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Berlin Group's Position Papers on Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries
Prof. C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India
krao@vsnl.com, www.fbae.org, www.fbaeblog.org

The Commission on Green Biotechnology is a constituent of the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities (UGASH).   The InterAcademy Panel (IAP), a worldwide network of 92 Academies of Sciences, with its Secretariat in Trieste/Italy, advises citizens and politicians in their home countries on current problems of global relevance. The ‘Berlin Group’ are the participants of a workshop on ‘Genetically modified crops in developing countries’, jointly conducted by UGASH and IAP in Berlin (May 27-29, 2006).  The statement of the Berlin Group on GE crops in the developing countries was discussed on this site earlier. 
The Berlin Group has now released two well discussed position papers, one on ‘Are there health hazards for the consumer from eating genetically modified food?’ and the other on ‘Genetically modified insect resistant crops with regard to developing countries’.   The significant points from these papers are summarized here.

On the question of health hazards for the consumer from eating genetically modified food, the paper states that the campaigns of opponents of agricultural biotechnology have deliberately provoked widespread public anxiety by asserting that food from genetically modified organisms is a health hazard. ‘Organic’ products are advertised as especially healthy. The paper asserts that evidence suggests it to be most unlikely that the consumption of the well-characterized transgenic DNA from approved GMO food harbours any recognizable health risk.

Since absolute safety is never possible, the basis for approving GM food products is the failure (after extensive prescribed testing) to find any adverse indicators. Such tests show that these foods are at least as safe and nutritious as the corresponding products from conventionally produced crops.

The present regulations for the approval of GM plants and their product have established a framework which a) affords an effective safety evaluation on the basis of scientific data before marketing; b) requires GM products to be labelled by law, so offering the consumer an informed choice; c) specifies monitoring procedures which will reveal unexpected effects after the introduction of GM products onto the market; and d) permit the regulatory authorities to evaluate these data at any time.

Because of the rigour with which they must be tested and the controls to which they are subject, it is extremely unlikely that GMO products approved for market in the European Union and other countries present a greater health risk than the corresponding products from conventional sources.  On the contrary, in some cases such as maize, food from GM plants appears to be superior with respect to health.  Since 1996, millions of people in the Americas and elsewhere have regularly been consuming GM products as part of their normal diets without any proven evidence of adverse health effects.

The second paper relates to the issue of GM insect resistant crops with regard to developing countries.  Citing extensive literature, the ecological and economical aspects of the cultivation of genetically modified insect-resistant varieties of maize, rice and cotton, were evaluated, to conclude that the cultivation of these crops by smallholder farmers in developing countries can be beneficial for their earnings, their health and also the ecosystem.

Seeds incorporating Bt technology are particularly suitable for smallholder farmers, because they do not require the equipment and knowledge necessary for pesticide applications, and reduce farmers’ exposure to insecticides, particularly for those using hand sprayers.

As conventional practices of the application of pesticides kill a very broad spectrum of non-target insects and have adverse effects on the agricultural ecosystems, an alternative approach is the use of GM crops resistant to pests. In just over ten years since the first GM crops were introduced, they are very popular with farmers.   Some 90 per cent of those benefited were resource-poor farmers from developing countries whose increased incomes from biotech crops contributed to the alleviation of their poverty.  However, the benefits of genetically modified crops in comparison with their conventional counterparts and conventional practices of cultivation should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Bt technology can indeed be valuable in economic terms to smallholder farmers with relatively small fields in developing countries as well as to the large farms in developed countries.   However, pest control will have to rely on integrated pest management practices, which include crop rotation, biological control, Bt technology and the sparing use of pesticides.

Against the background of an overwhelmingly negative campaign on GE crops in Europe, the Berlin Group’s efforts to strike a rational balance are to be much appreciated.   It is very necessary in the interests of crop biotechnology, that the scientific community from outside Europe supported the efforts of the Berlin Group.   The developing countries, in whose interests the Group is deliberating, should strengthen the hands of the Berlin Group in significantly modifying public opinion in favour of modern crop biotechnology in Europe and elsewhere.  Those who are interested in supporting the Group’s efforts may communicate with Professor Hans-Walter Heldt, Universität Göttingen, the Co-Ordinator of the Berlin Group via e-mail at HansWalterHeldt@aol.com.

The full text of the two papers can be accessed using the following links:
http://www.fbae.org/Channels/agri_biotech/general_topics/are_there_health_hazards_for_the.htm and http://www.fbae.org/Channels/agri_biotech/general_topics/genetically_modified_insect_resi.htm.

November 1, 2006