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Against the grain; Why poor nations would lose in a biotech war on hunger

(Friday, June 20, 2003 -- CropChoice news) --Marilyn Berlin Snell, Sierra magazine: Biotechnology has been heralded as a boon to developing countries, where the lion’s share of the world’s hungry dwell. Its breakthroughs—food crops genetically engineered to resist disease, pests, and drought, or to contain vitamins and nutrients severely lacking in the diets of the poor—are seen as a 21st-century version of the Green Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s, when hybrid crop varieties and heavy use of fertilizers and irrigation boosted yields 20-30%.

The promise of more abundant and more nutritious food appears to hold out the hope that hunger and disease can be alleviated. With potential like this, who wouldn’t be in favor of genetically engineered crops? For starters, many of the people they are supposed to help. One of the strongest and most articulate voices to emerge in opposition to biotechnology is Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher. Born to a peasant farming family in northern Ethiopia in 1940, Tewolde worked as a plant ecologist and university president before becoming the head of Ethiopia’s EPA in 1995.

Tewolde has been a key international negotiator on issues of biotech safety and accountability. He helped hammer out the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and draft the Biosafety Protocol, which if ratified will set international standards for trade in and use of biotech products. During the protocol talks, the US delegation heavily influenced the discussion—often bolstered by ag allies like Canada and Australia. The meetings were heated and often acrimonious, with the US and its friends at one end of the spectrum, arguing that genetically modified organisms do not need special regulations, while Tewolde and the majority of participating nations argued that they most certainly do.

Since 1999, Tewolde has represented what has come to be called the Like-Minded Group—made up of most developing nations plus China—in protocol negotiations and at WHO meetings. Two of the most important issues debated at these meetings have been whether a country has a right to know what it is importing, and whether a government has a right to refuse an import it believes endangers its population. As drafted, the Biosafety Protocol now states that nations have such rights. The next step is ratification by at least 50 nations and ensuring that the WTO or other international bodies cannot overrule the protocol.

In April, 2001, Tewolde spoke with Sierra: To my knowledge there has not been one commercially grown transgenic crop that out-yields all other varieties of that crop. Genetic engineering may live up to this promise, but we will have to see. What the transgenic crops have done so far is tie the farmer to specific chemicals and a specific company.

The world has never grown as much food per capita as it is doing now, yet the world has also never had as many hungry. The problem is not the amount of food produced, but how it is both produced and distributed. As it stands, the political and economic problems within our developing countries prevent us from using existing technologies that are under our control. For example, in 1981, the Lonrho Company was allowed to freely plant trees in Swaziland while the people had to get a special permit to plant any tree. And it continues to be the case that in many countries of the South, individual landowners keep big tracts of land uncultivated while many hungry citizens cannot grow food because of lack of food. How much more difficult is it going to be to use technology that is controlled from another country? What if, during [a] political fracas, our trading partners had said, “No more seed?” The biotech is suggesting that food security will come through the farmer’s loss of control of essential ag inputs. Do you see the lie? This is food insecurity.

I don’t trust the government. I don’t mean particularly the Ethiopian government—I mean any government. Without local control, local availability of food can never be certain. {That applies to a lot of different situations in a lot of different places.} It would be far better to develop a system that would enable the farmer himself to be in charge.

It’s not the nature of genetic engineering itself that’s the problem; it is the way genetic engineering has evolved. Early on, it came under the control of the private sector. By definition, the private sector’s goal is to make money. It will not focus its attention on the needs of the poor, except as a way to sell its products. There are some threats that are more specifically amplified in the South, arising from three factors. One is that there is a lot more biodiversity toward the equator, which means that the variables and possible complications increase. The second factor has to do with the ambient temperature: In the tropics, the temperature outside is nearer to the temperature of containment in labs. This means that those transgenic organisms that accidentally escape to the open environment have a greater chance of survival. The third factor relates to genetic engineering’s current emphasis on crops. The gene pool of most of these modified crops exists in unadulterated form in tropical and subtropical areas. Take barley, for example. Ethiopia has the largest gene pool for cultivated barley anywhere in the world.

