Can Genetically Engineered Crops Feed a Hungry World?
YES - We Must Tap Biotech's Potential
San Francisco Chronicle
By C.S. Prakash
Thursday, March 30, 2000
Food companies thinking about banning genetically modified grain from
their products should consider what happened to Frito-Lay when the company
decided to cave in to anti-biotech activists, who have nothing but fear-mongering
and pseudo science to support their demands.
Frito-Lay recently told its corn producers to stop planting corn that
is genetically improved to ward off harmful insects. Even though there
was very little consumer demand for such an action, the company apparently
feared a food scare generated by activists and took the step anyway. But
the move was not enough to placate activists, who still threaten action
until the company does everything necessary to declare its products free
of genetically modified foods.
There is no science to support the ban of insect-resistant corn, which
forced Frito-Lay's producers to revert to chemical insecticides. Two much
larger grain purchasers have already reversed anti-biotech decisions:
Archer Daniels Midland, one of the nation's largest purchasers and exporters
of grain, and Cargill, the nation's largest grain merchant. Cargill declared
"it's business as usual'' when it followed ADM's lead and began accepting
transgenic grains again. These hold-the-line decisions are extremely important
in blunting the pseudo-science of the activist community and moving toward
biotechnology's potential to help feed a hungry world. The anti-biotech
community claims there are "10 reasons why biotechnology will not
ensure food security, protect the environment and reduce poverty in the
developing world.'' In stark contrast, more than 1,800 members of the
scientific community have signed a statement declaring their belief that
biotechnology is a powerful and safe way to enhance substantially our
quality of life by improving agriculture, health care and the environment.
Over the next century, world population will approach 9 billion. But
purchasing power is concentrated in the developed countries, while more
than 90 percent of the projected population growth is likely to occur
in developing countries. It is not difficult to predict where food shortages
will occur. As UC Davis professor Martina McGloughlin says, unless we
are willing to accept starvation, or put parks and the Amazon Basin under
the plow, there is only one good alternative: find ways to increase food
Biotechnology innovations are being developed to increase crop yields
and provide opportunities for growing crops on land otherwise unable to
support plant growth. High levels of aluminum, toxic to plant roots, exist
in the soil of more than one-third of the world's arable land. The presence
of aluminum can cause production losses of up to 80 percent in corn, soybean,
cotton and field beans. Mexican researchers have isolated a gene that
helps crops fight aluminum toxicity and are now testing the gene in rice,
which is a food staple for more than half the people on earth. Likewise,
exciting discoveries are on the horizon that may help us grow crops in
the future under drought conditions or using sea water.
Sweet potato is a staple crop in Kenya, normally grown by poor women
as a primary food source for their families. A virus can wipe out an entire
crop. Efforts to eliminate the virus through conventional crossbreeding
were not successful. But Kenyan scientists, working in conjunction with
American biotechnology experts from the government (U.S. Agency for International
Development), a nonprofit foundation (International Service for the Acquisition
of Agri-Biotech Applications) and a private corporation (Monsanto) have
developed a virus-resistant sweet potato that can potentially increase
yields by 20 to 80 percent. Research in my laboratory at Tuskegee University
has also found a method to improve the protein content in sweet potato,
which, if successful, will bring much- needed nutritional benefit to developing
Biotechnology is being used to develop crops that deliver vitamins.
A research team led by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of
Technology, in collaboration with scientists from the University of Freiburg
in Germany, have succeeded in producing beta-carotene, a precursor to
vitamin A, in rice. This rice strain may prevent blindness in millions
of children. Improved vitamin A nutrition would also prevent up to 2 million
infant deaths from diarrhea and measles, according to United Nations Children's
Fund. Efforts to develop rice with high iron content are also in process
and may help address anemia, which afflicts a billion women on this planet.
The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has already
developed and tested rice strains that can withstand diseases and pests.
These new seeds will be made available freely to farmers in Third World
Biotechnology improvements are in development that would allow hybrid
rice to be colonized by bacteria that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere.
Plants that are able to fix nitrogen improve productivity in the absence
of synthetic fertilizers, which are typically unavailable to poor farmers.
The anti-biotech activists incorrectly suggest that the integration
of chemical pesticides and seed-use has led to lower returns for farmers.
To support that argument, they point to one obscure study, while ignoring
other far more comprehensive and respected studies that report increased
net returns and reduced chemical use.
Improved production economics, the introduction of crops spliced with
a gene that causes them to produce a natural insecticide (Bt) and herbicide-resistant
crops, have forced tremendous competition in the herbicide and insecticide
markets. Prices of many herbicides and insecticides have been slashed
by more than 50 percent in these markets. Such price reductions led to
significant discounting of weed and insect control programs and even benefited
farmers who have not yet adopted biotechnology crops.
Anti-biotechnology activists argue against Western- style capitalism
and for boutique markets that sell organically grown, biotech-free foods.
But their arguments are not relevant to the issue of meeting human needs
or developing a sustainable and diverse ecology. Companies that play into
activist hands delay expansion of technology that can solve many problems.
And, ironically, as Frito-Lay has demonstrated, they may be creating new
problems for themselves.
CS Prakash is a professor and director at the Center for Plant Biotechnology
Research at Tuskegee University, Ala. (http://agriculture.tusk.edu/)