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Q&A with C.S. Prakash

CEI's Monthly Planet
Sept. 2003

A Leading Expert on Agricultural Uses of Biotechnology Talks about Biotech's Promise for Feeding People around the World-and the Irrational Fears Holding the Technology Back

Dr. C.S. Prakash, professor of plant genetics at Tuskegee University in Alabama, spoke with CEI recently about his efforts-and what other scientists can do-to counter unfounded fears about biotechnology. At Tuskeegee University, Dr. Prakash oversees research on food crops of importance to developing countries and the training of scientists and students in plant biotechnology. He is a co-founder, with CEI's Gregory Conko, of the AgBioWorld Foundation, a network organization that brings together scientists and members of the policy community interested in agricultural applications of biotechnology. Dr. Prakash's "Declaration in Support of Agricultural Biotechnology" has received endorsements from over 3,300 scientists from across the world, including 22 Nobel laureates, such as Dr. James Watson, Dr. Peter Doherty, and Dr. John Boyer-and Nobel Peace Prize winners Dr. Norman Borlaug and Oscar Arias Sanchez.

CEI: What first sparked your interest in doing research in using agricultural biotechnology?

Prakash: I began by studying agriculture in India, then gravitated toward majoring in genetics after hearing a lecture by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, who was responsible for India's Green Revolution. He helped boost agricultural productivity tremendously with high-yielding varieties of crop plants. I have since been a geneticist and plant breeder. In the mid-1980s, when I finished my Ph.D., biotechnology was on the horizon. Because biotechnology tools represented a logical continuum of the methods we had been using to improve crop plants, it was a natural progression for me to learn these techniques so I could to apply them to my research. I didn't see them as radical, but as a new set of tools in our arsenal to improve varieties of crop plants

CEI: You begin your chapter in Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths by quoting former Greenpeace UK director Lord Peter Melchett, who says that Greenpeace's opposition to biotechnology is "a permanent and definite and complete opposition based on a view that there will always be major uncertainties." Why do radical environmentalists refuse to accept that all innovations which benefit consumers involve uncertainties and risks? What is the best way to counteract their arguments that all risks are unacceptable?

Prakash: I think that radical environmentalists have a political agenda rooted in their own self-survival, and it is fueled by fear-mongering in order to appeal to a broad audience. Food is fundamental to our existence, and people genuinely care for the environment. Therefore, the attack on biotech crops can appeal to both those interested in food safety and those interested in environmental sustainability. Practically all radical environmentalists have targeted big business and capitalism, so when genetically modified (GM) crops were introduced, especially in Europe, radical environmentalists could combine food safety concerns, environmental concerns, and fears about globalization to create a platform and attack GM foods. It was very easy and very convenient.

CEI: In the book, you include a detailed analysis of how labeling requirements for biotech products could actually reduce consumers' access to factual information about food safety. What is the optimal way to ensure that consumers receive the best possible safety information about food choices in the marketplace? What role should regulators play in that process?

Prakash: The labeling system we have in place here in North America provides accurate information about verifiable contents. It is an excellent approach. Consumers must understand that biotech food has been subjected to intense scrutiny by regulators and is as safe as the non-biotech derived food products. And they could be provided with other sources of information, such as a 1-800 number or website address-like McDonald's, where, if I wanted to find out the number of calories in a hamburger, there is always a way I can get it. However, just labeling GM foods as "GM foods" is discriminatory, because, historically, we do not label a new product if it is nutritionally the same as other products. For instance, if you had a bowl of cereal this morning, you would have no idea what variety of corn was used to produce this product, how the corn was produced, where it was grown, or what chemicals and pesticides were used on it. If companies suddenly started using another type of corn, you would not know-it wouldn't matter from a nutritional, taste, or safety point of view. But if you were to put a big label on the cereal as being a GM-modified food without corresponding information about what it means-in a climate where GM is attacked by activists-it would be like putting a skull and crossbones on the product. On the other hand, if that product contains nutritionally enhanced ingredients-high-protein corn or heart-healthier oil-then of course it must be labeled with details on how it was produced. We have a very sensible, pragmatic labeling system in this country that protects consumers and ensures that buyers are not subject to fraudulent, unverifiable claims. They really don't have this kind of system in Europe.

