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Although controversial, GMOs could be breakthrough technology for developing countries

  July, 10 2001 17:45
your information resource in human molecular genetics
Mexico City, 10 July 2001 - The Human Development Report 2001, commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and released today, concludes that many developing countries might reap great benefits from genetically-modified foods, crops, and other organisms (GMOs). While acknowledging that there are environmental and health risks that need to be addressed, it stresses the unique potential of GM techniques for creating virus resistant, drought-tolerant and nutrient-enhanced crops. These crops could significantly reduce malnutrition, which still affects more than 800 million people worldwide, and would be especially valuable for poor farmers working marginal lands in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Report thus urges far greater public investment in research and development to ensure that biotechnology meets the agricultural needs of the world’s poor. "We can’t count on the private sector alone to do the job," says Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, the lead author of the Report, noting that for-profit research mostly caters to the needs of high-income consumers, rather than those in developing coun-tries who have little purchasing power. The Report points out in particular that there is an urgent need to develop modern varieties of millet, sorghum and cassava, which are staple foods for poor people in many developing countries.

Mark Malloch Brown, the Administrator of UNDP, agrees, noting that such public investments are already producing impressive results. He points to a recent successful effort by UNDP, the Japanese Government and other international partners to develop new varieties of rice. "These varieties have 50 percent higher yields, mature 30 to 50 days earlier, are substantially richer in protein; are far more disease and drought tolerant, resist insect pests and can even out-compete weeds. And they will be especially useful because they can be grown without fertilizer or herbicides, which many poor farmers can’t afford anyway. This initiative shows the enormous potential of biotech to improve food security in Africa, Asia and Latin America."

For three years, sales in Europe of GM corn, tomatoes, potatoes and cotton-often described in the media as "Frankenstein foods"-have been put on hold because of fears over potential health and environmental hazards. The Human Development Report argues that GMO risks can be managed, but that most developing countries will need help in doing so. It points out that problems with biotechnology and food safety are often the result of poor policies, inadequate regulation and lack of transparency. (For instance, poor management by European regulators led to the spread of mad cow disease). These challenges can be especially great in developing countries where resources are scarce and expertise is often lacking.

The Report points to Argentina and Egypt as examples of developing coun-tries that are moving forward in creating national guidelines, approval procedures and research institutes to evaluate GMO risks.

According to the Report, current debates in Europe and the United States over new biotechnologies mostly ignore the concerns and needs of the developing world. Western consumers naturally focus on potential allergic reactions and other food safety issues. People in developing countries, however, may be more interested in better crop yields, nutrition, or the reduced need to spray pesticides that can sicken farmers. Meanwhile, multinational biotech companies, eager for sales, tend to play down the difficulties that developing countries may have in managing the environmental risks posed by GMOs. "The voices of people in poor countries-who stand to gain or lose the most from these new technologies-have not yet been heard," says Ms. Fukuda-Parr.

Finally, the Report calls for more research into the long-term impacts of GMOs and advocates labeling genetically modified products so that consumers make informed choices. Australia, Brazil, Japan and the United Kingdom already require such labels, and surveys show that more than 80 percent of consumers in the United States want them as well.

ABOUT THIS REPORT: Every year since 1990, the United Nations Development Programme has commissioned the Human Development Report (www.undp.org/hdro) by an independent team of experts to explore major issues
of global concern. The Report looks beyond per capita income as a measure of human progress by also assessing it against such factors as average life expectancy, literacy and overall well-being. It argues that human development is ultimately "a process of enlarging people’s choices."

The Human Development Report is published in English by Oxford University Press, 2001 Evans Rd., Cary, NC 27513, USA. Telephone (919) 677-0977; toll free in the USA (800) 451-7556; fax (919) 677-1303.

WWW: http://www.undp.org/hdr2001/

Message posted by: Frank S. Zollmann

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