Oxfam America report probes future of ag biotech

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Aug. 6, 2013 - A report released by the international development group Oxfam America today touches upon the he-said-she-said politics of the contentious biotechnology debate - but with more nuance than most. 

But that doesn't mean the 23 experts who contributed to the report - and who work in a range of areas, including international development, sustainable agriculture and broader agribusiness - agree on what shape future biotechnology, or genetically modified (GM) foods, should take. 

Lets Talk Food

On one side of debate is Oxfam America itself, whose vice president for strategy, John Ambler, writes, “Stronger data now show that GMO food crops are often associated with health risks for humans.” 

Though many argue that GM crops have not yet undergone sufficient long-term testing, FDA has continued to approve GM foods since the mid-1990s. The World Health Organization has said the technology is “not likely to present risks for human health [and] no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population.” 

Pat Mooney, co-founder and executive director of the ETC Group, takes a different tack: He argues that a current global agribusiness model, supported by large multi-national corporations and their high-tech biotechnology research, is inefficient. 

It takes the “corporate food chain” $136 million to produce a new plant variety through genetic engineering, Mooney says - though indigenous “peasant food webs” only use community action. 

Instead of spending time in the lab, then, Mooney points researchers toward indigenous knowledge, which might serve as a foundation for a new global “seed exchange.” 

“If we are to survive climate change, we must adopt policies that let peasants diversify the plant and animal species and varieties/breeds that make up our menus,” Mooney writes. 

Cargill Refined Oils Europe takes a decidedly pro-GM stance - but says feeding a booming world population is a matter of exploiting current biotechnologies, rather than grasping for new ones. 

“It is demonstrably true that with current technology the world‘s farmers” have the ability to feed 9 billion people, writes Harold Poelma, managing director of the company. 

But the success of smallholder farmers, Poelma continues, is depending on their “access to better crop inputs, from seed and fertilizer to tractors and other technology, and training in how to use them.” 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kavita Prakash-Mani, head of food security agenda at Syngenta International, takes the most pro-GM approach. She repeats FAO's 2009 call for an additional $83 billion in agricultural research investment, and points to seed technology as a solution to “changing weather patterns.” 

GM “will result in much higher yields and use less environmental resources,” she writes. 

Still, Prakash-Mani joins her opponents in calls for bottom-up investment in smallholder farmers, who are often able to “develop their own approaches to such challenges as soil fertility, seed productivity, fighting pests and diseases and climate change.” 

All 23 of the report's essays were written in response to a two-week online debate on global food security hosted by Oxfam America in December of 2012. According to the group, the papers were “written to contribute to public debate and to invite feedback on development and humanitarian policy issues.” 

#30

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