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Against the Grain

Why poor nations would lose in a biotech war on hunger

by Marilyn Berlin Snell

Biotechnology has been heralded as a boon to developing countries, where the lion's share of the world's hungry dwell. Its breakthroughs--food crops genetically engineered to resist disease, pests, and drought, or to contain vitamins and nutrients severely lacking in the diets of the poor--are seen as a 21st-century version of the Green Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, when hybrid crop varieties and heavy use of fertilizers and irrigation boosted yields 20 to 30 percent. The promise of more abundant and more nutritious food appears to hold out the hope that hunger and disease can be alleviated. With potential like this, who wouldn't be in favor of genetically engineered crops?

For starters, many of the people they are supposed to help. One of the strongest and most articulate voices to emerge in opposition to biotechnology is Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher (formally addressed, as is Ethiopian custom, as Tewolde). Born to a peasant farming family in northern Ethiopia in 1940, Tewolde worked as a plant ecologist and university president before becoming the head of Ethiopia's Environment Protection Authority in 1995. Concerned with the impact that unregulated biotech products could have on the rich biodiversity of the developing world, and also with how the plight of hungry people was being used to promote genetic engineering, Tewolde has been a key international negotiator on issues of biotech safety and accountability. He helped hammer out the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and draft the Biosafety Protocol, which if ratified will set international standards for trade in and use of biotech products. During the protocol talks, the U.S. delegation heavily influenced the discussion--often bolstered by agricultural allies like Canada and Australia. The meetings were heated and often acrimonious, with the United States and its friends at one end of the spectrum, arguing that genetically modified organisms do not need special regulations, while Tewolde and the majority of participating nations argued that they most certainly do.

Since 1999, Tewolde has represented what has come to be called the Like-Minded Group--made up of most developing nations plus China--in protocol negotiations and at World Trade Organization meetings. Two of the most important issues debated at these meetings have been whether a country has a right to know what it is importing, and whether a government has a right to refuse an import it believes endangers its population. As drafted, the Biosafety Protocol now states that nations have such rights. The next step is ratification by at least 50 nations and ensuring that the WTO or other international bodies cannot overrule the protocol.

In April Tewolde spoke with Sierra about his ongoing fight on behalf of the environment and the poor, and how it feels to butt heads with a superpower.

Sierra: Biotechnology proponents argue that biotech crops that resist pests and increase yields provide a solution to grave problems such as hunger and malnutrition. How do you respond?

Tewolde: First, to my knowledge there has not been one commercially grown transgenic crop that out-yields all other varieties of that crop. Genetic engineering may live up to this promise, but we will have to see. What the transgenic crops have done so far is tie the farmer to specific chemicals and a specific company.

That said, this notion that genetically engineered crops will save developing countries misses the real point. The world has never grown as much food per capita as it is doing now, yet the world has also never had as many hungry. The problem is not the amount of food produced, but how it is both produced and distributed. For example, farmers in developing countries who buy genetically engineered seeds that cannot reproduce--and so can't be saved and used for next year's crop--become tied to transnational companies like Monsanto.

As it stands, the political and economic problems within our developing countries prevent us from using existing technologies that are under our control. For example, in 1981, the Lonrho Company was allowed to freely plant trees in Swaziland while the people had to get a special permit to plant any tree. And it continues to be the case that in many countries of the South, individual landowners keep big tracts of land uncultivated while many hungry citizens cannot grow food because of lack of land.

How much more difficult is it going to be to use technology that is controlled from another country? Let me give an example: Ethiopia just had a war with Eritrea that provoked a trade embargo. I'm not complaining about the embargo; I wish we had never made any war. But suppose we had become dependent on some crop variety from the United States, Japan, or Kenya? What if, during this political fracas, our trading partners had said, "No more seed"? What then?

The biotech industry is suggesting that food security will come through the farmer's loss of control of essential agricultural inputs. Do you see the lie? This is food insecurity. Even if genetic engineering managed to double, triple, or quadruple food production, it would still remain an irrelevance. Genetic engineering can't help here, unless we can engineer people who can think straight and be decent.

I don't trust the government. I don't mean particularly the Ethiopian government--I mean any government. Without local control, local availability of food can never be certain. It would be far better to develop a system that would enable the farmer himself to be in charge. I know it sounds remote in the United States to think of a breakdown of law and order, but in Africa there are many politically unstable countries. If every time there was a breakdown of law and order, the system of food production were to suffer, it could mean death to millions.

Sierra: It sounds almost as though you see genetic engineering as the seed of something evil.

