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Hooray for the Politically Incorrect U.N.
Biotech gains an unlikely ally

Wall Street Journal
July 12, 2001

We read that Bill Gates and his foundation are keen on stepping up the war against malaria, that perennial scourge of less developed nations. We applaud him, and wish the Gates Foundation the best of luck. The mosquito-borne disease still claims a million lives each year, mostly children and pregnant women. We hope as well that the Gates Foundation will show as much courage as the United Nations did this week in denouncing the technophobia that still stops the fruits of the First World from reaching the Third World.

Yes, of all things, the U.N. has blown the whistle on the nutty fears over genetically modified foods, saying that the developing world can ill afford such self-indulgent hysteria.

Just issued this week, the U.N. report, titled "Making New Technologies Work for Human Development," says Western-based environmental groups are impeding efforts to address hunger in Third World nations by blocking the development of bioengineered foods.

"The developing world needs these technologies as soon as possible, and European countries and campaigners are slowing everything up," Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, the report's lead author, told reporters. The full text is available here. Ms. Fukuda-Parr challenges biotech's opponents to produce evidence that modified foods threaten the environment or public health. "The first thing to remember," she says, "is that the scientific evidence for health and environmental harm is quite limited and very weak."

Mark Malloch Brown of the United Nations Development Program, which issued the survey, insists on the need to plant genetically modified staple crops--rice, millet, cassava--throughout the developing world to stave off malnutrition for upward of 800 million people. "These varieties have 50% higher yields, mature 30 to 50 days earlier, are substantially richer in protein, are far more disease- and drought-tolerant, resist insect pests and can even outcompete weeds," says Mr. Malloch Brown. "This initiative shows the enormous potential of biotech to improve food security in Africa, Asia and Latin America."

In an almost breathtaking display of political incorrectness, the U.N. Report even mocks one of First World environmentalism's holiest shrines -- the ban on DDT. Bill Gates should read this report.


Read the Full Report:

Making new technologies work for human development

United Nations Development Programme

Technology networks are transforming the traditional map of development, expanding people's horizons and creating the potential to realize in a decade progress that required generations in the past. Download the complete Human Development Report in one big file (3.3MB) or by chapter.



An Open Letter from Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, lead author of the UNDP HDR 2001 report.

7 August 2001: Open Letter on Human Development Report 2001 - Are we claiming GM crops can feed the world?

UNDP's Human Development Report 2001, "Making New Technologies Work for Human Development", launched 10 July, has generated strong reactions from a number of organisations over the analysis of the potential risks and benefits of genetically modified (GM ) crops in developing countries:

"While the report in general follows the UNDP's highly respected tradition of providing hard facts and a critical view on major development issues, its assessment of Agricultural Biotechnology suspiciously reads as if it had been written by a Public Relations agency to promote genetically modified organisms." - Von Hernandez, Greenpeace, 10 July 2001

This open letter is intended as a reply and further clarification of our position to all of those who are concerned by our views.

There are some 800 million people who do not have adequate food, and 1.2 billion people in the world who live on only a $1 a day. GM crops are not a silver bullet that can feed them. At the root of poverty and hunger are complex social, political and economic reasons why there is more food than the world's six billion people need yet so many are hungry. There is no substitute for public policies that empower poor people with jobs, education, health, equitable opportunities, sustainable environment and natural resources, and governance that assures social justice and a level playing field.

Nonetheless, investing in more research and development of GM crops is a promising avenue for accelerating progress in tackling global poverty and hunger challenges. More than half of the world's poorest people depend on agriculture, many living in environments where crop failures are frequent due to drought and other natural catastrophes. They have little alternative but to continue to rely on farming, fishing and keeping livestock: increasing their productivity is a key to securing their livelihoods. Past agricultural research and productivity gains benefited the staple crops of many developing countries but left out some of the poorest farmers and countries. Wheat yields in Asia are now four times what they were in 1960 (2.7 tonnes per hectare compared with 0.7 tonnes) and rice yields have doubled from 1.9 to 4 tonnes per hectare. In sharp contrast, yields of sorghum and millet in sub-Saharan Africa have not increased since the 1960s.

Many sub-Saharan African countries have become food importers, something they can ill afford because their export earnings have not increased and their overall economic growth has been stagnant.

