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Genetically Modified Foods can Feed the World's Hungry

Related Bio: David G. Victor, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
June 24, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations

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U.S.-EU Trade Disputes Threaten the Development of Foods That Could Feed the World’s Hungry and Protect the Environment


Contact: Lisa Shields, Director of Communications, 212-434-9888


New York, June 20, 2002 – At last week’s World Food Summit in Rome, the United States championed the use of genetically modified (GM) foods to help feed the world’s poor. In a paper published by the Council on Foreign Relations, Sustaining a Revolution: A Policy Strategy for Crop Engineering, David G. Victor and C. Ford Runge offer a pragmatic, long-term strategy by which GM foods could help improve the quality of life in developing countries. The authors warn, however, that this important innovation is at risk of being derailed by current U.S.-EU trade disputes. The authors will discuss their findings at an on-the-record meeting on June 25. Details at end of release.

The first generation of engineered food crops that farmers are planting today barely reveal the technology’s ultimate potential; the next generation, already in laboratories and field trials, will make it possible to grow foods that are more nutritious and have a smaller impact on the environment than traditional crops.

European governments and some activists have branded GM foods unsafe and environmentally threatening. Yet scientific evidence, though still incomplete, strongly suggests that these fears are overblown. “We are concerned that today’s debate over GM crops has drifted away from reality, driven by short-sighted tactics rather than strategic thinking,” say Victor and Runge. Their report outlines a long-term strategy for managing the gene revolution, based on active policy reforms rather than the current laissez-faire approach.

First, the benefits of crop engineering must be directed to those who have most to gain: the two billion farmers and rural poor in developing countries who could meet food demands while reducing adverse environmental impacts. A chief reason that new crop technologies are not getting into the hands of poor farmers as rapidly as they should is that the U.S. government, and many others, have cut their support for international agricultural research over the last fifteen years. Victor and Runge demonstrate that it is possible to reverse this trend over the next decade with U.S. leadership at extremely low cost: only 1% of the current U.S. foreign assistance budget.

Second, breakthroughs in GM technology must be shared by the private and public sector, allowing economic rewards for innovation but spreading benefits as widely as possible. Victor and Runge show that governments have adopted very strict rules to protect patents and other forms of “intellectual property” with the hope that they would spur innovation. In reality, these restrictive rules have actually slowed innovation by creating “congestion” of conflicting patent rights. New rules that allow for pooling of patents as well as rules that create limited grants of intellectual property to poor farmers are needed.

Third, governments must take care to ensure that today’s trade conflicts over GM products do not escalate out of control. Victor and Runge outline a strategy for managing this conflict, and implore the U.S. Trade Representative not to launch a formal dispute in the WTO that will be hard to tame once unleashed. A critical part of this strategy is for the United States to recognize that European hostility to GM foods is not entirely irrational, and is a byproduct of a regulatory system in Europe that has failed to protect consumers in the past—as in the scandals over “mad cow” disease and HIV-tainted blood.

These active policy responses can sustain the GM revolution through the challenges of globalization and rapid technological change. “A conscious and deliberate U.S. strategy,” the authors conclude, “rather than wistful hope for light at the end of the tunnel, is needed to carry this innovation toward its ultimate and promising future.”

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