Southern Voices:
An online debate on biotechnology and food production

Lotte Asveld and Antje Lorch
Keywords:  Genetic engineering, Plant production, Intelectual property rigths (IPR), Capacity buildign, regulation, public acceptance.
Correct citation: Asveld, L. and Lorch, A. (2001), "Southern Voices: an online debate on biotechnology and food production." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 48, p. 21-23.

In November 2001, the Biotechnology and Development Monitor facilitated an online debate on biotechnology and food production. In the first round, participants were able to determine the discussion agenda. The issues they considered to be the most relevant were patenting, systems of food production, capacity building, and rights and choices. The discussion showed the potential of this kind of online event. It resulted in a report and recommendations for Dutch policies.

In June 2001, an independent Commission on Biotechnology and Food Safety, the Terlouw Commission, set out to answer the question "Under what circumstances are genetically modified organisms acceptable to consumers?" in the Netherlands. After the Commission's findings have been presented and discussed in Parliament, policy recommendations will be made on Dutch biotechnology policy. In focusing on the issue of whether genetically modified (GM) products are acceptable as food, the Commission initiated a new, but long overdue debate among Dutch consumers.

The research, import, export, and the manufacture of agricultural products are important elements of Dutch economic life and international relations. The controversy surrounding GM foods has, therefore, caused much debate and has significant implications for developing countries. For this reason the Commission tried to get an impression of the views held in the South on GM crops.

"Southern Voices: an online debate on biotechnology and food" was set up at the request of the Terlouw Commission to access the opinions of policymakers, scientists, civil society organizations and consumers from Southern countries. Invitations were sent to thousands of Monitor readers and other networks. Participants logged in from all parts of the world. Forty per cent were from the South (Africa 13%; South America 10%; Asia 17%), 40% from Europe and 15% from North America.

Participants from Africa and Latin America contributed most frequently to the discussion on patents and capacity building while Asian paticipants were more often found debating on options and rights.

Online-debate as medium

Online-debates have gained popularity as a device for democratic participatory dialogues. The most positive feature of online-debates is that they allow participants to consider and respond to arguments in their own time. However, it does require concentration to read through an already developed and lengthy discussion, and following up on an issue can be complicated by participants bringing in information and then exiting the discussion platform leaving questions unanswered and ideas without feedback. The challenge in any discussion on gene engineering is to rise above conventional arguments and formulate new ideas and solution. As the individual contributions and more sustained dialogues showed, the Southern Voices debate provided many opportunities for learning about the complex pros and cons of this new medium.


The organizers tried to create a structure that would ensure an accessible, open discussion. There were two sessions. First under the guidance of four moderators closely involved with biotechnology and agricultural development the participants were invited to 'set the agenda', by identifying the topics they considered most relevant. They did this within the context of four pre-selected subject areas: Food safety versus food security; organic agriculture versus GMOs, Public versus private; and Local versus global. Besides their relevance for developing countries, these subject areas were also selected because they have implications for Dutch policy.

Issues that were identified as relevant and urgent during this first round became the bases for discussion in the second round, which started five days later.


A full record of the debate can be found at www.southernvoices.nl. Below we try to give an impression of some of the issues discussed during the second round. Four discussion rooms were established: Poor patents, Options in food production, Rights and choices and Capacity building.

Inadequate patents

Activity in this room showed that many participants considered patents to be an extremely important issue. A topic that attracted a great deal of attention was the ownership of plants. Many said that this trend reflected the detrimental effects of GM and that they felt it should not be possible to patent plants or other living beings. Patenting, some argued, hindered the application of gene technology and could stimulate biopiracy and prevent farmers from re-using and saving their seeds. Suggestions were made that this could be avoided if the patent system were restructured. One option put forward was to create an information clearing house, a central agency that would gather and distribute patent information on the understanding that it could be freely used as long as the results of its use were also made freely available. Here some interesting parallels were made to 'open source' computer software initiatives. Discussion ensued as to who would pay for research under such a system and whether researchers would still be motivated to work under such conditions.

