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Issues in Food Security
- USDA/ERS Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 765. 1 pp, April 2001
Included here are a number of short multidisciplinary issue papers that
address how food security in the United States and throughout the world is
affected by issues like trade liberalization, income distribution, and
natural resources. ERS research shows that more than 800 million people
are hungry in 67 lower income countries and even though the number of
people affected is expected to decline, the situation may become more
severe in the poorer countries. The reasons for food insecurity are many.
Noticeably absent from that list, however, is large-scale food scarcity.
The growth rate in food production worldwide has surpassed the population
growth rate, leading to increased food availability per person. Since
1996, some regions/countries have significantly improved their economic
performance and food security situation: several lower income countries in
Asia and Latin America are clearly in this group. Sub-Saharan Africa,
however, has not seen much progress, nor are its prospects for improvement
sanguine. Global trade liberalization is expected to expand market access
for the lower income countries and enhance their ability to compete. The
multiplicity of forces acting on different nations' prospects for food
security means that a broad range of issues must be considered at the
global level if countries-and all their households-are to become and
remain food secure.
Keywords: natural resources, crops, food security, food aid, food needs,
income distribution, hunger, sub-Saharan Africa, agricultural productivity
In this series ...
Food Security Assessment: Regional Overview Effects of Income Distribution
on Food Security Natural Resources, Agricultural Productivity, and Food
Security Food Security and Food Aid Distribution Implications of Trade
Liberalization on Food Security of Low-Income Countries Using a Direct
Measure To Monitor Hunger Food Security Is Improving in the United States
Food Security Assessment: Why Countries Are at Risk
http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aib754/ By Birgit Meade, Stacey
Rosen, Shahla Shapouri, Abebayehu Tegene, Michael Trueblood, Keith Wiebe;
ERS Outlook report No. 12. 80 pp, February 2001 AIB-754, 1999, GFA12
USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) projects that average per capita
food consumption for 67 low-income countries will increase in the next
decade. ERS also projects that the number of people failing to meet their
nutritional requirements will decline from 774 million in 2000 to 694
million in 2010, providing an improved outlook for global food security.
But the gains are not uniform across countries and in many food insecurity
will probably intensify. Sub-Saharan Africa, as the most vulnerable
region, accounts for only 24 percent of the population of these 67
countries, but it is projected to account for 63 percent of these hungry
people in 2010. HIV/AIDS is expected to reduce the region's agricultural
productivity, and constraints in financial resources will limit commercial
imports, thus leading to declining per capita consumption.
GMOs can be Good and Bad: FAO Chief
http://sg.news.yahoo.com/010503/1/oco3.html Thursday May 3, 9:29 PM
The head of the UN food agency on Thursday asserted that genetically
modified organisms (GMOs), like all new technologies, can be used to help
mankind, or do harm and benefit only specific groups.
"As scientific progress presents us with ever more powerful tools and
seemingly boundless opportunities, we must exercise caution and ensure
thorough ethical consideration of how these should be used," said FAO
Director General Jacques Diouf.
"The benefits deriving from GMOs, for example, should be shared more
fairly with developing countries and with resource-poor farmers. Above
all, ways must be found to guarantee that increased production benefits
accrue to the poor and food-insecure," he added. "Genetically modified
organisms (GMOs), like all the new technologies, are instruments that can
be used for good and for bad in the same way that they can be either
managed to the benefit of the most needy or skewed to the advantage of
specific groups," said Diouf.
Diouf was commenting on two publications by the Food and Agriculture
Organisation (FAO) -- the first in a new series dedicated to ethics in
food and agriculture, and on a report by an independent panel of experts
on major issues and challenges facing humanity, including the need for an
equitable, ethical food and agriculture system. The first publication,
entitled "Ethical issues in food and agriculture", introduces ethical
questions as they relate to FAO's mandate and describes a vision for
building an ethical and equitable food and agriculture framework.
