Battling Hunger With Biotechnology

Battling Hunger With Biotechnology

Conko and Prakash Article in Economic Perspectives, published by the State Department
May 01, 2002

Needless restrictions on agricultural biotechnology would harm the world's ability to battle hunger in the 21st century, say Gregory Conko and C.S. Prakash, co-founders of the AgBioWorld Foundation. They say that the concerns of anti-biotechnology campaigners simply are not supported by the scores of peer-reviewed scientific reports or data from tens of thousands of field trials. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

The AgBioWorld Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides information to the general public about developments in plant science, biotechnology, and sustainable agriculture.

During the coming decades the world will face the extraordinary challenge of conquering poverty and achieving genuine food security with a very potent new tool: agricultural biotechnology. Skeptics argue that transgenic plants represent a vast new threat to both the environment and human health. However, that view is not supported by the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence that has been generated over the last three decades. Furthermore, such criticism ignores the fact that needless restrictions on biotechnology could endanger our ability to battle hunger in the 21st century.

Transgenic technology holds the potential to increase food production, reduce the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, and actually make foods safer and healthier. These advances are critical in a world where natural resources are finite and where one-and-a-half billion people suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Already, farmers in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere have benefited from improvements in productivity and reduced use of synthetic pesticides. But the real future of biotechnology lies in addressing the special problems faced by farmers in less developed nations.

Critics like to dismiss such claims as nothing more than corporate public relations puffery. However, while most commercially available biotech plants were designed for farmers in the industrialized world, the increasing adoption of transgenic varieties by developing countries over the past few years has been remarkable. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), farmers in less developed countries now grow nearly one-quarter of the world's transgenic crops on more than 26 million acres (10.7 million hectares), and they do so for many of the same reasons that farmers in industrialized nations do.


Among the most important limiting factors in developing world agricultural productivity is biotic stress from insects, weeds, and plant diseases. Transgenic modifications common in several industrialized nations target these same problems and can be easily transferred into local varieties to help poor farmers in the developing world. For example, South African farmers are already growing transgenic pest-resistant maize, and this year began planting transgenic soy. South African and Chinese farmers have been growing transgenic insect-resistant cotton for several years, and the Indian government approved it for commercial cultivation in the spring of 2002. This transgenic cotton, similar to the varieties so popular in the United States, is expected to boost yields by 30 percent or more for Indian farmers, according to a recent article in the Economic Times. It could even transform India from the world's third largest producer of cotton into the largest.

Globally, transgenic varieties are now grown on more than 109 million acres (44.2 million hectares) in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Mexico, South Africa, and the United States, according to ISAAA. They are even grown on substantial amounts of acreage in Brazil, where no transgenic varieties have yet been approved for commercial cultivation. Farmers there looked across the border and saw how well their Argentine neighbors were doing with transgenic varieties, and smuggling of transgenic soybean seed became rampant. The European Union's (EU) Directorate General for Agriculture estimates that Brazil is now the fifth largest grower of transgenic crops.


Although this first generation of crops was designed primarily to improve farming efficiency, the environmental benefits these crops offer are extensive. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that U.S. farmers growing transgenic pest-resistant cotton, maize, and soy reduced the total volume of insecticides and herbicides they sprayed by more than 8 million pounds per year. Similar reductions have been seen in Canada with transgenic rapeseed, according to the Canola Council of Canada.

In less developed nations where pesticides are typically sprayed on crops by hand, transgenic pest-resistant crops have had even greater benefits. In China, for example, some 400 to 500 cotton farmers die every year from acute pesticide poisoning. A study conducted by researchers at Rutgers University in the United States and the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that adoption of transgenic cotton varieties in China has lowered the amount of pesticides used by more than 75 percent and reduced the number of pesticide poisonings by an equivalent amount. Another study by economists at the University of Reading in Britain found that South African cotton farmers have seen similar benefits.

The reduction in pesticide spraying also means that fewer natural resources are consumed to manufacture and transport the chemicals. Researchers at Auburn University and Louisiana State University in the United States found that, in 2000 alone, U.S. farmers growing transgenic cotton used 2.4 million fewer gallons of fuel, 93 million fewer gallons of water, and were spared some 41,000 10-hour days needed to apply pesticide sprays.

Transgenic herbicide-tolerant crops have promoted the adoption of farming practices that reduce tillage or eliminate it altogether. Low-tillage practices can decrease soil erosion by up to 90 percent compared to conventional cultivation, saving valuable topsoil, improving soil fertility, and dramatically reducing sedimentation in lakes, ponds, and waterways.

The productivity gains generated by transgenic crops provide yet another important environmental benefit: they could save millions of hectares of sensitive wildlife habitat from being converted into farmland. The loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitats caused by agricultural development in regions experiencing the greatest population growth are widely recognized as among the most serious threats to biodiversity. Thus, increasing agricultural productivity is an essential environmental goal, and one that would be much easier in a world where agricultural biotechnology is in widespread use.

Opponents of biotechnology argue that organic farming can reduce pesticide use even more than transgenic crops can. But as much as 40 percent of crop productivity in Africa and Asia and about 20 percent in the industrialized countries of North America and Europe are lost to insect pests, weeds, and plant diseases. Organic production methods would only exacerbate those crop losses. There is no way for organic farming to feed a global population expected to grow to 8 or 9 billion people without having to bring substantially more land into agricultural use.

