Bank announces biotech food review

17 September 2002

The World Bank’s announcement of a review of genetically-modified crops in Johannesburg met with mixed response – from pledges not to participate to a cautious welcome. The Bank announced a process to examine “the risks and opportunities of using agricultural science to reduce hunger and improve rural livelihoods in the developing world”. The review will examine food demand and the risks and opportunities presented by new biotechnology compared to traditional techniques.

The initiative will involve consultation with consumers, farmers, scientists, NGOs, governments and the private sector for one year to define questions and approaches for the main assessment. This will last until around 2005 and will involve a review of the scientific literature and input from key stakeholders. Finally a report will be produced which aims to give decision-makers information and tools. It will be “descriptive rather than prescriptive” and would not recommend bans.

The review will be headed by World Bank Chief Scientist Bob Watson. Watson was until recently the Chair of the International Panel on Climate Change, but was removed from this post because of pressure from the US government and transnational oil companies. Despite these independent-minded credentials, one source close to the World Bank environment department said they feared that this review represented little more than “a job for Bob until he retires” to compensate him for his IPCC dismissal.

Anti-GM campaigners such as Friends of the Earth and Pesticides Action Network gave the project a cautious welcome but insisted that governments should place a moratorium on GM crops until the final report is released. They also expressed concern about the review’s independence, given the involvement of the World Bank. They said that the issue of GM food and farming is very different to climate change science, and questioned whether a top-down review is appropriate. An Indian NGO, the Centre for World Solidarity, withdrew from the project because they did not want to work in a process which also involves the pesticide giant Syngenta.

Watson, however, commented: “it is possible to ensure that a professional assessment in which all voices are heard will be achieved. We must not shy away from the difficult challenge of discussing with a wide range of partners what exactly are the tradeoffs in using agricultural science to meet growing food needs.” Watson will be assisted in running this review by Claudia Martinez Zuleta, former Colombian deputy environment minister; Rita Sharma, joint secretary of India’s agriculture ministry; Louise Fresco, the FAO‘s assistant director general for agriculture; and Seyfu Ketema, executive secretary of an African agricultural research group.

International Assessment of Agricultural Science & Technology, World Bank

Halt GM Crops, Friends of the Earth