Nairobi — Monsato and Syngenta have apparently pulled out of an ambitious, Sh70 million (US$10-million) agricultural project because it does not emphasise or recognise the significant contribution of modern biotechnology in agricultural development and poverty reduction.
The four-year project - the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology - aims to do for hunger and poverty what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has done for another global challenge.
The scale of the ambition is clear both in the project's promised outcome, as well as in its internal workings. When published later this year, its reports promise to map how science, technology and accumulated good-farming practice can be used to reduce hunger and improve quality of life for rural people in developing countries, according to an Editorial in the January issue of Nature.
The editorial - Deserting the hungry? - explains that the writing and review teams (some 4,000 experts in all) comprise a grand coalition including scientists, government officials, representatives from seven UN agencies, farmers' groups, a rainbow of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and industry, including chemicals manufacturer BASF and agri-biotech giants Monsanto and Syngenta.
However, the decision by Monsanto and Syngenta to abandon the project has been widely criticised, even by the anti-GMO crusaders
The editorial in Nature is categorical. "Monsanto and Syngenta are wrong to withdraw from an international assessment on agriculture."
Bob Watson, director of the project for the creation of an International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), is quoted in the Guardian stating that he is "very disappointed" that Monsanto and Syngenta have withdrawn from the project.
But these last two, part of the assessment from the beginning, have now decided to quit. No public statements have been offered, but the spokesman for CropLife told Nature that the decision was prompted by the inability of its members to get industry perspectives reflected in the draft reports. One of these perspectives is the view that biotechnology is key to reducing poverty and hunger, and it is based in part on high (and rising) levels of demand for biotech crops from farmers across the developing world.
Ms Denise Dewar of Croplife International, of which Monsanto and Syngenta are members, is quoted in the Guardian stating, "We were concerned with the direction the draft was taking and that our input was not being taken appropriately. We were looking to see references to plant science technology and the potential role it can contribute."
A spokesman for the agriculture-industry body CropLife International told Nature, "This is a most reluctant decision."
"If they can bring evidence forward that we have not been objective, or that the language is biased, then we could discuss that," Watson said.
Insiders agree that the current draft is decidedly lukewarm about the technology's potential in developing-world agriculture. The summary report, for example, devotes more space to biotechnology's risks than to its benefits. The report says that evidence that biotech crops produce high yields is not conclusive. And it claims that if policy-makers give more prominence to biotechnology, this could consolidate the biotech industry's dominance of agricultural R&D in developing countries. This would affect graduate education and training, and provide fewer opportunities for scientists to train in other agricultural sciences.
CropLife says that it does not take a "dogmatic" position and remains open to rejoining the assessment if the other team members are willing to be more even-handed. "But the views outlined in the draft chapter on biotechnology, although undoubtedly over-cautious and unbalanced, nonetheless do not represent the rantings of a fringe minority," Nature argues
The idea that biotechnology cannot by itself reduce hunger and poverty is mainstream opinion among agricultural scientists and policy-makers. For example, biotechnology expansion was not among the seven main recommendations in Halving Hunger: It Can Be Done, a report commissioned by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. The writing team for this report included Kenya's Florence Wambugu, perhaps the strongest proponent for biotechnology in Africa.
However, Nature is of the opinion that the assessment's secretariat and chairs, too, need to ask themselves some searching questions. For starters: how come these founding members of the assessment got to the point of walking out? This is not the first time an initiative has sought to find common ground between NGOs and industry on a major issue involving science and public policy. There are many lessons that can be learned by talking to, for example, the organisers of the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development project, or the World Commission on Dams, both of which produced consensus reports that have had far-reaching impacts, Nature observes.
If Monsanto and Syngenta maintain their current position, it will be a blow to the credibility of an important scientific assessment.
Whatever happens next, the status quo is not an option. A meeting to agree the final text is expected to take place in April. Monsanto and Syngenta must get back to the table before then. If they maintain their current position, it will be a blow to the credibility of an important scientific assessment. In addition, public confidence in the biotech industry and in its ability to engage with its critics will have been undermined, argues Nature.
Nature adds, "Perhaps most important of all, believing as they do that biotechnology is an essential response to hunger, the two companies will be letting down those that they most want to help."
Greenpeace, a member of the assessment project, said it urges the biotechnology companies to reconsider. "This assessment goes far beyond genetic engineering, it is about setting solutions for global agriculture and the world's poor and hungry. It is such a shame to withdraw from such a good initiative, simply because your business plans do not fit with sound science and experts voiced a more balanced opinion than yours," said Jan van Aken, a GM campaigner with Greenpeace International.