Tewolde: It's not the nature of genetic engineering itself that's the problem; it is the way genetic engineering has evolved. Early on, it came under the control of the private sector and is now being developed almost solely by that sector. By definition, the private sector's goal is to make money. It will not focus its attention on the needs of the poor, except as a way to sell its products.

Sierra: Beyond the political and economic issue of who controls the products of biotechnology, do you see any other threats to the South?

Tewolde: Let me begin by stressing that the threat is not only to the South; it is to life as a whole. The major threat is that we are combining genes that have not previously been combined. We are creating new traits and we simply don't know what could happen. We must be careful not to make major mistakes.

There are, however, some threats that are more specifically amplified in the South, arising from three factors. One is that there is a lot more biodiversity toward the equator, which means that the variables and possible complications increase. The second factor has to do with the ambient temperature: In the tropics, the temperature outside is nearer to the temperature of containment in laboratories. This means that those transgenic organisms that accidentally escape to the open environment have a greater chance of survival. The third factor relates to genetic engineering's current emphasis on crops. The gene pool of most of these modified crops exists in unadulterated form in tropical and subtropical areas. Take barley, for example. Ethiopia has the largest gene pool for cultivated barley anywhere in the world. Canada grows barley, but there is no native barley there. Should a genetically engineered variety go wrong and escape into the environment, Canada can start over again and develop a new variety--forgetting about all the varieties it has contaminated and destroyed. But if that were to happen in Ethiopia, the native gene pool--including wild relatives of crop plants--could be polluted. Such mistakes could never be undone.

There is an additional element that is not biological in nature. Economically, the countries closer to the equator are much poorer than the industrialized countries, and therefore lack the resources to deal with these sorts of mistakes.

Sierra: How did you first get involved in issues relating to biotechnology?

Tewolde: In the 1980s I was president of a university and also in charge of a few research projects. In 1989, I started leading a project to identify environmental problems and to suggest strategies to try to harmonize environment and development in Ethiopia. Around this time, the Rio Conference was gearing up, so I became involved in negotiating the proposed text of the 1992 biodiversity convention. Then, at the Earth Summit, two other issues came to the fore that really helped galvanize my thinking.

The first was the insistence of the U.S. delegation on intellectual property rights, while refusing to see that communities--indigenous communities that are not well versed in biological theory--have rights that must be respected as well. The second had to do with the U.S. delegation's insistence that genetic engineering is the same as any old sexual reproduction, and therefore did not need to be regulated. This came to be known as "substantial equivalence," in which sexual reproduction--where a man and a woman meet, mate, and their genes mix--is essentially the same as mixing genes from a tobacco plant and a firefly.

I opposed this idea of substantial equivalence. There was a lot of arguing about this in the convention negotiations. Finally, it was agreed that the parties would examine if there were a need for a protocol on safety in modern biotechnology. That's where we had to start, because opposition to regulation was so fierce. Most nations wanted a biosafety protocol, but a few powerful nations were totally opposed. I was part of the group that wrote what was called a majority report, saying that there was a need for a protocol. The minority report, that of the U.S. delegation, essentially said there was no need at all. Many of its delegates even used the argument that the majority report came from developing countries whose science is dubious. Fortunately, we had U.S. scientists from various universities testify that there is a risk.

Sierra: It's difficult to imagine that the U.S. delegation would challenge your science in such a way.

Tewolde: But that's the usual argument! The delegates don't say it in the meetings. Most of these negotiations happen in the corridors anyway. You lobby some delegation and say "You know what? So and so was saying that the other side's data is rubbish." It's standard negotiating practice. Even so, after we presented the majority group report, our battle was won. At that point, the ad hoc working group said that there should be a protocol, and the next phase of the negotiations began.

Sierra: Because the U.S. Congress in the end refused to ratify the Rio Convention on Biological Diversity, it now has only "observer status" in negotiations on how to implement the protocol, correct?

Tewolde: That's right. However, the United States does claim to support the convention. So presumably the United States would continue to be supportive of the protocol as well--but for practical reasons now: If its laws on genetic engineering do not conform to the protocol, countries will refuse to trade with it in genetically modified organisms.

When the protocol comes into force, the first issue it will handle is the labeling of all genetically modified organisms. At the moment, all the document says is that if a country is exporting genetically modified organisms, it must say "it may contain," which is not very informative. That was a point on which the protocol negotiations nearly collapsed at the Montreal meeting in January 2000. The degree of labeling is an issue that is still unresolved.

Sierra: Some observers have noted that even with the Biosafety Protocol in place, refusing genetically modified imports will be significantly more difficult for developing countries because they have much more to lose in financial aid and other arrangements. What are the costs for a country like Ethiopia in saying no to these types of imports?

