June 12, 2003 House Hearing on Plant Biotechnology Research in Africa

From SourceWatch
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The June 12, 2003 House Hearing on Plant Biotechnology Research in Africa was held by the House Science Committee Subcommittee on Research, chaired by Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI). The witnesses who testified were:

Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House

Usually, opening statements by Representatives precede witness testimony, but an exception was made in this case for the Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL). Hastert spoke first. As a representative of a corn- and soy-growing district in Illinois, he was very much in favor of genetic engineering. He said:

"And what exactly are we talking about when we say genetically modified? The EU and other countries would have you believe that this is a new and special type of food, questionable for human consumption. In fact, since the dawn of time, farmers and those who have used the sweat of their brow to use the earth and the soil to sustain themselves have been modifying plants through improved yields and to create new varieties resistant to pests and diseases.
"And why would we want to snuff out human ingenuity that benefits farmers and consumers alike? Such advancements have been achieved by taking plants with desirable traits and crossbreeding them. In fact, almost all of today's commercial crops are now distant cousins from the plants that first appeared in this country. Biotechnology is merely the next stage of development in this age-old process...
"With respect to biotechnology research, both agriculture and pharmaceutical, the U.S. has been an undisputed world leader. In fact, in my district alone, two research facilities that directly contribute to the efforts in assisting Third World countries through the development of drought-resistant varieties of agriculture products exist.
"Yet, over the last few years, we have seen country after country implementing protectionist trade policies under the cloak of food safety, each one brought on by emotion, culture or their own poor industry or history with food-safety regulation and technology."

Hastert ended by calling banning GMOS "genocide":

"Today, when we see starvation, especially in some of our African countries, and we see people who are artificially putting barriers or threats to us being able to move good, healthy food products into those countries, in my view that borders on genocide. It's wrong. It shouldn't happen.
"And we need to use our science. We need to use our technology. And we need to fight those folks who are trying to stop this good, healthy nourishing food to go to countries that need it."

Opening Statements

Ranking Member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) spoke first, saying:

"Plant biotechnology research has the potential to help sub- Saharan Africa increase food security and improve the quality and nutritional content of food. Additionally, biotechnology can also improve the health of citizens of developing countries by combating illness."

Chairman Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) gave his statement next. He first described the goals of the hearing:

"We'll also review how the federal government, through USAID, NSF, USDA, other agencies, can improve coordination with each other and with nongovernment entities and ultimately improve communication of accurate scientific information on the potential and safety of plant biotechnology.
"This will accelerate progress towards development and adoption of new beneficial crop varieties of Africa and other developing countries and throughout the world."

He then spoke in favor of biotechnology:

"The potential of biotechnology is only limited by the creativity of the science community in developing the kind of plant nutritions, developing the kind of products that can grow in the soils and the climate that heretofore haven't been able to produce adequate supplies of food...
"There's no question that we've made some inroads. There's no question that Administrator Natsios and AID more probably than ever before in AID's history has moved ahead in exploring agriculture as a fundamental need, as a starting point that needs to be accomplished if we're going to contribute significantly to aiding these countries that especially need our help.
"Without objection, the rest of my statement will be entered into the record. But, I want to say, through plant biotechnology research scientists are developing a genetically modified banana that's resistant to a black sigatoca (ph) disease that's now spreading throughout the world.
"Our product that is going to resist that disease and produce a banana where you don't have to have the expense of these fungicides is, in effect, in the refrigerator ready to go and there's an unwillingness in Africa to move ahead and in other countries producing this banana because of fear that Europe might shut off their exports.
"It's seems to me that if we can just start doing some of the projects to help these people, if we can help convince Europe on the safety of these products, then we're going to have the ability to move ahead helping these countries."

