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Experts Lament Biotech Food State
Updated 4:02 PM ET July 11, 2000
By EMMA ROSS, Associated Press Writer

LONDON (AP) - To combat world hunger, rich nations must boost funding for research into genetically modified crops and poor farmers must be protected from corporate control of the technology, a group of science academies said Tuesday.

In an unprecedented report by seven independent academies from both the developed and developing world, experts agreed that genetic modification of crops is crucial to addressing the problem of the world's growing population and shrinking land for growing food.

Today, "800 million people don't have access to enough food," said Brian Heap, vice president of Britain's Royal Society and chairman of the group that wrote the report.

"Increasing production without increasing land use will require substantial increases in yields per acre. This technology needs to be used in the future," he said.

Genetically modified, or transgenic, crops are created when scientists introduce a gene from one species into another. The technique can be used to make crops more resistant to disease and pests, fortify them with extra vitamins or vaccines, and boost their tolerance to drought.

The academies' report, launched in London by the Royal Society, urged companies and research institutions to share their knowledge and called for a ban on broad patents covering GM technology.

Corporations must have incentives to produce characteristics needed in the developing world, and small farmers in developing nations should enjoy special exemptions from licensing agreements, the report said.

Meanwhile, the public sector must create more genetically modified crops that benefit poor farmers in developing nations, such as corn, rice, wheat, yams, plantains and sweet potatoes, it said.

"The long-term decline of public agricultural research, the increasing privatization of GM technologies and the growing emphasis on the crops and priorities of the industrialized nations do not bode well for feeding the increasing populations of the developing world," the report said.

The document was a consensus of opinions from the Royal Society, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Third World Academy of Sciences and the science academies of China, Brazil, India and Mexico.

Investigations into the effects GM crops have on the environment should be coordinated, and public health regulators in every country need to identify and monitor any potential adverse effects on human health, the academies said.

Worldwide, 74 million acres have been planted with genetically modified crops, mainly in the United States. Other countries embracing the technology include Argentina, Canada, Australia and China.

"China is likely to become one of the world leaders in this field," Heap said. "China has recognized the importance of the technology for feeding its people."

But the issue of genetically altered crops has become politically charged elsewhere, particularly in Europe, where anxiety about food safety runs high after a crisis in the mid-1990s over mad cow disease that led to a ban on British beef exports.

European Union licensing of new genetically modified products and patents has stalled in recent years because of perceived health concerns.

"The European debate is interfering with trade," said Dr. Wallace Beversdorf, head of research and development in the seeds sector at Novartis AG, the Swiss-based pharmaceutical and biotechnology company. "The biggest limiting factor now is the debate over consumer acceptance and trade."

Beversdorf noted that Thailand recently turned down the opportunity to grow genetically modified rice for fear it would not be able to export it.

"Europe is exceedingly important in terms of global development because it's a big market," he said.

Biotechnology companies welcomed the report and said industry help to developing nations was not new.

Novartis gives free genetically modified sweet potato seeds to Vietnam and trained scientists there how to introduce genes that make the crop resistant to weevils.

Monsanto, which said Tuesday it agrees on the need to share technology to combat world hunger, recently made public its draft of the rice genome.