Move to Curb Biotech Crops Ignores Poor, U.N. Finds
By BARBARA CROSSETTE
Opposition in richer countries to genetically modified crops may set back the ability of the poorest nations to feed growing populations, according to a new United Nations survey.
A movement against these crops, genetically changed for various reasons -- including higher yield, more nutritional value and pest or disease control -- is strongest among Western Europeans and to some extent Americans.
"The current debate in Europe and the United States over genetically modified crops mostly ignores the concerns and needs of the developing world," according to the survey, the Human Development Report 2001. It is published by the United Nations Development Program and will be released on Tuesday in Mexico City.
"Western consumers who do not face food shortages or nutritional deficiencies or work in the fields are more likely to focus on food safety and the potential loss of biodiversity," the report states, but "farming communities in developing countries are more likely to focus on potentially higher yields and greater nutritional value, and on the reduced need to spray pesticides that can damage the soil and sicken farmers."
The report draws a comparison to successful Western-led efforts to ban the use of the industrial pesticide DDT worldwide, which has allowed a resurgent population of mosquitoes to devastate tropical countries with several virulent strains of malaria.
Still, the United Nations remains concerned about the consequences of genetic advancements, too. In Geneva on Friday, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization jointly recommended that governments test all genetically modified organisms before they enter the market, looking especially for the potential to cause allergic reactions.
Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, which publishes the 11-year-old annual survey, said the report moved in a new direction this year by challenging some cherished opinions about what the third world needs. The 2001 report looks at three areas -- food, medicine and information systems -- where high-technology can be made relevant and useful to poor countries, as long as risks are well managed.
Mr. Malloch Brown recommended a closer look at recent history and a move away from what he called "an anti-technology bias." He added that advances in food production -- the "green revolution" of the early postcolonial years -- were based on crop science.
Turning to information technology, the report created a new technology achievement index that ranks countries in four categories: leaders, potential leaders, dynamic adopters and the marginalized. The new index offers some surprising findings based on factors such as inducements to innovation, prevalence of old technologies like telephones and general educational levels.
While India, for example, has islands of high technology, it ranks at the bottom of the dynamic adopters category, just above marginalization -- not only well below China by virtually every measure, but also far behind Southeast Asia, Latin American and parts of Africa and the Arab world. At the other end of the scale, Japan and Korea rank fourth and fifth on the leaders list, which is led by Finland, the United States and Sweden. Singapore outranks a majority of European countries.
The core of the 2001 report remains the broad human development index, devised in 1990 by the late Mahbub ul Haq, a Pakistani economist. This year, Norway rose to the top of the index that measures quality of life very broadly. Australia, Canada, Sweden, Belgium and the United States followed.
At the bottom of the list is Sierra Leone, in last place among 162 nations surveyed. Of 36 nations considered lowest in human development, 29 are African.
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