Genetic engineering for the South?

THERE are fundamental deficiencies in the science and technology of genetic manipulation and, accordingly, basic flaws in existing regulatory systems. This is especially the case with the major exporting producers, such as the US and Canada. These two factors, combined with the commercial self-interest of the biotechnology industry, are making us the largest laboratory in history - both in human and in biodiversity terms.

Commercial pressure is so dominant that sound science is being subverted and government oversight eroded. Cases of suppression of scientific dissent are now reported. Entire arms of public universities are being taken over by corporations and it is alarming that the obvious conflict of interests has largely gone unquestioned. Though the tide seems to be turning a little (e.g. the California State Senate hearing of the Novartis-UC Berkeley agreement; University of Pennsylvania’s termination of its human gene therapy experiments; the signing on of more than 310 scientists from 36 countries to the World Scientists’ Statement calling for a moratorium on commercial releases and a banning of patents on life forms and living processes), the dominant trends do not inspire confidence in developing countries.

For the South, the unfolding scientific evidence of hazards, consumer rejection and even growing small farmers’ rejection, as well as actions by some European governments in line with the Precautionary Principle, reaffirm the necessity for us to make the right production and consumption choices. Agriculture has to be sustainable in every sense of the word because at stake are food security, food safety and nutrition, soil, water, biodiversity, knowledge systems, and the livelihoods of millions of farming families. This is particularly crucial for poor countries. Middle-income countries are also increasingly aware of the need for food security and self-sufficiency. The financial crisis of Asia, which exploded into a full economic and social quagmire for some countries, was a harsh reminder that food imports cannot be the future. Thus reducing the food import bill and re-invigorating domestic production has become a national goal in Malaysia.

The challenge then is selecting the option(s) that will provide sufficient, safe and nutritious food from productive, ecological agricultural systems. Technology is but one part of those complex and interactive systems. In the last 20 years, unwarranted and hasty commercialisation of a range of genetically engineered crops has undermined and even diverted research priorities, funding and policy from truly sustainable options. At the same time, more claims and marketing hype have been made compared to responsible scientific research and assessment of the risks and hazards of GE crops and food. This includes the ‘Golden Rice’ that is widely touted as a ‘second-generation’ GE product. It is in fact the result of first-generation technology, and even more potentially hazardous to human health and biodiversity than the herbicide-tolerant and Bt crops (see ‘The ‘golden rice’ - an exercise in how not to do science’, pp. 22-26).

In addition to the inherent ecological instability of GE crops and its attendant hazards, the genetic-engineering option also intensifies the expropriation of public or indigenous knowledge through patents, and heightens the corporate control of the food chain. The attempt in Seattle (at the third Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation) by the US, Canada and Japan to convert the safety issue of GE agricultural products into a predominantly trade issue in the WTO is a grim reminder of the power of industry. Enough Southern governments realised the danger of that move, and successfully defeated it, supported by some European environment ministers.

The South has the right to a fair chance to assess different technologies, with full information and in accordance with the Precautionary Principle. However, GE crops are aggressively promoted in the South (largely by industry), though commercial planting has not been carried out yet in most countries. GE seeds and especially food products are flooding our markets, almost always without public or even government knowledge.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, recently concluded in February 2000, overcame tremendous opposition and a range of questionable tactics by the US, Canada and Australia. As of 26 May, 68 countries have signed on. Most of the countries are from the South, including Argentina and Chile, which were part of the six-country Miami Group led by the US to defeat the Protocol. Fourteen European Union member countries are also signatories. Canada has declared that it will not sign. The US is not even a Party to the Convention on Biological Diversity and so cannot be a Party to the Protocol, which was negotiated under the Convention. That did not prevent them, however, from leading the attack to defeat and then dilute the Protocol.

Though the Biosafety Protocol constitutes only a small part of what is needed, it is significant because it is the first legally binding international instrument that regulates genetically engineered organisms. It also prescribes minimum standards and countries should now proceed to establish strong and comprehensive national and regional biosafety laws, scientific capacity for assessment, and monitoring and implementation capabilities.

Meanwhile, despite the unconscionable neglect by public institutions with regard to supporting holistic agricultural systems, an estimated (known) 12.5 million hectares of land worldwide are under sustainable, agro-ecological farm systems. Millions of small farmers in the South are involved in indigenous or traditional systems. Organic and other forms of ecological farming are growing in industrialised countries. In many cases, Western holistic scientific knowledge is complementing traditional knowledge and assisting in improving existing practices.

Way forward

·        Mainstreaming existing research in the fields of holistic agricultural systems that are rooted in the scientific discipline of agroecology: Governments and international institutions must urgently and immediately redress the gross imbalance in agricultural research support, which has been distorted in favour of genetic engineering over the past 20 years. Only then can real scientific, technological and policy choices be made.

·        While continuing to seek benefits from conventional biotechnology, the path of genetic manipulation should not be taken. The reductionist paradigm manifested in monocultures of the Green Revolution and now the genetic-engineering model is inherently unsustainable.

·        Where there is potential use for genetic engineering techniques (for example, marker selection and plant diagnostics), these could be developed but always under truly contained conditions. Getting the basic research right has to be the priority. Distinguishing tools from entire production systems rooted in ecological and social sustainability is a necessity.

·        Socially responsible and holistic science needs to be the ethos of the new millennium. The conceptual battle must be more vigorous, requiring more public scientific debate on genetic engineering, while taking on the challenge to mainstream research in holistic agricultural systems based on integrating the best of indigenous and Western sciences.

·        Until effective international biosafety regulation, national biosafety regulation and capacity are established, there should be: a global moratorium on trans-boundary movements of GE seeds and other GE material; compulsory labelling of products without thresholds on the engineered DNA or protein present; and liability legally conferred on corporate producers and not small or family farmers bearing the burden of crop failures or environmental/health damage. There should be a ban on research such as the ‘Terminator’ technology and uses with known hazards (e.g. antibiotic-resistant marker genes). The fact that horizontal gene transfer is established, and that biological ‘mistakes’ cannot be withdrawn from nature, demands a moratorium on further planting in those countries that are already doing so. The absence of long-term environmental and health studies cannot be an excuse because the flawed approval systems of OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, adopted by some developing countries, have been shown to overlook and even ignore problems. - Chee Yoke Ling