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Developing countries urged to focus on science of biotechnology
Conference speakers unite in calling for sound food policies
Kathryn McConnell, Washington File Staff Writer
11/19/2003

Sacramento, California -- Scientists at a U.S.-sponsored ministerial conference on agricultural technology urged developing countries to do more to frame the public debate about agricultural biotechnology around science, not false perceptions or biased opinions.

Calestous Juma, director of the science, technology and globalization project at Harvard University, said June 24 at the Sacramento event that "policy vacuums" exist in many developing countries on the question of how to publicly communicate developments in agricultural research. He urged governments to establish offices devoted to providing their leaders with continuous and inclusive non-political advice on science and technology as they affect policy.

Juma said many health and environmental concerns about biotechnology are "excuses" that are interfering with countries' ability to concentrate on doing and adapting more agricultural technology research, and gaining access to world markets.

He noted that in the 1500s the world experienced a public debate about the effects of coffee on health -- similar to the current debate about biotechnology -- that led some countries to temporarily ban its sale. France, he said, tried to dissuade people from drinking coffee, fearing wine sale losses. Germany feared losing sales of beer, he said.

However, Juma noted, the coffee bans did not last because advocates of the beverage could prove it was safe to drink.

Robert Farley, executive vice president of Monsanto, added that the key regulatory issue facing plant breeders is the "unpredictability of products ever reaching the market" because of uncertainties about the regulatory process. He urged conference attendees, many of whom are from developing countries, to retain a focus on science in developing their agricultural regulatory systems.

As countries establish more predictable regulatory systems, product developers will invest more in research of various technologies, he said.

Farley said current developments in biotechnology research allow the latest achievements of gene sequencing to be transferred to small farmers around the world. But, he said, regulations that significantly slow the movement of biotech products to markets can prevent farmers from realizing benefits of the technology.

Biotechnology offers farmers an additional, not a controlling, choice of what seeds to plant, Farley said.

He added that the benefits to small farmers of biotechnology have been "most profound" in such countries as China, India, South Africa and Mexico, where farmers plant pest-resistant crops because they cannot afford costly chemical pest control materials.

Some of the pest-resistant crops derived from biotechnology being planted are doubly valuable to farmers because they are also less prone to diseases, Fairly said.

He noted that five million farmers in Asia are already planting biotechnology crops.

Farley said plant breeders using biotechnology are developing drought-resistant crops in response to water scarcity, which he called the "challenge of the 21st century." He said agricultural biotechnology can help solve the problem of the world's rapidly increasing population -- and demand for more protein in diets to increase life quality -- by giving farmers the ability to produce more grains that can be used for livestock feed.

Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug said that more research is needed to develop higher-yielding wheat, maize and rice -- the world's most common basic food crops -- because the amount of land that can be used for farming and the fertility of arable land are limited.

He said there have been "broad-scale damaging effects coming from resistance" to biotech.

Borlaug called on government officials to show "courageous leadership" in making decisions about accepting agricultural biotechnology. As the example of such leadership he cited "brave decisions" of the Pakistani and Indian agricultural ministers to approve in the 1960s new wheat varieties developed through then-modern agricultural research. He said those decisions helped the two countries avoid widespread starvation.

Borlaug said the real problem countries face is not just providing enough food to people to survive but providing food of a nutritional quality that can improve their standard of living.

The June 23-25 ministerial conference, focused on sharing information about modern agricultural technologies, is cosponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)


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