Blessed Are The Poor With Spirit

This year's UN-sponsored World Food Summit just concluded with a grim reminder that the goal of cutting world hunger in half by 2015 set six years ago at the first Food Summit still seems far out of reach. This time, however, delegates agreed to meet the challenge of achieving genuine food security with a very potent tool: agricultural biotechnology. Biotechnology holds the potential to increase food production, reduce the use of synthetic chemical pesticides, and actually make foods safer and healthier. Already, farmers in the United States, Canada, Argentina, South Africa, and elsewhere have benefited from improvements in productivity and reduced use of synthetic pesticides. The real future of biotechnology, however, lies in addressing the special problems faced by farmers in less developed nations. Opponents of biotechnology argue that it will forever be the play toy of rich country agriculture and that it could never help farmers in less developed nations. But the unanimous agreement by 182 nations that the UN must “advance agricultural research and research into new technologies, including biotechnology,” demonstrates that the poorer countries of the world disagree. Although most commercially available biotech plants were designed for farmers in the industrialized world, farmers in less developed countries now grow nearly one-quarter of the world's biotech crops on more than 26 million acres (10.7 million hectares). The reason is simple. The most common biotech plants were engineered to address problems with insects, weeds, and plant diseases. And farmers in less developed nations face these problems, too. For example, farmers in South Africa and China grow biotech cotton that is resistant to the major insect pests. And the Indian government approved it for commercial cultivation this spring. South African farmers also grow insect-resistant corn as well as soybeans that are engineered to make weed control easier. And while this first generation of crops was primarily designed to improve farming efficiency, the environmental benefits they offer are extensive. The United States Department of Agriculture found that U.S. farmers growing biotech corn, cotton, and soybeans reduced the total volume of insecticides and herbicides they sprayed by over eight million pounds per year. Similar reductions have been seen in Canada with biotech canola. In China, where pesticides are typically sprayed on crops by hand, some 400 to 500 cotton farmers die every year from acute pesticide poisoning. But the adoption of biotech cotton varieties has lowered the amount of pesticides used by more than 75 percent and reduced the number of poisonings by an equivalent amount. South African cotton farmers have seen similar benefits. Perhaps most importantly, the productivity gains generated by biotech crops could save millions of acres of sensitive wildlife habitat from being converted into farmland. The loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitats caused by agricultural development in the less developed countries experiencing the greatest population growth are widely recognized as among the most serious threats to biodiversity. Increasing agricultural productivity is an essential environmental goal, and would be much easier in a world where agricultural biotechnology is widely used. Fortunately, many biotech varieties have been created specifically for use in less developed countries and will soon be ready for commercialization. Examples include insect-resistant rice varieties for Asia, virus-resistant sweet potatoes for Africa, and virus-resistant papaya for Caribbean nations. Other crops now in the research pipeline would bring better tolerance to temporary drought conditions or extremes of heat and cold. In addition, biotechnology 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 by the human body. And Golden Rice is just one example. Another variety developed by the same research team has elevated levels of digestible iron. Scientists at Tuskegee University in Alabama are enhancing the level of dietary protein in sweet potatoes, a common staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa. There are even biotech bananas in development that produce vaccines against cholera and hepatitis B. Admittedly, experts recognize that the problem of hunger and malnutrition is not caused by a global shortage of food. Political unrest and corrupt governments, poor transportation and infrastructure, and, of course, poverty, will all need to be addressed if we are to ensure real, worldwide food security. But the long-term solution requires generating greater yields in the regions where food is needed most, and biotech crops are good tools for helping farmers do that. Although the complexity of biological systems means that some promised benefits of biotechnology are many years away, the biggest threat hungry populations currently face are restrictive policies stemming from unwarranted public fears. Scare stories spread by anti-biotechnology campaigners have led to the adoption of restrictive policies in many countries. But time and again those scares have been proven wrong. Mankind has been modifying the genetic makeup of plants for thousands of years, often in ways that could have had adverse impacts. 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 choice of World Food Summit delegates is clear. Innovators must proceed with caution. But, as a report published by the United Kingdom's Royal Society, the National Academies of Science from Brazil, China, India, Mexico and the U.S., and the Third World Academy of Science, contends, “It is critical that the potential benefits of [biotechnology] become available to developing countries.” Gregory Conko is Director of Food Safety Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, and C.S. Prakash is Professor of Plant Molecular Genetics at Tuskegee University in Alabama. The authors are co-founders of the AgBioWorld Foundation, based in Auburn, Alabama.