Canada grows barley, but there is no native barley there. Should a genetically engineered variety go wrong and escape into the environment, Canada can start over again and develop a new variety—forgetting about all the varieties it has contaminated and destroyed. But if that were to happen in Ethiopia, the native gene pool—including wild relatives of crop plants—could be polluted. Such mistakes could never be undone. Economically, the countries closer to the equator are much poorer than the industrialized countries, and therefore lack the resources to deal with these sorts of mistakes. In the 1980’s I was president of a university and also in charge of a few research projects. I started leading a project to identify environmental problems and to harmonize environment and development in Ethiopia. Around this time, the Rio Conference was gearing up. At the Earth Summit, two other issues came to the fore that really helped galvanize my thinking. The first was the insistence of the US delegation on intellectual property rights, while refusing to see that communities have rights that must be respected as well. The second had to do with the US delegation’s insistence that genetic engineering is the same as any old sexual reproduction, and therefore did not need to be regulated. This came to be known as “substantial equivalence,” in which sexual reproduction is essentially the same as mixing genes from a tobacco plant and a firefly.

I opposed this idea of substantial equivalence. There was a lot of arguing about this in the convention negotiations. Finally, it was agreed that the parties would examine [it] if there were a need for a protocol on safety in modern biotechnology. {Remember ProdiGene? CAFO News, 1-4-03.} Most nations wanted a biosafety protocol, but a few powerful nations were totally opposed. I was part of the group that wrote what was called a majority report, saying that there was a need for a protocol. The minority report, that of the US delegation, essentially said there was no need at all. Many of its delegates even used the argument that the majority report came from developing countries whose science is dubious. Fortunately, we had US scientists from various universities testify that there is a risk. But that’s the usual argument! The delegates don’t say it in the meetings.

Most of these negotiations happen in the corridors anyway. You lobby some delegation and say, “You know what? So and so was saying that the other side’s data is rubbish.” It’s standard negotiating practice. The ad hoc working group said that there should be a protocol, and the next phase of the negotiations began.

Sierra: Because the US Congress in the end refused to ratify the Rio Convention on Biological Diversity, it now has only “observer status” in negotiations on how to implement the protocol, correct?

Tewolde: That’s right. However, the US does claim to support the convention. So presumably the US would continue to be supportive of the protocol as well—but for practical reasons. If its laws on genetic engineering do not conform to the protocol, countries will refuse to trade with it in GMOs. At the moment, all the document says is that if a country is exporting GMOs, it must say “it may contain,” which is not very informative. That was a point on which the protocol negotiations nearly collapsed at the Montreal meeting in Jan, 2000. The degree of labeling is an issue that is still unresolved. In the transition period though, products that wouldn’t sell in Europe or Japan will probably be pushed on us. Especially with regard to food aid, I expect this is already happening. Obviously, it is an extremely difficult situation if you know people are dying from lack of food and the only food you are offered is genetically engineered. [According to the US-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, more than 2 million tons of GMOs are sent directly by US foreign assistance to developing countries each year, while the World Food Program distributes another 1.5 million tons of transgenic crops donated by the US govt. The food is typically sent with no labeling.—Sierra eds.]

Sierra: The Like-Minded Group has championed the “precautionary principle” How would you define this principle?

Tewolde: The simplest way to state it is that you must evaluate risks before you take them. That does not mean “do not take any risks at all,” though this is very often what people who want to distort its meaning suggest. In our daily lives, most of us operate from this perspective. You always observe and evaluate before you take that fateful step. That, in essenence, is the precautionary principle. I hope you will pardon me, but I’d also add that the more influential governments are now really largely run by individuals who represent corporate interests. I think genetic engineering is really going wild because it is not controlled by society but by selfish individual interests. When I am in negotiations with the US, Canada, and Australia, though, corporate control is clear. It is a government but corporate interest is top on its agenda. One must ask why. Who benefits? I have nothing vested that I have to protect. I have only my conscience to negotiate with. I have been insulted. I have been threatened. I just shrug my shoulders. It doesn’t matter. Let me be clear here, though: I’m not referring to the negotiators. I have never had any negative reaction from the negotiators, American or otherwise. I am referring to corporate reps who come into those meetings. They come as observers and we meet and interact informally. They don’t negotiate, though sometimes governments name people from various corporations as members of their delegations. In 1999, in Cartagena, Colombia, the group led by the US refused outright to consider any form of regulations of commodities that are genetically modified. The next move by this group was the US and Canada tried to introduce the issue about genetically modified commodity regulation into the WTO negotiations in Seattle in Dec, 1999. But, as you know, public opposition and opposition from within by developing countries forced that effort to collapse. It was only because that happened in Seattle that the negotiations in Montreal last year succeeded. The US group felt it had to back down on most of the issues.

Sierra: Whose voice will ultimately prevail on this issue?

Tewolde: The people’s voice. If the people are convinced it is important, they will refuse to buy corporate products that have been genetically engineered. If corporations want a market, then they will have to go along with what the public requests.