First Panel

Rita Colwell, National Science Foundation

Rita Colwell, Director of the National Science Foundation was the next witness to testify. She described how her organization would work with biotechnology in Africa:

"Now based on the experiences of NSF with international collaborations and the importance of these efforts, we want to and will do more. NSF, under the auspices of the National Science and Technology Council's interagency working group on plant genomes, has initiated discussions with AID, USAID, also with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy to support research collaborations between scientists from U.S. academic institutions and developing countries in plant biotechnology.
"Although we're still early in the stages of these efforts, NSF is moving in the direction that's provided for in our recently enacted reauthorization and many of NSF's ongoing programs in plant genome research are going to be very important, in fact, instrumental in meeting the committee's interest in these areas.
"We currently support workshops, collaborative efforts throughout the developing world. But we want to expand these efforts and establish stronger partnerships which address some of the capacity needs in the developing world. And we will need to continue to partner with other agencies that are able to provide significant funds to institutions in the developing world."

She also spoke about the National Plant Genome Initiative, which was established in 1998:

"It's a coordinated national plant genome research program. Under the auspices of the NSDC, it includes representatives from the Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget. USAID joined in 2002.
"Simply stated, the National Plant Genome Initiative has transformed plant research in the United States. It's resulted in a new generation of scientists entering the field and it has changed the way research is conducted in plant biology.
"During the past five years, U.S. researchers and their international partners have formed research teams for wheat, rice, bananas and cereal crops to coordinate research on crops that are grown in Africa and worldwide."

She then added her opinions about the potential for biotechnology in Africa:

"Now, many assert, just as the speaker has done, that science and technology can help bring food stability to regions like the Horn of Africa, which has suffered from a terrible drought that's affected 15 million people.
"In July 2002 the Nobel laureate, the father of the green revolution, Dr. Norman Borlaug, said that he believes the world has the technology that's either available now or very well advanced in the research pipeline to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people.
"The evolutionary advances in plant genomics can accelerate the process of knowledge transfer for the benefit of developing countries. A genomic-based revolution in world agriculture, equaling the success of the green revolution that doubled the yield of cereal crops, is a real possibility. And it could, indeed, alleviate the suffering of millions of people."

Andrew Natsios, U.S. Agency for International Development

Andrew Natsios, Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, was the next witness to testify. He began as follows:

"I want to thank you for inviting us today to testify on this extraordinarily important subject, a subject that I am deeply concerned about.
"I am Africanist. While I have responsibility for the whole developing world, I spent a good deal of my time in Africa and so I'm very familiar with the statistics that Congresswoman Johnson from Texas mentioned earlier that a third of Africans are chronically food insecure."

He followed that up with a call for increased funding for agricultural development by the U.S. and to invest specifically in biotechnology:

"The only way we can change this bleak situation in Africa is to invest more in agricultural development. Beginning in 1987, we began cutting our agriculture budget in AID. We had a budget of $1.3 billion in 1986. When I arrived in AID in 2001, our budget had declined to $243 million. There's a billion dollar cut in agriculture development in AID over that period of time.

And the whole constituency had deteriorated for agriculture, but there's been a terrible consequence for that. And that is that the only area of the world in which productivity is declining in agricultural production is Africa.

"The only way we're going to reverse this bleak situation is, one, to put more money into agricultural development. Two, to invest some of that in biotechnology and biotechnology research in Africa to develop seed varieties appropriate to the agroclimatic conditions in Africa.
"Biotechnology is not going to solve all of the problems because poverty and hunger are complex phenomena, but biotechnology can be an important part of a broader solution to increase productivity."

He then cited statistics about grain yields, fertilizer use, irrigation, and hybrid seeds in various parts of the world. He lamented that the "green revolution has only begun to touch Africa in the last decade." He then said:

"New research published last month in Science Magazine has shown that the green revolution is finally reaching Africa and it is, interestingly enough, in the three countries in Africa we've put a lot of money in agricultural production, is Angola, Mozambique and Uganda, that is where the biggest productivity increases have been shown based on improved seed technologies.
"We believe that if this green revolution can be accelerated, it can address the problem of chronic malnutrition and food insecurity.
"I want to go through some of the charges made against biotechnology by some of the groups that have been leading the charge against it, particularly in Europe.
"The first argument is that biotechnology in Africa is taking investment away from other interventions. In fact, we are only spending about $25 million on biotech out of our $300 million agriculture budget. We'd like to increase that, and we intend to over time as the research capacity improves.
"But, biotechnology, if you talk to African scientists, African agriculture ministers, they believe this, in fact, holds one of the many solutions they need to catch up.
"The second is that accepting biotechnology crops will make African farmers dependent on multinational companies. And this is sort of part of the anti-globalization hysteria we hear that we've seen in some of these multilateral institution meetings.

