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Cablegate: Recent Conference On Biotechnology in Agriculture:

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

061030Z Sep 05




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. SUMMARY: The U.S. Embassy and the Bangladesh Agricultural
Research Council (BARC) held a successful conference on
biotechnology in agriculture on August 24 in Dhaka. The
conference targeted public and private sector opinion makers,
researchers, government officials, and end-users in a
position to influence the country's approach to agricultural
biotechnology. Speakers from the U.S. and Bangladesh
explored the myths and realities surrounding agricultural
biotechnology, providing participants with factual
information to use when discussing these issues. An
additional evening session on media communications was also
extremely popular and well received. Media coverage of the
events was balanced and fair. Post extends its appreciation
to EB and IIP for their assistance in organizing and funding
this conference. END SUMMARY.


2. The purpose of the conference was to highlight and correct
common areas of misperception about biotechnology and the
safety of genetically modified organisms in food and in the
environment. Over 150 government officials, academics, NGO
representatives and members of the private sector attended
the one-day event.

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3. American speakers Nina V. Fedoroff and Channapatna S.
Prakash spoke, along with Bangladeshi counterparts Emdadul
Haque Chowdhury and Md. Abdur Razzaque, spoke on the myths
and realities surrounding biotechnology in agriculture. Drs.
Fedoroff and Chowdhury concentrated their lectures on food
safety while Drs. Prakash and Razzaque focused on
environmental issues. Three BDG Ministers (Agriculture;
Environment; and Science, Information and Communication
Technology), the Executive Chairman of the BARC, Chad Russell
of USDA New Delhi and our Economic Chief, David Renz,
addressed the opening session.

4. The speakers traced the history of traditional plant
breeding practices and argued that biotechnology was an
extension of these practices. They noted that additional
testing and safety protocols associated with bioengineered
crops produced safer plant varieties. They discussed the
benefits of bioengineered crops, including enhanced yields
and reduced pesticide use, and safety issues. The speakers
also explored some of the emotional and scientific objections
raised against such crops. Finally, they touched on barriers
to agricultural biotechnology, including regulatory and trade
barriers, intellectual property rights issues, and the impact
of media hype and misinformation on public perceptions.

5. Participant questions and comments following each lecture
were balanced and thoughtful, and addressed both the benefits
of and concerns about agricultural biotechnology. A common
theme was the loss of biodiversity and the health impacts of
eating bioengineered crops. In response, the speakers
defended their research; discussed safety and testing
protocols; explained the impossibility of a vitamin A
overdose from Golden Rice as the rice contains only a
precursor molecule, which the body converts on an as-needed
basis, not actual vitamin A; and noted the long-term use of
bioengineered foods in the United States and other countries
without adverse affects.

6. Two invited NGO members of the staunchly anti-biotech
community in Bangladesh (UBINIG and CAB, Consumers
Association of Bangladesh) chose not to participate in the
conference, instead distributing "No GMO" leaflets in the
lobby outside the event. Their protest had no discernable
impact on the conference.

7. After the conference, several NGO representatives
approached EconOff and stated that they felt much more
positive about biotechnology than they had previously felt.
Others, including an editor of The New Nation, commented
later that the conference was focused and useful. FSN
Embassy personnel seated in the audience said that those
seated around them were generally making positive comments
about the material presented and its contribution to their
understanding of the issue.


8. A special evening seminar at BARC's offices focused on
risk communication and techniques for effective media
interaction. The session drew a capacity crowd of about 50
researchers and academics, many of whom are often interviewed
by the press. In his presentation, Dr. T. Clint Nesbitt
covered the need for honesty in communicating through the
media to the public about situations that they percieve as
being risky. He cautioned the assemblage not to discount
public concerns or to dismiss them as overly emotional or
foolish. Instead, he explained that the public will be far
more likely to accept a change in any element of their lives
if they are given complete information and the capacity to
make their own choices.

9. In the discussion that followed, participants described
the challenges they face in dealing with the local media,
which they criticized as sensationalist and lacking in
journalistic ethics. Dr. Nesbitt worked with his audience on
how to initiate stories, how to deal with a cold call from a
reporter and how to tell a journalist "I don't know" without
subsequently getting lambasted in the press. Participants
said they would welcome future workshops on the same topic.


10. Post sponsored an evening press roundtable on August 23
and issued a press release the day after the conference.
Embassy's success in obtaining the participation of three
Ministers in the opening session helped ensure print and
media coverage of the conference, including reports during
the evening television news broadcasts. Participants also
included journalists who cover environment, agriculture and
health issues. In addition to featured coverage in The New
Nation, an English-language daily with respectable
circulation, at least seven other local papers reported on
the conference. Coverage of the event was generally
positive, with almost all papers simply using the United News
of Bangladesh wire service text.

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