Wednesday, August 14, 2002

In June the FAO sponsered an email conference on gene flow. The participants were mostly scientists, and they had some interesting things to say, like:
What has struck me most forcefully, both as an insider in biotech research and technology (R&D) and as a more detached observer of the general debate, is the way the whole of agbiotech has been overwhelmingly technology driven, rather than market led, over the past decade. Time after time, lab researchers have come up with new techniques that have then been commercialised "because they are there".

We should be honest enough to admit that there was no thought about feeding the world or improving stress tolerance in crops when we embarked on our research in the 1980s. In my own field, the emphasis was all on biodegradable plastics & other oil-based industrial products, all of which have proved to be a lot more difficult to achieve than we originally thought.

The modification of input traits (herbicide & pesticide tolerance) came a little later & turned out to be scientifically very easy and potentially quite profitable - so Monsanto et al commercialised the technology at breakneck speed (e.g. compared to the introduction of hybrid maize in the US in the 1920s & 30s). There was no thought about the long term consequences, e.g. did we really need such crops & how would global markets or the environment react. This is where we find ourselves today.

In my opinion, civil societies in developing & industrialised nations should not simply accept whatever the researchers & agbiotech companies come up with and then try to deal with the consequences. Rather, society, via bodies like FAO, should take a broader view & ask - "what do we really need from agriculture over the next 25 yrs?" Is it really more yield? Perhaps salt tolerance? Maybe enhanced vitamin contents in crops?

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