Well, we're actually working right now with African universities and national research programs to develop African solutions to African problems. I opened, in January of last year, a new biotechnology research center at the Ministry of Agriculture in Egypt that was jointly financed by the Egyptian government and by USAID, the U.S. government and the State Department...

"So we've begun this process already. We've also invested heavily in the capacity of South African universities to develop material, a genetic material that is appropriate for South African and other African climates.
"Farmers in Africa will be their own judge of what is commercially viable for them in terms of biotech seeds. If it gives them a good return, they're going to buy it. If it doesn't, it's not going to. And if we start developing seed varieties that are in the public domain, which, in fact, is what we are doing in many of these countries, it's not a matter of multinational corporations.

So this is really an illusion and I think it's rhetorical excess to argue that multinationalism in terms of the international economy is going to somehow make Africa dependent.

"Latin American countries like Argentina, Asian countries like India and China are already investing in this technology -- and Philippines, for example, another country that's investing in this technology now.
"The third argument is that biotechnology derived crops will adversely effect the environment in Africa. In science, there is no such thing as no risk, with any new crop variety or any new technology. The question, of course, is -- an economist and a scientist question -- What's the alternative? If the alternative is improved varieties or hybrids, there are risks with those as well.
"The question is, if we take the view that all improvements in technology and science cause unacceptable risks, then we will never make any scientific progress and we, in fact, will not address the major agricultural and nutritional problems facing the continent.
"Canada, Argentina, the U.S., the Philippines, India and South Africa have all shown that risks can be safety managed and effective. There's a wonderful book by IFPRI, which is a think tank on food security that's a subsidiary of the UN run -- it was run until recently by a Danish scientist, Per Pinstrup Andersen, a good friend of mine. And he wrote a wonderful book with another Danish colleague. I point this out because they are Europeans, let me just say, not Americans.
"They wrote a wonderful book called, "Seeds of Contention," about biotechnology, and they go through the empirical evidence and the research. And they conclude, one, Africans and other Third World need to make their own decisions, one. Obviously, all of us agree with that. But the evidence is overwhelming that this is an option that will help in many countries to deal with these problems."

He then shared several rumors he had heard while in Africa that were cited as reasons to oppose GMOs. For example, a rumor that pig genes were put into a crop that was intended to scare Muslims from planting it, or another rumor that if you plant GMO corn, its genes will get into your other crops. He concluded, "So finally I just want to say we have a great opportunity here to reverse this by public education, to push these groups aside that are misleading people so much."


Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI): Immediately after his testimony, Natsios had an exchange with Rep. Nick Smith in which Smith asked "Is the threat of trade restrictions of some of those products going to Europe part of the reason it's holding down research at the African universities?" He replied that it is not holding down biotech research and then continued:

"But it is certainly, it is affecting the farmers' use of the improved varieties of the biotech material. The scientists still want to get the research. And most of the heads of state, even the one country that actually banned it completely -- by the way it's the only country in Africa that's banned completely any biotech food aid from the United States. The perception was everybody was doing it. One country did it.
"Even Zimbabwe -- and Dr. Mugabe (ph) is not one of my favorite people, he is destroying his country -- but he banned it because of this cross pollinization thing, even though it was inaccurate, not based on health requirements. And he didn't ban its usage. He just required it as being milled before it was distributed.
"And even in the country that banned it, Zambia, they want the technical help to build up their capacity to do this research themselves. They asked for it when I met with the president of the country. He asked for it. And we brought those scientists to the United States, the National Science Foundation has helped us, USDA has helped us, the EPA has helped us in terms of taking scientists from Africa and economists around to show what our regulatory systems are, how careful we are about this, what are regimes are, how we do research and we sent it off to Harvard, because a Kenyan scientist heads the biotech research center at Harvard University, a big advocate of biotech research himself, he's an African scientist at Harvard. And it was very useful. But we need more of these."

