Tuesday, February 28, 2006

EU Agricultural Subsidies Oppress World's Poor

Hope Grows for the World's Poor
(Hat tip: AgBioView)

Marta Valdez, South China Morning Post, Feb. 13, 2006

The World Trade Organisation has ruled for Argentina, Canada and the United States in a case against the European Union's restrictions on genetically modified (GM) crops. The effects will be global and the ruling is an important blow against policies based on pseudo-science and groundless fears evoked in the name of the environment and biodiversity.

Agriculture has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of modern technology and genetic engineering. Worldwide, it has created more than 40 genetically improved crops, with 19 already approved for commercial cultivation (including soya, maize, cotton and canola). Last year, commercial GM crops marked their 10th year, feeding hundreds of millions of people and covering 90 million hectares in 21 countries. Of the 8.5 million farmers who use GM seeds, 90 per cent are on small and medium farms in 11 developing nations, with Argentina among world leaders and South Africa ranked 14th.

In Costa Rica, for example, support for biotechnology has allowed local and international companies to breed GM cotton and soya seeds for export. This has created hundreds of jobs for agricultural workers, mainly women supporting families, with investments of more than US$3.5 million per company.

Biotechnology offers the hope of a key solution to the rural problems of poverty, malnutrition, famine and preservation of the environment in developing countries, not just rich ones: it increases yields and cuts pesticide use.

But the rapid growth of this technology around the world has created debate and controversy. Much of that comes from the barrage of negative statements and campaigns by environmental groups alleging risks and dangers to human health and nature that no scientific study has ever been
able to define. Unfortunately, the debate on transgenic foods has been blown out of all proportion for political and protectionist reasons.

The EU produced a report in 2001 on the results of 81 research projects over 15 years, involving 400 European scientists. The main conclusion was that GM organisms and their food products had "not shown any new risks to human health or the environment, beyond the usual uncertainties of conventional plant breeding".

"Indeed, the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods. If there are unforeseen environmental effects, none have appeared as yet," the report says. It therefore seems paradoxical that the EU maintains barriers against importing GM crops and foods, including from developing countries such as Argentina or South Africa.

The reason might well be more economic than scientific: if EU farmers were to adopt GM crops they would become more productive and would lose their juicy subsidies or have to pay more tax.

The WTO's ruling is a great victory for science and for responsible public policies based on facts but, more importantly, it can be a victory for the poor and their attempts to feed themselves and to export their crops.

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Marta Valdez is a researcher in agricultural biotechnology and co-ordinator of the Institutional Commission on Biotechnology of the University of Costa Rica