The Emperor’s ever-accelerating bandwagon – ISAAA hype (21/4/2004)

Below is an article focusing on Dr Clive James, chair of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), who has been in Brussels selling GM via "his views on the current global status and future prospects of genetically modified (GM) crops". Europe is missing out, according to Dr James and his eye-catching statistics, and needs to hurry up and jump aboard biotech's ever-accelerating bandwagon.

But there are reasons to doubt ISAAA's facts and figures and particularly the way they are framed by James and his colleagues. We have noted before the analysis made by development specialist Aaron deGrassi's of the figures claimed for the area of Bt cotton being grown in South Africa. ISAAA gives a figure 20 times greater for this than even that provided by a fellow industry source.

In ISAAA's most recent report James tells us, "In 2003, the three most populous countries in Asia – China, India, and Indonesia (total population 2.5 billion and a combined GDP of over $1.5 trillion) ... are all officially growing GM crops." - James, C. 2003. Preview: Global Status of Commercialized Transgenic Crops: 2003. ISAAA Briefs No. 30. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY. ISBN: 1-892456-34-6

But are they? According to Indonesian sources Monsanto atually stopped supplying GM seed there in December 2002 and formally closed its GM cotton sales operations down in early 2003 amid complaints over yields and pricing from the previous two years. See 'South Sulawesi wants permit of GMO producer suspended', The Jakarta Post, Indonesia,

And while GM cotton is undoubtedly being grown in India, ISAAA frames this as India being among the world's top ten GM cultivators, whereas a Government report desribes the area under GM cultivation in 2003 as insignificant in relation to the overall area of cotton cultivation, concluding that this reflects Indian farmers assessment of the crop.

But what is clearly marginal to non-existent GM crop acreage in these 2 Asian giants is hyped to the rest of us by James and ISAAA as "the three most populous countries in Asia – China, India, and Indonesia (total population 2.5 billion and a combined GDP of over $1.5 trillion) ... are all officially growing GM crops".

For more on ISAAA:

Biotechnology expert focuses on the risks of not adopting GM in the EU
Cordis News, 21 April 2004

Dr Clive James, chair of the international service for the acquisition of agri-biotech applications (ISAAA) and a leading proponent of agricultural biotechnology for the developing world, was in Brussels on 20 April to present his views on the current global status and future prospects of genetically modified (GM) crops.

Speaking to journalists, he began by outlining the challenge facing the agriculture sector. According to Dr James, estimates show that global food production will need to be doubled by 2050 to meet the needs of a predicted world population of nine billion people. What's more, he added, this doubling of production will have to be achieved using the same amount of land as is currently available, as the area of cultivatable land per capita in 2050 will have fallen to 0.15 hectares, from today's figure of 0.25 hectares.

'No single approach will provide the solution,' said Dr James. 'Conventional crop improvement alone will not double food production by 2050, and similarly, biotechnology is not a panacea - GM is not the silver bullet that will solve all of the problems.'

However, Dr James expressed his firm belief that any successful strategy to meet the growing global demand for food would have to make use of multiple approaches, integrating both conventional and GM crops in order to optimise productivity. The challenge, as he sees it, is how to accommodate diverse opinions on GM technology within a global strategy, especially given the sceptical stance of many in Europe.

Dr James accepted that concerns surrounding GM crops, such as food safety, their environmental impact and the issue of who owns the technology, are currently hampering acceptance in Europe, but he argued that these issues represent only one side of the argument.

'What many people in Europe must ask themselves is 'what are the risks of not adopting GM?' said Dr James. He offered the example of a brain drain of scientific talent from Europe to other parts of the world, resulting in Europe not being at the cutting edge of the technology. Dr James described the current status of biotechnology as the tip of the iceberg, adding: 'What people must realise is that if Europe chooses to reject GM technology, it will be turning its back on the whole iceberg, not simply the tip.'

However, Dr James was positive about the future prospects for GM technology in Europe, saying that he chooses to view the region as 'a glass half full, not half empty'. New EU labelling and traceability requirements, which came in to force on 18 April, will open up new developments in Europe and lead to the reestablishment of GM product approvals, he hopes.

The introduction of practical coexistence measures should open the way for the cultivation of GM crops in Europe within the next five years, said Dr James, and he described the limited cultivation of GM maize in Spain as 'encouraging'.

When asked what benefits GM crops offer to consumers in Europe, Dr James accepted that the advantages for ordinary citizens are less evident than those for farmers, for example. However, he argued that the technology would lead to lower cost products, and that European consumers may be better persuaded by 'quality trait' GM varieties currently under development, such as a type of soya bean that can lower cholesterol levels in the body.

Ultimately, though, it is the potential benefits that GM crops can deliver in the developing world, and especially to the 870 million people currently suffering from malnutrition, that Dr James considers the decisive argument in favour of the technology. 'The problem may be that hunger is a difficult concept for consumers in the EU and US to relate to,' he concluded.

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