Egyptian Approval Of GM Corn Raises Questions
By Wagdy Sawahel
Intellectual Property Watch, 16 June 2008
With Egypt's recent approval of the cultivation and commercialisation of a pest-resistant corn variety that marked the first legal introduction of genetically modified crops into the Arab world, the Egyptian scientific community is having mixed reactions.
The approval of a genetically modified crop variety owned by biotechnology company Monsanto was based on a recommendation made by the Egyptian National Biosafety Committee and Seed Registration Committee as a result of experimental field trials. These trials revealed that the infestation of three corn borers - pests that can destroy a corn crop - was “negligible or completely prevented in Bt plants throughout the whole season and the different times of sowing dates.” Report results available here.
The approval is detailed in a 16 April report of the Global Agriculture Information Network published by the US Department of Agriculture, available here [pdf].
Called Ajeeb-YG, the pest-resistant corn variety was produced by crossing Monsanto YieldGard Bt Insect Resistant Corn (MON 810) with an Egyptian maize variety called Ajeeb. It will be distributed this month to Egyptian farmers by Cairo-based company Fine Seeds International.
As a result, the Egyptian scientific community has had mixed reactions, some expressing concerns over health, environmental, socioeconomic, political and ownership-related issues.
Magdy Massoud of the plant protection department of the faculty of agriculture at the University of Alexandria in Egypt, who was involved in carrying out the experimental field trials, told Intellectual Property Watch: “All studies prove the importance of Bt corn for Egypt, where it increase yield and reduce the use of chemical insecticides and maintains the role of the beneficial natural enemies as it only harms the targeted borers.”
But Nagib Nassar, Egyptian professor of genetics and plant breeding at University of Brazil, told Intellectual Property Watch, “At the end of the day what was originally an Egyptian variety will become not only registered in Egypt but owned by Monsanto, and Egyptian scientists will end up only making the backcrossing as the ancient Egyptian was doing.”
GM Plants - from Partnership to Ownership?
This means, said Tarek Saif, biotechnologist at Egypt’s National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries, Egypt’s collaboration with Monsanto started with the word “partnership” to pave the way for public acceptance of GM plant and ended with “ownership” for Monsanto.
“How did an Egyptian variety become owned by Monsanto just as a result of crossing it with its line?” Saif asked.
Saif said that at present Monsanto is developing insect resistant long-staple GM cotton by crossing Egyptian elite germplasm with Monsanto’s Bollgard II.
“If this so-called ‘partnership’ is transformed into ‘ownership’ as in the case of Bt corn, the socioeconomic impact on Egypt will be severe as Egyptian cotton is known as one of the world’s finest quality and our most important agricultural export.”
But Mohammad Taeb, technology transfer expert and former coordinator of the research and human capacity development programme at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the Japan-based United Nations University said, “Activities of the private sector in producing and cultivating GM crops is unavoidable and perhaps necessary. However, what makes the issue controversial in developing countries is the lack of a legal and regulatory framework for the operation of GM-producing companies.”
Taeb added that “partnership is an important mechanism of technology transfer from developed to developing countries.” But to capture the opportunity, he said, “developing countries require a minimum institutional capability to benefit from partnerships, otherwise companies come and reap commercial benefits in developing countries and give nothing in return.”
Taeb pointed out that “the question to be raised is whether Egypt is organised enough to benefit from this partnership with Monsanto or not. If it is going to benefit, how will that happen, and who are the players?”
“The ownership of corn or cotton GM crops per se is not an important matter because you cannot maintain the variety for indefinite time,” Taeb said. “The varietals’ purity will degenerate in time unless you have access to the parents and could reconstitute the original genetic configuration.”
Therefore, he said, “What matters here most is the technical know-how that is used in making the GM corn or cotton. If that technical know-how is transferred to Egypt, the presence of Monsanto would be welcomed.”
“But what I have seen in real world is the inability of developing countries to absorb advanced technology brought by foreign firms which again goes back to the issue of institutional capacity in developing countries to manage technology transfer,” Taeb concluded.
Socioeconomic Impact of GM Plants on Small Farmers
Nassar said that this Bt corn variety will “bear a heavy economic cost on the shoulder of small farmer,” adding, “It remains to be seen what is the content of the contract called “Technology Use Agreement (TUA)” which farmers will have to sign and what legal actions and fines waiting for them if they violate the contract?”
Some TUAs stipulate that farmers cannot save seed for replanting and farmers are prohibited from supplying seed to anyone else.
Moreover, Nassar added, “poor farmers will be obligated to destroy any seed for future plantation. They must buy from the multinational [company] new seed for plantation. When farmers destroy seed, they destroy in the meantime genetic variability which may benefit future plantation.
Nassar expected that the reproduction of corn seeds at the Egyptian village level will be disrupted leading to the broken of the agricultural cycle, which enables farmers to store their seeds and plant them to reap the next harvest.
Nassar added, “Egyptian small and poor farmers depend on rotation as a way of natural fertilisation to their soil by nitrogen fixation [caused by bacteria]. This will not be possible in future. Simply because toxin produced by the Bt plant, mixed with soil will kill nitrogen fixing bacteria”
Political, Environmental and Health Impact
Saif warned of the political impact of the cultivation and commercialisation of a Bt corn variety in Egypt.
“Egyptian corn farmers will become dependent on foreign companies for their corn seed supply and for the costly fertilizer, insecticide and herbicide which might destroy their autonomy and control of seed, their livelihoods and cultural traditions,” Saif told Intellectual Property Watch.
Nassar said, “What may be more alarming is the local effect of this Bt maize plant on bees and wildlife, especially in a heavy density of humanity, plants and animals in Nile delta as well as the regional effect of contaminating seeds of neighbouring countries which still prohibit Bt corn, such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Zambia and others.”
Mohamed El-Defrawy, professor of population genetics at faculty of agriculture of Assuit University in Egypt told Intellectual Property Watch, “I am of the fierce opponents of GM plants release in Egypt as no one knows its consequences on agricultural as well as wild populations.”
The Way Forward
To address the potential negative impacts of GM corn, Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, plant biotechnologist at Cairo’s National Research Centre, said: “Research on the different socioeconomic, environmental, health and agronomic issues surrounding GM crops must be done, and an in-depth assessment must be conducted of the country’s agricultural food and rural development policies and in particular, how GM plants benefit the poor as well as programmes for awareness about GM crops among the public and farmers in particular must be set up to ensure proper public consultations.”
Abdelhamid added that Egypt needs to promote GM plant research and development and to develop its own Bt maize using local technology to protect its small-scale farmers.
“Biosafety measures in Egypt need to be strengthened by approving the biosafety legislation which has not been presented to Parliament yet,” Abdelhamid concluded.
Currently, GM plants are regulated in Egypt by a framework including ministerial decrees and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
The 2002 Egyptian law on the protection of intellectual property rights endorsed the patentability criteria as stipulated in the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), Taeb said. But, he said TRIPS gives freedom to international agro-industrial companies to enter developing country seed markets and to acquire IP rights on plant varieties.
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