Sunday, December 18, 2005

Biotech battle looms in Asia

Far Eastern Economic Review - July 2005

For over four millennia, alchemists have sought to transform ordinary metals into gold. Today, it seems that a new alchemy has finally arrived to make our wildest dreams come true—genetic engineering is set to solve the problems of our age, with a long line of promises that range from the utopian to the truly bizarre.

Drought tolerant, pest resistant, crops that are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, will help the rich lose weight and help the poor overcome malnutrition. Researchers in Japan are reportedly developing a soy bean that includes an antihair loss gene. Apparently, the addition of human genes to rice makes it resistant to 13 different varieties of herbicide. Miracle solutions abound. But how real are the promises and what are the risks? And how are the benefits and risks of this technology shared by the wider community?

With entrenched positions on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, centre stage of the genetically engineered (ge) food debate is shifting to Asia, where most countries are developing ge varieties of crops ranging from rice to papaya, corn and potato. Among the myriad of research trials, the proposed introduction of ge rice in China is the key threshold issue. Rice is the world’s most important staple food crop and forms the basis of the diet in many countries. Up until now, no country has ever allowed their major staple food crop to be genetically engineered on a wide scale.

Corn, soy beans, canola and cotton make up the bulk of ge crops and are used mostly in animal feed. A smaller proportion goes into highly processed foods. Even the U.S.—where the growing of ge foods is widespread—has so far stopped short of introducing ge rice, even though regulatory approvals have been granted.

Proponents of ge crops are hoping that China will soon adopt ge rice, giving a green light to other Asian countries, and providing the silver bullet that overcomes global opposition to ge foods. However, to date Chinese officials have been circumspect about the applications while they consider the health and environmental risks, as well as market implications. The Chinese government is well aware that should it approve ge rice, it will be entering unknown territory in terms of exposing its population to the risks inherent in ge technology.

So why all the fuss? There are fundamental objections to the release of ge organisms into the environment and food chain, based on environmental and health risks. Many consumers simply don’t like the idea of scientists and chemical companies mucking around with their food, others have ethical or religious objections. Farmers are concerned about patent issues and the increasing corporate control over seeds and farming. And a large number of food companies have decided that the risk of consumer rejection of their products outweighs any potential benefits of ge foods and have joined the anti-ge camp.

There are many interesting and important developments in molecular biology that may help to improve the way we understand and interact with our environment—including many applications of agricultural biotechnology that hold real promise. However ge is only one specific application that results from this wider field of scientific inquiry. It is a crude technology, based on outdated science and carries with it environmental and health risks that are inherent in the ge process. As Barry Commoner, senior scientist at City University of New York said in his essay “Unraveling the dna Myth”:

The [genetic engineering] industry is based on science that is 40 years old and conveniently devoid of more recent results, which show that there are strong reasons to fear the potential consequences of transferring a dna gene between species. What the public fears is not the experimental science but the fundamentally irrational decision to let it out of the laboratory into the real world before we truly understand it.

Claims are regularly made about the safety of ge foods but these are more often made by plant breeders than by public health experts. The notion that “people have been eating ge foods for years and nobody has got sick” is utter nonsense as anyone who knows the first thing about public health will know. There is no monitoring system in place to identify any negative health impacts of ge foods anywhere in the world, and any unexpected effects are likely to be subtle and long term. Put simply, if you don’t look for problems you will be unlikely to find them. The British Medical Association recently observed that “the few robust studies that have looked for health effects have been short term and specific. There is a lack of evidence-based research with regard to medium- and long-term effects on health.”

If recent understandings of biological complexity and genetics were applied, ge crops would be discarded to the dustbin of history. The problem is that there has been such a large financial, intellectual and emotional investment in ge that the normal scientific process has been suspended and many institutions have locked themselves in to pushing this outdated technology at the expense of investing in other less risky, and perhaps more promising areas of research.

Part of the mythology of ge crops is that they are needed to feed a growing population and solve problems of malnutrition. This no doubt provides a strong motivation for well meaning scientists, but in the realpolitik of the global biotechnology industry, this is little more than a cynical public-relations ploy.

The experience with the world’s most widely grown ge crop, showed that despite claims of increased yield, roundup ready soy yields around 5% less than conventional soy. This data is rarely publicized and claims of increased yield continue despite evidence to the contrary.