Smith added, shortly afterward, in an exchange with Colwell, "I just think it's so important that we work with those countries, with scientists in those countries that are going to add to the credibility of the product that they develop and with the helpful assurance that it's going to be something that's going to help with their needs of more quantity of agricultural production or more quality in terms of health."

Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-CA): Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-CA) spoke next. He said "My question would be more in line with trying to analyze the resistance rather than trying to promote biotech. I mean, I'm on it. I support it." His questions included some insights gained during his time in the Peace Corps. In response, Natsios said:

"If I could add, what we're doing in AID. We actually have already invested in research in 26 Africa food crops for basic research through biotechnology to deal with diseases and improve sufficiency. Let me give you some examples.
"We're developing a Vitamin A-enhanced corn for Africa. Vitamin A, by the way, can reduce by 25 percent the death rate among children under 5 because it protects the child against infection. And Vitamin A deficiency is a major problem that we face in countries that have a very limited food basket. In other words, they don't have a lot of variety in their food. They don't have Vitamin A. We just introduced a sweet potato into Mozambique because a Vitamin A deficiency is killing so many children.
"And that will permanently get it into the agricultural system. We're developing a crosob (ph) of biotech variety in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya (inaudible) center a COPEE (ph) improvement project in Nigeria, the window pest, which is a major problem for cattle in Africa in Kenya, a pupae resistant, there's a pupae ring spot (ph) virus in the Lake Victoria region of Africa. We're doing that with USDA. Banana, the banana disease that you mentioned, Mr. Chairman, earlier is in fact, we've invested in that research as well.
"So there are 26 of these different -- there are injects, viruses, some of them are animal, some of them are plant. But they all use biotechnology and they do this through a thing called the collaborative agriculture biotechnology initiative at AID. We called it CABIO. It invests $15 million to $20 million a year in this sort of research through institutions where we match an American research facility with one in Africa or another country around these specific issues.
"So we are focused specifically on exact diseases and local varieties. They have to be acceptable. Because if people eat them and they don't like them and they're not going to use them and the farmers will never grow them.
"So we have a whole set of tests we go through, not just to solve the technical problem, but they have to solve the taste test and everything else.
"We're also working with a number of foundations like the Rockefeller Foundation. Gordon Conway's one of the leading experts in the world on this and we've been close to Rockefeller actually since the green revolution. The green revolution was the World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation, USAID with Norman Borlaug 35 years ago that helped create these green revolution.
"We believe by the use of this technology and other reforms in the markets that we can deal with the problems of famine in Africa. One of the reasons that we face famine in Africa, only one, is, in fact, drought. A South African scientist is now taking a gene from what they call a deminimous (ph) plant, it's a plant that needs almost no water, to taking a gene and they're going to cross breed it with a maize variety, a corn variety that will be extremely drought resistant. And if we can get that variety to be acceptable to people and to do what it needs to do, we may solve one of the ongoing problems in Africa with the famine is driven by and that is drought.
"It doesn't solve all the problems. You have to deal with markets. You have to deal with infrastructure. You have to deal with predatory governments like the Zimbabwean government, but this it is -- drought is one of the major factors. And we can deal with this, we believe, through this research. And we're supporting this research."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) spoke next, saying:

"Thinking about what's going on, it's famine and the lack of uptake of the technology in Africa leads me to think about the EU. And in some ways I think it's so shocking and really scandalous that people in Europe who have so much would take the actions they have done to disadvantage the poorest people on the planet really who live on the continent of Africa. I just think it's outrageous.
"So I'm thinking what you're doing is important. It's good. It's thoughtful. But if we don't actually deal with Europe we're facing barriers to actually achieving a goal that is so decent and good. And I'm wondering if you've given any thought to how we might, not only deal with the government of Europe but with some of the interest groups that are behaving in this shockingly bad way, how we might influence that."

Colwell replied that European scientists are working on biotech - it's the consumers in Europe who oppose biotech. She added "And I would say that I, as a scientist, I believe that if the African government leaders, and some have spoken out very strongly, and the individual African consumers can see the direct tangible benefits, I think they will embrace the technology."

