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GM crops a 'moral imperative' for Third World

3 June 1999

[LONDON] Western researchers and governments have a "moral imperative" to promote the development of genetically modified crops that could meet the social needs and agricultural conditions of the Third World, according to Britain's main independent advisory body on bioethics.

In a report published last week, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics says that rice strains enriched with vitamin A, for example, or cereals modified to grow in salty or dry conditions, could each make a major impact towards combating malnutrition and improving health in developing countries.

"More food for the hungry, unlike tomatoes with a long shelf life, is a strong ethical counterweight to set against the concerns of opponents of GM crops," says the report, which was prepared by a working party headed by Alan Ryan, professor of political philosophy at the University of Oxford.

The working party's conclusion were immediately challenged by Christian Aid, a UK Third World pressure group which recently published its own report arguing that the solution to the problems of world hunger lie more in changing policies on food distribution and storage (see 'Biotech not the answer to hunger', 13 May 1999).

The group said that the council was "out of touch" with the reality of farmers' conditions overseas and the causes of hunger. "There is no genetic fix for hunger, and the new technology is being used to strengthen the grip of big business over farming," says Andrew Simms, the author of the agency's report.

But members of the Nuffield working party insist that the potential contribution of GM crops to these problems has been consistently underestimated. "There is a compelling moral imperative to make genetically modified crops readily available to developing countries who want them, to help combat world hunger and poverty," its report says.

At the same time, however, the working party is keen to emphasize that the introduction of such crops should take place under carefully regulated and monitored conditions -- for example, co-ordinating a careful assessment of the potential risks of hybridisation of GM crops plants with weed relatives -- and also that poor farmers should be protected from undue pressure from large multinational corporations.

It argues, for example, that Britain -- in consultation with 'like-minded developing countries' and other member states of the European Union - should propose that the World Trade Organization "explore and report on how the international and national legal framework can better support the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity on providing fair and equitable access to genetic resources".

The working party also underscores the importance of farmers being able to retain a choice to grow either the new seed from companies developing GM crops, or improved seed from national breeding programmes or centres run by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

And it also expresses concern about the potential impact of the current distribution of patents for GM technology, most of which are held by large Western corporations, arguing that there is an "urgent need" for a "realistic assessment of the likely availability of licensed, patented technologies for developing countries".

In particular, it recommends that companies holding such patents "work in collective partnership with a consortium of appropriate international organisations to identify and implement practical strategies for broad licensing terms for developing countries".

At the same time, the working party calls for the funding of a "major expansion of research" in view of the "proven high returns to and impact on poverty of appropriate agricultural research, and the new salience of fundamental and applied GM research".

In particular, it suggests that the British government commits a substantial proportion of an increase in the aid budget announced last summer to additional spending on the research and development of GM food staples grown in developing countries -- with part of this aid going on "the design of appropriate regulatory regimes".

It also proposes that this contribution "should be used to leverage extra funds from other donors - including the European commission". These funds, the report says, "should be focussed on those developing countries eager to support the initiative with extra domestic financing for public sector agricultural research."

The working party concludes: "The need for concerted action to assist in the safe application of plant genetic modification by industry in partnership with governments, charitable foundations and international research organizations to food staples of the developing world is urgent."

For further details of the working party's report, see 'Proceed with caution on GM crops, urges UK ethics panel'. For the full text of the Nuffield report, click here.


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