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October 23, 2008

GM crop trials pick up pace in Egypt

by Erin Cunningham

Tucked away among a surplus of announcements on a US government website, the press release publicizing the approval of Egypt’s first genetically modified (GM) crop earlier this year was a decidedly hushed affair. Some in the local scientific and agricultural communities refuse to discuss it; the Egyptian government, one source says, has yet to even legally authorize it.

The controversial introduction of Egypt’s first GM seed for commercial cultivation came in April by way of chemical and seed multinational Monsanto, a US-based company owning 90% of the world’s genetically altered seeds. In a joint venture with the Egyptian company Fine Seeds International, Monsanto patented bt-corn seeds — a hybrid of local Egyptian maize and a Monsanto-owned variety (MON 810) — were distributed to farmers for trials in at least 10 governorates this summer. According to sources, a number of other Egyptian-bred GM crops are also waiting to be approved.

The benefits both the new seed — designed to resist corn crops’ most fatal pest, the European corn borer — and other genetically engineered crops will bring to Egypt are great, GM advocates and companies like Monsanto claim.

For a nation grappling with the effects of a global food crisis, little in the way of arable land and a rapidly growing population, harvesting larger amounts of food on the same agricultural area is undoubtedly an attractive prospect. Higher yields, even higher profits, less insecticide and a more pliant food supply are some of the gains promised to Egypt by the cultivation of GM seeds.

But with global environmental and scientific debates over GM crops raging, and Egypt’s biosafety regulations in disarray, many are skeptical about what benefits will really be reaped from genetic engineering. Farmers, while excited about the prospect of reducing costs, are wary about being the first to sow the controversy-laden seeds.

In debates over scientific research and the perceived influence of US policy, many Egyptian GM scientists are angered about the role Monsanto has been allowed to take in developing the country’s crops. Others, citing Egypt’s already volatile food supply, are worried any surplus of crops will be diverted toward more profitable use, rather than feed a population expected to double by 2050.

...while genetic engineering allows crops to fend off pests and other crop killers without the use of chemical pesticides — and is therefore seemingly more likely to produce stable harvests and higher yields — opponents of GM deride bioengineering as harmful to both the environment and consumers, as well as a threat to the independence of local farmers.

“Two of the biggest myths are that small farmers and poor people want to use GMOs [genetically modified organisms] and that they actually help them,” says Geert Ritsema, GM Campaigner for global environmental group Greenpeace International. “When GMO seeds are sold to farmers, they are told they are miracle seeds. But because seed prices are high and the yield more or less the same, farmers lose money and they end up in debt.”

Companies like Monsanto, Ritsema and other anti-GM activists say, require farmers to purchase their patented seeds, which normally cost substantially more than conventional seeds, for every harvest. This goes against some of the most fundamental elements of traditional farming systems. As a result, farmers are put into a cycle of debt with the multinationals, despite the fact that they may be saving money on pesticides and other high cost and polluting fertilizers. There is also no solid evidence, Ritsema says, that GM crops offer higher yields.

Environmental and health issues surrounding GM have cropped up around the globe as well. Farmers, activists, and scientists alike volley between the conflicting results of a number of scientific studies: While some tout GM’s minimal risks, others claim it harms both consumers and ecosystems as a result of soil depletion, allergies and pollen transfer, when pollen from a GM crop contaminates a conventional harvest.

Bt-corn itself, the crop currently being harvested by select Egyptian farmers, is now prohibited in at least five European countries due to continued concerns over its environmental and health risks. At press time, the EU Commissioner for the Environment, Stavros Dimas, had recommended to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) an EU-wide ban on bt-corn seeds.

The majority of Egypt’s land is arid desert, and although what little agricultural area it does have is surprisingly fertile, farming land is dangerously scarce. While 150,000 acres are being established for agricultural production each year, some 60,000 are being lost annually to growing urbanization. And with the population expected to reach 160 million in less than 50 years, the amount of land lost will undoubtedly also rise.

Because GM crops are designed to resist some of agriculture’s greatest threats, and can therefore be harvested in new areas where they previously would have failed, some local scientists are adamant bioengineering should be an integral part of Egypt’s solution to its compounded problems of population growth and land scarcity.

“Crops that are tolerant to drought or to salinity can be planted in areas where they haven’t been planted before,” says Dina El-Khishin, head of Genomics, Proteomics and Bioinformatics at the Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Center (AGERI). “[Their growth] will depend on the rainfall of the area, but if you can get something out of this barren land [with GM crops], it’s an achievement.” As an example, she cites the ability to plant wheat in Rafah, a place where conventional wheat normally would not grow, with even less irrigation requirements.

While corn can only be cultivated in a specific climate and cannot be harvested on the wide swaths of desert being converted to fertile farmland across Egypt, many are enthusiastic about bt-corn for its potential to reduce Egypt’s massive corn imports, which currently stand at 4.8 million tons, or about 50% of the country’s needs. According to Osama El-Tayeb, member of the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) and Egypt’s representative at the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, Monsanto’s bt-corn seed proved to be 50% more productive than conventional seeds currently available on the market.

But the high cost of biotech seeds — significantly more expensive than conventional or even natural hybrid seeds — may not necessarily make up for the heavy costs of imports, or translate into larger profits or a stronger food supply. As El-Khishin admits, “the cost of their development is definitely not cheap.”

