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GM crop research slow to reach hungry Third World

November 7, 2001

LONDON - With thousands of the world's poor dying from starvation every day and millions going to bed on an empty stomach, many desperate voices are calling on richer countries to use genetic science to wage an all-out war on famine.

In Africa, one in three children is underweight and malnutrition contributes to nearly seven million child deaths each year in developing countries. This, according to the United Nations children's fund, UNICEF, is more than any infectious disease, conflict or natural disaster.

The developing world's heavy dependence on staple foods such as rice, soya, wheat and maize makes for a precarious existence if these crops are ravaged by unexpected drought, disease, flood or freak weather -- not uncommon events in poor countries.

Some say this is where the controversial research area known as biotechnology can help feed the starving millions, by engineering plant strains with improved resistance and yields.

"By bringing in this technology to make the same crop that people eat and grow, make it more insulated against some of the elements of nature, more nutritious...it will improve local production,"said Channapatna Prakash, professor in plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University, Alabama.

"If it does make a difference in their overall health and well-being with the least intervention, it needs to be looked at very carefully,"he said. "If it does provide some solution in certain places and circumstances, then why not?"

Prakash is also a member of the U.S. Agriculture Department's agricultural biotechnology advisory committee.

Genetic modification (GM) involves exchanging or splicing genes of unrelated species that cannot naturally swap with each other and scientists say the applications are almost limitless.

The species can be vastly different, for example, inserting scorpion toxin or spider venom genes into maize and other food crops as a 'natural pesticide' to deter insects and birds from feeding on the plants, or fish antifreeze genes into tomatoes.


The tangible progress made so far is hard to assess as the various applications of biotechnology to Third World staple crops are still being developed. Scientists say the measurable results and possible benefits to farmers are still years away.

Test projects already underway include virus-resistant strains of sweet potato in Kenya, insect-resistant rice in China and papaya in southeast Asia, as well as various cassava and maize projects in other African nations.

Perhaps the most famous to date -- and also controversial -- is 'golden rice', which many see as having come to represent the hopes and fears about biotechnology, even though not one single seed of it has yet to be planted commercially.

Rice is the most important crop in the developing world and is eaten by close to four billion people every day. It accounts for around 80 percent of the total calories consumed by 2.7 billion Asians, or half of the world's population.

In 1999, Swiss and German scientists developed a variety of rice engineered to produce beta-carotene, a substance which the body can convert to Vitamin A. In this way, they hope to stave off malnutrition in poorer nations where rice is a staple food.

'Golden rice', named for its yellow hue, is produced by splicing two daffodil genes and a bacterium gene into japonica rice, which is a variety adapted for temperate climates.

However, experts say many more years are needed before the Vitamin A trait can be worked into the thousands of other varieties grown in countries such as India and Bangladesh.

With such an important crop, genetic scientists are also keen to develop rice strains with resistance to insects, which can eat away yields in tropical Asia by more than 30 percent.

Many crops grown in Third World countries are effectively organic as smallholder farmers lack the money to buy pesticides and other chemical treatments -- thus bringing more significance to crops which can resist insects and the usual field diseases.


Other areas under intensive study include ways to improve resistance to drought and flooding, and tolerance to salt and high concentrations of soil metals. But the specific problems involved might prevent ultimate success, some scientists say.

"Most traits of resistance to insects or diseases, or adaptation to drought or salt tolerance, are multigenic traits,"said Barnaby Peacocke, rural livelihood advisor at the British non-profit development organisation ITDG.

"Even with resistance to pests and diseases, you run the risk of introducing monocultures into areas where they can't really take the risk of a monoculture, rather than building up on some good local varieties they may have already,"he said.

Soil toxicity from the presence of metals is also a great problem to farmers in developing countries who cannot always choose where they can grow their crops. Acidic soils, for example, often contain high levels of aluminium which hinders plant growth.

With enough time and money, Peacocke said, some progress might eventually be made -- but not for several years at least.

"I wouldn't be surprised, if billions of dollars are spent on the research, they might be able to get some kind of tolerance to heavy metals,"he told Reuters in an interview.

"But I just haven't seen the evidence. They (GM scientists) are talking about it, saying these will be the answers they can provide. As a plant scientist, I know that they've been looking at this for decades and they've just got nowhere really."


Not everyone agrees that GM food will necessarily become the saviour for the world's hungry and critics insist that there is, as yet, no conclusive evidence of the touted benefits.

The whole GM issue arouses strong emotions on both sides of the divide, particularly among the more militant opponents to the technology who march across fields and rip up fledgling test plants, demanding that governments put a stop to "Frankenstein"foods by banning the import and the commercial use of GM crops.

Apart from their charge that nobody yet knows how safe GM crops are, they also accuse powerful biotech multinationals of using poor countries as a 'dumping ground' for products which have failed to sell to lucrative but sceptical European markets.


While some say increased funding should go into GM research for the staple foods of the developing would such as cassava, sorghum and corn -- as opposed to crops more used in developed countries -- others say the resources would be better used to promote sustainable agriculture in the world's poorer nations.

"I think the developing world would probably be better off putting its research resources somewhere else, other than in biotechnology,"said Jane Rissler, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a prominent U.S. environmental group.

"There are many sustainable agriculture areas that probably would be much better for them in the long run,"she said. "We're not sure yet that the (GM) benefits are going to be there."

Despite the financial clout of some of the agribusiness giants, research into plant genetics still suffers from a lack of funding, which delays field trials and safety tests.

"The reason why we are not seeing cassava, sorghum or chickpeas being grown in Vietnam, Kenya or Peru is because of lack of funding -- these technologies don't come cheap -- and lack of expertise, and they go together,"said Prakash.

"Ten years from now the problem is not going to go away. But at least we can start thinking about it now."