The opinion article by Tewolde Egziabher (see Nuffield Council should be more ethical on GM crops) distorts the arguments made in the Council's discussion paper The use of GM crops in developing countries. It also contains factual errors.
First, Egziabher reports that 'Golden Rice' is covered by ”70 patents belonging to 32 different owners”. He goes on to suggest that such protection would make use of the crop difficult for small scale farmers, who would be unable to negotiate and pay for multiple licenses, an issue which the author claims is not addressed in the discussion paper.
A careful reading of our paper, however, shows that Egziabher has been selective in this choice of text. Immediately following the quoted passage, the paper reads:
"In the event only six licences were required and licence fees were waived. This example suggests that requests for waivers of licence fees to allow the use of patented technologies for the development of crops suitable for subsistence farmers may be received sympathetically in future. However, a more systematic mechanism may be needed if large numbers of patents are involved, and if seed is to be made available to farmers at the low prices that they can afford." (paragraph 6.6)
Furthermore, paragraph 3.47 clearly states that the licensing agreements with Syngenta are such that while the company retains the rights for the commercialisation of Golden Rice, it allows its use free-of-charge by farmers and traders whose profit is below US$10,000 per year.
Also, paragraph 6.11 discusses possible difficulties arising for plant breeders from restricted access to patented GM plant varieties. The paragraph reaffirms the recommendation of the Council's 1999 report, and urges various international organisations "to closely monitor the impact of patents on the availability of germplasm to plant breeders”.
The discussion paper acknowledges that the majority of traits in GM crops available today focus primarily on the needs of large scale farmers in developed countries. For this reason, we suggest a major expansion of GM-related research into tropical and sub-tropical staple foods, recommending that those sponsoring research be proactive in consulting with national and regional bodies in developing countries to determine which traits in which crops should be developed as a priority. (paragraph 6.17-6.18)
Secondly, Egziabher asserts that plausible and viable alternatives to GM technology offer a better route to low cost sustainable agriculture. He claims that the Nuffield Council ignores this possibility, making its conclusions “unethical”. In fact, however, the paper concludes that:
“In considering whether GM crops should be used or not, it is essential to focus on the specific situation in a particular country, asking the question: 'How does the use of a GM crop compare to other alternatives?' All possible paths of action must be compared, including inaction, in respect of improving, in a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way, human health, nutrition, and the ability to afford an adequate diet.” (paragraph 4.49)
As the paper acknowledges, the improvement of agriculture and food security depends on several factors: stable political environments, appropriate infrastructures, fair international and national agricultural policies, access to land and water, and improved crop varieties which are suited to local conditions are all important. Therefore, in focusing on current and potential uses of GM crops we consider only part, albeit an important one, of a large and complex picture.
We do not claim that GM crops will 'feed the world'. But the evidence examined assures us that in particular cases, GM crops can contribute to substantial progress in improving agriculture, in parallel to the (usually slow) changes at the socio-political level.