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Seven Academies of Science Urge Action to Promote Use of Biotech in Alleviating World Hunger, Poverty

Seven academies of science from around the world, including five from developing nations, issued a white paper July 11, 2000 spelling out the promise of agricultural biotechnology to alleviate hunger and poverty in the Third World. The paper urges governments to base their decisions regarding biotechnology on sound science, and strongly encourages private corporations and research institutions to share their technology with scientists and farmers in developing countries who desperately need it.

"It is essential that we improve food production and distribution in order to feed and free from hunger a growing world population, while reducing environmental impacts and providing productive employment in low-income areas," the paper says. Key to moving forward is responsible research, development, and implementation of genetic modification (GM) technology for widespread agricultural use.

The white paper was prepared by a working group of members from the Royal Society of London, the national academies of science of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and the United States, and the Third World Academy of Sciences. Because agricultural biotechnology has come under fire in recent months, the working group endeavored to produce a brief report that clearly lays out the potential for GM technology to assist developing countries, as well as the obstacles that stand in the way of its widespread use.

"The obvious concern is that the recent backlash against GM technology will completely overshadow all the promise that the technology offers," said Bruce Alberts, president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and member of the working group. "Our group concluded that the revolution in molecular biology provides the developing world with some important new tools for feeding and caring for its people. It will be critical to use the best science to make wise choices with respect to the application of these technologies."

The working group pointed out the need for concerted, organized efforts on a global scale to quickly identify potential health and environmental risks from GM crops. To that end, "public health regulatory systems need to be put in place in every country to identify and monitor any potential adverse human health effects of transgenic plants, as for any other new variety," it said. Likewise, environmental concerns must be addressed systematically and assessed against the agricultural technologies currently in use that cause environmental problems, such as pesticides.

Procedures that most nations already have in place to approve the use of new crop plants could serve as the model for a more formal risk-assessment process. This process would be used to investigate the potential environmental impact of new varieties, including those that have been developed using GM techniques, the working group said.

GM Technology and World Agriculture

Most GM technology has not been developed with Third World needs in mind. In fact, these techniques were developed primarily for large-scale agriculture in the industrialized world - to make a small number of major crops more resistant to certain insects or viruses. The working group urged invigorated research and development to address the special needs of developing countries and to enhance the yield of lesser-known crops that serve as the basis for their incomes and their food supply; to modify crops so that they confer greater nutritional benefits to the consumer; to reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture; and to increase access to pharmaceuticals and vaccines by producing them in foods. For example, using molecular techniques, researchers have produced vaccines in potatoes and bananas that have the potential to prevent certain infectious diseases in humans. Additionally, GM technology has the potential to increase the yields of certain medicinal substances naturally found in plants.

But much of the funding for agricultural research in general - and GM technology in particular - has shifted from the public sector to private corporations in recent years, with an eye toward creating profitable products. At the same time, public and noncommercial research efforts have waned, a trend "that needs to be reversed," the working group said. Public-sector funding for GM research is critical for meeting specific needs - those of small-scale farmers, for instance -- where profits for big agricultural corporations are unlikely to be forthcoming. Governments, international organizations, and aid agencies should encourage plant genomics research as an important area for public funding, and the results of such research should be placed in the public domain. "Care should be taken that research is not inhibited by over-protective intellectual property regimes," the paper says.

In fact, when it comes to the needs of Third World farmers, the issue of intellectual property rights deserves special consideration, the working group said. Today, private companies can obtain plant varieties free from farmers and from noncommercial organizations, add a new gene, and then sell these seeds back to farmers with legal protections against copying or reuse. "This heavily concentrates advances in research within companies whose legitimate search for profit naturally fails to focus their research on poverty and long-term sustainability issues," the paper says. Poor farmers in developing countries must be allowed to save seed for future use if they wish to do so. Moreover, an international advisory committee should be created to assess the interests of private companies and developing countries with respect to transgenic plants that can benefit the poor - not only to help resolve intellectual property disputes, but also to identify areas of common interest and opportunities for public-private partnerships.

The white paper, Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture, is posted on the National Academy Press Web site at