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Checkbiotech: Tough to swallow-Egypt develops GM
Posted by: DR. RAUPP ; madora (IP Logged)
Date: April 07, 2005 07:49AM ; ;

As America and Europe squabble over the viability of genetically modified
foods, Egypt is quietly developing modified corn and cotton crops that have
the potential to boost output and reduce chemical spraying. But even if the
crops prove safe, some fear GM production could interfere with Egypts
exports to the EU. Are GM foods worth the risk, April 2005 by Joseph Krauss.

In May of 2002, a number of southern African nations faced the worst food
shortages in more than a decade when crop yields already weakened by poor
management, political turmoil and the devastation wrought by AIDS were
further aggravated by a summer of severe flooding, followed by an equally
severe drought. Aid groups estimated that nearly 15 million people faced
starvation. The international community acted quickly, with the United
Nations World Food Program (WFP) promising a substantial amount of emergency
food aid in the form of surplus crops, primarily from the United States, the
WFPs chief donor. Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique politely declined.

Leaders said they could not accept food aid from America, because it was
contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which they claimed
made it hazardous to human health. The most outspoken was President Levy
Mwanawasa of Zambia, who refused to admit even milled grains from the United
States. Simply because my people are hungry, that is no justification to
give them poison, to give them food that is intrinsically dangerous to their
health, said Mwanawasa, during a development conference in Johannesburg.

Many speculated that African leaders opposition to the aid was motivated by
other concerns, namely the fear that GMO contamination could harm their
countries long-term ability to export to Europe, which at that time had a
strict moratorium on the import of genetically modified foods. The United
States implored the small African countries to accept aid, claiming that
there is no scientific proof that GM foods are harmful to human health. The
threat of famine is something we know, Andrew Natsios, head of the United
States Agency for International Development (USAID), told the BBC. We know
what happens when people dont eat they die. Natsios added that he and his
family, like most Americans, have been eating genetically modified foods for
the last several years without any noticeable effects on their health.

The countries eventually gave in and accepted milled GM cereals, but Zambia
refused to budge, and was only spared from the catastrophe at the last
minute when European donors stepped in to provide certifiably non-GM aid.

The Zambian case remains one of the most extreme and often discussed events
in the history of a controversy that has engulfed the entire world, pitting
the United States against the European Union and large-scale agribusiness
against the global environmental movement. As a result, nearly every
developing country in the world has had to carefully navigate between the
rival export markets, while making hard decisions about a new technology
that manipulates the building blocks of biological life, promising big
dividends and, critics allege, potentially catastrophic long-term effects on
human health and the environment.

Since 1990, the Agricultural Research Center (ARC), based in Egypt under the
leadership of Magdi Madkour, has been actively researching and developing
genetically modified crops that scientists believe can address a host of
problems faced by the agricultural sector, from insect infestations to
drought and rising soil salinity. But until now, the country has refused to
delve into commercial production, largely out of the fear that doing so may
shut down export markets in Europe, where hostility to GM foods runs high.
In recent months, however, as the European Union has softened its stand by
lifting a five-year moratorium on GM crops, opened the door to 18 GM
products including soybeans, maize, and some vaccines and taken 24 more
under review, Egyptian advocates of GM technology have grown bolder, calling
for the commercial production of GM cotton and corn crops by 2006. Egypt
would not be the first developing country to embrace the technology China
and Argentina have been growing GM crops for years but the decision will
nevertheless mark a crucial juncture in the history of Egyptian agriculture.
However, whether a cautious majority of growers and consumers in Egypt will
embrace GM technology remains to be seen.

Sowing GM crops in Egypt

South of Cairo University, behind the tall concrete walls that separate it
from the bustling city, sits the Agricultural Research Center, a sprawling
commune of fields, greenhouses and administrative buildings. Here scientists
in lab coats and straw hats wander through narrow furrows in several
sequestered gardens, carefully monitoring and evaluating a microcosm of
Egypts agricultural landscape the size of a football field. It was here that
Egypt launched its own applied biotechnology research program, the
Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute (AGERI), in 1990.

Anticipating the important role the burgeoning science of genetics would
eventually come to play in agriculture, the Ministry of Agriculture
partnered with USAID to establish the center. Now, nearly 15 years later, it
may be on the verge of launching the countrys first commercially grown
genetically modified crop, a strain of cotton that could save the industry
millions of pounds every year by boosting output and virtually eliminating
chemical crop spraying.

