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The Promise of Sacramento

TechCentral Station
By Andrew Apel and C. S. Prakash,
June 23,2003

Seldom does an international conference hold out as much promise for progress in agriculture as the upcoming Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology in Sacramento, Calif. This is because we are now on a cusp; we have reached a point where new agricultural technologies have matured to the point where they can be used by developing nations for their own betterment, rather than remaining in the hands of the most developed nations, with strong and well-funded research programs.

Putting well-developed technology in the hands of those who seek development is called technology transfer, and that is the focus of this conference. Several years ago, an identical conference could not have accomplished much; now, it could be a turning point. And that is because we have only recently seen that technology transfer -- especially when it comes to biotechnology -- works.

In fact, biotechnology has proven more beneficial in developing nations than in agriculture-intensive North America. To be sure, genetically enhanced corn, soybeans, cotton and canola have spared farmers the expense of millions of pounds of crop protection chemicals, and have relieved the environment of the burden of those chemicals. This increases profits and food quality in a highly responsible manner.

In developing nations, the picture is quite different.

Insect attacks on cotton in India are far more damaging than in the U.S., often destroying more than half the crop each year. Where cotton engineered to resist these pests helps U.S. farmers somewhat, the benefit of that technology in India is so great that in recent tests in increased cotton production by as much as 87 percent. No American farmer has ever seen benefits as great as that. The technology has proven so successful that Indian farmers are defying their government and breeding their own versions of engineered cotton. Many Chinese, Mexican and South African farmers have also enthusiastically embraced the insect-resistant cotton.

The story is much the same with corn engineered to resist insect pests. In the Philippines, corn borers destroy roughly 30 percent of the corn crop each year -- an amount equal to the corn that country must import to fulfill its needs. The government of the Philippines has approved the cultivation of corn modified to protect itself against insects and tests have shown that the corn, which combines gene splicing and the most modern breeding methods, increases yield by as much as fifty percent. No American farmer has seen such an incredible yield increase over earlier products.

These stories are only parts of a much larger pattern that is emerging. Nearly 6 million farmers in 16 countries chose to plant biotech crops in 2002, up from 5 million farmers in 13 countries in 2001. More than three-quarters of these farmers were resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

Bio-engineered corn, soybeans, cotton and canola were developed primarily for use in North America, and while they have proven more beneficial to farmers elsewhere, there are developments far more promising. Few Americans have eaten cassava, but in parts of Africa it is the primary food crop. Unfortunately, if cassava is not properly prepared before eating, it can deliver a potentially deadly dose of cyanide. Scientists have achieved a breakthrough in engineering cassava plants that are safe to eat. In other parts of Africa, the sweet potato is the primary food crop, and one that is yearly under attack by diseases farmers cannot defend against. Engineered sweet potatoes resist these diseases, all on their own.

There are other technologies being developed, such as a tomato developed by UC Davis scientists that can thrive in soil that contains high levels of salt or a corn developed by Mexican scientists that can tolerate aluminum, a mineral toxic to tropical crops.

Farming in developing countries is often a daily struggle against diseases, pests, drought and toxic soil elements -- all of which greatly reduce crop yields, so the enhanced ability to resist them could make substantial contributions to much needed food security. Similarly, food with improved nutritive qualities such as the 'Golden Rice' fortified with beta-carotene offer so much hope in battling the malnutrition.

All this takes is technology transfer, from those who have the technology, to those who need it. Now that we can actually see technology transfer works, we have a ministerial conference that can make it a process to fulfill the vision of a world where every child everywhere will be born with the assurance of the most basic necessity of life -- food.

Andrew Apel is the editor of AgBiotech Reporter; C.S. Prakash is a professor at Tuskegee University and president of the Agbioworld Foundation.