An advocate of cautious change

Michaela Wrong finds the president of the Rockefeller Foundation impatient with the polemics over genetically modified foods
Interview: Gordon Conway
Michaela Wrong
May 5, 2000
Financial Times

At first glance he seems a tangle of contradictions. An Englishman in New York. A radical turned member of the intellectual establishment, with a multimillion-dollar budget to play with. A scientist who rebuked Monsanto for arrogance extolling genetically modified (GM) crops.

But the unconventional itinerary reflects a philosophical viewpoint. For Gordon Conway believes in nuances, shades of grey. Indeed, it is the lack of subtlety, the crude polarisation, that exasperates him when it comes to the GM debate.

"The environmental activists draw a hard line - it is all bad - while the biotech companies say it is all good. They have become like professional wrestlers, with the whole thing made worse by PR men on both sides.

"The point is that it just ain't that simple. If we can only get people to begin to understand that, it would be a real advance."

Prof Conway has played his part in trying to introduce a level of complexity to the discussion.

As president of the Rockefeller Foundation, dedicated to improving "the well-being of mankind", he has funded research into golden rice, genetically engineered to tackle the problem of vitamin A deficiency that blights the third world.

Much discussed - critics would say much-hyped - the rice undermines the moral certainties of the anti-GM world view, in which biotech is the enemy of the poor.

But if campaigners lambast his baby as a gimmick that leaves untouched the root causes of poverty, Prof Conway is unrepentant. Those who claim vitamin deficiency would be better tackled encouraging peasants to grow gourds in their allotments are motivated by the best of intentions, he says. They are also, he adds, "living in cloud cuckoo land".

"The activists say 'Third World malnourishment is just a matter of inequitable distribution'. But that's like saying 'if people weren't poor, they'd be better off'. Of course everyone would be happier if food, health and wealth were divided up fairly. But there's no sign of that happening."

What makes his enthusiasm for GM rice impossible to dismiss is his history. For Prof Conway is the man who not only rapped Monsanto executives over the knuckles, but made sure his reprimand was circulated to the world's press.

Invited to address the agribusiness board last June, the professor accused Monsanto of rushing GM crops on to the market with unseemly haste, denounced aggressive corporate patenting of crop staples and listed, point-by-point, just how Monsanto should change its ways.

Monsanto hardly relished being dressed down in public. But it is a tribute to Prof Conway's role as mediator in a debate nearly bereft of middle ground that the company has spent the last 10 months putting his advice into effect. From the disavowal of Terminator technology - which would have prevented poor farmers reusing seeds - to the announcement Monsanto would make a "working draft" of the rice genome freely available, all bear the Conway imprint.

Such moves gel with the 61-year-old professor's view of a future in which GM crops, far from providing a panacea to world hunger, are just one of a range of tools needed to feed a surging global population.

"It's important to realise biotech is not the only answer," says Prof Conway. "We're working on nitrogen-fixing legumes, intercropping techniques and traditional breeding. But biotech has to be part of the answer."

For the professor, this is what "sustainable agriculture" is all about. Now appropriated by the organic farming industry, whose "near-religious fervour" he compares to Marxist rhetoric, the concept has been the cornerstone of his career in agriculture. "I am not sure, but I think I may have invented the idea."

One of a generation of ecologists that includes Sir Robert May, the government's scientific adviser, and Sir John Krebs, head of the new Food Standards Agency, he was a "political animal" in his youth. Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-born sociologist, was an strong influence and Prof Conway joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

He spent his formative years working in Thailand and Borneo, where he registered the damage that pesticide was doing to the environment. His response was the notion of integrated pest management, in which pesticide use is kept as low as possible and natural predators encouraged. Concern about pesticide is one of the reasons why he now favours selective use of GM crops.

He ran the Ford Foundation in India before becoming vice-chancellor at Sussex University, leaving in 1998 to become the first non-American to lead the foundation launched in 1913 with an endowment from John D. Rockefeller. With assets of $3.5bn (2.2bn) and $186m to spend this year on projects ranging from school reform to affordable housing, the foundation allows Prof Conway to give his youthful idealism teeth. "When you are in my position you don't go on protests anymore. You use your money and position to change things."

His experience in the Far East and Asia left him alert to the danger of what has been dubbed "intellectual apartheid" developing over GM. Any attempts by Western activists to deny poor governments knowledge they feel they desperately need are already doomed, he believes, given the level of interest. "There are about 1,000 Third World biotechnologists working on crop varieties, mostly rice. The debate is going on in the north and we're not hearing the voices coming from the developing world."

One of his strengths is his optimism. While an apocalyptic vision of corporate monoliths rolling relentlessly over ordinary citizens haunt the Greens, Prof Conway believes the biotech industry has proved its responsiveness to criticism. Further movement, he is confident, is on its way.

In a bid to combat fears of genetic "contamination", researchers are exploring the possibility of modifying plastids in the plant cell, leaving pollen unchanged. Monsanto's sharing of rice genome data signals a new sensitivity to worries about intellectual ownership. Prof Conway would like to see companies move further down that path, making patents on crops that matter to the developing world widely available. He also sees encouraging signs of a two-tier marketing system, under which biotech companies charge better-off farmers technology fees, while contributing GM seeds for free to subsistence farmers.

"I'm not saying the risks have gone away. I still advocate caution, government-supervised testing and full disclosure. But the biotech companies are changing their game."

Return to the home page of Better Foods