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Background - 20 June, 2002
Interview with Ethiopian Dr. Tewolde Egziabher, aged 61, who represents developing countries at conferences on genetic engineering, biodiversity and gene patenting. The ecologist runs the Ethiopian environmental protection authority and the non-profit Institute for Sustainable Development. He discusses the risks of genetic engineering with Greenpeace.

Head of the Ethiopian environmental protection authority and the non-profit Institute for Sustainable Development Dr Tewolde Egziabher.

Greenpeace: Are you happy about the agricultural giants' offers to fight world hunger with new plants developed through genetic engineering?

Tewolde: Not at all. It's naïve to imagine that plants and their highly efficient gene pools, which have evolved over millions of years, can be improved by replacing or adding a new gene.

The interaction between genes and proteins is far too complex. Which is why so many genetic experiments go wrong.

Greenpeace: But don't you take their offer seriously?

Tewolde: No, they're missing the point. Famine in developing countries is mainly the result of unfair distribution. Today, the world is producing more food than ever before - but there are still more people starving than ever before as well.

Producing even more food doesn't automatically mean that the poor will benefit. They simply haven't got the money to buy it. And genetic engineering isn't going to change that.

Greenpeace: Couldn't the genetic engineering industry produce plants that are better adapted to dry or salty soils?

Tewolde: There's a lot of propaganda about this, but there's absolutely no proof that these plants are more prolific.

The big companies actually have very different goals: they want to supply farmers with strains that are immune to specific pesticides, in order to make them dependent on these pesticides. The life sciences industry also has a second goal: to take control of the developing countries' existing seeds and gene pool.

The strategy is always the same: they supply free seeds until farmers have used up their own resources or the resources are no longer usable, and then they start charging fees.

Greenpeace: That's a serious accusation.

Tewolde: It coincides with the experiences we've had with pesticides and artificial fertilisers. And it's the very same agrochemical companies that are pushing genetic engineering today. Controlling seeds and charging the poor farmers for this service is not going to solve the problem of famine.

Greenpeace: If the farmers' harvests improve, they can afford to pay the fees.

Tewolde: Some 30 different parties own patents for the notorious "golden rice". None of them charge fees at present. But once they have the farmers under their thumbs, they'll get their money. Agricultural companies are using patents to make us dependent on their seeds.

There could hardly be a more effective form of colonialism? The genetic engineering industry will effectively be able to hold us hostage.

That isn't the way to bring about world peace. Rather, it will spark an unprecedented rebellion with waves of refugees heading for the most affluent countries.

Greenpeace: Why does the UN development program UNDP support genetic engineering?

Tewolde: Because its work is dependent on money from the industry. The report definitely discredits the UNDP. I often wonder whether it is really still on the developing countries' side.

Greenpeace: How can the world's affluent countries help?

Tewolde: By supporting developing countries' endeavors to improve their infrastructures.

We need decent roads for transporting the food produced here to the markets. We need to preserve food, and be in a position to process it. And we need warehouses where we can keep surplus food from good harvests in store for harder times.

Greenpeace: None of this is necessarily inconsistent with using genetic engineering in agriculture, though.

Tewolde: We should only start contemplating this new technology when we've solved the other problems. We don't need any new plants for food either; nature provides all the nutrients we require. These nutrients simply need to be distributed evenly. Genetic engineering doesn't present solutions; it presents risks. The Tropics are home to an incredible array of species, and a valuable and irreplaceable gene pool. If genetically manipulated species were to be released, they could contaminate this gene pool, and many strains or species would die out. And that would be irreversible.

Greenpeace: Do you believe that sustainable farming can produce enough food to eliminate famine completely?

Tewolde: Yes, I really do. Jules Pretty's study provides a lot of examples to support this view. Farming in the north has ceased to become an alternative for us. It destroys the soil and contaminates the ground water, which is ultimately our drinking water. We can use artificial fertilisers, but only if they improve the soil quality rather than destroying it. All the methods need to pass a test: they shouldn't be allowed to disrupt natural cycles and processes. Bio-farming is no longer a luxury for us. It is our only remaining hope.

Interview: Michael Friedrich