, in terms of local climate, topography, soils, biodiversity, cropping systems, market insertion, resources, etc. For this reason such farmers have over millennia evolved complex farming and livelihood systems which balance risks -- of drought, of market failure, of pests, etc. -- with factors such as labor needs versus availability, investment needed, nutritional needs, seasonal variability, etc. Typically their cropping systems involve multiple annual and perennial crops, animals, fodder, even fish, and a variety of foraged wild products. Under such highly varied circumstances, uniform varieties, such as those put forth under the green revolution, or newer GE or 'transgenic' crop varieties, are unlikely to be widely adopted or found useful by many such farmers.

When GE crop varieties, carrying the Bt insecticide gene, for example, are "forced" into such cropping systems, the risks are much greater than in large, wealthy farmer systems, or farming systems in Northern countries. For example, in the Third World there will typically be more sexually compatible wild relatives of crops present, making pollen transfer to weed populations of insecticidal properties, virus resistance, and other genetically engineered traits more likely, with possible food chain and super-weed consequences. Such farmers are unlikely to plant refuges, making resistance evolution by insects more likely. Horizontal transfer of genetic material is also highly risky in such circumstances. The associated risks of super-weeds, new crop varieties, among others, are likely to put the poor in a more precarious position.

Furthermore, the widespread crop failures reported for GE varieties (i.e., stem splitting, boll drop, etc.) pose economic risks which can affect poor farmers much more severely than wealthy farmers. If consumers reject their products, economic risks are equally high. Also, the high costs of GE crops introduce an anti-poor bias.

The risks seem to outweigh the potential benefits for such farmers, especially when we consider the factors that currently limit their ability to improve their livelihoods, and the proven agroecological, participatory and empowering alternatives available to them.

It is not a lack of technology which holds such farmers back, but rather pervasive injustices and inequities in access to resources, including land, credit, market access, etc., and other anti-poor policy biases. Two approaches make the most sense under such conditions: 1) technologies which have pro-poor diseconomies of scale, like agroecological or organic farming practices, and 2) building social movements capable of exerting sufficient political pressure to reverse policy biases. There is little useful role that genetic engineering can play, the report concludes.



"Genetic Engineering of Food Crops for the Third World: An Appropriate Response to Poverty, Hunger and Lagging Productivity?"

by Dr. Peter Rosset

Nick Parker Media Coordinator Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First 398 60th Street, Oakland, CA 94618 USA Phone: (510) 654-4400 (ext. 229) Fax: (510) 654-4551

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