In this week’s issue, my colleague Brian Hindo talked with Jeff Sachs, an expert on the interplay between global development and the environment at Columbia University. Here are his comments on the role of genetically modified seed strains and crops in the context of rising food shortages and question over the use of converting food to fuel.
In reporting this week’s story about Monsanto’s goals to boost global food production, I spoke with Jeffrey Sachs, the director of Columbia’s Earth Institute and one of the leading public voices on global poverty. He’s a backer of genetically modified seeds, and is especially keen on drought-tolerance technology that Monsanto and others have in their research pipelines. He’s worked with Monsanto on projects in Malawi and is excited by the potential for biotech to help poor farmers. “I think there are clearly some really great possibilities – so far unproven – but with high potential,” Sachs says. “Not only is drought one of the great killers and big source of crises, but it’s only going to get worse.”
Sachs is definitely aware of the controversy that tends to swirl around Monsanto – as the market and technological leader in biotech seeds, it’s most often associated with criticism about the safety and efficacy of GMOs. “The human safety concerns really have not been shown to be so significant. Of course they need to continue to be monitored, there’s no doubt about it. But so far the record is clear and encouraging,” Sachs says. “Then there are the environmental questions. They also require a lot of attention and care.” For instance, scientists are only just beginning to build a body of work on the impact of planting acres of GMOs on other plants, insects, and other non-GMOs.
Intellectual property is another thorny issue. Biotech seeds are patent-protected. Farmers who buy Monsanto’s biotech seeds are charged a premium for the genetic technology baked into them (resistance to herbicide, for instance). And they must sign “technology agreements” asserting the farmer will respect Monsanto’s intellectual property. How this plays out in Africa is unclear. Monsanto says patents (on drought-tolerance, for example) will be licensed to aid groups, which will then sublicense them to local seed companies for “royalty-free” distribution to farmers.
“In general,” says Sachs, “there is an issue with intellectual property vis-a-vis the very poor. It came up with the AIDS medicines. And I think the analogy is very real here, as well.” Expensive AIDS drugs, while hyped as a way to help in sub-Saharan Africa, were priced way beyond the reach of most of the populations. “When I spoke to Monsanto,” says Sachs, “I stressed that they’re going have to take lessons from what was initially a debacle – where medicines were not available to the very poor.”
Sachs suggests – as Monsanto has indicated – that the biotech seeds should be sold at cost to African farmers. “There are ways to use the patent system but apply it to high income markets,” says Sachs. “Make it available to the poor essentially at production cost. If it is done this way it answers some of the concerns – not all of them but many.”
Monsanto’s drawn criticism for aggressively suing farmers who violate the terms of the technology agreements. Sachs is quite aware of the company’s rep doesn’t foresee such an aggressive posture being applied to Africa. “I frankly don’t believe they’re going to fool around on this,” Sachs says. “I’m quite convinced they want to find a way to do this – but not as their moneymaker. They need to be aware of handling this with a lot of sensitivity.”
“The crisis in food is so real, and so urgent,” Sachs says, and drought will only become worse owing to the effects of climate change. “For anybody to rule this out from the start would be reckless.”
— Brian Hindo