February 26, 2002

Silent Science

Neither Early Warning nor Early Listening - What the CGIAR is Not Doing

If you don't have anything nice to say don't say anything at all? When the policy committee of the world's most important agricultural science network met last week, they evaded all the tough questions related to transgenic maize in Mexico - the crop's center of genetic diversity. Last year, and again last month, the Mexican Environment Ministry confirmed that farmers' maize varieties in at least two states had been contaminated with DNA from genetically modified maize.

"Hot tamale" dropped: The uproar over the Mexican transgenic maize scandal has derailed industry plans to get EU governments to abandon their de facto moratorium on GM (genetically-modified) crops and produce. Brussels had hoped to raise the issue during the EU's Barcelona round in March. But as Nature Biotechnology magazine reported in February, jitters over the Mexican debacle were causing both industry and pro-biotech governments to reconsider pressing for a decision that might go against them. The joint statement issued by more than 140 civil society organizations (CSOs) on February 19th reinforced their concern. The moratorium issue will not come up until the EU's October meeting. See here  for further information.

Meanwhile, the Genetic Resources Policy Committee of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) met in Los Banos, Philippines February 20-22nd. The CGIAR speaks for the 16 International Agricultural Research Centres responsible for the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 70s. One of the 16 centres, CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico) has been embroiled in the contamination debate largely because it has the world's most important maize gene bank. CIMMYT is not regarded as a cause of GM contamination nor is its bank contaminated. But CIMMYT and CGIAR not only develop new plant varieties and conserve genetic diversity, they are purported to offer scientific leadership and an early warning system when problems arise. "After listening to the Mexican Government's alarm bells for almost half a year, maybe our genetic guardians need an early listening system," suggests the ETC group's Pat Mooney.


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