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Cooperation Can Stop Starvation

By C.S. Prakash
Successful Farming
January 15, 2001

Scientists not only are standing in support of biotechnology but also are urging that its benefits be extended to the people who need it most: hungry people in the developing world.

More than 2,800 eminent scientists (including three Nobel laureates) in recent months have signed a statement of support. Expert panels with the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have made strong statements supporting the safety of the crops. Numerous scientific societies are passing proclamations in support.

Recently, six national science academies (U.S., Britain, Brazil, China, India and Mexico) and the Third World Academy of Sciences, issued a joint statement, not only endorsing biotechnology but urging companies, governments and charities to extend it to the developing world.

The need is great

The need for new technologies is great, as the seven academics describe:

  • Today, there are some 800 million people who do not have access to sufficient food to meet their needs.

  • Malnutrition plays a significant role in half of the nearly 12 million deaths each year of children under five in developing countries.

  • In addition to lack of food, deficiencies in micro-nutrients (especially vitamin A, iodine and iron) are widespread.

  • Global climate change and alterations in land use will exacerbate the problems of regional production and demands for food.

  • In developing countries about 650 million of the poorest people live in rural areas where the local production of food is the main economic activity.

Coupled with that great need is the fact that the rate of food production globally has dropped from 3% per annum in the 1970s to 1% per annum now. Burgeoning population, especially in the developing world, will soon outstrip food production.

Scientists are urging private and public funding and cooperative research to ensure that the benefits of biotechnology are extended to solving great needs among needy people. They urge a blending of market-driven and public-funded research that will provide benefits where little or no profit opportunity exists.

The scientists challenge developers of genetically modified crops to make sure that their efforts address these needs, but they make it clear that private companies cannot be expected to do this work alone. "Governments should fully recognize that there will always be public interest research requiring public investment, even in the market-driven economy."

The seven academies say private companies must "share with the public sector more of their capacity for innovation" and that "care should be taken so that research is not inhibited by over-protection of intellectual property" (patents on genetic discoveries).

Development of golden rice

Recently Monsanto Co. announced that it would provide royalty-free licenses for any of its technologies that can help further the development of "golden rice." The new rice, being developed at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, holds promise to help hundreds of thousands of children who suffer from life-threatening diseases and blindness related to vitamin A deficiency.

Zeneca, a British life sciences company, has pledged to provide regulatory, advisory and research expertise to bring the "golden rice" to developing countries. There are many other examples of industry collaboration with governments and public agencies.

Today, when a "new green revolution" is urgently needed, the scientists bemoan the fact that the balance of research has shifted to the private sector. The scientists call on charitable foundations and governments to increase their support of research into new agricultural technologies.

Some well-endowed foundations direct millions of dollars annually to environmental action groups sworn to oppose biotechnology. In addition many governments put up roadblocks to research, field trials and collaborations with industry.

Instead of this, everyone who likes to eat should be working for improved food security.

C.S. Prakash is professor and director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Alabama.