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Can GM Crops Play a Role in Developing Countries?

Published in the PBI Bulletin, "Biotechnology and Developing Countries: The potential and the challenge" 2004 Issue 2

By Gregory Conko and C.S. Prakash
December 13, 2004

In 2002, while more than 14 million people in six drought-stricken southern African countries faced the risk of starvation, efforts by the U.N.'s World Food Programme were stifled by the global "GM" food controversy. Food aid, containing kernels of bioengineered corn from the United States, was initially rejected by all six governments, even though the very same corn has been consumed daily by hundreds of millions in North and South America and has been distributed by the World Food Programme throughout Africa since 1996.

Four of those governments later accepted the grain on condition that it be milled to prevent planting, but Zimbabwe and Zambia continue to refuse to this day, and recently Angola also joined this group. Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa said his people would rather starve than eat bioengineered food, which he described as "poison." The actually starving Zambian people felt differently, though. One news report after another described scenes of hungry Zambians rioting and overpowering armed guards trying to release tens of thousands of tons of the corn locked away in warehouses by the government.

This is one of the tragic consequences of global fearmongering about recombinant DNA technology and bioengineered crops. Although many varieties that are of use to resource-poor farmers in less developed countries are at very early stages of the development process, even ones that have already been commercialized in such countries as Canada and the United States are being kept from farmers by governments skeptical of "genetic modification".

In the most fundamental sense, however, all plant and animal breeding involves – and always has involved – the intentional genetic modification of organisms. And though critics of recombinant DNA believe it is unique, there have always been Cassandras to claim that the latest technology was unnatural, different from its predecessors, and inherently dangerous.

As early as 1906, Luther Burbank the noted plant breeder said that, "We have recently advanced our knowledge of genetics to the point where we can manipulate life in a way never intended by nature. We must proceed with the utmost caution in the application of this new found knowledge," a quip that one might just as easily hear today regarding recombinant DNA modification.

But just as Burbank was wrong to claim that there was some special danger in knowledge or technology, so are today's skeptics wrong to believe that modern genetic modification poses some inherent risk. It is not genetic modification per se that generates risk. Recombinant DNA-modified, conventionally modified, and unmodified plants could all prove to be invasive, harm biodiversity, or be harmful to eat. It is not the technique used to modify organisms that makes them risky. Rather risk arises from the characteristics of individual organisms, as well as how and where they are used.

That is why the use of bioengineering technology for the development of improved plant varieties has been endorsed by dozens of scientific bodies. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization, the UK's Royal Society, the American Medical Association, and the French Academies of Medicine and Science, among others, have studied bioengineering techniques and given them a clean bill of health. Moreover, bioengineered crop plants may be of even greater value in less developed countries than in industrialized ones.

In a report published in July 2000, the UK's Royal Society, the National Academies of Science from Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and the U.S., and the Third World Academy of Science, embraced bioengineering, arguing that it can be used to advance food security while promoting sustainable agriculture. "It is critical," declared the scientists, "that the potential benefits of GM technology become available to developing countries." And an FAO report issued in May 2004 argued that "effective transfer of existing technologies to poor rural communities and the development of new and safe biotechnologies can greatly enhance the prospects for sustainably improving agricultural productivity today and in the future," as well as "help reduce environmental damage caused by toxic agricultural chemicals."

Today, some 740 million people go to bed daily on an empty stomach, and nearly 40,000 people—half of them children—die every day due to hungeror malnutrition-related causes. Despite commitments by industrialized countries to increase international aid, Africa still is expected to have over 180 million undernourished citizens in 2030, according to a report published this year by the UN Millennium Project Task Force. Although bioengineered crops alone will not eliminate hunger, they can provide a useful tool for addressing the many agricultural problems in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and other poor tropical regions.

Indeed, recombinant DNA-modified crops have already increased crop yields and food production, and reduced the use of synthetic chemical pesticides in both industrialized and less developed countries. These advances are critical in a world where natural resources are finite and where hundreds of millions of people suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Critics dismiss such claims as nothing more than corporate public relations puffery. However, while it is true that most commercially available bioengineered plants were designed for farmers in the industrialized world, the increasing adoption of biotech varieties by underdeveloped countries over the past few years demonstrates their broader applicability.

Globally, bioengineered varieties are now grown on more than 165 million acres (67.7 million hectares) in 18 countries, such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa, and the United States, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Nearly one-quarter of that acreage is farmed by some 6 million resource-poor farmers in less developed countries. Why? Because they see many of the same benefits that farmers in industrialized nations do.