The assumption that ge crops will feed the world is even more ill founded. People don’t starve because there isn’t enough food, but because they are poor and are denied access to food. In 2001, the Indian government was sued after allowing grain to rot in government granaries while innumerable starvation deaths were reported throughout the country. Many countries in Europe pay their farmers not to grow food. While in other countries, produce is routinely destroyed due to market failures.

But rather than addressing the causes of malnutrition and hunger, scientists are inventing more far-fetched, high-tech solutions to reinforce and extend a food system that is fundamentally designed to make profits for agribusiness rather than to feed people.

The other tangible argument in favor of ge crops is the notion that they will reduce pesticide use. However there are other, less risky ways to achieve this result. Farmer education and integrated pest management are obvious starting points.

The push to introduce ge rice in China and Asia seems to be driven more by the needs of the industry than by any real analysis of the problems. For example, the variety of ge rice that is first in line for approval is bacterial blight (bb) resistant rice, yet in China, bb affects only 1% to 2% of the total rice crop and the Ministry of Agriculture has not conducted any national bb infection forecast in the past two years since the disease is no longer considered to be a serious problem. In any case, there are several other promising solutions to bb available, including the use of other non-breeding methods such as crop rotation and increasing crop biodiversity.

While the regulators evaluate the risks of ge rice, Chinese scientists appear to have been taking the issue into their own hands. A number of research trials have been taking place over recent years and new evidence suggests that some of these trials may have spread out of control.

Greenpeace found ge rice available for sale in the markets in the Chinese province of Hubei. The rice was labeled as “pest resistant” rice and testing by international laboratory Genescan confirmed that the rice was in fact ge rice. Based on interviews with farmers and around 20 positive tests from numerous sources, Greenpeace estimates that between 950 and 1,200 tons of ge rice entered the food chain or rice market after last year’s harvest. This year, it is estimated that up to 13,500 tons may enter the market unless urgent action is taken.

While the Chinese government is conducting investigations into the problem, a number of other countries have begun probes to ensure that imports of Chinese rice have not been inadvertently contaminated. Japan has a zero tolerance for unauthorized ge organisms and according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare’s website, Japanese authorities will begin testing Chinese rice imports. South Korea is also looking into the possible contamination of rice imports.

The push to introduce ge crops in Asia is likely to increase in the future—and the pressure on governments to protect farmers and consumers and their national biosafety will also mount. In many ways, Asia is becoming the meat in the biotech sandwich, with a small number of transnational agrichemical companies aggressively pushing their products in order to break the trans-Atlantic political nexus.

Many industry proponents seem to hold the arrogant and patronizing view that Europeans are the only people who are concerned about the negative impacts of ge crops, and that this is due to some sort of inexplicable, cultural perversion. There seems to be a view that Asian consumers will somehow placidly accept whatever is given to them by the West. The reality is far different as recent consumer polls in Asia testify. A consumer survey in March of this year showed that awareness and concern about ge among Chinese consumers is steadily increasing. According to the survey, which was conducted by Ipsos, an international market research company at the request of Greenpeace, 73% of respondents said they would choose non-ge rice over ge rice.

Testing of products on Chinese supermarket shelves earlier this year found that several international brands that have GE -free policies in Europe, are using unlabelled ge ingredients in China—a clear case of double standards. This revelation led to a consumer outcry and resulted in several supermarket chains removing the ge products from shelves.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the biotech industry is not going to be able to use Asia as a dumping ground. Consumer and farmer rejection of ge crops is on the increase, and an increasing number of countries are implementing ge labeling laws that will give the public a right to know and a right to choose what they are eating. The introduction of such laws have been opposed tooth and nail by the U.S. government, and by the industry players who have engaged in an aggressive strategy of market bullying and an almost conscious strategy of contamination. Their intentions are expressed most eloquently by Dale Adolphe, ex-president of the Canola Council of Canada and a vociferous advocate of ge crops: “The total acreage devoted to genetically modified crops around the world is expanding. That may be what eventually brings the debate to an end. It’s a hell of a thing to say that the way we win is don’t give the consumer a choice, but that might be it.”

John Hepburn
Greenpeace International

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