22 June 2001


The need to feed Third

World countries

provides a powerful

argument to speed up

research and field

trials of GM

crops, a London

conference was told

The election stopped me reporting it, but even three weeks later, some things said are buzzing round my brain. It was a high-powered conference on genetic modification at the University of London at the end of May. One of the main reasons I went was to hear the world famous Nobel Peace Prize winner, Norman Borlaug. Unfortunately he was unwell and could not be there, but my disappointment was tempered by the written paper he sent and the qualities of other speakers from around the world.

The organisers had been at pains to produce a balanced programme in which doubters had equal billing with believers. They had also persuaded top scientists and agriculturalists from abroad to explain attitudes to GM from their perspective. I thought I knew most of the arguments for and against GMs, but that conference added to the list.

One of the most memorable contributions came from Margaret Karembu, who lectures at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. "Africa takes its lead on GMs from Europe," she said. "In my country 40% of the population is starving." She went on to say that GM crops could contribute significantly to alleviating the problem. Unfortunately, Kenyan farmers, "who are not illiterate", read in newspapers, on the internet and hear on the radio of the dangers allegedly posed by GMs. That makes them reluctant to plant what could be life-saving crops.

"The problem is," Dr Karembu went on, "western pressure groups who make such allegations are speaking from a point of view of satisfaction; but my people are hungry." She demanded greater responsibility from GM critics whose opinions – not facts – are influencing public acceptability of the technology in Africa. "Organic (traditional) farming may be OK for some in Britain, but it has failed my people and will not feed the ever-increasing population of the world." She was a powerful speaker and her lecture silenced several present who had expressed different views.

Tackling a current UK preoccupation, Rosie Hails of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology at Oxford said field trials of GM crops were essential. The associated risks were minimal, she told the audience, and it was only by conducting such trials that we would be able to assess any environmental dangers.

Conventional agriculture, in which many changes had taken place concurrently, had never been pre-assessed for environmental impact, she said. Now some of the problems were beginning to be realised. Testing GMs before widespread adoption was a better and more cautious way forward.

She felt there was a need to tease out which change in farming practice had caused which damage to the environment and wildlife. But because all had happened at once, this was almost impossible. The other challenge both farmers and environmentalists should resolve was that different farming practices would favour or damage different types of wildlife. It was necessary to decide the relative value of a skylark to a beetle. A system that increased the numbers of one might decrease those of the other, and vice versa. Those were the kinds of biological trade-offs that had gone on since time began.

Another fascinating speech was made by ex-US presidential candidate George McGovern, now US Ambassador to the FAO. In a presentation full of political rhetoric and very much in favour of the technology, he reminded us that Jenner had introduced cowpox-based vaccination against smallpox in 1821. "There were cartoons of people growing horns because they had been treated with bits of cow and many demonstrations against it," he said. "But it finally became accepted and millions of lives have been saved." GM technology could lead to similar dramatic benefits for mankind.

But Mr McGovern did concede that it had been a mistake to leave most of the development of GM technology to the private sector. It would have been more acceptable to more people if the public sector had been funded to do it, he said. He called for public sectors world-wide to be better funded now in order to be able to correct the mistake.

This theme was developed by Sir Robert May, president of the Royal Society and formerly the governments chief scientist. "The anticipated trickle-down effect from international corporations is not working as well as its advocates predicted," he said. "There is a need to redress the balance between private and public science sectors." He went on to emphasise the need for more food in a very few years. "We could not feed todays population with yesterdays agriculture and we will not be able to feed tomorrows population with todays agriculture."

We must develop another green revolution, he said, one that would produce food for a rising population and combine it with conservation of the countryside. He implied that GM was likely to play a part in that development. But when challenged to say whether it was guaranteed safe, he replied: "No scientist will ever say anything is totally safe because we do not know. We can only assess risks based on information available. On that basis, it is very unlikely to cause either health or environmental problems and we should move research forward with care."

I thought I

knew most of the arguments for and against GMs, but that conference added to the list

I thought I

knew most of the arguments for and against GMs, but that conference added to the list

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