Cotton is a very safe product to start with, because the areas in which
cotton is grown are restricted to certain varieties, so each variety is
segregated, says Hanaiya Al Itriby, AGERIs director and one of the pioneers
of GM technology in Egypt. Every year theres a decree that comes out that
says the Giza variety so-and-so will be grown in this district, so its
allocated to specific areas.

Cotton is also a safe bet for export markets. Although exporting cotton seed
oil from genetically modified plants would qualify as a GM product, the
fibers themselves, especially when transformed into yarns and fabrics, do
not contain any genetic material that would shut them out of European
markets, and while many consumers refuse to eat GM products, few object to
wearing them.

Over the last decade, AGERI has been actively researching a wide array of
products everything from virus-resistant potatoes to bananas that contain
vaccines for hepatitis. But with cotton, the center has found a commercial
partner in the Monsanto Company, the US-based producer of the worlds No. 1
herbicide, and anticipates Egypt will be able to start growing GM cotton by

The new cotton crop will contain a gene purchased from Monsanto that makes
the plants resistant to certain insects, but Al Itriby maintains that the
crop will retain its unique Egyptian characteristics in every other respect.
In addition to collaborating with Monsanto, AGERI has also cooperated with
the Cotton Research Institute (also part of the ARC) to insure that the new
plants produce the sought-after long staple fibers Egypt is know for. The
breeders of the cotton are making sure that we keep the Egyptian line with
all its characteristics, Al Itriby says. The selection was done by the
breeders, so its a collaborative and multi-disciplinary approach.

Although many in the cotton industry are optimistic about the new
technology, some wonder whether the idea will actually catch on among
Egyptian growers. The only thing they modify is the ability of the plant to
sustain the attacks of insects, so that means less spraying, less cost and a
better quality of fiber theoretically at least, says Amin Abaza, the
Managing Director of the Modern Nile Cotton Company, which is heavily
involved both in the agricultural and industrial side of the crop. But all
of this remains to be seen, it has to be tried. [The grower] has to see it
to believe it, especially our growers. They dont usually believe what the
scientific community tells them until they see it themselves and they make
sure that there really is a lower cost and a higher quality.

Abaza, who is in favor of genetically modified crops, believes that
resistance to the concept will not come from any widespread health or
environmental concerns, but from the increased price of the new seeds.
People have to be convinced that if they are paying a little more for the
seed, they are going to get their moneys worth in crop management and in the
quality of the crop, and this has to be seen in practice.

Because the new seeds contain a patented gene, anyone who uses them will
have to pay a royalty to Monsanto, but advocates say that increased output,
along with the amount farmers will save on chemical fertilizers, will more
than cover the price of the switchover. Al Itriby points out that, in
addition to developing the new crops, AGERI is also actively working to
ensure that they find both commercial producers and markets. We are not
doing research for research only, we are looking to put a product out, she

Although Egypt will have to purchase the initial genes from an international
company, Al Itriby expects that the scientists at AGERI will eventually be
able to develop their own genes, and has created an intellectual property
rights office to help them to secure their own patents. Once you have your
own genes, you have something important that you can use to barter if you
want something that another person, or another institution, or even the
private sector has and is willing to exchange.

The debate

Outside of Egypt, the commercial production of GM crops has caught on
quickly since its inception in 1995, spreading to 18 countries and growing
by more than 10 percent over the last seven years, according to the
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications
(ISAAA), an international nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting GM
technology. The United States retains the lions share of production, but has
recently been joined at the top by Argentina, China, Canada, Brazil and
South Africa, all of whom account for 99 percent of production. According to
the ISAAA, nearly one-third of GM crops and nearly 85 percent of farmers are
from the developing world, statistics that GM food advocates point to as
proof that the technology contributes to the alleviation of world poverty.

Farmers have made up their minds, says Clive James, the chairman and founder
of ISAAA, in an official statement. They continue to rapidly adopt biotech
crops because of significant agronomic, economic, environmental and social

Advocates of GM foods, particularly in the United States, have long argued
that the crops offer a way out of poverty for countries that rely on
agriculture. They point out that in addition to producing higher yields,
biotech crops reduce or even eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers or
pesticides, making them safer for the environment and cheaper for growers.
Many hope that the new technology can continue the work of the Green
Revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, which spurred development in Asia and
Latin America, nearly doubling the amount of food production in much of the
developing world.

All the countries who are involved in biotechnology are moving ahead at a
very fast pace, says one senior US official at the American Embassy in
Cairo, who asked not to be named. That clearly shows that there are economic
benefits in the development, production and trade of biotech products. With
its ever-growing population and dwindling land resources, many believe that
Egypt would benefit from following in the footsteps of those who have
already adopted the technology. If Egypt were to follow the same path, it is
very clear that they would derive enormous benefits in terms of savings in
the cost of production and market development outside, the official says.