Then Natsios said, "I would say at least half the development agencies, the USAIDs of Europe, strongly support biotech research and use of biotech seed in the developing world as one of the many things we need to do to deal with this problem of hunger and of drought and famine. And they actually had invested the money in it."

Lofgren asked which groups oppose biotech, and Natsios replied that it would be easy to find a list because they had signed a letter demanding his resignation. Lofgren said, "But it seems to me that we ought to take some action that is necessarily legally. But the church groups ought to become involved. What these groups are doing in unconscionable. I mean they ought to be ashamed of themselves."

"I think they should be ashamed of themselves," agreed Natsios.

"It's like a war crime what they're doing," added Lofgren. Natsios agreed.

Rep. Eddie Johnson Ranking Member Johnson spoke next, inquiring about "the relationship between the NSF and USAID and other federal agencies and how you might work together with this plant biotechnology development of something in Africa." The Q&A session ended there.

Second Panel

As the second panel began, Smith mentioned that the committee had received written testimony from a cotton farmer in South Africa who raises GE cotton.

Gordon Conway, Rockefeller Foundation

Gordon R. Conway, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, spoke first. In his view, in examining which tools should be made available to help Africans, he said, "we have to be absolutely clear that biotechnology is but one tool, but one tool in a larger toolbox from which African farmers must themselves choose. There is no magic solution to the problems of African hunger and African agriculture. But the problem is so big that the Africans should have the right to consider every possible tool at their disposal. We believe that Africans should be the ones to weight the costs and benefits and we believe Africans should have access to the knowledge to help themselves." He continued:

"This principle, that Africans should be able to choose, has led us to work towards putting African scientists and farmers in positions to draw down upon the new technologies and to adopt them for their uses. Western corporate ownership of much of the intellectual property necessary for use in biotechnology presents an impediment. We need greater public resources to help African institutions and regulatory bodies, its scientists and its farmers.
"The fact is that improvements in African agricultural productivity are not likely to be made an American laboratories, but in applied settings, by African scientists, drawing upon the best of the world's know-how in real world situations. Africans need commitments from governments, their own governments and western governments, to help in building the necessary capacity in Africa. And they need Western companies to make available the knowledge that might be adaptable.
"And that is what we at the Rockefeller Foundation are trying to do. We recently created the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, which is African led, African based. It's designed to resolve many of the barriers that prevent small-holder farmers from gaining access to enabling agricultural technologies. It's based in Nairobi, Kenya, and directed by Dr. Eugene Terry (ph) from Sierra Leon, who's superbly qualified in this field.
"We've also worked to help strengthen African regulatory bodies and to train hundred of African scientists. We make grants to help appropriate regulatory and managerial systems so that they can function effectively."

John Kilama, Global Bioscience Development Institute

According to his introduction by Nick Smith:

"Dr. John Kilama is president of the Global Bioscience Development Institute, a firm developing training and consulting to policy makers in developing countries on biotechnology regulation, intellectual property rights and international trade development. His background is in pharmaceutical and agricultural biotechnology and agro chemistry. And previously Dr. Kilama worked at the Dupont Company specializing in developing chemicals for crop protection and establishing collaborations between Dupont and institutions in developing countries."

Kilama said in his testimony:

"In my view, developing a road map of creating sustainable biotechnology application that eliminates food insecurity in Africa must consist of the following steps.
"We must focus on financial support on the long-term strategic plan, not on making short-term investments. These plans would include developing a process for coordinating all the efforts of the African assistance for biotechnology that are currently provided to Africa by various U.S. agencies. We must revive and rebuild Africa battered capacity for applied research and make research institutions the cornerstones of our effort.
"This process should encourage spirit of entrepreneurship and the incubation of private companies that commercialize innovation that come out of Africa, applied research centers at various universities. We must focus on applied research to solve problems that Africans themselves identify as essential and relevant to the food crisis. Africans must be involved at every stage of the planning and implementation.
"We must rebuild Africa's battered infrastructure for agricultural expansion at a time when it is more essential than ever. We must help Africans create legal certainty, predictability, transparency to help spur investments from the public sector and to nurture an entrepreneurship spirit. And we must act very quickly because technology is moving so fast, and if Africa is already behind and nothing is done, it is unbelievable what is going to happen in 10 or 15 years."

