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Genetically modified food and the poor

(Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- NY Times editorial, 10/13/03: Brazil has wisely decided to end a three-year ban and allow its soybean farmers to plant genetically modified crops that require less pesticide. But the decision has been controversial. Few global issues provoke a more emotional debate than that of genetically engineered crops, which contain transplanted genes from other species to make them easier to grow or more nutritious or flavorful. The evidence suggests that such foods are safe (Americans have been eating them for six years) and could reduce world hunger.

But genetically modified crops have not overcome widespread resistance mostly because the industry is tightly controlled by five conglomerates. The companies must realize that relaxing their grip on the technology is in their long-term interests.

One of the problems is that the companies have done nearly all the research on the crops' safety on their own or financed it elsewhere. If they want to build consumer confidence, they should embrace independent tests of the products' safety and impact.

While safety concerns have been the focus of debate, the real problem is that genetic engineering is hurting the poor. It makes cotton cheaper to grow for highly subsidized American producers, further undercutting the price of cotton and forcing West African producers out of business.

Poor countries should fight back by adopting the technology themselves. Unfortunately, so far most of them have failed to approve it. African farmers work tiny plots without the benefit of fertilizers, irrigation or pesticides. The risks they face from genetic modification are remote - but unlike Europeans, the average African would benefit hugely from crops engineered to resist bugs or need little water.

The other reason Africans do not grow such products is that the major companies like Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta have no financial interest in developing them for African crops - and tightly control the technology.

There are two methods of transferring genes, for example. Both were developed by universities, but industry giants now hold the licenses. The companies permit others to do research with the technologies but want control over any product commercialized as a result. Several poor nations are trying to develop improved versions of local crops, but these efforts have been crippled by the biotech companies' control over the technology.

The world shouldn't ban genetically modified food. It should develop a cassava root resistant to the mealy bug and drought-proof corn. Antiglobalization activists are right that corporate greed is the problem. But they are wrong that genetically modified crops should be banned. The real crime of genetic modification is not its risks but that it is squandering its promise, widening the gap between rich and poor.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/13/opinion/13MON4.html?ex=1067094665&ei=1&en=e75e8186976835e2