GM crops `will not make poor poorer if people have control'

 

Genetically modified crops will not exacerbate problems of poverty and malnutrition in poor countries. On the contrary, developing countries "have only to gain" from GM crops, according to the director of a UN-backed institute.

Prof Arturo Falaschi, director of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in Trieste, Italy, told The Irish Times: "The poor countries of the world have only to gain by a wise application of genetic engineering to agriculture, provided that they can control the choice of the transgenic plants to be cultivated." Developing countries are already controlling the choice of which transgenic plants are cultivated, particularly in China, he says. "India is also highly interested in this technology and our centre is in close contact with the government for experimenting insect-resistant, virus-resistant and salt-resistant transgenes of rice and cotton."

The ICGEB is an international inter-governmental organisation for research and training in genetic engineering and biotechnology with special regard to the needs of the developing world.

Prof Falaschi disagrees with GM crop critics who claim that genetic engineering in agriculture is likely to exacerbate current problems of poverty and malnutrition. "I fail to see how the current problems of poverty and malnutrition could be exacerbated by the wise use of genetic engineering, whereas I see many ways in which the current problems will get worse if nothing is done to improve the quality of the commonly used crops, including the nutritional quality."

He accepts it "may certainly be true" that multinational interests are seizing local genetic resources, with most biotech products emerging from this process aimed at consumer niche markets in rich northern countries. But he believes this "only emphasises the need for the developing countries to be in a condition to master their genetic resources also utilising the most advanced technologies."

He accepts that GM foods might only facilitate larger farmers who could afford the expensive inputs, leaving the causes of poverty unaddressed, as some GM critics argue. But he says that in countries such as China and India, "even though they have very different political and land property systems, the most efficient varieties of the `traditional' green revolution have been introduced widely in the past with very positive effects also for small farmers. I do not see why this could not be repeated also with the transgenic crops."

If saving seed for the next year is no longer an option when the genetic make-up of a biopatented seed is the property of multinational corporations, this is already happening with the "traditional" varieties, he says. "International agreements assuring breeders and farmers rights and privileges must be negotiated vigorously."