Louise Sarant
Rana Khaled

A conference discussing the merits of genetically modified crops took place Sunday at Cairo University’s Faculty of Agriculture.

Organized in cooperation with the Egyptian Biotechnology Information Center, the four-hour talk came two weeks after Greenpeace Arab World pointed to inconsistencies in a report promoting the use of agricultural biotechnology.

The report ranked Egypt third in Africa in terms of the use of genetically modified crops.

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, funded by multinational biotechnology companies Monsanto and Bayer AG, as well as US government agencies USAID and the US Department of Agriculture, reported in early March that 1,000 hectares of genetically modified maize was being grown on Egyptian soil.

This contradicted an Agriculture Ministry statement last year that said it had seized and destroyed the latest shipment of 40 tons of genetically modified maize entering Egypt in January last year because it had not been approved by authorities.

The genetically modified maize is a Monsanto product called MON810 engineered to secrete its own insecticide. Ninety-five percent of all genetically modified crops planted worldwide since the mid-1990s have been engineered by Monsanto. The most common crops are canola, corn, soybeans and cotton.

At Sunday’s conference, dozens of students, professors and academics with agricultural and zoological backgrounds convened to discuss the global status of commercialized biotechnology, genetically modified crops’ latest applications and biosafety regulations as well as intellectual property rights in Egypt.

The conference was not meant as a forum for debate, since all its speakers supported the use of biotechnology applications in agriculture.

“Biotechnology has become a must for developed and developing countries, by providing crops with the ability to resist certain pests, diseases and environmental conditions like drought and salinity,” Ahmed Naguib al-Sayed Sharaf, Cairo University’s Faculty of Agriculture dean, told the conference.

Naglaa Abdallah, head of the Egypt Biotechnology Information Center, was another proponent of genetically modified crops. She said they were the solution to save the world from famine, pointing out that “traditional agriculture” could not feed the planet’s growing population.

“By 2050, the world’s population will exceed 9 billion people and food production will need to increase by 70 percent to achieve food sufficiency,” Abdallah said.

When asked about reports that genetically modified crops post dangers to farms, consumers and the environment, Abdallah refuted them. She said, “Egypt will always be behind if it keeps fighting every innovative idea.”

But many do see these crops as a threat. First, genetically modified crops pollinate and can contaminate regular crops in a perimeter of 50 kilometers.

Second, when a biotech company tweaks a plant’s DNA, the engineered seed becomes the property of the company and falls under intellectual property rights. This makes it illegal for farmers to save these seeds for the next season and could threaten their independence.

Another potential threat is the impact of genetically modified crops on biodiversity. Biotech companies flood the market with uniform seeds, devoid of previous traits that made them adaptable to specific soils and environments. By being uniform, crops become much more vulnerable to disease.

Last but not least, some studies have suggested that genetically engineered foods are not safe for consumers, arguing that they did not undergo long-term safety assessments before being introduced to the US market and the rest of the world.

Various experiments on lab rats conducted in Egypt and abroad to evaluate the rats’ physiological reactions to a diet of genetically modified crops reached the same conclusions. These rodents had reproductive problems, weaker immune systems, accelerating aging, high cholesterol, organ damage and gastrointestinal problems.

Some speakers told Egypt Independent at the end of the conference that these issues were “rumors” propagated by competing seed companies that oppose the US’s genetically modified seed monopoly.

Abdallah argued that people no longer need to discuss whether genetically modified foods are safe since “millions of people” have eaten meals with these crops since the 1990s and “not a single case of disease has been reported.”

Instead of blaming these crops for causing serious diseases such as cancer in humans, Abdallah said, “We have to pay more attention to the actual pathogens that result from the wrong usage of pesticides as well as using sewage water and industrial drainage for irrigation.”

“I really hope that Egypt can adopt this technology on a wider scale soon, because it is so profitable,” Abdallah said.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent’s weekly print edition.