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28/03/2000 •


Agricultural Biotechnology, GMOs & Agricultural Biodiversity

Agricultural Biotechnology, GMOs & Agricultural Biodiversity

"Modern man talks of the battle with nature, forgetting if he ever won the battle he would find himself on the losing side" Fritz Schumacher, past President of Soil Association and founder of ITDG

Agricultural Biotechnology, GMOs & Agricultural Biodiversity

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ITDG Associates’ Day 17 October 1999

Edited Transcript of Patrick Mulvany, ITDG Food Security Policy Adviser's Closing Speech - in response to presentations and comments from the floor.

For Keynote papers and further information see: ITDG Home Page <>


Thank you to all those very insightful comments in the last few minutes.

First I am going to quote Fritz Schumacher, our prescient founder, who many of you may have met and I had the privilege once to do so. I’m sure, that had he lived he would have been one of the leaders of the environment movement and probably would have been one of the champions of this particular movement at present.

As a past president of the Soil Association, he said,

  • "Modern man talks of the battle with nature, forgetting if he ever won the battle he would find himself on the losing side".
  • We ought to remember this. What we are dealing with is a technology far beyond anything we have dealt with before. Many of you have said and our speakers have indeed confirmed that. New technology tends to disbenefit poor people rather benefit them, whether it is in the development of ploughs or pesticides, poor people have lost out. They have lost out because key factors have not been in place for them to be able to benefit from an innovation. And that is why, what Ebbie Dengu, ITDG's Southern Africa Director, said about being able to develop technologies in a way in which people can participate and actually benefit, is so important.



    Slide 1

    Agricultural Biotechnology, GMOs & Agricultural Biodiversity

    Key points

    • Precautionary Approach
    • Assessment of Potential Impacts
    • Celebrate Diversity
    • Campaigning Agenda

    In this Summing Up I want summarise the many issues we have touched, the precautionary approach, the assessment of potential impacts and then to move on and talk about the celebration of diversity, and something about campaigns.

    Slide 2

    Precautionary Approach

    • Impacts on People
    • Livelihoods
    • Cultures
    • Health
    • Production
    • Agricultural Biodiversity / Agroecosystems
    • Food Security
    • Local Control

    This is a complex technology that does not just have a technical dimension it has other dimensions, social, health, culture and so on.


    We have to think about all of these aspects when assessing the value, positive or negative, of a technology. Indeed we have to that with all technologies, but for this one because it is so pervasive - once a gene is out of a bottle it can do irreversible damage - we have to be particularly careful. I think all of us agree with that.

    We do have to help poor people with their assessment: we have to develop methodologies for assessment. We have to look not just at the technical aspects but take into consideration the political, economic, social, environmental aspects as well.

    Slide 3

    Assessment of Impacts

    • All Levels
    • Local
    • National
    • International
    • Environmental
    • Social
    • Political / Institutional
    • Economic



    The very important and interesting comment made about patenting of life forms is another aspect that needs to be considered. The arguments are clear – Mr Burnett-Hall, the questioner, and I have had some correspondence on this. But there is a menacing link between the dominance of the ownership of the knowledge by corporations and their arrogance in pushing through the technology. Patent offices should be able to deal with that but in practise it is different. The fact, as Neth Daño reminded us, that diversity has developed through the free exchange of material over the years should not be forgotten.

    Slide 4

    Celebrate Diversity

    • Development of Agricultural Biodiversity
    • Seed Fairs
    • Integrity of Agroecosystems
    • Organic Agriculture
    • Farmers’ Rights


    Let us move on the key point: the celebration of diversity. This is not to have a mantra about farmers always being right and regressive thinking about rustic rural folk, as some people were suggesting: there is no question of a Polyanna approach – that everything is going to be lovely – not at all. We are dealing with terribly serious problems of poverty and inequality and hunger among 100s of millions of people across the world. We do need to think about the likely, best solutions. However, quickfix technical solutions have been disproven in the past and in this particular case of GM technologies we need to be especially cautious.

