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Last Updated: Monday, 29 March, 2004, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
GM crops to be expanded
Bananas, BBC
Bananas are a key crop for farmers in the developing world
GM crop giant Monsanto has said its likely future developments in genetic agriculture engineering will take in a much wider variety of plants, including those grown in the world's poorest regions.

Currently there are four main GM-engineered crops, three of which - maize, soya and oilseed rape, known in the north America as canola - are grown primarily for animal feed. Cotton is the fourth.

Only 1% of research goes into crops key to farmers in the developing world, such as bananas and cassavas. But Kerry Preete, Monsanto's head of US operations, said it was likely this would change in the future.

"Over time that is probably going to change as the technology gets developed and both private and public sector industry looks at it," he told BBC World Service's The Interview programme.

"I think it's well-known that there're tens, dozens, of different crops being worked on today all round the world, in all types of research agencies."

UK praise

The role of GM crops in the developing world is particularly politically sensitive.

In 2002, US President George Bush accused the European Union of blocking efforts to fight famine in Africa because of "unfounded" fears over genetically modified foods.

Kerry Preete
The UK is taking a very responsible, science-based and case-by-case approach to looking at these technologies
Kerry Preete
Zambia, which was undergoing drought and severe hunger at the time, banned GM food aid which was sent. The country said it would rather go hungry than risk losing its export markets in Europe because its crops had been contaminated by GM seed.

Mr Preete said that particular storm was "not for Monsanto to comment on", but added that he felt GM technology was one of the "tools" which could help developing world farmers.

"One of the solutions and one of the tools is to help African farmers become more self-sufficient in agriculture," he added.

He also praised the UK government, which earlier this month agreed in principle to the growing of a single variety of GM maize in England.

"The introduction of this technology should be based on sound science, and I think the recent move by the UK government to look at and approve the cultivation of crops, we view as a tremendous step," he said.

"[It] clearly demonstrated that the UK is taking a very responsible, science-based and case-by-case approach to looking at these technologies.

"We think that's going to benefit farmers and consumers alike."

Anti-GM campaign groups vehemently opposed the decision.

Western help

Critics of Monsanto in particular have suggested two charges against the company.

One is that the use of their Round-Up Ready corn - genetically engineered to resist a Monsanto pesticide called Round-Up - has encouraged not a decrease, but an increase in the use of pesticides, specifically Round-Up.

Mr Preete conceded this was in fact true. "The fact is there is more Round-Up used," he said.

Obese man in New York, BBC
Monsanto hopes it can engineer crops to have a lower saturated fat content
"But if you look at the amount of pesticide or herbicide applied per acre of soil, versus conventional, there have actually been several studies that show the actual pounds of pesticide have been reduced."

The other suggestion is that new, super-resistant weeds, more tolerant of the pesticide glyphosate - which is the active ingredient in Round-Up - are now proliferating.

Mr Preete said this had happened, but argued it was not as a result of a Monsanto product.

"There's only been four known cases around the world of weeds becoming resistant to glyphosate," he stressed.

"None of those cases have been related to the use of Round-Up Ready crops... we don't accept that the use of Round-Up Ready crops enhances or proliferates the issue of resistant weeds."

He also stressed there was potential for GM crops to address some of the health concerns in the Western world, including rapidly increasing obesity rates.

"The ability of biotechnology is now being worked on to improve soy and canola oil, to reduce the level of saturated fats or to enhance the level of Omega-3 fatty acids, which has been proven to reduce heart disease," he said.

"Those are some of the benefits which are just around the corner with this technology."

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