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The following was provided by Claire Ince, Communications Assistant, Women's Environment and Development Organization (www.wedo.org) and is reprinted here with permission.
Vandana Shiva's Response to Jimmy Carter's
August 28, 1998 New York Times Corporation's
article, "Who's Afraid of Genetic Engineering?"
from Diverse Women for Diversity
Who Is Afraid Of Biosafety?
A comment by Dr. Vandana Shiva
Biosafety is ecological safety in the Biotechnology age. It refers to the risks of "biological pollution" posed by genetically engineered organisms. The biotech industry is afraid of biosafety because it creates a responsibility system that ensures that in the case of biological pollution as in other forms of pollution, it should be the polluter who should pay. The industry has tried all means to deny citizens their right to biosafety. First, it forced President Bush to not sign the Convention on Biological Diversity in Rio in 1992. The convention has 168 countries as its members, but the U.S. is not a party. More recently the U.S. Biotech industry tried to pass organic standards which would allow labelling of genetically engineered foods as organic. The Biotech industry now seems to have found its spokesman in Jimmy Carter, who has written an article entitled "Who's Afraid of Genetic Engineering ? " (N.Y. Times, 26th Aug '98).
Mr. Carter has tried to misrepresent the Biosafety negotiations taking place under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as an "adhoc team of experts" held captive by environmentalists and "extremist groups". The Biosafety negotiations are intergovernmental negotiations taking place between the 168 countries which are members of a United Nations Treaty.
Mr. Carter has also stated that the Biosafety negotiations are "exceeding the mandate" of the Treaty to protect diverse species of plants and animals. However, the impact of genetic engineering is part of the mandate of the CBD. The U.S. is a non-party of the Convention since it has refused to sign it.
The intergovernmental negotiations on Biosafety are in fact an implementation of article 19.3 of the CBD which states,
The parties shall consider the need for and modalities of a protocol setting out appropriate procedures, including , in particular, advanced informed agreement, in the field of safe transfer, handling or use of any living modified organism resulting from biotechnology that may have adverse effect on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.
I was a member of the expert panel set up by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in 1993 to investigate the need for modalities of a protocol and all experts except the one from U.S., recommended the need for international safety regulation for genetically engineered organisms. We based our decision on scientific evidence and the precautionary principle . I have just returned from Montreal where the Biosafety Negotiations were under way the past two weeks.
There is a ample scientific evidence to show that genetically engineered organisms are not ecologically equivalent to the parent organisms found in nature or produced through conventional breeding. As a study of the University of Oregon has shown, the genetically engineered soil microorganisms, Klepsiella planticola can destroy crops while the naturally occurring parent is harmless.
Organic Bt (Bacillus thurengensis) is a reliable and sustainable pest control agent, but when engineered into plants to produce Bt-cotton or Bt-corn, the toxin leads to rapid emergence of resistance in pests, requiring more than 30% land to be put under non-genetically engineered crops as "refugia" under U.S. EPA recommendations. Bt-crops are also recorded as harmony beneficial insects.
By saying that "we can produce the environmental effects by reviewing past experiences with these plants and animals produced through selective breeding", Mr. Carter is misleading the public. Genetically engineered crops differ from conventional crops because they carry genes from animals, bacteria or other plants, and these novel genes in crops will have ecological impacts that are different from conventional crops.
The impacts will be highest in regions of the Third World which are centres of biodiversity. For example, the risks of herbicide resistance genes moving to wild relatives to create super weeds is higher in centres of crop diversity. Knowing these risks, it was the governments of the Third World which insisted an article 19.3 on Biosafety being part of the UN Treaty to save species diversity and which are still insisting on a strict legally binding international protocol to ensure biosafety in the Biotech age. Biosafety is an environmental right of the Third World which harbours the world's biodiversity. India has called for a precautionary ban on the "Terminator Technology" which genetically engineers seed to terminate germination in order to force farmers to buy seed every year. If the Terminator trait was to move to other related plants or neighbouring fields through pollination, we could have major ecological and agricultural havoc since those plants would be made sterile.. The Terminator Technology has been called the "neutron bomb of agriculture". The world needs Biosafety regulations to ensure such seeds do not move freely around the world.
Biosafety is also the democratic right of citizens everywhere who want to know that they are eating and who have a right to choose what they eat. Labelling and segregation of genetically engineered organisms and products made from them is an essential part of Biosafety. A survey of Novartis, the world's largest agribusiness company has established that 93% want genetically engineered food labelled. 83-94% Canadians want labelling. European consumers have made it clear they do not want to be free fed genetically engineered foods.
Genetic engineering will not contribute to Third World food security since it has little to do with increasing yields of food. It is related more significantly to traits such as herbicide resistance which allows industry to sell more chemicals. As the Greenpeace report released at the Biosafety negotiations in Montreal revealed, Monsanto's genetically engineered potato seeds sold in Georgia had yields of only one third to one half of that expected, and pushed farmers into debt. Genetic engineering without biosafety will create destitution and hunger in the Third World. The Third World will be the real loser without biosafety, not because of it, as Mr. Carter fears. Those who respect the democratic and environmental rights of citizens and future generations and who would like to see diverse species protected and flourish, should not be afraid of biosafety and should join the global call for a strong biosafety law to protect humans and other species.
About the Author:
Dr. Vandana Shiva is a leading ecologist from India, President of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE). She has participated regularly in the U.N. Biosafety negotiations as an expert observer.