Fortunately, many transgenic varieties that have been created specifically for use in less developed nations will soon be ready for commercialization. Examples include insect-resistant rice varieties for Asia, virus-resistant sweet potato for Africa, and virus-resistant papaya for Caribbean nations. The next generation of transgenic crops now in research labs around the world is poised to bring even further productivity improvements for the poor soils and harsh climates that are characteristic of impoverished regions.

Scientists have already identified genes for resistance to environmental stresses common in tropical nations, including tolerance to soils with high salinity and to those that are particularly acidic or alkaline. Other transgenic varieties can tolerate temporary drought conditions or extremes of heat and cold.


Biotechnology also offers hope of improving the nutritional benefits of many foods. Among the most well known is the variety called "Golden Rice," genetically enhanced with added beta carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the human body. Another variety developed by the same research team has elevated levels of digestible iron.

The diet of more than 3 billion people worldwide includes inadequate levels of essential vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin A and iron. Deficiency in just these two micronutrients can result in severe anemia, impaired intellectual development, blindness, and even death. And even though charities and aid agencies such as the United Nations Childrens' Fund and the World Health Organization have made important strides in reducing vitamin A and iron deficiency, success has been fleeting. No permanent effective strategy has yet been devised, but Golden Rice may finally provide one.

Importantly, the Golden Rice project is a prime example of the value of extensive public sector and charitable research activities. The rice's development was funded mainly by the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation, which has promised to make the rice available to poor farmers at little or no cost. It was created by scientists at public universities in Switzerland and Germany with assistance from the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and from several multinational corporations.

Golden Rice is not the only example. Scientists at publicly funded, charitable, and corporate research centers are developing such crops as cassava, papaya, and wheat with built-in resistance to common plant viruses; rice that can more efficiently convert sunlight and carbon-dioxide for faster growth; potatoes that produce a vaccine against hepatitis B; bananas that produce a vaccine against cholera; and countless others. One lab at Tuskegee University is enhancing the level of dietary protein in sweet potatoes, a common staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa.

Admittedly, experts recognize that the problem of hunger and malnutrition is not currently caused by a global shortage of food. The primary causes of hunger in recent decades have been political unrest and corrupt governments, poor transportation and infrastructure, and, of course, poverty. All of these problems and more must be addressed if we are to ensure real, worldwide food security. But producing enough for 8 or 9 billion people will require greater yields in the regions where food is needed most, and transgenic crops are good, low-input tools for achieving this.


Although the complexity of biological systems means that some promised benefits of biotechnology are many years away, the biggest threat that hungry populations currently face are restrictive policies stemming from unwarranted public fears. Although most Americans tend to support agricultural biotechnology, many Europeans and Asians have been far more cautious. Anti-biotechnology campaigners in both industrialized and less developed nations are feeding this ambivalence with scare stories that have led to the adoption of restrictive policies. Those fears are simply not supported by the scores of peer-reviewed scientific reports or the data from tens of thousands of individual field trials.

Mankind has been modifying the genetic makeup of plants for thousands of years, often in ways that could have had adverse environmental impacts and that routinely introduced entirely new genes, proteins, and other substances into the food supply. Food-grade tomatoes and potatoes are routinely bred from wild varieties that are toxic to human beings, for example. But plant breeders, biologists, and farmers have identified methods to keep potentially dangerous plants from entering the food chain.

The evidence clearly shows there is no difference between the practices necessary to ensure the safety of transgenic plants and the safety of conventional ones. In fact, because more is known about the genes that are moved in transgenic breeding methods, ensuring the safety of transgenic plants is actually easier. But the public's reticence about transgenic plants has resulted in extensive regulations that require literally thousands of individual safety tests that are often duplicative and largely unnecessary for ensuring environmental protection or consumer safety. In the end, over-cautious rules result in hyperinflated research and development costs and make it harder for poorer countries to share in the benefits of biotechnology.

Perhaps more importantly, restrictions on transgenic plants and onerous labeling requirements for biotech foods have caused many governments to block commercialization – not out of health or environmental concerns but because of a legitimate fear that important European markets could be closed to their exports. As last year's United Nations Development Report acknowledged, opposition by European consumers and very strict legal requirements in European Union member nations have held back the adoption of transgenic crops in underdeveloped nations that need them.

Furthermore, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, adopted in January 2000, will tend to reinforce these counterproductive policies because it permits governments to erect unwarranted restrictions based on the Precautionary Principle, the notion that even hypothetical risks should be enough to keep new products off the market, regardless of their potential benefits. Thus, EU nations can restrict imports of transgenic crops from both industrialized and less developed nations, no matter how much scientific data have been presented showing them to be safe, because opponents can always hypothesize yet another novel risk.

Admittedly, advocates have to take the public's concerns more seriously. Better sharing of information and a more forthright public dialogue are necessary to explain why scientists are confident that transgenic crops are safe. No one argues that we should not proceed with caution, but needless restrictions on agricultural biotechnology could dramatically slow the pace of progress and keep important advances out of the hands of people who need them. This is the tragic side effect of unwarranted concern.


Ultimately, biotechnology is more than just a new and useful agricultural tool. It could also be a hugely important instrument of economic development in many poorer regions of the globe. By making agriculture more productive, labor and resources could be freed for use in other areas of economic growth in nations where farming currently occupies 70 or 80 percent of the population. This, in turn, would be an important step in the journey toward genuine food security.

The choice is clear. Innovators must proceed with due caution. But as a report jointly published by the United Kingdom's Royal Society, the National Academies of Science from Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and the United States, and the Third World Academy of Science contends: "It is critical that the potential benefits of [transgenic] technology become available to developing countries." It is also critical that industrialized countries not stand in their way.