Tewolde: If the United States were to disregard the Biosafety Protocol and intimidate poor countries into accepting genetically modified organisms, quite a few of them would probably accept. But one expects that a respectable government, such as the one in the United States, will honor laws--even if they are not their laws.

This will sort itself out. In the transition period though, products that wouldn't sell in Europe or Japan will probably be pushed on us. Especially with regard to food aid, I expect this is already happening. Obviously, it is an extremely difficult situation if you know people are dying from lack of food and the only food you are offered is genetically engineered. [According to the U.S.-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, more than 2 million tons of genetically modified organisms are sent directly by U.S. foreign assistance to developing countries each year, while the World Food Program distributes another 1.5 million tons of transgenic crops donated by the U.S. government. The food is typically sent with no labeling. --eds.]

Sierra: The Like-Minded Group, which you represent in international negotiations, has championed the "precautionary principle" as a way to address issues of biosafety. How would you define this principle?

Tewolde: The simplest way to state it is that you must evaluate risks before you take them. That does not mean "do not take any risks at all," though this is very often what people who want to distort its meaning suggest. It means, rather, that if you must take a risk in the absence of knowledge you should err on the side of caution and say, "until I know, I won't do this."

Sierra: How do you respond to critics who say the precautionary approach is little more than technophobia?

Tewolde: I'm not saying that there are not people who use it in that way. But, as a scientist, I take it to mean that if I am making a decision I should not make one from a position of "not knowing." In our daily lives, most of us operate from this perspective. If you want to jump into a pool, for example, you first estimate how deep it is so that you don't break your neck. You always observe and evaluate before you take that fateful step. That, in essence, is the precautionary principle.

Sierra: It sounds like a good idea. Why is it so difficult to adhere to at the global level?

Tewolde: At the global level, the principle is invoked to protect society, not the individual. Society and the individual are not necessarily the same. Often, the individual--and here I include corporations--has to be tamed to make society possible. That's why we have the law. One problem with the present push toward globalization is that it is focused only on the rights of the individual or the state--both of which are capable of somewhat capricious actions. I hope you will pardon me, but I'd also add that the more influential governments are now really largely run by individuals who represent corporate interests. I think genetic engineering is really going wild because it is not controlled by society but by selfish individual interests.

Sierra: That was actually my next question--what you thought the preeminent motives driving the U.S. delegation have been.

Tewolde: I'm glad you asked, because I was a bit apprehensive to talk about what I see as the corporate control of government. When I am in negotiations with the United States, Canada, and Australia, though, corporate control is clear.

Sierra: You're suggesting that in these negotiations you're essentially dealing with a multinational corporation rather than a government?

Tewolde: No. It is a government but corporate interest is top on its agenda. Given the arguments put forward by these governments, this conclusion is the only one that makes sense. I know the individuals who are making these arguments. They have deep scientific knowledge. But then they argue that genetic engineering and sexual reproduction are essentially the same. The only explanation I have is that they don't want to regulate genetic engineering. And, if they don't want to regulate genetic engineering, one must ask why. Who benefits?

Sierra: How has it been for you to go up against the United States in negotiations?

Tewolde: If you mean do I get intimidated, I don't. I have nothing vested that I have to protect. I have only my conscience to negotiate with. I have been insulted. I have been threatened. I just shrug my shoulders. It doesn't matter. Let me be clear here, though: I'm not referring to the negotiators. I have never had any negative reaction from the negotiators, American or otherwise. I am referring to corporate representatives who come into those meetings. They come as observers and we meet and interact informally. They don't negotiate, though sometimes governments name people from various corporations as members of their delegations.

Sierra: What role has public opposition to genetic engineering played in these high-level negotiations?

Tewolde: Public opinion has played a most critical role in the negotiations on biosafety. In 1999, in Cartagena, Colombia, the group led by the United States refused outright to consider any form of regulations of commodities that are genetically modified. The next move by this group was the United States and Canada tried to introduce the issue about genetically modified commodity regulation into the WTO negotiations in Seattle in December 1999. But, as you know, public opposition and opposition from within by developing countries forced that effort to collapse. It was only because that happened in Seattle that the negotiations in Montreal last year succeeded. The U.S. group felt it had to back down on most of the issues.

Sierra: Whose voice will ultimately prevail on this issue?

Tewolde: The people's voice. If the people are convinced it is important, they will refuse to buy corporate products that have been genetically engineered. If corporations want a market, then they will have to go along with what the public requests.

Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra's writer/editor.

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