CEI: You conclude your chapter by highlighting the disconnect between anti-biotech activists from NGOs in less developed nations, like Vandana Shiva, and actual farmers in those nations. What can the public and policy makers in wealthy nations do to help give those farmers a voice?

Prakash: Begin by stop funding the activists who are anti-development, anti-progress, and anti-technology, because these radical activists in developing countries, who are hell-bent on stopping the infusion of any technology that helps in development, are really playing into the hands of donors from the West-maybe some governments or even individuals who fund them. Secondly, these donors and policy makers in developing countries must understand that agriculture is the backbone of most developing countries, employing a majority of the work force and contributing a major share to the GDP and exports of these countries. One cannot develop agriculture with superstition and fear-mongering, but rather by embracing helpful technologies and adopting other policy initiatives that have worked. Some of these initiatives include ensuring that there is a good infrastructure, credit, and free, more open market systems-these are all true and tested instruments. Many countries, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, which are really the breadbaskets of the world, have increased productivity almost a dozen-fold compared to what they grew 100 years ago. This is not by happenstance, but rather a concerted effort to make sure we have the highest innovation in science and technology. Activists want to take us back in time by insisting upon primitive farming practices instead of using available modern technologies. Buzzwords like "sustainable agriculture" are merely euphemisms for primitive agriculture, which has sustained nothing but hunger and misery.

CEI: In your May 13, 2003 Wall Street Journal Europe op-ed, coauthored with CEI's Gregory Conko, you note that the European Union's (EU) new biotech labeling and traceability rules will harm less developed nations much more severely than it will harm the U.S. because poor farmers cannot afford the compliance costs. Why do so many European regulators fail to understand their rules' impact on poor farmers around the world?

Prakash: I see arrogance and self-righteousness in the EU's attitude toward agriculture and food and its non-scientific approach to regulation-it has clearly harmed them. One can see this over the past 20 years with the massive scares, including mad cow disease, foot and mouth disease, and dioxin. They place much emphasis on process-based and non-science-based regulation in Europe, as with traceability and GM labeling. Taking rice grown in India and exported to Europe as an example of how European regulations harm farmers in developing nations, the Indian Basmati rice exported to Europe is grown on small- to average-sized farms. The average farm in the world is less than two acres. A sack of rice that ends up at Tesco's (British supermarket chain) has been drawn from hundreds of little farms, transported by bullock carts to market, stored in community grain bins, and then processed in a different place. So, according to the correct traceability regulation, if you wanted to follow this sack of rice from where it was grown to all of the points it has traveled, it would simply be ridiculous, especially in a developing country.

CEI: When United States Trade Representative Robert Zoellick announced the U.S. case against the EU's biotech restrictions before the World Trade Organization (WTO), he asked you to formally present your petition of 20 (now 22) Nobel Laureates and over 3,300 other scientists in favor of biotechnology. What did you stress during your presentation at the USTR's announcement? How did the farmers from less developed nations who discussed their experiences with biotechnology help you drive those points home?

Prakash: I had along with me a farmer and a professor, both from South Africa, and a scientist from Mexico. They all essentially said that this technology is not something to fear, and it presents a safe method of improving agriculture and enhancing our food supply. By placing restrictions on this technology, it will be the people in the developing world who will lose the most. It is in the developing world-countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America-where hunger and poverty persist. There is little rain, poor soils, and increased use of chemicals to control diseases and pests, which can cause environmental harm if they're misused. This technology would obviate many of these problems. But European reluctance to accept the fruits of this technology has driven most developing nations to go slowly with biotech or put a moratorium on growing biotech crops. We have a petition on the AgBioWorld Foundation's web site (www.agbioworld.org), which has broad support from scientific community across the world. It says that GM is a safe method to grow our food and will contribute much to the well-being of humankind.