Science - June 17, 2004

Scientists critical of FAO biotechnology report

According to the FAO in its optimistic report ‘Meeting the needs of the poor’, what the poor countries need is biotechnology. Technology sociologist Dr Guido Ruivenkamp and his students from third world countries are not convinced: “What good is a genetic revolution in countries where the green revolution hasn’t even worked?”

The picture painted in the FAO report is that by using crops that are resistant to disease and pests, and that contain more nutrients, the world will win the fight against hunger. It is up to public and private bodies to put their differences aside and develop these crops so that the real problem is addressed. While the report does admit that there are disadvantages to some forms of biotechnology, it regards a ‘Gene Revolution’ as the way forward.

When the report was published, Guido Ruivenkamp of the Technology and Agrarian Development Group (TAO) gave a two-week course at the IAC, in which he studied the publication together with his students, mainly agro-technologists from research and government institutes in Africa and Asia. One of them, Frederick Omukubi Otswong’o, is a patent expert at the Kenya Industrial Property Institute. “The report starts off with promises and attractive prospects,” he says. “But by the time you’ve finished reading it, few of the promises hold up and you’re left disappointed. ‘From the Green Revolution to the Gene Revolution’ is a nice slogan, but if the Green Revolution didn’t succeed in the poorest countries, how can we expect the Gene Revolution to do any better?”

Computer game

The FAO report brings to mind a well-meaning grandmother who surprises her grandchild with an expensive computer game. The intention is good, but granny forgets that the child’s old computer is not powerful enough for such an advanced game. That is why so many of the ‘miracle crops’ have failed in poor countries, says Ruivenkamp. “The GM crops that have been developed so far work well under the conditions found in large-scale industrialised agriculture, where use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is not a problem. But that’s not the kind of agriculture found in poor countries.”

“What we need is technology that is suited to our type of agriculture,” says John Olatunji Adeoti, of the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research, “Technology that has been developed by our own people. But this kind of technology is not mentioned in the FAO report. The assumption is that we cannot develop the new seeds ourselves and the report is all about technology that we will have to import, but how are we supposed to do that? Where will the money come from?”

Ruivenkamp is not opposed to biotechnology itself, but adds that poor countries must be allowed to develop their own biotechnology, as imported technologies are doomed to failure. A successful technique in Ghana would be one developed by Ghanaian researchers together with local farmers who are going to be the ultimate users, and who are familiar with the quirks of their own country and its market. “This kind of technology might not come near the high-tech level of the multinationals, but it will probably function adequately,” says Ruivenkamp.

Trap

“Agro-industrial companies make plants resistant to insects by placing a gene from a bacteria in the plant’s genome,” explains Ruivenkamp. “The gene produces a poison to which the insect is not resistant. But you can also cultivate the bacteria in reactors and then spray them as insecticide over the plants. This is a low-tech solution, but it is affordable and it works.” There is nothing in the FAO report about local forms of biotechnology, only a few paragraphs about the possibility of adjusting existing agro-industrial genetic techniques to local circumstances.

“The report is set up as a trap,” declares Fadhila Hemed Ali of the National Environment Management Council in Tanzania. “It starts off about the versatile character of biotechnology, but it soon becomes clear that it’s really only talking about one form of technology: the genetic technology of Monsanto and the like. If you want to use these kinds of techniques you need highly trained people, expensive equipment and laboratories. We don’t have these.”

The big companies patent the seeds to which their genetic modifications have been applied, and that impedes the development of local biotechnology even more, according to Omukubi Otswong’o. “It should be possible to do the same with useful genes as has now been done with medicines for HIV. Exceptions should be made for poor countries when it comes to the patents; that would help us a lot. It would make it easier for us to develop our own biotechnology, but there is nothing about this in the report.”

Ruivenkamp sums up ‘Meeting the needs of the poor’: “We live in optimistic times, we want to solve problems in a quick and spectacular fashion. We prefer not to pose the question whether that optimism is justified. We do not allow ourselves the time to think about alternatives, and that is reflected in the report.”

Willem Koert

Re:act