Improving food security for the world's poorest farmers means improving their productivity. The new tools of biotechnology offer the potential for creating crop varieties that meet the challenges of farming that they face - such as varieties that are more tolerant of drought or saline soils. Relatively little has been done to explore this potential so far and GM crop development has been concentrated in industrialized countries, focusing on crops and characteristics of little relevance to those farmers.

Recognising the potential of GM crops for developing countries does not imply rejecting the potential and importance of other forms of agricultural progress - notably those based on organic or other systems of sustainable agriculture and indigenous knowledge. Technology is an expression of human creativity and in developing countries today efforts are underway to utilize a whole range of knowledge systems, resulting in groundbreaking innovations such as low cost wireless communications in India and malaria drugs in Viet Nam that combined traditional knowledge with modern science.

Human Development Report 2001 is focused particularly on the new technologies because they are driving today's technological transformation and, together with globalization, are transforming development challenges. Policy choices are being made that will shape the path of technology development and access, with present and future interests of developing countries at stake. These policy concerns include: public investment (or rather the pitiful lack of) in technology; excessive private sector ownership of and control over tools of technology that are clearly of tremendous public concern; TRIPS negotiations and implementation; and public opinion of and involvement in assessing the risks of technological change.

Many opponents of GM crops are rightly concerned with two kinds of risk that this technology can carry - first, potential health and environmental impacts and second, potential negative social and economic consequences. Both need serious attention.

Health and environmental risks associated with the introduction of new technology - any technology - are an important issue. GM technology is already in use in some developing countries and trials are underway in others. Given the inherent risks of this new technology, the report focuses on what countries can do to identify and manage them systematically and openly by building strong biosafety capacity with clear guidelines, systematic assessment and public consultation and product labeling so that each community or country can make its own choices. The challenge of establishing these systems is significant. Though some developing countries have the resources, personnel and institutional capacity needed, most do not. Hence the report calls for greater assistance to those countries attempting to establish a national biosafety capacity.

The current private sector dominance of GM technology risks locking it into a property rights system where a few large firms own the patents and control use of plant materials and GM techniques, eroding competitive markets and threatening both farmers' traditional varieties and the role of international and national public agricultural research alike. This problem is not specific to agriculture: it is recurring across different technological innovations, especially in health and the development of new medicines. Hence the report calls for greatly increased public sector investment in R&D to ensure that the tools of technology address people's needs, not just market demand. Likewise, new strategies for managing intellectual property are needed to ensure access to the tools for research and development - and on the basis of policy not charity. GM crop technology development is likely to benefit the poor only if the right technology is developed in the right way and put into the right hands.

* it is public institutions that must lead the way in tapping the potential to benefit the poor, researching crops and characteristics with and for poor farmers to meet their needs;

* strong environmental and health safeguards must be put in place through building institutions and regulatory frameworks in developing countries;

* national and global intellectual property policies must be implemented in a way that does not block the diffusion of products with high social benefits;

* participatory processes in shaping decisions regarding GM crops are essential, both at the country and community level.

Farmers have been innovators for centuries and technological progress can accelerate that process. The potential of modern biotechnology to do so deserves serious investment. As M.S. Swaminathan, Winner of the World Food Prize in 1997, says, "How can we ensure that the ever green revolution movement based on genetic and digital technologies is characterized by social and gender inclusiveness?

The answer...was given by Mahatma Ghandi more than 70 years ago. 'Recall the face of the face of the poorest and the weakest person you've seen and ask yourself if the steps you contemplate are going to be of any use to him'..My nearly 40 years experience...have led me to postulate two basic guidelines in the design of technology testing and dissemination programmes:

* if demonstrations and testing are organized in the fields of resource poor farmers, all farmers benefit, the reverse may not happen;

* if women are empowered with technological information and skills, all members of the family benefit, the reverse may not happen."

Technology can be a tool for human development - the role of good public policy is to shape the course of its progress to make it happen. That public policies, nationally and globally, have so far fallen far short of that task is a compelling reason to rethink and reform, not to condemn the technology.

- Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Lead Author, 'Making New Technologies Work for Human Development - Human Development Report 2001';

Sakiko.fukuda-parr@undp.org; Tel: 212 906 360 Director, Human Development Report Office, United Nations Development Programme