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Genetically Modified Crops: Risks and Promise

Gordon Conway, The Rockefeller Foundation


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GM foods have the potential to provide significant benefits for developing countries. Over 800 million people are chronically undernourished, and 180 million children are severely underweight for their age. By 2020, there will be an extra two billion mouths to feed. Ecological approaches that underpin sustainable agriculture (e.g., integrated pest management) and participatory approaches that strengthen farmers' own experimentation and decision making are key. Biotechnology will be an essential partner, if yield ceilings are to be raised, if crops are to be grown without excessive reliance on pesticides, and if farmers on less favored lands are to be provided with crops that are resistant to drought and salinity, and that can use nitrogen and other nutrients more efficiently.

Over the past 10 years, in addition supporting ecological approaches, the Rockefeller Foundation has funded the training of some 400 developing-country scientists in the techniques of biotechnology. Most of the new crop varieties are the result of tissue culture and marker-aided selection. The Foundation also supports the production of genetically engineered rices, including a new rice engineered for beta carotene (the precursor of Vitamin A) in the grain.

Some specific steps can be taken by Monsanto that would improve acceptance of plant biotechnology in both the developing and the industrialized worlds: label; disavow gene protection (terminator) systems; phase out the use of antibiotic resistance markers; agree (with big seed companies) to use the plant variety protection system, rather than patents, in developing countries; establish an independently administered fellowship program to train developing-country scientists in crop biotechnology, biosafety, and intellectual property; donate useful technologies to developing countries; agree to share financial rewards from intellectual property rights on varieties such as basmati or jasmine rice with the countries of origin; and finally, develop a global public dialogue that treats developing-country participants as equal partners.

Key words

Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.), food security, genetically modified rice, GM foods, intellectual property rights, marker-aided selection, Monsanto, participatory approaches, plant biotechnology, plant variety protection, terminator technology, Vitamin A deficiency

Copyright © 2000 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087