The first generation of biotech crops—approximately 50 different varieties of canola, corn, cotton, potato, squash, soybean, and others—were designed to aid in protecting crops from insect pests, weeds, and plant diseases. 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 is lost to these biotic stresses, despite the use of large amounts of insecticides, herbicides, and other agricultural chemicals. Poor tropical farmers may face different pest species than their industrial country counterparts, but both must constantly battle against these threats to their productivity.

That's why South African and Filipino farmers are so eager to grow bioengineered corn resistant to insect pests, and why Chinese, Indian, and South African farmers like biotech insect-resistant cotton so much. Indian cotton farmers and Brazilian and Paraguayan soy growers didn't even wait for their governments to approve biotech varieties before they began growing them. It was discovered in 2001 that Indian farmers were planting seed obtained illegally from field trials of a biotech cotton variety then still under governmental review. Farmers in Brazil and Paraguay looked across the border and saw how well their Argentine neighbors were doing with transgenic soybean varieties and smuggling of bioengineered seed became rampant.

When the Indian government finally approved bioengineered cotton in 2002 for cultivation in seven southern states it proved to be highly successful. A study conducted by the University of Agriculture in Dharwad found that more insect damage was done to conventional hybrids than to the bioengineered variety and that the bioengineered cotton reduced pesticide spraying by half or more, delivering a 30-40 percent profit increase.

During the 2002-2003 growing season, some Indian cotton farmers saw no increased yield from the more expensive biotech varieties, but droughts during that year generated harsh conditions throughout India's southern cotton belt. Many growers of conventional crop varieties also suffered unanticipated and tragic crop losses. Most of the farmers who grew bioengineered cotton decided to plant it again in 2003, however, and total planted acreage grew from approximately 1 million acres in 2002-2003 to an estimated 3.3 million acres in 2003-2004.

When the planting of bioengineered soybean was provisionally legalized in Brazil for the 2003-2004 growing season, over 50,000 farmers registered their intent to plant it – including almost 98 percent of the growers in the southern-most state of Rio Grande do Sul, where the soybeans originally bred for Argentine climatic conditions will grow best. What is especially noteworthy is that the government decree did not legalize commercial sales of the biotech soybean, it only authorized the planting of illegal seed already in the possession of farmers. Thus, by registering their intent to grow the bioengineered variety, farmers were informing the government of their prior guilt.

There are few greater testaments to the benefits of biotechnology than the fact that thousands of poor farmers are willing to acknowledge having committed a crime just to gain access to the improved varieties. The clear lesson is that, where bioengineered varieties become available (legal or not), most farmers themselves are eager to try them.

"When the Indian government finally approved bioengineered cotton in 2002 ... it proved to be highly successful."

There is even evidence that biotech varieties have literally saved human lives. In less developed nations, pesticides are typically sprayed on crops by hand, exposing farm workers to severe health risks. Some 400 to 500 Chinese cotton farmers die every year from acute pesticide poisoning because, until recently, the only alternative was risking near total crop loss due to voracious insects. A study conducted by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Rutgers University in the U.S. found that adoption of bioengineered 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 the U.K. found that South African cotton farmers have seen similar benefits.

The productivity gains generated by bioengineered crops provide yet another important benefit: they could save millions of acres of sensitive wildlife habitat from being converted into farmland. The loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitats caused by agricultural encroachment 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 bioengineering technology is in widespread use.

Opponents of biotechnology argue that organic farming can reduce pesticide use even more than bioengineered crops can. But organic farming practices are less productive, because there are few effective organic controls for insects, weeds, or pathogens. Converting from modern, technology-based agriculture to organic would mean either reducing global food output significantly or sacrificing undeveloped land to agriculture. Moreover, feeding the anticipated population of eight or nine billion people in the year 2050 will mean increasing food production by at least 50 percent.

As it is, the annual rate of increase in food production globally has dropped from 3 percent in the 1970s to 1 percent today. Additional gains from conventional breeding are certainly possible, but the maximum theoretical yields for most crop plants are being approached rapidly. Despite the simplistic claims made by critics of plant technology, providing genuine food security must include solutions other than mere redistribution. There is simply no way for organic farming to feed a global population of nine billion people without having to bring substantially more land into agricultural use. Dramatically improving crop yields will prove to be an essential environmental and humanitarian goal.

We have already realized significant environmental benefits from the biotech crops currently being grown, including a reduction in pesticide use of 20 million kg in the U.S. alone. A 2002 Council for Agricultural Science and Technology report also found that recombinant DNA-modified crops in the US promote the adoption of conservation tillage practices, resulting in many other important environmental benefits: 37 million tons of topsoil preserved; 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from farm machinery; 70 percent reduction in herbicide run-off; 90 percent decrease in soil erosion; and from 15 to 26 liters of fuel saved per acre.

