by Danielle Knight

Washington, 22 Oct 99(IPS) - International scientists, policy makers,
industry and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) met at the
World Bank headquarters this week to ponder the costs and benefits
of growing genetically modified crops in developing countries.

The two-day conference, convened by the Bank's Consultative Group
on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and the US
National Academy of Science, discussed whether biotechnology
will help or harm efforts to reduce poverty, protect the
environment and ensure food security.

With the world's population now at six billion, the biotech
industry proclaimed that the new technology offered important
new tools in boosting food output and feeding the burgeoning

The application of biotechnology held great potential for
creating plants that were more drought resistant, more tolerant
to poor soil, and more resistant to pests without pesticides,
according to company officials.

But, opponents of the technology said hunger was not due to
overpopulation but rather the unequal distribution of economic
resources. They said more tests were needed to ensure that
biologically-engineered crops harmed neither health nor the

Concern over adverse impacts of the crop has run so deep in
developing countries that in 1998, farmers in India burned
hectares of test areas of biologically engineered seeds, fearing
the development of "superweeds" through the cross-breeding of
biotech seeds resistant to pesticides.

The debate has been so contentious that, the last time the issue
was discussed during international talks in February,
negotiations broke down when the United States and five other
large agricultural exporters rejected a proposal that had the
support of 130 other nations.

European and developing countries maintained not enough was known
about the new technology, so trade should be restricted. But the
United States, Canada, Australia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay
argued that regulations would entangle global food trade in red

At the end of November, trade in biologically engineered products
again is expected to be one of the main agenda items at the
World Trade Organisation talks in Seattle at the end of November.

To find out if the new technology will truly benefit or harm
farmers in developing countries, many panellists at this week's
conference stressed the need to make all information available
to the farmers and then have them decide for themselves.

"The potential contributions of biotechnology to poverty
alleviation and enhanced food security and nutrition in
developing countries has received little attention beyond
blanket statement of support or opposition," said Per Pinstrup-
Andersen, director general of the Washington-based International
Food Policy Research Institute.

While biotechnology is not a silver bullet for achieving food
security, he said it could be a powerful tool in the fight
against poverty that should be made available to poor farmer and

"A debate based on the best available empirical evidence relevant
for poor people in developing countries is urgently needed, in
order to identify the most appropriate ways that molecular
biology-based research might contribute to the solution of poor
people's problems," said Pinstrup-Andersen.

Some farmers and rural communities in developing countries
already had greatly benefitted from biotechnology, said Bongiwe
Njobe-Mbuli, director general of the Souther African Department
of Agriculture.

She described how farmers in the nation's poor southeastern
province, Kwazulu- Natal planted biologically engineered pest-
resistant cotton that dramatically increased yields.

"One woman increased her yields to the point where she was
employing 200 people and put up a school and ran a facilitated
health programmes in the area," said Njobe-Mbuli.

While praising such success stories, Pinstrup-Andersen worried
that the bulk of biotechnology research was led by corporations
based in industrialised nations whose research focused on
agricultural problems and pests in developed countries.

Therefore, he said, agricultural problems plaguing developing
countries that could be solved by biotechnology, were not
researched because the market was not as lucrative.

Meanwhile, funding for public agricultural research in developing
countries was dwindling. "It's frightening to see the public
sector cut back on agricultural research that is so badly needed
for small farmers in developing countries," said Pinstrup-

Reynaldo E. de la Cruz, former director of the National
Institutes of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology in Laguna
Philippines, suggested that CGIAR work more closely with its
associated research centres to coordinate research in
biotechnology to ensure the needs of farmers in developing
countries are met.

"For developing countries, the small farmers and fisherfolks
should be the main beneficiaries of biotechnology research and
development," he wrote in a paper presented at the conference.

Jean Marc von der Weid, director Advice and Services for
Alternative Agriculture (Assessoria e Servico a Projetos em
Agricultura Alternativa), a Brazilian NGO, agreed that farmers
in developing countries need to be given all the information to
decide for themselves if they want to the high-tech seeds or not.

"But, we should not forget that pressure from the North comes in
many different forms," he warned.

"Monsanto, for example has a huge campaign in Brazil promoting
this technology." In order to ensure that biotechnology did not
harm the environment, health or the livelihood of poor farmers,
international bodies need to develop new programmes or new
institutions to respond to these new technological advances,
added Alain de Janvry, professor at University of California
Berkeley and a member of the CGIAR Technical Advisory Committee.

"There needs to be experimentation with institutions for
monitoring and enforcement of biosafety and intellectual
property rights regulations," he said.

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared
in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .