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Scientific Community Backs Agbiotech

Rice World
Dec. 2003. v. 3, no. 12, p 15
By Matthew Hisrich

With the increasing use of agricultural biotechnology has come increasing controversy. The recent Gates Foundation grant to promote healthier produce through genetics, for instance, sparked a wave of commentary on the future of these technologies in agriculture.

Recently, Rice World had the opportunity to speak with Dr. C. S. Prakash, Professor in Plant Molecular Genetics and Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Dr. Prakash is the founder of AgBioWorld Foundation. This organization aims to provide science-based information on agbiotech issues to various stakeholders across the world.

RW: How did you first become interested in agricultural biotechnology?

- I am by training a plant breeder. During the mid 1980s when it became apparent that biotechnology tools are vital to developing improved varieties of crop plants, I started learning the techniques to better equip myself in my field.

RW: How long have you been working in the field?

- About 25 years in plant breeding and 17 years in biotech.

RW: Recent research has shown that both farmers and consumers are interested in genetically modified agriculture that might benefit them, yet there is a strong reluctance to using the technology. What do you feel is at the root of opposition to the use of such tools?

- Much of the opposition to this technology is rooted in vested interests and not based on science or facts. Radical environmentalists oppose this technology because it helps advance their agenda of anti-development and anti-progress while appealing to gullible donors. Organic food industry opposes biotechnology because it increases their sales by creating fear among consumers. Europeans oppose biotechnology so that they can restrict U.S. imports. Many NGOs oppose this technology for they fear the companies.

RW: Britain is experiencing a "brain drain" as its best biotech researchers depart under intense public backlash. Have you experienced any negative reactions to your work?

- Not much negative reaction to my research because I work in the US. However, I have faced considerable opposition to my views on biotechnology to my writings and at my lectures throughout the world.

RW: Are there any implications for the advancement of science generally from these attitudes?

- Science must go on and but increasingly it is apparent that we must be cognizant of the public perception of technological advancement. Our job as scientists now extends beyond the labs in making an effort to create an awareness of the impact of science among the policy makers, media and the general public.

RW: Do you feel there are any valid concerns?

- Concerns about food safety and the environmental impact of biotech crops are scrutinized thoroughly by the regulators on a case-by-case basis and thus there should really be no issue here. We have had absolutely no credible scientific reason to fear any of the products we have on the market.

There is a larger concern that is difficult to address - control of the technology. There are some understandable grounds for concern that a handful of big companies control this technology. However, these companies have invested billions in developing this technology and thus it is natural that they would recoup their investment. But they have also shown willingness to share the technology for larger public good such as with the Golden Rice patents. We must have a collective will globally in harnessing this technology and channel it in appropriate ways to target developing country problems such as focusing on rice, cassava, millets etc. This can be done with strong public sector funding, and creative partnerships with the private sector such as that which is being experimented with in Africa through the African Agriculture Technology Foundation.

RW: How important do you feel genetic modification is for future food security?

- In our past efforts, genetics was a major tool in addressing food security to bring about the green revolution through improved varieties. Genetic modification is a vital and powerful tool in our hands now to bring unprecedented improvements in food and agriculture throughout the world. By targeted use of genetic modification, we can help cut down losses on the farm due to pests, disease and weeds, conserve losses beyond the farm through improved shelf-life, cut down the use of chemicals on the farm, improve productivity, help crops tolerate droughts and bad soils and make them more nutritious. While genetic modification alone will not help ensure food security, the task will be very elusive without the help of this innovative technology.

RW: Are there economic consequences as well?

- I see it as a win-win situation. There can only be positive economic consequences from improving agricultural productivity in the developing world which in turn helps these struggling economies, brings more food security, cuts down the inequity between the rural poor and urban rich, helps improve exports, brings down food prices and also conserves the natural resource base.

RW: Do regulations on GM products in developed nations (the EU in particular) harm agricultural producers in developing nations?

- Certainly. The EU has taken an irrational path so far in regulating these products so harshly to the point of stopping any further development. Further, the draconian tracing and labeling requirements on their food imports will ensure that developing countries would have no incentive to pursue biotechnology in their own agriculture.

RW: Is there a cost to developed nations as well, in the form of a chilling effect?

- Yes. Trade of farm products is an important component of most developing countries. There is thus a global ripple effect from the EU all over the world.

RW: Is it true that labeling requirements for biotech products might actually reduce consumers' access to factual information about food safety?

- Much of the current labeling requirement from EU is very misleading to the consumer and it does not protect the consumer in any scientific manner.

RW: China is moving fast to develop GM crops. In the U.S., the National Science Foundation and other government bodies are awarding grants to such research. In the Mississippi Delta, advocates are pushing for states to develop a "biotech corridor" along the lines of Silicon Valley. What do you view as the appropriate role for federal and state governments to play in the development of biotechnology?

- Governments all over the world have a responsibility to promote basic research in biotechnology and those in developing countries especially have a major responsibility in the application of this technology to staple food crops. A larger role of governments here is in ensuring policies that facilitate development of technology through meaningful and science-based regulation without much red tape.

RW: Rice was one of the first genomes to be fully mapped, and 2004 has been declared The International Year of Rice by the United Nations. How important do you view the improvement of rice to international food security?

- Rice is the most important food crop in the world that much of the humanity depends on for its survival. Any improvement in rice productivity is a march of progress. I believe that rice would be the most important crop to deliver biotechnology promise to the masses because so much more rice is needed to feed the burgeoning population in the future. Rice is grown on tiny little farms around the world and against great odds of weeds, pests, disease, drought and problem soils. Biotechnology can help transform this miracle crop further into bounty of wonder that can continue to sustain humanity.

RW: There is much concern in the news about an impending "water crisis." Are you aware of any efforts to reduce rice's water demands through genetic modification?

- Certainly. There is much research on improving drought tolerance of rice in many labs. This is a difficult target but already much progress is being made. Genome research would clearly help in accelerating such discoveries.

RW: Some commentators have suggested that developing nations should diversify their agriculture and move away from a dependence on rice to ensure food security. Does this type of response to food concerns eliminate the need for technology advancements?

- A recent report by IRRI has shown that because of high productivity of new rice varieties, farmers in Asia have already diversified much because they can produce more rice on less land leaving aside more land for other crops. Technology advancements will thus be needed further not only to diversify but also to continue to make productivity increases in rice.

RW: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jacques Diouf recently stated that impoverished countries in Africa need basic supplies such as water and infrastructure more than they need GM seeds. Would you agree?

- It is not 'Either / Or' question and that is silly. Africa needs both.

RW: What is the Declaration of Support for Agricultural Biotechnology?

- It is simply a statement affirming the scientific community overwhelming support of ag biotech and its potential to help advance human quality of life through biotechnology. For more information, visit http://www.agbioworld.org/.

RW: How many scientists have expressed support for this document?

- More than 3,500 so far, including 24 Nobel laureates.

RW: Do you feel that biotechnology's benefits will eventually win over the public?

- Yes, I am confident. Historically there has always been opposition and suspicion of new technologies. However, once the people start recognizing the benefits of new innovations and also understand that many of the risks are non-existent or can be managed, they will embrace the technology.