UN to help developing countries assess safety of GM crops

Agrochemical multinationals hail them as a panacea for everything from world hunger to pesticide pollution. Environmental organizations dismiss them as "Frankenfoods" which poison consumers and destroy the world's ecosystems. The Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is attempting to help developing countries weigh up the pros and cons for themselves. The argument is about genetically modified (GM) crops.

In mid-January, UNEP kicked off a three-year project that will support up to 100 developing countries to prepare for the entry into force of the UN Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (see Box 1). It will also help these countries put into practice the principles of risk assessment for GM foods announced in March by a task force of the Codex Alimentarius, a world reference body for food safety (see Box 2).




The environment "is different everywhere, and that's why GM crops have to be tested locally" says Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, the lead author of last year's Human Development Report, issued annually by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which advocated a cautious application of biotechnology as a means to reduce world poverty. "But for local testing you need an increase in public sector investment in poverty-oriented agricultural research. Unfortunately this has remained stagnant or even declined in recent years, especially in Africa," she adds.

The US$ 38 million UNEP project, financed mostly by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), should help. It is a joint venture between the UN and the World Bank which "aims at helping countries develop legal structures as well as administrative and scientific skills so that, at the end of the day, they can arrive at an informed, sovereign decision" on GM crops, says Charles Gbedemah, the project's regional coordinator for the African region.

Another goal, adds project manager Christopher Briggs, "is to establish regional and subregional networks that will share information such as data on risk assessments of GM crops" through a series of workshops and consultation meetings.

Advocates of biotechnology and development agencies tend to focus on the enormous potential of GM crops, especially for resource-poor farmers in the developing world, such as a reduced reliance on chemical pesticides. What's more, says Jorgen Schlundt, the coordinator of WHO's Food Safety Programme, by engineering staple crops to have increased nutritional value in, say, minerals or vitamins — such as Golden Rice producing vitamin A — GM crops "might even have a direct [positive] impact on human health."

While Briggs admits to the great potential of GM crops he is quick to point out that the UNEP project is far from being an endorsement of GM crop technology. "There are both potential benefits and potential risks, and it's important to look at both of them. If you think that I'd be either positive or negative about GM crops, then I'd be failing my job," he told the Bulletin.

Many development experts welcome the UNEP effort as something that is badly needed. Says UNDP's Fukuda-Parr: "For all new technologies, but especially for biotechnology, the risk aspects are extremely important. That's what makes the UNEP project a real priority."

Others, however, are less enthusiastic. "If the project leaves the agenda to the countries and offers expertise countries ask for it's OK. But if it is pushing someone else's agenda, then, of course, it's not," says Suman Sahai, the president of Gene Campaign, a New Delhi-based advocacy group.

And for Calestous Juma of the Science, Technology and Innovation Program at Harvard University, the project is bound to raise expectations that cannot be fulfilled. "Promoting the scheme as a capacity-building project creates the impression that it is going to help developing countries establish institutional capacities, scientific expertise and human resources. For this, the amount of money — US$ 400 000 per country — is utterly negligible because you need long-term professional training and not just a few workshops here and there," Juma says.

UNEP's Briggs concedes that the project is only a first step but thinks it should nonetheless enable all participating countries to draw up a draft biosafety framework "that could be developed into law in these countries pretty rapidly."

Meanwhile, the acreage of GM crops is increasing rapidly, especially in countries such as China, Argentina, Indonesia and South Africa. Last year, the global area of GM crops for the first time exceeded 50 million hectares (130 million acres), a whopping 19% increase compared to the previous year, according to estimates by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

More than a quarter of the global GM crop area was already grown in developing countries, and from the 5.5 million farmers who planted GM crops in 2001, more than three-quarters were in developing countries.

But not all developing countries are ready to move full steam ahead into the supposedly golden age of biotechnology. Brazil, an agricultural heavyweight and the world's second-ranking soy grower and exporter (after the US), still bans all GM crops. Thailand is planning to impose an import ban on 37 more GM crop varieties in addition to the 40 already prohibited.

India, another country relying heavily on agriculture to feed its growing population, is slowly warming to the idea of GM crops. After more than a year's experiments with GM cotton, the government will soon allow it to be grown commercially.

China, on the other hand, has relatively few inhibitions, and now accounts for half of the developing world's expenditure on plant biotechnology, according to a survey in Science in January. The biggest seller in China is the so-called Bt cotton, carrying a gene for a toxin that makes the plant resistant to insect pests. Around 2 million Chinese cotton farmers already grow Bt cotton on roughly 20% of the country's cotton fields. This yields several benefits, the Science survey shows: production costs have dropped by 28%, and the use of toxic pesticides by 80%. As a result, pesticide poisonings among farmers have declined more than fourfold.

And this is just the beginning, says Juma. "Most of what's grown in Argentina and China is similar to crops grown in North America. The next generation of GM crops will likely be crops specifically developed for tropical conditions. And those will be the most interesting ones for developing countries."

Given, however, that these varieties have been largely ignored by laboratories in industrialized countries, Juma calls for a stronger investment in research capacities in developing countries. "If you're concerned about the welfare of these countries you should create a balance between funding research facilities and funding biosafety frameworks" he says. "Only funding safety issues without funding the necessary research doesn't seem to make sense. If you ask people in the Sahara to regulate the use of water you'd better give them some," says Juma.

Fukuda-Parr likewise calls for a balanced view: "Biotechnology is a promising avenue for global poverty reduction. To throw out a tremendously promising technology is doing the world a disservice. At the same time ignoring its dangers is equally irresponsible," she says.

WHO's Schlundt agrees. He thinks one great goal is to increase the nutritional value of crops to alleviate micronutrient malnutrition. "I think this is going to be the big thing in the future," he says.

A case in point is the Golden Rice that had been developed by scientists in Switzerland and Germany to combat the Vitamin A deficiency that afflicts more than 25 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This rice is offered to farmers in developing countries free of charge, unlike other GM products, which are mostly unaffordable for the poor because of patent fees. Neither the Cartagena Protocol nor the UNEP biosafety project tackle the problem of patenting.

At the moment the transgenic rice plants are cross-bred with local varieties in Viet Nam and the Philippines, to transfer the new genetic traits to the desired strain of plants; other countries like China and India will start soon, says Ingo Potrykus, one of the co-inventors of the Golden Rice from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. "The interest from developing countries was enormous. We even had to turn down some requests from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar or North Korea, because these countries did not have legal or administrative structures in place to handle GM crops. That's where the UNEP project fits in nicely."

With all these prospects coming into view, Fukuda-Parr thinks it is a pity that "much of the public discussion has been hijacked by extremist views. We need a much more objective debate." To get the discussion on GM crops out of its ideological gridlock, Schlundt advocates a "more holistic view of biotechnology" that would take into consideration potential benefits, environmental and health concerns but also socioeconomic and ethical factors. To that end, he says, "WHO has just initiated a one-year project to review all the data on GM crops that is out there." If everything goes as planned a report should be issued by the end of the year.

Michael Hagmann, Zurich

World Health Organization Genebra - Genebra - Switzerland
E-mail: bulletin@who.int