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Biotech boom linked to development dollars, critics say

(Friday, Dec. 5, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Katherine Stapp, IPS news, 12/03/03: NEW YORK - Even as an international debate rages over the safety and wisdom of planting genetically modified (GM) crops, they continue to spread like wildfire, particularly in developing countries.

Farmland devoted to GM crops -- which are implanted with foreign genes to boost production or other desirable traits like pesticide resistance -- grew by 12 percent last year, to 58.7 million hectares, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), an untiring biotechnology advocate.

In fact, more than one-fifth of the global crop of soybeans, corn, cotton and canola is now biotech. By 2005, ISAAA predicts the market value of GM crops will reach five billion dollars.

Much of this boom is in South Asia, Latin America and Africa, where some proponents of sustainable agriculture -- as in the North -- fear their concerns have been overridden by links between the biotech industry and powerful development institutions like the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and World Bank.

For example, Eija Pehu, a senior scientist in the Bank's department of agriculture and rural development (ARD), is listed on the website of the ISAAA -- whose main funders include biotech industry giants Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science -- as a member of its board of directors.

According to the website, the board ”oversees programmatic, organisational and policy strategies”.

The Bank says Pehu, a former president of Finnish biotech company Unicrop Ltd., has not attended any board meetings, and a decision by an internal Bank committee to approve her position on the board is still pending.

Gabrielle Persley, an advisor to the Bank on biotechnology issues, is also listed as director of ISAAA programmes.

With research centres in Africa, Asia and North America, ISAAA describes its objective as ”the transfer and delivery of appropriate biotechnology applications to developing countries”.

Its current projects include introducing GM sweet potatoes and bananas in Kenya and Vietnam; it has pursued similar initiatives in at least 10 other developing countries.

Robert Thompson, who headed the World Bank's ARD from 2000-2001, is now chairman of the Washington-based International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council (IPC), a promoter of biotechnology and trade liberalisation whose ”sustaining sponsors” are Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill Inc., Kraft Foods International and Syngenta Ag Company -- a veritable who's who of the top agri-business concerns in the world.

Together, these firms -- and others like Dow AgroSciences -- dominate the 31-billion-dollar pesticide market and the 30-billion-dollar agricultural seed market.

Another link between the World Bank and industry is the Bank's staff exchange programme. In the past it has brought in representatives from Dow, Aventis and Syngenta to work in the ARD, and dispatched employees for stints at Rhone-Poulenc (since merged into Aventis) and Novartis Agribusiness.

The programme has also included exchanges with academic institutions, governments and United Nations development agencies.

”The influence of the biotech industry in these various international institutions is consistent with their influence at the national level, particularly here in the United States,” said Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minnesota-based non-profit group that advocates sustainable farming.

”A lawyer who had previously represented Monsanto actually wrote the primary U.S. regulation for biotech foods at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1992. He later went to work for Monsanto after leaving the FDA,” Lilliston said in an interview.

”The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is full of former biotech industry employees -- including USDA Secretary Ann Veneman, who served on the board of Calgene, which was responsible for the biotech tomato and later bought up by Monsanto,” he added.

World Bank staff have told civil society groups that industry figures also have less visible but equally significant ways of influencing Bank decisions, like daily phone calls and visits to the Bank, or directing its staff to outside scientists and researchers who are aligned with industry's agenda.

With nearly one-sixth of humanity chronically undernourished, the conflict over biotechnology has also been framed as one pitting wealthy northern consumers and environmentalists, who can afford to reject the technology, against poor southern farmers in desperate need of increasing production.

But that is not how biotech critics see the issue.

Michael Goldman, a professor at the University of Illinois who has written and edited several books critical of the World Bank, said in an interview the rejection of biotech foods in Europe and elsewhere could mean the loss of crucial export markets for southern countries that adopt the technology.

The European Union (EU) is nearing the end of a five-year moratorium on GM crops, which has often put it at odds with the U.S. embrace of biotech foods.

”Farmers all over the world have been forced to rethink the latest biotech goods being sold to them,” added Goldman. ”Without a European market, it may be too risky for them to use GM seeds.”

According to Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a senior scientist at the Pesticide Action Network, ”The World Bank's policies are heavily steered by the United States, while the Europeans are expressing concerns the Bank should take a more precautionary approach (on biotech)”.

PAN, an umbrella group of more than 600 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) worldwide working to phase out hazardous pesticides, is funded largely by foundations and individual donations.

At the World Bank -- which will spend some two billion dollars on agricultural projects this year and next -- the countries that give the most funding have the most votes, making the United States its largest shareholder.

Washington has contributed a total of about 28 billion dollars to the Bank's International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Finance Corporation, or 16.8 percent and 24 percent respectively of the bodies' funding from governments.

”The question you're asking is: who does the bank listen to for advice?” said Robert Watson, chief scientist at the World Bank, in an interview. ”My personal view is that we must hear from all stakeholders. And we try very hard to get this balance.”

World Bank sources say that about 50 million dollars in bank loans have been used for agricultural biotechnology projects, but add that the money has gone to build capacity to regulate and evaluate GM crops, rather than to actually do biotech research, like open field trials.

The Bank also says that it no longer advocates pesticide use.

Critics point to past Bank loans for agricultural projects to Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Cameroon and Senegal, which they say were influenced by staff exchanges with AgrEvo and Rhone-Poulenc, among other examples.

PAN is releasing a report this month that examines the Rhone-Poulenc partnership with the World Bank in West Africa. In a press release the pesticide company boasted the deal enabled it ”to break into the cocoa, coffee, rice and vegetable markets, which account for around 40 percent of the crop protection market in this region”.

The partnership followed on the heels of the exchange of a World Bank staff member, Alassane Sow, to work a two-year stint at Rhone-Poulenc.

Critics also contend that the real target of biotech companies is not the small farmer in the South, but crops for industry on a global scale.

”The particular concern about agricultural biotech is that for all the discussion about drought-resistant sorghum and pest-resistant millets, the interest of the industry -- Monsanto-Mahyco, Bayer Crop Science, Syngenta, et al -- is in that global market in bulk commodities,” said Charlie Kronick, the chief GM policy advisor for Greenpeace in Britain.

”Crops grown for that market -- Soya, canola, cotton, maize, which are used for either industrial-processed food production or for animal feed in Europe and North America -- have absolutely no application for the wide array of sustainable agricultural solutions that are necessary in the developing world,” Kronick said.

Others worry about the long-term environmental and health impacts of the biotech revolution.

”The central challenge for those asking tough questions about biotech crops has been to get independent information and analysis,” Lilliston said. ”And because there is so little governmental, industry or university research on the risks of biotech, the NGO community has had to do it on its own in many cases.”

”For example, two years ago an illegal variety of GM corn was found in the food supply, called StarLink corn. This was discovered by Friends of the Earth, not the industry and not USDA.”

In the StarLink case, a brand of GM corn that had only been approved for animal feed somehow found its way into numerous food products in the United States, including taco shells and tortilla chips.

Allegations that StarLink caused allergic reactions in some people prompted more than 300 product recalls and raised questions about the efficacy of government regulation of GM products. (END/2003)

Source: http://www.ipsnews.net/interna.asp?idnews=21395