And, as we have seen, while the first generation of bioengineered crops was not designed with poor tropical farmers in mind, these varieties are highly adaptable. Examples of the varieties that now are being designed specifically for resource-poor farmers include virus-resistant cassava, insectresistant rice, sweet potato, and pigeon pea, and dozens of others. Chinese scientists, leaders in the development of both bioengineered and conventional rice have been urging their government to approve commercialization of their biotech varieties that have been thoroughly tested and ready for market for several years.

The next generation of products, now in research labs and field trial plots, includes crops designed to tolerate climatic stresses such as extremes of heat, cold, and drought, as well as crops designed to grow better in poor tropical soils high in acidity or alkalinity, or contaminated with mineral salts. A Mexican research group has shown that tropical crops can be modified using recombinant DNA technology to better tolerate acidic soils, significantly increasing the productivity of corn, rice and papaya. These traits for greater tolerance to adverse environmental conditions would be tremendously advantageous to poor farmers in less developed countries, especially those in Africa.

Africa did not benefit from the Green Revolution as much as Asian and Latin American nations did because plant breeders focused on improving crops such as rice and wheat, which are not widely grown in Africa. Plus, much of the African dry lands have little rainfall and no potential for irrigation, both of which play essential roles in productivity success stories for crops such as Asian rice. And the remoteness of many African villages and the poor transportation infrastructure in landlocked African countries make it difficult for African farmers to obtain agricultural chemical inputs such as fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides – even if they could be donated by aid agencies and charities. But, by packaging technological inputs within seeds, biotechnology can provide the same, or better, productivity advantages as chemical or mechanical inputs, but in a much more user-friendly manner. Farmers could be able to control insect pests, viral or bacterial pathogens, extremes of heat or drought and poor soil quality, just by planting these crops.

And the now-famous Golden Rice, with added beta carotene, is just one of many examples of bioengineered crops with improved nutritional content. Indian scientists have recently announced development of a new highprotein potato variety available for commercial cultivation. Another team of Indian scientists, working with technical and financial assistance from Monsanto, is developing an improved mustard variety with enhanced betacarotene in its oil. One lab at Tuskegee University is enhancing the level of dietary protein in sweet potatoes, a common staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa. Researchers are also developing varieties of cassava, rice, and corn that more efficiently absorb trace metals and micronutrients from the soil, have enhanced starch quality, and contain more beta-carotene and other beneficial vitamins and minerals.

Ultimately, while no assurance of perfect safety can be made, breeders know far more about the genetic makeup, product characteristics, and safety of every modern bioengineered crop than those of any conventional variety ever marketed. Breeders know exactly what new genetic material has been introduced. They can identify where the transferred genes have been inserted into the new plant. They can test to ensure that transferred genes are working properly and that the nutritional elements of the food have been unchanged. None of these safety assurances have ever before been made with conventional breeding techniques. We have always lived with food risks. But modern genetic technology makes it increasingly easier to reduce those risks.

Societal anxiety over the new tools for genetic modification is, in some ways, understandable. It is fueled by a variety of causes, including consumer unfamiliarity, lack of reliable information on the current safeguards in place, a steady stream of negative opinion in the news media, opposition by activist groups, growing mistrust of industry, and a general lack of awareness of how our food production system has evolved over time. But saying that public apprehension over biotechnology is understandable is not the same as saying that it is valid. With more than thirty years of experience using recombinant DNA technology, and nearly two decades worth of pre-commercial and commercial experience with bioengineered crop plants, we can be confident that it is one of the most important and safe technologies in the plant breeder's toolbox. It would be a shame to deny biotechnology's fruits to those who are most in need of its benefits.

Further Reading

James, C. (2003). Preview-Global review of Commercialized Transgenic
Crops: 2003. ISAAA Briefs No. 30. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications: Ithaca, N.Y.

Carpenter, J., Felsot, A.,Goode, T., Hammig, M., Onstad, D., and Sankula, S. (2002) Comparative Environmental Impacts of Biotechnology-derived and Traditional Soybean, Corn and Cotton Crops. Council on Agricultural Science and Technology: Ames, Iowa.

FAO (2004) The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-2004-Agricultural
Biotechnology: Meeting the needs of the poor? Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Rome.

Royal Society of London, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the Mexican Academy of Sciences and the Third World Academy of Sciences. (2000) Transgenic Plants And World Agriculture. National Academy Press: Washington D.C.

United Nations Development Programme. (2001) Human Development Report
2001: Making New Technologies Work for Human Development. Oxford University Press: New York.

Kessler, C and Economidis, I. (2001) EC-sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms: A Review of Results. Office for Official Publications of the European Communities: Luxembourg.