Egypts hesitation in embarking on the commercial production of GM crops
largely springs from the fear that it could lose its European export
markets, where a solid majority of consumers and elected leaders have not
only rejected genetically modified foods, but have lobbied for stringent
regulations to govern trade with countries who produce such products, all
part of an attempt to prevent any contamination of non-GM foods.

Much of Europe refuses to accept advocates claims that GM foods are a
panacea for the developing world, insisting that world hunger is caused by
poor governance and inadequate distribution, rather than the inability to
grow enough food. Many are also jaded by the memory of the excesses of the
Green Revolution, which some saw as a scheme promoted by US farming
interests that resulted in widespread social inequality and environmental
degradation. Nowadays, many accuse US Agribusiness of foisting genetically
modified foods on unsuspecting countries in order to glean royalties from
patented seeds. Several aid organizations, including Oxfam International,
supported Zambias refusal to accept GM crops because they feared that
acceptance would consign the country to a dangerous cycle of dependency on
large foreign companies.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) is concerned that GM
technology favors large agribusiness at the expense of small farmers, who
are the most in need of increased productivity. Neither the private nor the
public sector has invested significantly in the new genetic technologies for
the so-called orphan crops, such as cowpea, millet, sorghum and teff that
are critical for the food supply and livelihoods of the worlds poorest
people, says FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf, in the introduction to a
recently released report entitled The State of World Food and Agriculture
2004. The report, which encourages a cautious approach to the spread of GM
crops, accuses scientists and policy makers of largely ignoring the problems
of small farmers in poor countries.

Opponents have also expressed concerns about the possible environmental
consequences of GM foods. By manipulating the most basic building blocks of
biological life, they argue, scientists may at best hinder biodiversity and,
at worst, cause permanent damage to fragile ecosystems. They are quick to
point out that while some crops, like biotech corn and cotton, are
engineered to resist insects and viruses, others, like the Monsanto Companys
patented Roundup Ready crops, are designed to endure one of the most potent
herbicides on the market, Monsantos Roundup, which is also patented.
Opponents say this kind of tampering could give rise to plants that are so
resilient that they overwhelm their neighbors and become weeds themselves.

Many in Europe also worry about the possible health effects of genetically
modified crops. Although people in the United States and many other
countries have been consuming GM foods for several years, many who oppose
the technology maintain that there is still too much uncertainty when it
comes to what they call Frankenfoods.

The US Embassy official says that such claims are unfounded, tied more to a
political agenda than to scientific fact. The scientists and politicians in
the European Union seem to be on two different tracks, he said. In our own
biotech-related seminars, when we talk about the benefits of biotechnology,
we have invited a number of scientists from the European Union who have been
able to come and talk about their research and the benefits of biotechnology
and what it can do for humanity.

In recent months, the scientists appear to have gained the upper hand, as
the European Union, once a bastion of the movement opposing GM foods, has
been slowly warming up to the idea. In May of this year, the European
Commission lifted a five-year moratorium on the import of GM foods, putting
a rigorous regulation system in its place. Now any member wishing to import
genetically modified products may apply for permission to do so, but any
product intended for human or animal consumption, even those that contain
only trace amounts of GMOs (the threshold is .9 percent of the product) must
be labeled as containing genetically modified organisms. Given the distrust
many in Europe feel towards genetically modified products, officials in the
European Union say the labeling is necessary in order to allow consumers to
make their own choices.

The United States has long rejected the rationale for labeling GM products
in Europe, maintaining that there is no reason to draw attention to
something that is not proven to be dangerous. The US position is that one
should label things if they are substantially different from non-biotech
products, the embassy official says. We dont put anything on the label to
say these fertilizers were used to produce those products, whereas those
fertilizers and chemicals could be more harmful than the genetic

Although the United States and the European Union officials continue to
disagree on what level of regulation is necessary when it comes to GM foods,
recent evidence suggests that the latter are gradually moving closer to the
position of the former. Since the lifting of the moratorium, the European
Commission has approved a number of GM products, and both Spain and Germany
are already growing their own GM crops, albeit in small amounts. Earlier
this year, the United Kingdom gave the go-ahead for planting genetically
modified corn after the British Medical Association gave its approval, with
Chairman David Carter saying it was necessary to move away from the hysteria
that has been so often associated with GM foods.

But despite the recent movement towards GM foods at the policy level,
Europeans remain skeptical of the products, and if the EU maintains its
labeling policies, most consumers who do not share in the economic benefits
of the new technology are unlikely to purchase GM products.

