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Thursday, 17 May, 2001, 00:07 GMT 01:07 UK
GM coffee 'threatens farmers'
Coffee-picker and berries AP
Harvesting coffee in Costa Rica: The beans ripen at their own rate
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A UK development charity says the prospect of genetically-modified (GM) coffee threatens poor farmers with ruin.

The charity, ActionAid, says the new coffee would offer no significant benefits to coffee drinkers.

The technology, being developed by a Hawaii-based company, works by making all the coffee berries ripen at the same time.

This would cut labour costs and, ActionAid says, force small farmers out of the market.

A report by the charity, Robbing Coffee's Cradle - GM coffee and its threat to poor farmers, says 70% of all coffee is grown by smallholder farmers.

They depend on the crop for all or part of their livelihood, and ActionAid fears they could not survive the GM plants' introduction, which lies some years ahead.

Chemical switch

The company developing the new technology is Integrated Coffee Technologies, Inc.

Supermarket coffee packet BBC
Coffee is many peoples' livelihood
The report says ICTI's coffee has had its natural ripening process switched off, so that the berries will ripen only when it is switched on again after they have been sprayed with ethylene.

ActionAid describes this as an example of "genetic use restriction technologies", or GURTs, a type of modification that relies on controlling a plant's normal behaviour by chemical means.

It says: "GURTs increase the profits of big companies by making farmers dependent on buying new seed and the 'on' chemicals they sell that farmers need to harvest their crop.

"They remove control of farming from farmers and give it to GM seed and chemical companies."

ICTI's website says: "Integrated Coffee Technologies, Inc. specialises in applying biotechnology to plantation beverage crops such as coffee and tea.

"Our lead products are caffeine-free coffee plants and controlled ripening coffee plants. Additional products will include coffee and tea plants with improved disease resistance and tolerance of environmental stresses such as cold and drought.

"We have exclusive licenses to two patents: one for the production of caffeine-free beverages, and the other for controlling the ripening process of coffee fruit."

Squeezed out

ActionAid says the GM coffee would be suited to mechanical strip-harvesting on large plantations, making them more productive than small farms where the berries are hand-picked as they ripen naturally at an uneven rate.

Ethiopia depends on traditional coffee production for almost 70% of its export earnings.

The Ethiopian delegate to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is Dr Tewolde Egziabler.

He told ActionAid: "Small farmers will be squeezed out of the market with GM coffee.

Starbucks shop front BBC
Chains will be asked to bar GM coffee
"It's a shift from a labour-intensive to a capital-intensive system, from small farmers to large farmers."

Eve Mitchell of ActionAid told BBC News Online: "GM coffee has a clear objective: to make large corporate-controlled coffee plantations more profitable.

"Smallholder coffee farmers who are already suffering from low and volatile coffee prices will not be able to compete.

Boycott call

"In short, this technology has the potential to devastate the lives of millions of growers throughout the developing world."

ActionAid is asking supermarkets and coffee shop chains to promise not to sell GM coffee when and if it reaches the market, and to support small farmers by stocking fair trade coffee.

Eve Mitchell said: "The UK public have a real chance to send a strong, clear message to the biotech industry that we don't want this technology at the expense of farmers and their families in the developing world."

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See also:

16 May 01 | Business
Coffee farmers 'face destitution'
23 Apr 01 | Americas
Brazil court battle for GM soya
07 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
GM 'super-weed' fears challenged
04 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
GM rice patents given away
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