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Friday, May 21, 1999 Published at 03:00 GMT 04:00 UK


GM could 'impoverish poor farmers'

ActionAid fear some GM crops could further impoverish subsistence farmers

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

A UK development agency, ActionAid, says it is concerned at the potential impact on the world's poor of genetically-modified (GM) plants.

Food under the microscope
ActionAid is worried that GM technology being developed by AstraZeneca "could further impoverish farmers in the developing world".

AstraZeneca, the UK's largest agrochemical company, is holding its annual general meeting in London on Friday. An ActionAid report examines the 52 GM crop patent applications made since 1993 by AstraZeneca.

The company trebled its spending on biotechnology research to $60m from 1997 to 1998.

'Cycle of dependence'

Its patent applications include:

  • GM systems in which the application of chemicals switches on aspects of a plant's growth. ActionAid fears poor farmers could be tied into "a cycle of seed and chemical dependence"
  • Plants resistant not just to a single herbicide, but to two or three
  • A new generation of insecticide-producing plants, using toxins from the venom of the deadly Australian funnelweb spider, the fat-tailed scorpion, and from wasps and cone snails

AstraZeneca says the toxins will not be put into plants, but will only be used in research to help to design more effective insecticides. It also says it will use its patent to prevent anyone else from using the toxins in plants.

And it rejects ActionAid's suggestions that its work on GM plants offers nothing to subsistence farmers, and could create environmental risks.

No to terminator technology

The charity does have some praise for the company: "Encouragingly, AstraZeneca recently confirmed to ActionAid that it will not commercialise its "terminator" (plant sterility) technologies, saying it recognises that these would undermine farmers' traditional practice of seed saving.

"The company also ruled out using its 'verminator' (rat gene technology) in its processes."

But ActionAid wants AstraZeneca to commission an independent study on the impact on farmers in developing countries of its patents before starting to sell its products.

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