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Tuesday, 11 July, 2000, 09:04 GMT 10:04 UK
GM companies 'should share data'
ethiopian farmer winnowing
GM technology can help to feed hungry people, the report says
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Some of the world's leading scientists say genetically modified (GM) plants can help to feed the growing number of hungry people.

But they say the GM industry must be ready to share its technology for the common good.

They urge checks in every country on the possible effects on human health of GM plants, which they say could be a long-term problem.

And they insist that poor farmers should have protection against "inappropriate restrictions in propagating their crops".

The scientists make their recommendations in a report entitled Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture.

Public funding

It is published jointly by the science academies of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, the US, the United Kingdom's Royal Society, and the Third World Academy of Sciences.

Cambridge professor Brian Heap, who chairs the report's working group on GM food, says it is important for public funds to be used.

It would be irresponsible of scientists or anyone else to suggest it is a technology that must be ignored

Professor Brian Heap

"With the very considerable increase in world population over the next 25-50 years from six to eight or nine billion, quite clearly there is going to be a very important need for new ways to produce food and to secure food production throughout the world," he says.

The authors say that "even in the market-driven economy" governments must recognise that there will always be public interest research requiring public investment.

They believe new public sector efforts are needed to create crops which benefit poor farmers and improve access to food in developing nations through employment-intensive production of staples like maize, rice and wheat.

Confidence needed

"It is imperative that public funding of research in this area is maintained at least at its present level in both the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR, a network of 16 international research centres) and national research institutions."

ethiopian farmers sowing
Farmers must be able to save their seeds
Professor Heap said: "I think it is certainly a technology that has a lot of potential for the future and it would be irresponsible of scientists or anyone else to suggest it is a technology that must be ignored."

The report urges high priority for people's concerns about the possible effects of GM plants on health.

"Ultimately, no credible evidence from scientists or regulatory institutions will influence public opinion unless there is public confidence in the institutions and mechanisms that regulate such products."

It also acknowledges concerns over what GM technology may do to wildlife and the environment, but says these must be balanced against other impacts

Developing countries

"All environmental effects should be assessed against the background of effects from conventional agricultural practices currently in use," it says.

greenpeace protestors on GM ship
People's fears of GM crops are real
And in a reference to one of the key concerns of many opponents of GM plants, the authors say: "It is critical that the potential benefits of GM technology become available to developing countries.

"We recommend that where appropriate, farmers must be allowed to save seed for future use if they wish to do so."

Anna Hope, of English Nature, the UK Government's wildlife advisers, who had seen a summary of the report, told BBC News Online: "We welcome the concept of collaboration.

"We look forward to seeing how to meet the challenges in an equitable way, provided that the risks and benefits of specific GM technologies are recognised".

Kevan Bundell of Christian Aid welcomed the report's call to share GM technology for the benefit of the poor.

But he told BBC News Online that the technology remained surrounded by "many uncertainties" and "a lack of an appropriate regulatory framework".

"Christian Aid believes there should be a pause in the commercial use of GM crops to allow time for the issues to be further researched."

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