办事指南

Cashing in on hunger

点击量:   时间:2019-03-08 10:05:00

By Fred Pearce THE rush to promote genetic engineering as a solution to world food shortages is undermining crop research in the developing world, claim leading agricultural scientists. Governments, the World Bank and other funding bodies are withdrawing their support for biological pest control and switching to genetic research, they say. This summer, Monsanto, the world’s largest supplier of genetically modified seeds, appealed to African heads of state to back genetic engineering as a solution to the world’s food problems. It also launched an advertising campaign claiming that biotechnology offered the best hope of achieving sustainable food production. But Hans Herren, director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi and a leading expert on fighting crop diseases, told a meeting at the Overseas Development Institute in London last week that these claims are diverting essential funds from traditional pest control: “We shouldn’t be driven by this unproven technology when there are many more efficient solutions to food problems.” Other experts take a similar view. Jules Pretty, director of the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex, warns: “Biotechnology is much more sexy with donors at the moment and other research will get squeezed out.” Herren accuses agricultural researchers at UN agencies and the World Bank of joining a commercial bandwagon that is halting potentially more useful crop research. He is particularly critical of the UN’s development and agricultural agencies and the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the world’s largest private funders of agricultural research for the developing world. “Half of Rockefeller’s agricultural money now goes to biotechnology,” says Herren. Many of the 16 research centres run by the World Bank-backed Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, to which Herren’s own institute is affiliated, have also switched from traditional research. “When I visit agricultural research institutes, I find the biological control lab half empty with broken windows, and the taxonomy lab derelict, but the biotechnology lab will be brand new with all the latest equipment and teeming with staff,” Herren adds. Herren’s views carry weight. A decade ago his work helped to save Africa from famine caused by a South American mealy bug that was devastating the cassava crop. It threatened disaster for 200 million Africans, until Herren found a Paraguayan parasitic wasp that killed the mealy bug by laying eggs inside its body, and released the wasp across the continent. Herren claims that if the same problem arose today, he would not get the money for such research. “The transgenics people would say they could insert a gene resistant to the mealy bug into the plant instead.” He argues that if they were successful, they would charge for new seeds, which African farmers could not afford. His solution “solved the problem once and for all” and did not cost farmers a penny—one reason why companies are not interested in biological control. Herren says his centre has lots of proposals for pest control based on botanical products, “but nobody in the aid community wants to fund them”. “There may be occasions when biotechnology is the only way of solving a problem,” says Pretty. “But there are much simpler solutions to most of the developing world’s food problems.” He says scientists who believe biotechnology would banish hunger are being naive. “Most people are hungry because they are poor,