Development: UNDP's Stance on
Transgenics Ignites Debate
MEXICO CITY, Jul 12 (IPS) - The United Nations Development
Programme (UNDP) entered rocky terrain when it asserted that
genetically modified crops could be the key to combating world
hunger, especially since it did so at a time when the proponents of
these products appear to be back-pedalling.
The total area in the world cultivated with transgenic seeds multiplied
25-fold between 1996 and 2000, but in the most recent biennial
expansion dropped to just eight percent, a low rate compared to the
44-percent increase recorded from 1998 to 1999.
According to the UNDP, the environmental impact of genetically
modified organisms has not been verified, and precautions should be
taken. What is clear, says the UN agency, is that there are 850 million
people in the world who suffer from hunger, and transgenic crops could
be the key to feeding them.
We should not ''hastily discard the possibilities provided by
transgenics for high-yield crops,'' and even less when hunger could
intensify in Africa, Elena Martínez, UNDP director for Latin America,
''First we should ask ourselves whether or not the risk-laden
transgenics are needed to combat hunger, if there are other
possibilities in organic farming that are being ignored by the
transnational seed companies, or
if the problem is really a matter of global politics and economics,''
commented Silvia Ribeiro, Latin American representative for the
Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).
The commercial transgenic crops existing today are soy, maize, cotton
and canola, and are marketed by five transnationals based in the
industrialised North that hold the patent rights to the seeds. Of the
area planted with these genetically modified organisms, 98 percent is
in Argentina, Canada and the United States.
Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Aventis and Dow - leaders in transgenics
in the pharmaceutical, agro-chemical and seed industries - maintain that
genetically modified crops represent the cure for world hunger.
Monsanto, responsible for 94 percent of the area planted with commercial
transgenic seeds, announced in January that it is designing a campaign
to promote its genetically modified products after recognising a decline
Biotechnology offers a unique and perhaps the best recourse for
ecologically marginalized areas, says the UNDP in its Human Development
Report, presented Tuesday in Mexico City.
The UN agency suggests that industry lobbyists exaggerate the
potential short-term benefits of the genetically modified crops, while
social and environmental activists overstate the risks involved.
In practice, the battle over transgenics is being waged by scientists
working to develop new seed varieties and by powerful corporations,
and civil society and environmental groups.
In the middle of the fray are the governments of developing countries,
which are under intense pressures as they debate how to confront this
new technology. And there are the impoverished and hungry people who are
seeking access to obtain more food.
The World Bank's food policy research institute warns that
international food production today faces severe risks as a result of
soil degradation, drought and contamination.
The promoters of transgenic technology (the introduction of a gene
from one species into another) claim that it will permit the creation
economical, fast-growing crops with high protein content and will reduce
the need for agro-chemicals.
But these promises have yet to become reality. Experiments are being
conducted on several transgenic products, but only five different crops
have reached the global market. And the production of transgenic
seeds focuses on just two areas: tolerance against pesticides and
Researcher Charles M. Benbrook, former head of the US Agricultural
Sciences Academy concluded in a report released in May that genetically
modified soy crops are not delivering what the transnational companies
Based on assessments of soybean fields in the United States, Benbrook
discovered that the transgenic varieties produced five to 10 percent
less than conventional varieties.
Furthermore, he found that the genetically modified soy utilised 10 to
30 percent more herbicide than conventional soy.
RAFI spokeswoman Ribeiro said it is clear that there has been a global
decline in the cultivation of transgenic crops, which indicates ''that
the furore over this type of seed is entering a crisis.''
The companies that sell transgenic seeds have attempted to put a global
spin on the marketing of their products, but several countries - the
European Union in particular - have erected obstacles to prevent imports
of such products, and more and more are announcing the implementation
Some scientists - alongside social and environmental activists - caution
that genetically modified organisms could serve as the vehicles of
previously unknown diseases and constitute a threat to native plants
and to biodiversity.
The UNDP says in its Human Development Report 2001 that it is aware
of the risks involved with transgenics, but asserts that they should not
be ignored as a potential source for feeding the world's hungry.
The forces guiding the debate on the transgenic questions are public
fear and commercial interests, says the UNDP.
The agency's report states that the decline in malnutrition in South
Asia - from 40 percent in the 1970s to 23 percent in 1997 - is a result
of technological advances in farming practices and the use of fertilizers
and pesticides, which led to a four-fold increase in rice and wheat yields.
The so-called Green Revolution, which since the 1960s has fostered
the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and other advances that allowed
an increase in agricultural production, prove that technological
progress deeply influences development, adds the UNDP.
Studies by Peter Rosset, Joseph Collins and Francis Moore Lappé,
Foodfirst, a US-based NGO, show that between 1970 and 1990 the quantity
of food available per person worldwide increased 11 percent and the
portion of the global population suffering hunger dropped 16 percent.
However, if China's data are excluded, the global figures indicate that
hunger increased 11 percent in that 20-year span.
The Foodfirst experts maintain that the reduction of hunger in China
from 406 million to 189 million people in the period studied - was due
to social and political reforms, not to the impacts of the Green
''The solution to hunger and starvation lies elsewhere, not in
technology,'' stressed RAFI representative Ribeiro.
Civil society lobbying groups maintain that transnational corporations
have imposed the use of genetically modified seeds upon world
agriculture because it represents a boost to their bottom line.
The answers to hunger could lie in organic farming practices and in
traditional forms of crop improvement, but these possibilities have
been cast aside because they involve farmers who are a long way
from the global trade circuits, Ribeiro said.
The UNDP, meanwhile, indicated that organic farming could be the
most effective approach in some cases, but not in all situations.
Governments should assess the costs and benefits of transgenic
organisms, inform the population, establish effective regulations,
share information with other countries and conduct more research,
prescribes the UN agency.