He then said that "Africa's infrastructure for applied research in biotechnology is in bad shape." In the last part of his testimony, he called for building up the capacity of African research institutions.

Robert Horsch, Monsanto

Robert B. Horsch, Vice President of Product and Technology Cooperation at Monsanto Corporation, spoke next. He said:

"How can we improve productivity in Africa, and can biotech play a key role? The biggest problems in my studies and travels have been pests, depleted soils, drought and poor human nutrition from inadequate completeness of the diet.
"On pests, the tropics have much worse pest problems than we face here where our winters set the pests back every year. Africans either use chemical pesticides or much more often nothing at all and suffer the losses.
"Biotech is a proven solution for controlling key pests everywhere in the world it has been applied. And researchers are pursuing genes that will control many other serious pest problems beyond those we have solutions for today.
"Depleted soils. The soils in Africa are fragile and depleted of nutrients plants need to grow and develop. By combining biotech with no till farming, the soils can be restored. A concerted research effort on improving nitrogen use efficiency by the crops could increase productivity where fertilizer is limiting and expensive.
"Drought. Desertification or failure of rains to come at critical times during plant growth frequently leads to crop failure. We've heard a lot about, and I have seen preliminary results with genes designed to alleviate and reduce drought stress and losses due to drought that are promising in greenhouse tests and lots of technology and science that is promising to help solve this problem.
"Human nutrition. Essential nutrients can be built into starchy staple foods such as rice or corn right on the farm in areas where there are no groceries to provide enriched processed foods or dietary supplements. We already know biotech can be used successfully by small-holder African farmers because they have been using it in biotech cotton for several years already to great advantage."

He added: "We should continue our leadership in establishing science-based regulatory principles and policies and help other countries to do so too. Lack of working regulatory systems is becoming a major obstacle to introducing new biotech products in other countries or even just to conduct the science and field tests to do product development locally, as Dr. Kilama has so ably recommended as important."

Q & A

During the Q&A period, Conway noted that "in the 1990s the Rockefeller Foundation supported the training of 300 to 400 Asian scientists in biotechnology. There's now over 1,000 biotechnologists in Asia producing new varieties. In China there are several hundred new biotechnology varieties in the pipeline. That's what we did over 10 years. We started to do this in Africa. I was at a meeting in Entebbe in Uganda in November for the 100 African scientists, biotechnology breeders, all giving papers at the cutting edge of biotechnology and breeding. It was very impressive. But as for the whole country, we just need to multiply that. And it's a big "just.""

A little later, in an exchange with Chairman Smith, Horsch noted a possibility of work on GE corn that was more nitrogen efficient but added, "A second area, I'll just mention, is the use of nitrogen fixing plants themselves as green fertilizers or green manures, which can be combined with fertilizers with no-till, with other practices and biotechnology to bring a more efficient source of nitrogen at lower levels as well."

As a closing statement Conway said:

"Let me say, I think what's important is to understand that we're at the beginning of a decade-long program here for Africa. That's the kind of time span that we have to be thinking of. This is what we've learned in our work in Asia, to develop the role of biotechnology and food security, along with the other tools that are necessary, keep stressing that. And anything that this Congress can do, anything that this government can do, anything that American scientists and American universities and American private companies like Monsanto can do to make that happen is going to be welcomed.

"What it's going to take is people on the ground, Africans, and there are beginning to be a number, there need to be more. What it's also going to take is the development of research capacity in the universities, and I don't just mean applied research. I mean pure research, microbiology and other such departments in African universities. That's what we've seen that's been most valuable in Asia.

"And in particular it's going to mean a real partnership. It's going to mean bringing American, European scientists together with African scientists to crack this problem in partnership. And in particular it's going to mean public-private partnerships of a kind like the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. We've got a foundation like ourselves, we've got companies like Monsanto. We've got the U.S. government like USAID."

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch articles


External Resources

External Articles