Even natural hybrid corn varieties that are available on the Egyptian market cost up to 15 times more than conventional seeds, says El-Tayeb. “Hybrid seeds that are neither genetically modified nor regulated are available on the market and cost something like LE 30 per kilo,” he says. “Regular seeds sell for LE 2 per kilo, so that’s 15 times as much. A farmer planting the hybrid breed may get higher yield, but it’s not likely to offset the 15-fold difference in the cost of the seeds. With the introduction of MON 810, the [corn] imports may only be offset by 5-15% at most.”

According to the US-based Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), because of costly “technology fees” imposed by giant biotech companies like Monsanto, bt-corn does “not come close to keeping pace in returning value to the [US] farmer.”

A five-year study conducted by the IATP in the US showed corn farmers planting bt varieties ultimately paid $659 million (LE 3.5 billion) more than would have been the case if they planted conventional varieties. Despite the fact that bt-corn increased production by some 276 million bushels, farmers’ profits were hampered by the substantial cost of GM seeds and depended largely on a number of fluctuating factors, including pest infestations, market acceptance of the crop and international corn prices. Because MON 810 is still in the trial stage, it is not yet clear for what price the seed will be sold on the Egyptian market.

Even so, not all farmers are ready to take the risk. Ibrahim El-Arabi, an Egyptian farmer who cultivates land 15 kilometers outside of Tanta, says he will not be one of the first to grow bt-corn on his farm when the Monsanto seed becomes available for mass use. “I won’t take the chances, I need to see it first,” El-Arabi says. “I grow corn for cattle feed, and I’ve read that if it is genetically modified corn, it will affect the animals that eat it.”

And the argument against GM’s ability to produce a more resilient and available food supply hinges on just that: the majority of the world’s genetically engineered seeds are cultivated mainly for animal feed, but also ethanol-based biofuels, both in high demand and ultimately more profitable for farmers. Transgenic crops have yet to be grown on a massive scale with the aim of tackling either poverty or hunger.

In Egypt, where corn supplies are low and cornmeal is also needed to produce subsidized, or baladi, bread, most of the approximately 6 million tons being produced annually is used solely for animal feed. Just a little over 1.5 million tons goes toward food consumption, while a mere 500,000 tons is delivered to the Ministry of Supply for the production of bread — a form of sustenance over 50 million Egyptians depend on every day.

It is likely, local agronomists say, MON 810 will be commercially cultivated for animal feed rather than for the ultimate goal of stabilizing Egypt’s already temperamental food market.

On top of its socioeconomic implications, MON 810 is causing a storm of controversy over Egypt’s biosafety laws. While the country is formally a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety — an international treaty governing the research and development of genetically modified products — it does not yet officially have biosafety legislation of its own. As a result, none of the GM crops developed by purely Egyptian agricultural institutes, including potatoes, squash and tomatoes, among others, have been approved for cultivation.

“[The National Law for the Handling of Genetic Products] has not yet been presented to the Cabinet,” says El-Tayeb. “It’s at the Ministry of [State for] Environmental Affairs in its final form.” The current biosafety framework is therefore governed by a series of decrees, both from the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation and the Ministry of Health.

But because there is no enforcement mechanism for the Cartagena Protocol — which automatically assumes national law status in Egypt — and because there is confusion about the proper way to register a seed, El-Tayeb says Monsanto was able to certify MON 810 without submitting a comprehensive biosafety dossier or proper assessment of its trials to the relevant authorities.

“[Monsanto] has not followed the procedures outlined in the protocol, regardless of whether or not there is a national law,” says El-Tayeb of the MON 810 registration. “Nobody in the government has been formally notified that a GM crop has been approved for cultivation in Egypt.”

According to El-Tayeb, Monsanto originally applied to register its bt-corn seed in 2005, and was instructed by the Seed Registration Committee to apply the prerequisites of the Cartagena Protocol through the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs, something that did not take place.

“It was expected that some schedule for the [MON 810] trials would take place [] And only after that it would go to the Seed Registration Committee,” says El-Tayeb. “Apparently it went straight to [the committee]; there are many question marks. If this is what has taken place, it could be interpreted as a state of non-compliance with an international treaty to which Egypt is a party.”

The ability of Monsanto to circumvent the law has angered some of Egypt’s scientists already working on the development of GM crops, as well as caused concern over the ability of the government to properly regulate Monsanto’s work.

While Egypt maintains a number of capable genetic research institutions, El-Khishin says, Monsanto, under the auspices of the US Foreign Agricultural Service, was allowed to take control of the process and patent an Egyptian variety ahead of the country’s own transgenic crops.

Monsanto has come under a spate of criticism across the globe in recent years, for everything from false advertising and suing indigenous farmers to bribing Indonesian officials and refusing to release its own GM studies. But until Egypt’s biosafety law is passed, a precedent may have been set for the way GM research is conducted in the country, with cash-laden multinationals dominating the industry.

“I would like to see this [research] done by Egyptians,” says El-Khishin. “We have the technology and we have our own GM crops. We don’t need to rely on foreign companies.” bt

Business Today Egypt

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