The Impact of Biotechnology on Developing Countries"
The Contribution to Concluding Comments from
Bread wheat first appeared in European Agriculture 6000-7000 years ago. It was based on hybrids of several coarse Middle Eastern grain species. A typical hybridisation mixes 20,000-50,000 genes from each parent in the search for a particular benefit. This is pretty crude, compared to the single or a few genes precision of biotechnology.
Why then is there such a ready acceptance of the older more random technique, and such resistance to the new. None of us is concerned about eating a nectarine, which is the artificial product of natural crossing. None of us is worried about eating the kiwi fruit introduced to Europe only a few years ago. Yet nectarines,and kiwi fruits, have been subject to no scientific scrutiny for safety in consumption, and there have been no studies concerning their environmental impact.
In the biotechnology debate consumers are seeking clarity and reassurance. The regulatory regime must be science based. Industry spends billions of dollars annually on R&D, new laboratories and equipment. The regulations governing those investments must be soundly based.
We wish to see scientific advance put into practice in a way which reduces inequality.
As individuals we have high expectations for new products. We expect them to bring great benefits as well as to be safe. Because there can be no absolute safety in any field of human endeavour, we place a heavy burden of responsibility on our regulators. From them we seek a proper balance between risk and benefit, between short term gain and long term sustainability. We also wish to see them test honest comment and opinion fairly. We do not wish to see the interpretation of a proper precautionary principle twisted by single-issue groups into a concept of absolute safety. This would not benefit humanity. We wish to see science help the developing world escape poverty; and we yearn for a debate in which each can have opinions but where there cannot be separate sets of facts.
China represents 22% of world population, but only 7% of the worlds arable land. No wonder the current 5 year plan gives agriculture the highest priority. The needs of other populous areas such as India or Africa are equally evident. If you want an example of the capability of traditional agriculture without modern inputs look to North Korea -- closed to all new technology for 50 years -- and the location of several famines over the past decades as the traditional agricultural technology has failed to feed their people.
The question is not whether to embrace biotechnology, but how to use it most productively. Biotechnology is a necessary part of sustainability, not an optional extra.
I applaud FoE for organising this conference. I have learned a lot by listening. When I registered a couple of months ago, I did not expect to be invited to speak. I have learned that the almost intractable causes of poverty are many, and that the success of the green revolution in feeding 2 billion extra people in the world during the past 30 years on less agricultural land have been largely forgotten, as related and continuing problems continue to oppress countless millions and frustrate many who want to try to alleviate them.
I have learned that public sector research is under funded. This is not the fault of large companies, but a further manifestation of the social and capitalist world we live in. We need to reinforce democratic processes, and democratic concern for the disadvantaged, to affect more funding. We can all lobby, for example the EU, to make funds available for humanitarian research, not only for research which benefits industrial application. This could help towards capacity building for biosafety and development of intellectual property infrastructures in developing countries.
I have learned that not all NGO's are alike; that some are interested in sensible dialogue which embrace concensus or democracy, and wish to disentangle issues so they can be addressed.
Mankind is in the first few millimetres of a 1000 kilometre journey of biotechnology understanding. Biotech has the potential to be very valuable to mankind, without significant detriment. It is potentially more accessible to the poor of the world, from researchers in the South as well as the North, than other modern technologies like computers and the mobile phone, or industrial production, which require capital investment in factories and distribution infrastructure. I support capacity building with appropriate public finance, to help achieve this vision, and believe that internships may be offered to assist this process in, for example biosafety and bioregulation. I will be making this proposal to my colleagues within Zeneca.
"Biotechnology" is all around us and all through us. We must not be frightened by our lack of knowledge, but stimulated to know more and seek safe and beneficial uses of biotechnology, including for the disadvantaged in the developing world.
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Last Updated on 7/1/00
By Dan Ellis