    But just look at other locally-based solutions – the way in which farmers have developed agro-ecosystems in which plants and animals and people thrive. So let’s celebrate that diversity, and let’s think about how more productive organic agriculture, which respects people’s ethical, personal, moral and indeed legal concerns can best be stimulated.

    Slide 5

    Campaigning Agenda

    • Moratorium on Use and Trade of GMOs for Food and Farming
    • No Patents on Genetic Resources for Food and Farming
    • Challenge the Biotech Engine
    • Reorientate Research & Development
    • Promote Agricultural Biodiversity for Food Security


    There is a campaigning agenda and I think that what we ought to do in ITDG is principally to inject the voice of the farmers into this agenda, the people who are going to be the most affected and yet the least heard in this whole debate. So how can we get people to be able to express their concerns so that they rise higher up the agenda? Let’s be quite clear, that the apparent victories that are occurring at the moment could well Pyrrhic, as Prof George Smith suggested. It could well be, if one were to be very cynical, that the companies would be quite happy to segregate the market – some processors are already using organic lines as just another product line. GM-free could be yet another product line. They could be quite happy to segregate the market. If merely ten or twenty per cent of the market don’t want this stuff, that’s fine; if another ten or twenty per cent can’t afford it, that’s fine. But sixty per cent of the market is not a bad market share! So, let’s be very cautious and let’s see how it is possible to be able to ensure that the concerns of the poor farmers are heard in the debate and that the majority farmer view can prevail.

    A questioner asked about mechanisms for dialogue with companies and with governments – some have been set up internationally through, for example as Sally Bunning has said, the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Within each country, national debates are occurring, but what we would like to see and what we are currently seeking funding for is to set up some national and regional dialogues with all stake holders but most importantly including poor farmers themselves, so that they can get their voice into the debate.

    The crucial issue, raised by some people, of who sets the agenda, particularly for research and development, must be one of the predominant questions. The kind of work ITDG is doing at national level with research organisations and with extension organisations is most important and shows the value of sustainable agriculture approaches. If the money that is currently invested in R&D on genetic engineering technology were put into more sustainable ecosystem-supporting technologies, there would be a significant improvement and difference in the way agriculture is practised. We are seeing, certainly through the work of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, The Soil Association and other organisations, as Patrick Holden has illustrated, how significant and sustained improvements in yields can be achieved. So it can be done. But in order to get those changes, we need to have more democratisation of the setting of the research agenda. R&D needs to be re-orientated. I think importantly, the championing and the promotion of agricultural biodiversity for food security needs to be heard ever louder in all forums and at all levels.

    At ITDG one of our best symbolic contributions can be in trying to get what farmers currently do heard by decision makers nationally and internationally – something that Neth Daño and SEARICE have been very effectively doing. One thing in which we are very involved with is the development of Seed Fairs in Zimbabwe, Kenya and possibly in Peru. These are wonderful celebrations of the diversity that farmers themselves have generated, are maintaining and are developing. In some cases, farmers walk for five hours to come to a Seed Fair to display their seeds. I have had the privilege to attend one recently and to hear what people are saying about their seed – exchanging the seeds with their neighbours, exchanging information to obtain further skills and knowledge – is a wonderful experience to behold. We have seen people coming from the FAO, the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute; people coming from national research organisations and national gene banks, coming to sit with farmers and hear their stories.

    Next year in May, in Nairobi, the Convention on Biological Diversity meets to discuss the Biosafety Protocol, Terminator Technologies and international work on Agricultural Biodiversity. One idea we have is that we will flood the compound in front the UNEP building with farmers displaying their seeds. What clearer symbolic message can there be to the world’s decision makers that this is what they should be putting greater emphasis on and that the other - GM - technology is perhaps an irrelevance.

    Let us celebrate the diversity that farmers produce. Thank you.


    Slide 6

    Support Local Diversity, Globally

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