Wetenschap - 22 november 2001

Louise Fresco on the issues surrounding gentech for developing countries

Louise Fresco on the issues surrounding gentech for developing countries

There's potential to be realised

Whether or not we want gentech for agriculture worldwide is no longer an issue. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a fact of modern agriculture, and they are here to stay. The issue now is how can we ensure that the new technology is actually used for the benefit of the poor in developing countries. Assistant general director at the FAO, Professor Louise Fresco, will discuss this matter with students in Wageningen this Friday.

A Wageningen graduate herself, and also distinguished professor of the University, Fresco visits her alma mater this week to attend the annual conference of the graduate school Production Ecology and Resource Conservation, where she is the keynote speaker. She bases her lecture on a new worldwide inventory of agricultural biotechnology applications and products for developing countries, recently compiled by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

Viewed from the perspective of the Third World, the current situation is not encouraging. Of the 44 million hectares of land devoted to GM crop cultivation worldwide, about 75 percent is in industrialised countries. The main GM crops are soybean, maize, cotton and canola, and the most important new traits of these crops are insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. Research and investment have not yet been sufficiently directed to areas, crops and traits that are likely to benefit developing countries.

Tactical error

Change is under way, however. Some 200 different crops are now undergoing field testing in developing countries, implying that there is more in the pipeline. Genetic traits which are being subjected to modification include quality, virus resistance and drought tolerance. These are of greater relevance to developing countries than for example pesticide resistance. Fresco calls it a 'tactical error' that the biotechnology industry has thus far concentrated on pesticide resistance as one of the first applications, as this has led to strong reactions from the environmental lobby.

The FAO inventory, which Fresco first commented on during a lecture to the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture, indicates that while GMOs have become a fact of modern agriculture, much still needs to be done to ensure that the technology developed is also useful to developing countries. Much research is done by private enterprise, where profit is the main driving force. Breeding crops for poor farmers who are unable to pay for such developments is not high on the agenda of multinationals.

Developing countries on the other hand, are likely to be better served by maintaining strong public research capacity, argues Fresco. She also warns that the perception of profit potential is already shifting research away from systems-based approaches to greater reliance on monocultures. Traditional fields of study such as water and soil management should not be overlooked. Genetic modification, Fresco argues, is just another tool in a wider research agenda.

Intellectual property

The raw materials for all new agricultural gentech applications are genetic resources. In agriculture, these genes are not wild products of nature, but the result of selection and development of crops by farmers since Neolithic times, states Fresco. Patents, based on intellectual property rights and owned by private companies, raise the question of how to guarantee continued access of farmers and breeders to genetic resources. At the beginning of November the FAO managed to get 116 states to adopt a new international treaty on benefit sharing of genetic resources. In addition to breeders' rights, the treaty also recognises the rights of farmers to these resources.

Louise Fresco will take time to discuss these matters relating to GM technology for development with students in a session organised by Studium Generale in De Wereld on Friday 23 November from 10.30 to 12.00.

See also the interview with Wageningen distinguished professor Dr Per Pinstrup-Andersen in issue number 33.

Joris Tielens

Photo: FAO

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