Professor Muhammad Yunus
29 June 1998
Dear Professor Yunus,
I have recently been made aware of the achievements of your bank and the new partnership agreement that you have entered into with the US biotechnology company, Monsanto. Some details of the agreement are given in their press release dated June 25.
Although I am not an expert in Asian agriculture I have been closely involved in European farm and rural land management for over 20 years. I sit on a number of nationally and internationally recognised professional committees dealing with countryside policy and sustainable land management. My work has involved advice to local government, as well as national governments overseas. I am a regular speaker at conferences and seminars on rural planning, economics and the environment, including events hosted by local and national government in the United Kingdom.
Although Monsantos press release is not explicit on this matter the phraseology used would seem to indicate that their agreement with you will involve the introduction of "transgenic" or "genetically modified" plant species into Bangladeshi agriculture. This is usually what is meant when Monsanto refer to "improving agronomic inputs and practices" and "conservation tillage techniques."
If correct this is potentially a matter of great threat to your own and global food security. The biotechnology industry does not have a good track record of success with genetically modified crops and this track record is often kept hidden from those who are targeted as potential end users. Within the developed world this situation is becoming increasingly clear, with the result that the biotechnology industry is now focusing on developing countries to accept a technology which others now realise is based on scientific assumptions which are fundamentally flawed.
In this respect I attach to the end of this letter an article with has appeared in this weeks edition of one of the UKs major agricultural journals, Farmers Weekly (page 94, 26th June), which outlines the dangers of this technology. The article is written by Dr Michael Antoniou, one of the UKs leading scientists in genetic engineering. I would strongly urge you and your advisors to read this article.
Because Dr Antonious article is short I would also strongly recommend that you visit two useful resources on the internet which will elaborate on the risks associated with this technology that he has identified.
The first concerns the agronomic problems that this technology is already causing in developed countries. These include:
Reduced crop yields compared to conventional varieties.
Creation of new persistent weeds.
Creation of rapid pest resistance to plant protection strategies.
Damage to beneficial insects used to control crop pests.
Increased reliance on a wider range of pesticides in order to manage unplanned side effects.
Increased complexity of crop management.
Loss of biodiversity.
Damage to animal health and welfare.
The internet site address for the above is:
It contains information which is generally not given out by the biotechnology companies.
The second internet site deals with issues which indicate that, in addition to problems for agriculture the introduction of transgenic technology into the food chain is also a potential threat to human and environmental health. Risks include:
The creation of new toxins (already there have been fatalities).
The creation of new allergens.
Damage to the immune system.
Increased exposure to a variety of cancers.
Raised dietary levels of estrogen.
Development of new mutant viruses capable of crossing species barriers
The internet site address for the above is:
Again the web site contains information which is generally not given out by the biotechnology companies.
The above instances are not restricted to products which have been rejected by the regulatory system, but in many cases also relate to products which have already been marketed in various parts of the world after official scientific scrutiny and government approval. The latter include Soya, Oilseed Rape (Canola), Maize, Cotton, Tomatoes, and a genetically modified bovine growth hormone used extensively in the US dairy industry which is now subject to court proceedings related to its toxicity to animal and human health.. It is expected that this list will expand as the introduction of transgenic technology increases in agriculture.
I do hope you will give urgent and careful consideration to this additional information before reaching a conclusion as to whether this technology is an appropriate tool for alleviating poverty in Bangladesh and enhancing the excellent track record of your bank.
You may be aware of the work by Jules Pretty, Director of the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex, UK, on recent developments in world agriculture. His work reveals that crop yields in many parts of the world can be increased dramatically using techniques which rely chiefly on local human and natural resources, without the need for indigenous agriculture to become dependent on high technology inputs from the developed world. You can contact him on +44(0)1206-873323 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org .
Mark Griffiths BSc FRICS CAAV
Farmers Weekly "Talking Point", page 94, 26 June 1998.
Dr Michael Antoniou, Senior Lecturer in Molecular Pathology with 17 years experience of GM technology. Head of a research group at a leading London medical school developing genetic engineering technology for human clinical applications.
Genetic modification (GM) in agriculture, is justified by its proponents on two main points. Firstly, it is argued that only GM crops can meet the needs of the worlds ever expanding population in a sustainable and environmentally conscientious manner. This claim is unproven, whereas extensive studies have shown that with better management of resources and minimal chemical inputs, yields from land in developing countries can be tripled using conventional crops.
A second, more fundamental point of justification of GM is that it represents a natural extension of traditional breeding methods, only it is more precise and safer. Many have expressed doubts. Prof. Philip James (Food Standards Agency advisor) warns that, "The perception that everything is totally straightforward and safe is utterly naïve. I dont think we fully understand the dimensions of what were getting into". These reservations are at odds with what one hears from MAFF and the biotechnology industry.
Genes, the inherited blueprints of life, exist and work in groups as an integrated whole within a organism. Breeding between closely related forms of life exchanges variations of the same genes in their natural groupings thereby bringing out the best or desired traits that have been finely tuned to work harmoniously together by millions of years of evolution, although even this can have its problems (e.g. Moulin wheat).
In contrast, GM allows the isolation and transfer of only one or a few genes between totally unrelated organisms. GM plants and animals start life in a laboratory where artificial units of foreign genetic material are randomly inserted into the host which, to a lesser or greater degree, always disrupts natural genetic order and function. Furthermore, GM brings about combinations of genes that would never occur naturally.
The artificial nature of GM does not automatically make it dangerous. The imprecise way in which genes are combined and the unpredictability in how the foreign gene will behave that results uncertainty. In a post-BSE era it should be logical to think twice about using a technology that blatantly violates well established natural boundaries. Unfortunately, people are rushing into the field with a badly thought through technology.
GM crops have produced very variable yields. A US company is currently paying millions of dollars in compensation to cotton farmers after severe crop failures. Crops engineered to produce their own pesticide not only kill pests but also natural predators (e.g. ladybirds, lacewings) and pollinators. Complex GM management methods are now recommended in an attempt to avoid the rapid appearance of herbicide resistant volunteers/weeds and pesticide resistant insects. Therefore, in the long term GM is incompatible with low-input, sustainable farming methods (e.g. Integrated Crop Management). According to the NFUs Biotechnology Working Group, "In general, it can be said that scientists do not have a complete understanding of natural ecosystems. It is therefore impossible to predict accurately the effects of large scale releases of genetically modified organisms".
The only "safe" use of GM in its current form would appear to be clinical applications which by nature and necessity do not result in the intentional release of viable GM organisms into the environment.
Consumer pressure has forced processors and retailers to resource raw materials to ensure a full range of GM-free products. Imports into the EU of GM soya, maize and oilseed rape from North America have already suffered substantially. Therefore, by staying GM-free the UK will not only avoid the inevitable health, farming and environmental problems which basic science and mounting evidence tells us will arise, but also enjoy a premium and security in the market.
Footnote: Minor elements of the above document submitted to Farmers Weekly were excluded from the final published article.