Another suggestion was to make research and development more of a public good and suggestions were put forward for funding such research.

Options in Food Production

One of main topics in this discussion chamber was the Green Revolution and the lessons to be drawn from it. No clear answer emerged but participants were clearly questioning why new miracle GM seeds were necessary. Was it because world population was growing and becoming more urban? It was pointed out that in future as more and more people leave the countryside there might be a need to intensify agricultural production further. Some contributors, however, considered that intensification was unnecessary. There was sufficient international and local agricultural capacity. The failure to ensure equal access to food could be traced back to the current distribution system.

The potential of locally adapted technologies was also discussed. Some participants suggested that if technology development was put in the hands of local people, they might be more readily adopted. Many participants were concerned that the terms of international trade were detrimental to agriculture in developing countries. Agriculture, it was argued, was closely linked to market mechanisms, as agricultural products were not only daily food but also globally traded commodities. Farmers under pressure to keep production costs low and focus their resources on cash crops often found themselves in competition with farmers who produce under more favourable conditions. This led to a discussion on the impact of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on food production. Some suggested agriculture should be dropped from the WTO legislative agenda.

Rights and Choices

Issues raised in this room concerned the political and scientific power of stakeholders in the realm of gene technology. Risk assessment was a major issue. Little consensus was reached on who should be responsible for it. Some argued it was the task of governments, others that governments were not really equipped for this task. Back-up by scientific institutions would be necessary. Although transnational companies should take their share of responsibility in this area because of the potential risk generated by their GM products, in discussion it became clear that not everyone found profit-orientated research trustworthy.

Another important notion in the area of rights and choices proved to be farmers saving their seed. This traditional right is jeopardized when companies own seed, some participants argued. Others wondered whether, in the case of GM seed, the loss of autonomy involved in adopting GM crops would be worth the benefits. Other contributors felt companies had a right to impose restrictions on the use of their seeds because of the money they had invested in research and development.

The other well-debated topic was that of the freedom to choose a certain farming system, while a neighbouring farmer favours another. Sometimes GM crops appear where they are not supposed to, because of cross-pollination or illegal planting. Could the evolution of GM free zones circumvent this problem? Unfortunately, as some participants pointed out, at least for open pollinating crops these zones would require such wide buffers that they would not be feasible, particularly in small-scale farming systems, and they would never exclude accidents.

Capacity Building

The need to build capacity in developing countries was clearly important aspect of the debate about GE. Some said there appears to be a lack of knowledge and skills in Southern countries to create and deal with biotechnology effectively. This technology, and especially GM, requires extensive monitoring and implementation of protocols such as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Contributors argued that much of the capacity already created in developing countries was being dissipated because governmental and economic structures were often too weak to make full use of the skills developed. Issues identified by participants as inhibiting capacity building efforts included the circumstances under which knowledge is applied and the programmes themselves. Participants indicated that the national and international agencies responsible for capacity building should be more critical of the impact of their programmes. More attention should be given to evaluating the effectiveness of capacity building initiatives, and specific local conditions such as ethics, religion and culture should be analysed and taken into consideration when setting up programmes in the first place.

Results of the debate

The task of distilling recommendations from contributions and arguments developed during such a debate is a complex one. A report has been compiled containing several recommendations for Dutch policies.

This together with the discussion can be found at www.southernvoices.nl

Lotte Asveld* & Antje Lorch**

*Boerhavelaan 345, 2334 EM, Leiden, The Netherlands.
Phone (+31 ) 06 55174950; E-mail l_asveld@hotmail.com

** Editor Bitoechnolgoy and development Monitor, Wibautstraat 224, 1097 DN Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Phone (+31) 20 5618163; Fax (+31) 20 5618164; E-mail monitor@biotech-monitor.nl

Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with  acknowledgement of source.


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