The organic option

The discussion of genetically modified foods in Egypt has largely mirrored
the international debate, with a small number of detractors gradually giving
way to a growing majority that favor the technology. One advocate is Adel
Yaseen, chairman and managing director of Fine Seeds International, who
describes himself as probably the biggest and most enthusiastic supporter of
the technology in Egypt today. Yaseens company, which supplies seed
varieties to farmers, is spearheading the drive for GM crops on the part of
the private sector. Yaseen hopes to complete the application process and
begin marketing GM maize by the end of next year, through a partnership with

I know that the matter of GMO is highly controversial, but deep inside of me
I feel the controversy is more political than scientific, Yaseen says. I
think its a fight between the Americans and the Europeans and I dont think
we have anything to do with it. They can go and bang their heads against
each other it has nothing to do with us.

Over the last few years the dynamics of maize farming in Egypt have changed,
Yaseen says, with more and more farmers trying to plant earlier and later
than the high season for growing, leaving their crops open to infestations
of insects that bore into the stems and eat away at the insides of the
plant. There are chemicals on the market to deal with the pests, Yaseen
says, but they are only 20 percent effective. The new crops promise to deter
the bugs and eliminate the need for chemical pesticides, allowing farmers to
extend their growing season and maximize output.

Other growers disagree with that logic, claiming that the real problem is
not the bugs, but the attempt to artificially maximize output at the expense
of the natural environment. Helmy Abouleish, the Managing Director of Sekem,
is one such critic. As a grower and producer of certified organic foods,
Abouleish says GM crops pose problems, not only for his worldview, but also
for his business, which would be forced to carefully insulate its own crops
from even trace amounts of genetically modified organisms.

While Abouleish thinks it is important for Egypt to continue researching GM
crops, he believes that a much better understanding is necessary before any
crops are grown commercially. As we all know, science is dynamic and
developing, and the latest technology and the latest scientific results are
outdated two years later, Abouleish says. DDT at a certain stage was a very
safe pesticide. Ten or 20 years later, it was found to be a very terrible
pesticide which stays in the soil for 200 years. So when they recommended
it, with the latest knowledge and results, everyone thought it was safe. Ten
years later, 20 years later everyone knows that it is one of the deadliest
of poisons. DDT was banned in Egypt in 1996.

Yaseen doesnt buy that argument, pointing out that people in the United
States, which he considers highly health conscious, have been consuming such
products since at least the middle of the 1990s. Moreover, Yaseen says, if
GM crops are indeed a Pandoras box, then the lid has already been lifted
with respect to both Egyptian and European consumers. Europeans are putting
their heads in the sand, and so are we, here in Egypt, because most of the
corn imported into Egypt, five and a half million tons every year, comes
from the States, and 80 percent of it is genetically modified. So we know
for a fact that we already have [GM foods] in Egypt, and the Europeans know
it as well. They call it Frankenstein or whatever, but it gets imported into
Europe and it gets into their poultry and ultimately into their houses, so
its a hypocritical position.

Yaseen believes that if Egyptians are willing to import GM maize for human
consumption, then there should be nothing stopping them from growing it
themselves. As an Egyptian, I dont see why we should import from somebody
while we sit here hopelessly and without producing our own maize. If we can
do it, then why let the American farmers produce it.

AGERIs Al Itriby understands the concerns that some have expressed about the
new technology, but thinks progress on GM foods has been stymied more by
general hysteria than any specific concerns. There are issues [when it comes
to GM crops], but you have to state them, and then from there you address
them, she says. At least you identify exactly what youre scared of, and then
you can say what needs to be done. But I cant just ignore technology that is
going to be useful, especially in developing countries like ours. We are
looking at things that are tolerant to drought and salinity. These are major
problems in Egyptian agriculture.

As a farmer, Abouleish understands the problems facing Egypts agriculture
sector, but believes that the organic movement offers a cleaner and safer
alternative, both for supplying Egypt and for tapping overseas markets. The
organic movement today is capable of producing healthy crops of most of the
plants that I know about in the world, and without any impact on the
environment or human health. So if we can switch today, in a safe manner, to
organic farming and organic food production, and could feed the world
population with healthy food, then why should we search for something with
this high amount of risk, to do the same things we are able to do without

For now at least, it appears that the rival schools can continue to coexist
alongside each other. Those who favor the commercial deployment of GM crops
in Egypt admit that the country cannot afford to lose its export markets in
Europe, but they nevertheless maintain that the new technology offers, if
not a cure, then at least a reprieve for Egypts struggling agricultural


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