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Biotechnology Debate Takes Center Stage at Food Summit

Agriculture: As activists and delegates weigh in, researchers unveil a new effort to fund 'gene banks' to save unusual crops from extinction.


ROME — As delegates at a U.N. summit on world hunger debated the risks and benefits of genetically modified crops, agricultural researchers on Wednesday announced a new effort to save unusual strains of food plants from extinction.

The move to establish a $260-million endowment to guarantee steady funding for key "gene banks" around the world would preserve a wide variety of food crop seeds, the U.N.-backed group of research organizations said. The seeds could be used both as a source of genes for biologically engineered new crop varieties and to produce new hybrids by traditional crossbreeding.

"All crop improvement--whether it's through conventional plant breeding ... [or] the latest genetic engineering techniques--requires genetic diversity," Geoffrey Hawtin, director general of the Rome-based International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, said at a news conference. "So we do not look on these gene banks as being either supportive of or counter to the issue of genetic modification."

Some delegates at the four-day U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization-sponsored summit, which concludes today, have raised concerns about biotechnology, but the general tone has been supportive.

That stance has drawn sharp criticism from participants in a parallel conference of nongovernmental organizations, where many would like to ban production of all genetically modified organisms, often referred to as GMOs.

Vandana Shiva, a prominent Indian campaigner against genetically modified crops, said the world hunger summit is "really a summit for promoting GMOs and their trade and free circulation."

Anti-GMO activists argue that genetically modified seeds are being pressed on farmers not because they boost yields and potentially reduce hunger but rather because they enrich the firms holding the patents.

The Food and Agriculture Organization takes the position that more biotechnology research targeted at helping developing countries should be supported by governments and international organizations. The project to support gene banks could play a role in such efforts.

The new endowment should be sufficient, Hawtin said, to ensure the preservation of varieties identified as the most important in an international treaty on plant genetic resources approved last year by a Food and Agriculture Organization conference and signed so far by 43 countries.

About 1,300 gene banks around the world preserve 6.6 million samples of food crop seeds or wild plants, including hundreds of thousands of different varieties, according to U.N. statistics. Seeds are usually placed in sealed jars or packets and frozen, which allows them to be stored for decades.

But many key facilities, often government-run, receive only year-to-year funding and now face gradual cutbacks that threaten the loss of many varieties currently preserved, Hawtin said. The endowment, which will be sought from public and private sources, would be paired with steps to better coordinate the global effort to store seed samples, he added.

Participants in the U.N. summit have raised issues such as whether corporate patents on genetically modified seeds lock poor farmers out of the benefits. Some delegates also question whether genetically modified food may pose health risks.

People in Europe in general and Italy in particular tend to be more skeptical of genetically modified foods than are most Americans. A poll of Italians this year by the Milan-based Giannino Bassetti Foundation, which studies innovation in business, found that 38% of respondents opposed any sales of genetically modified foods and 95% said that if they are sold, they should be clearly labeled.

Still, a document on ways to attack poverty and hunger--approved by delegates without dissent--backs "research into new technologies, including biotechnology."

Opponents of biotechnology are particularly critical of so-called terminator technology, in which high-yield or pest- and disease-resistant seeds are modified so that seeds from the crops they produce will not germinate. In many poorer countries, farmers save part of their crop for the next planting, but anyone using this technology must buy new seeds every year.

Critics at the parallel conference have also charged that firms selling genetically modified seeds engage in "biopiracy" when they use genetic material from poor countries to produce patented products.

But such criticisms did little to dent the enthusiasm for bioengineering at the official summit.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, distributed materials detailing its efforts to use both traditional hybrid techniques and biotechnology to produce nutrient-enhanced varieties of cassava, beans, sweet potatoes and maize. The agency has supported the development of high-iron beans, high-beta-carotene sweet potatoes and maize rich in vitamin A, iron and zinc, it said.

About 2 billion people in poorer countries suffer from deficiency of at least one nutrient.

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