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Newsletter 1st February 2008

- Industry withdraws from international agriculture study - Gates Foundation and crop biotechnology in Africa

Industry withdraws from international agriculture study

The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development is as ambitious as it sounds: a global effort to bring together a range of partners to report on how best to improve farming and food security in poor countries. It is led by Robert Watson, who was recently appointed Defra chief scientist, but is no stranger to leading large global projects: he spent many years with the World Bank, and is a former chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change.

In the words of the IAASTD (from their website):

" The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) is a unique international effort that will evaluate the relevance, quality and effectiveness of agricultural knowledge, science, and technology (AKST); and effectiveness of public and private sector policies as well as institutional arrangements in relation to AKST."

The study itself ran from 2005 to 2007, and its report is due to be published after final acceptance by a plenary meeting in Johannesburg in April. The only problem is that it seems that not all the key stakeholders will be there: the major private sector companies involved to date – BASF, Monsanto and Syngenta –  have decided to withdraw from the process because they believe the current draft of the report is unbalanced and puts too much emphasis on the potential problems of agricultural biotechnology.

According to the Guardian, who reported the story, the draft says there is a "wide range of perspectives on the environmental, human health and economic risks and benefits of modern biotechnology, many of which are as yet unknown". It questions the view that GM crops increase yields and worries that their use in the developing world would put "ownership of agricultural resources" in the hands of the multinationals. It is language of this sort that the companies dislike and, understandably, they do not wish to be seen to endorse a report which takes this view.

The withdrawal of the private sector from this exercise has been criticised in a Nature editorial: "The views outlined in the draft chapter on biotechnology, although undoubtedly over-cautious and unbalanced, do not represent the rantings of a fringe minority. The idea that biotechnology cannot by itself reduce hunger and poverty is mainstream opinion among agricultural scientists and policy-makers." In its way, this is probably more worrying than the exercise being hijacked by an extremist minority. It suggests that the mainstream view is instinctively anti-business, and it is implied that all parties should subscribe to this because the community leading the exercise believe it.

The situation becomes clearer when we read on the IAASTD website that the process is managed by a multinational bureau with 30 government representatives and 30 from "civil society". What we are now expected to call "Civil Society Organisations" are what used to be called NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations). The change of name appears to give them representative status, when in fact they are self-appointed and unaccountable. Most egregiously, the assumption seems to be that the private sector is not part of society in the normal sense, and there is an inbuilt distrust of the motives of big business.

Hence the "over-cautious and unbalanced" language which the Nature editorial team think that international companies should sign up to. There is a distinct suggestion of Maoist "self-criticism" in this. No-one would suggest that genetic modification is the panacea which will automatically provide food security for a growing world population. But it is a powerful tool which should be available for the benefit of all farmers. The fact that it has achieved such a high level of acceptance already by farmers round the world says something: farmers will not pay higher seed prices unless they get some benefit.

The Green Revolution, which used modern breeding techniques to produce high-yielding dwarf wheat and rice varieties, boosted food production in Asia in particular, helping many countries to achieve a high degree of food security despite growing populations, and with little increase in the area cultivated. Of course, there have been some negative impacts, but those who would have us believe that the Green Revolution was a disaster must surely place a very low value on human life.

It is this same negative attitude towards technology, compounded in this case by a visceral dislike of international capitalism, which has clouded the IAASTD process and left the agricultural biotechnology companies with no choice but to disengage. Rigid views of what is "good" and "bad" amongst the development community will not help anyone. All stakeholders who have something positive to offer should be welcome to contribute, but there must first be  level playing field.

Gates Foundation and crop biotechnology in Africa

The Gates Foundation is leading the charge in a new era of private philanthropy. Bill Gates is intent on spending his vast fortune wisely, for the benefit of the world's poor and, in addition to well-publicised efforts in healthcare, is now actively funding projects in agriculture. It seems quite likely that a rich man with a vision, willing to take balanced advice, can cut through the bureaucracy and inefficiency which dogs so many public sector initiatives and actually achieve things.

Since such a large proportion of people in poor countries rely directly on farming for their survival, making this more productive is the first step in lifting them out of extreme poverty. But the foundation is meeting the same sort of ideological resistance as BASF, Monsanto and Syngenta from people who preach the gospel of "sustainable agriculture".

Of particular concern to activists are projects involving genetic modification, but at heart is also the distrust of the private sector. And the focus is, of course, Africa, the one region where living standards for many have dropped in the last half century For example, the view of Eric Holt-Gimenez, director of FoodFirst, was reported recently in the Seattle Times: "It's a corporate strategy for colonizing Africa's food and agriculture systems, which thus far have resisted." According to such views, people should continue to work the land as subsistence farmers, with a bit more food security. But "resisting corporate takeover" has done little to improve the lot of subsistence farmers.

This is clearly an anti-development agenda. All the evidence from countries in Asia and Latin America – which 50 years ago were at essentially the same income level as Africa – is that boosting agriculture is the first step towards prosperity. As society gets richer, there are changes, not least of which are increasing urbanisation and a decline in the importance of agriculture to the overall economy. This transition can be difficult for some, but it is a phase which seems inevitable as life gets better for the majority of the population. Trying to preserve a particular way of life is the ultimate in social engineering, and merely condemns future generations to continuing poverty.