Third-rate technology?

Environmental campaigners might be suspicious of applying cutting-edge science in the developing world - but in Brazil, people are living with its benefits.

John Conroy

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Topics Politics

The cutting-edge aspects of science, such as the new generation of biotechnology – genetically modified organisms and genome research – are today often presented as being thrust upon countries by multinationals out to make a fast buck. Consequently, it is argued, the application of modern science does not benefit the developing world.

Others claim that modern science is irrelevant to the pressing needs of developing countries. Science is perceived as a threat to indigenous forms of knowledge and technology, and even a threat to development itself. Attitudes such as these are behind campaigns to keep advanced science and technology out of the developing world.

But how do those living and working in the developing world view the possibilities afforded by modern science? As a television producer and researcher working in Brazil, I have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm that Brazilians have for science and its applications, often fuelled by the conviction that, without this, development is impossible.

In Brazil, there is an impressive level of scientific research, and a determination to use the most advanced science to solve problems. Many Brazilians are angered by suggestions that they do not need, or should not use, applications of cutting-edge science.

Scientists at the Cancer Hospital in São Paulo, the Ludwig Cancer Institute in São Paulo and the São Paulo Foundation for the Advancement of Research (FAPESP) are justly proud of their contribution to the struggle to find a cure for cancer. They have developed one of the world’s fastest genome sequencing processes, called Open Frame EST or ORESTES. Using this process they have sequenced 1.12million fragments of genes of tumorous cells, focusing on cancers that most commonly affect Brazilians.

This process is so fast and efficient that the National Cancer Institute of the USA is signing a cooperation contract with the Brazilians, in order to be able to use the technology. These São Paulo institutes are also developing the Clinical Genome Project to create practical and life-saving techniques in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Far from this cancer research having been imposed on Brazilians, it is they who have developed the process.

Does the developing world have to accept passively the scientific research and products promoted by multinationals? AIDS is a huge problem for Brazil, with 179,000 cases reported between 1988 and 1999 – a ratio of 124 cases per 100,000 Brazilians. It is believed that a further 537,000 people are carrying HIV throughout the country.

In response to these terrible statistics, Brazil has promoted the production of most of the anti-retrovirus drug cocktail in Brazilian laboratories. This year Brazil warned the three multinationals that produce the three most expensive HIV drugs that it would break the patents and produce generic versions in Brazil, unless the multinationals reduced their prices. So far, two of the companies have drastically reduced the price of their HIV drugs, bringing it within the Ministry of Health’s AIDS budget.

Green campaigners and NGOs argue that GM science will allow multinationals to increase their grip over Brazilian food production, without offering any benefits to the country. Yet this does not square with reality. Brazilian state research institutions have been making significant advances in GM research, in order to solve problems faced by small and large farmers alike.

Pedro, a rubber-tapper living deep in the Amazon forest in the state of Acre, near the town of Xapuri, grows a myriad of fruit trees and plants as well as the staple rice, bean and cassava crops that sustain his family. He is desperately poor and cannot afford chemicals to protect his crops. Some of Pedro’s valuable fruit trees take up to 20 years to produce fruit, and therefore income, for Pedro and his family.

In 1999 FAPESP and the Ludwig Cancer Institute sequenced the genome of Xylella Pastidosa, a bacterium that periodically devastates São Paulo’s orange groves, which supply Brazil’s orange juice industry – the largest in the world. It identified all 2.7million of the bases of the single Xylella chromosome. This cost $13million and involved 35 Brazilian laboratories.

In 2001 the Parana State Agronomy Institute announced the creation of a GM orange plant that is resistant to the Citrus Canero virus, another destroyer of Brazilian citrus plantations. University of São Paulo researchers are using the LEAFY gene to accelerate citrus fruit tree growth. In Spanish tests this gene has been used to produce trees that mature in one year, and this characteristic is passed on to its descendents through the seed.

Papaya is argued to be the most nutritious fruit in the world in terms of vitamins and fibre. But Brazilian plantations have been wiped out by the ring spot virus. This was particularly painful for small farmers. The Brazilian Federal Agriculture and Livestock Research Institute (EMBRAPA) tried every form of conventional solution, from intergeneric hybridisation to the introduction of natural enemies of the insect vector, but nothing worked. This year they have produced a GM ring spot virus resistant papaya.

The 2000-2001 Brazilian agricultural harvest is a record breaker, for the first time exceeding 90million tonnes of grains. This was made possible by the expansion of agricultural production into the cerrado or savannah region. Twenty years ago this land was unusable and uninhabited, its soil burdened by a high degree of aluminium toxicity. EMBRAPA and a private agricultural research institute – the Mato Grosso Foundation -successfully developed an integrated farming system using zero-tillage, precision satellite-guided techniques and aluminium-resistant germplasm, making agriculture possible on the land.

But while, as a consequence, Brazilian soya production leapt 308 percent between 1975 and 1995, and productivity is better than that of US soya producers, its market share remains small. To reduce costs further, in an attempt to offset the advantage that US and European farmers have with their $361billion in subsidies, producers wish to use GM soya seed.

But the producers’ choice to use GM seed has been denied to them. Greenpeace has successfully campaigned for the temporary banning of GM crops on a commercial scale. The ban has had a knock-on effect in Brazil, with all its GM research now either suspended or reduced. Many Brazilian scientists fear that if the ban continues, it could damage Brazil’s chances of remaining competitive in world agriculture. Farmers in the south of Brazil, though, are defying the ban, by illegally importing Argentinean GM soya seed in the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Parana. Ironically, Rio Grande do Sul is the heart of the anti-GM movement in Brazil – yet at least 50 percent of its soya plantations are GM.

Greenpeace and the Brazilian Landless Movement (MST) argue that GM crops will cause farmers to lose control of their seeds, and companies like Monsanto will make big profits through increased market control. But the fact that Monsanto is out to make profits by trying to sell its products to farmers is not a surprise – and nor is it so different to the prosperous UK, where just about everything we buy and every service we use is supplied by a company whose aim is to maximise its profits. The question is always, what is the alternative?

When it comes to Brazil, anti-GM campaigners offer a false choice between the multinationals and subsistence agriculture. But can low-tech subsistence agriculture improve people’s quality of life better than the hated multinationals? Does Pedro’s back-breaking, labour intensive and low income work give him more choice and freedom?

World-leading genome sequencing processes, pharmaceutical industries and agricultural biotechnology – both conventional and GM – are proof of the degree to which scientific and economic developments are interdependent. Brazil could not have made any of this scientific progress without its industrial economy, energy, communications and transport infrastructure, public universities and state funding. The scientific advances made possible by this social infrastructure will feed back into its economy, placing Brazil in a stronger position to decide its own course of development.

Those who believe that the developing world should steer clear of cutting-edge technologies offer no choice at all to developing countries. If these ideas were taken up, they would threaten the capacity of developing countries to make their own decisions, by denying them the economic and scientific tools to do so. And who exactly would that benefit?

John Conroyis a television producer/director and a journalist.

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