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The Berlin Group 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 Berlin Group has now issued a Statement that is being circulated for adoption by various academies in Europe and elsewhere.  
The Berlin Group has taken the position that ‘Molecular engineering of crops has brought revolutionary advances in agriculture. In just ten years since their introduction, many GM crop varieties have been grown on about 5 per cent of all global arable cropland in 21 countries by 8.5 million farmers, 90 per cent of them being resource-poor. Some developing countries have benefited from GM crops and are now in position to affirm their need and their will to adopt GM crops’.  Based on this assertion, the Berlin Group states that:

1. Foods from GM crops are more extensively tested than any other and have been shown to be as safe as, or even sometimes safer than, foods derived from the corresponding conventional plants. Ten years of human consumption and extensive nutritional testing amply support this conclusion.  Any food, GM or not, may certainly involve some risks for human health. There is presently not the least scientific and/or medical evidence that the risks possibly entailed by the former would be higher than those entailed by the latter.

2. The environmental impact of GM crops is no greater than that of traditional crops. In some cases GM crops have diminished the negative effects of current agricultural practices.   Insect-resistant cotton requires substantially decreased applications of chemical pesticides while herbicide-tolerant crops permit no-till practices, cutting energy use and promoting healthy soils. Seed-incorporated technology is particularly suitable for small farmers in developing countries. GM crops resistant to pests and diseases reduce farmers’ exposure to chemical pesticides, particularly when applied by hand sprays. The successful cultivation of GM cotton in the developing countries shows how subsistence farmers have significantly increased their income and improved the quality of their life.

3. In both developed and some developing countries, organic farmers have already been operating in an environment subjected to influences from neighbouring activities. With proper separation safeguards, the presence of genes encoding GM traits in organic products is trivial. Nothing in GM agriculture prevents organic farmers from pursuing their normal practices.  There is no evidence-based justification in the rules of organic farming to exclude the use of GM crops.

4. GM crops can make a major global contribution to the quantity and quality of food. In developing countries, farmers suffer major crop losses caused by insects and diseases. GM technology has already shown that such losses can be significantly reduced, leading directly to improvements in food quality and safety (e.g. insect-resistant maize has appreciably lower levels of highly carcinogenic fungal toxins).

5. Just as each consumer ought to have the right to adopt or reject GM food, farmers should be able to decide for themselves whether to plant conventional, organic or GM crops. For such a choice, appropriate regulations including labelling of GM products must be in place, and such regulations should be proportionate and not excessive. The safety assessment procedures now enacted in developed countries for GM crops and products result in needlessly high costs and hinder the application of this valuable technology to the many crops grown in the developing world. For developing countries to have access to crop biotechnology for their own agriculture, international and non-profit organizations must help governments to formulate appropriate regulations and assist with the training of personnel to administer them.

6. It is frequently argued that farmers growing GM crops loose their freedom when they are obliged to buy their seeds annually.  However, in most developing countries farmers are accustomed to using farmer saved seeds that is in many cases allowed by law, and this could also be applied to GM cultivars.

The Berlin Statement denounces the unsupported arguments used against GM crops and calls upon governments and environmental NGOs to end unjustified campaigns against GM crops.

Such a firm and positive stance covering all contingent issues is most welcome, more particularly since it comes from Europe, often cited as vehemently anti-GM.

September 25, 2006