"Today ethical concerns are central to debates about the kind of future
people want," the paper said. "A more equitable, ethically-based, food and
agriculture system must incorporate concern for three widely accepted
global goals, each of which incorportate numerous normative propositions:
improved well-being, protection of the environment and improved public
The purpose of the second publication, entitled "Genetically modified
organisms, consumers, food safety and the environment", is to share the
current knowledge of genetically engineered products in relation to
consumers, including the safety of their food and protection of their
health, and environmental conservation.
FAO has set up a committee on ethics in food and agriculture to provide
guidance and determine the scope of ethical issues relevant to the UN
agency's mandate. "FAO is now addressing ethics in a more systematic way,
and is giving higher visibility to the ethical dimensions of its work in
an interdisciplinary manner across the various technical fields," FAO
expert Margret Vidar pointed out.
The agency has also established an independent Panel of Eminent Experts on
Ethics in Food and Agriculture to advise the organization and raise public
awareness of ethical considerations associated with such vital issues as
food security for present and future generations and sustainable
management of the planet's limited resources. In their report, the experts
said that the FAO should support developing countries in increasing
research and development related to socially useful and
environment-friendly biotechnologies, including - as appropriate - the
possible development of certain GMOs."
The panel includes scientists from Ethiopia, China, Cuba, France,
Malaysia, Morocco, Norway and the United States, appointed for a four-year
period. They met, for the first time, in September and will meet again
Biotech Soybean Seed Helps Growers Produce Safe and Profitable Crops - A
Message from ASA President Tony Anderson
ST. LOUIS, May 2 /PRNewswire/ -- While farmers are busy putting the seeds
of next year's crop in the ground, a noted critic of modern agricultural
practices is sowing seeds of distrust with a new report about
biotechnology- enhanced soybeans. While farmer confidence in
biotechnology-enhanced soybeans is at an all-time high, as evidenced by
the recent USDA planting intentions report, agriculture's critics won't
admit this confidence is a result of proven gains -- both on the farm and
in the environment -- so this latest report shouldn't surprise anyone.
The report, issued by Dr. Charles Benbrook of the Northwest Science and
Environmental Policy Center, discusses changes in herbicide applications
and yields associated with the development of biotechnology-enhanced
We think it is critical the American public understand the farm and
environmental benefits of today's biotechnology. Dr. Benbrook is so intent
on finding something wrong with biotechnology, that he misses the big
picture. There are always questions about new technology. As farmers
growing food for a hungry world, we care very deeply about the safety and
quality of our product, and we are committed to finding answers to the
questions raised by biotechnology's critics. But this quest for knowledge
should not undermine the positive environmental gains we have made using
modern biotechnology. I am sharing the following information with you to
help ensure the farmer's voice is heard within this debate.
Biotechnology Adoption Like any other successful business, the bottom line
for farmers is profitability. Scientist can debate all day long about the
meaning of various comparisons and observations, while soybean producers
know what works and what doesn't work on their farm when it comes to
seedstock, herbicides, farm equipment or any other input costs they must
carefully evaluate in order to make a profit.
The numbers for biotechnology speak louder than words: In 1996, when
biotech soybean seedstock first became available commercially, U.S.
farmers planted only about 1 million acres of biotech varieties, which
represented less than two percent of the total soybean acres planted that
year. In 1997, planted acres of biotech soybeans increased to nearly 10
million acres, or about 14 percent of the total soy acres planted. By
1998, biotech seedstock acres increased to 25 million acres, representing
about 34 percent of the total soy planting.
In 1999, approximately 38 million acres or 53 percent of total U.S. soy
acres were planted to biotech seedstock, and last year biotech soybeans
were grown on approximately 40 million acres or 55 percent of total U.S.
soy acres. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that
soybean farmers will again increase the number of acres they plant of
soybean seed that have been enhanced through modern crop biotechnology.
Evaluating Production Factors Many factors go into a farmer's decision
making process for seed selection. Last year there were more than 3,000
different varieties of soybean seed were available, including more than
1,100 varieties that were Roundup Ready. Projected yield is only one of
many variables that a grower must consider. More importantly, a farmer
must look at local conditions in each field, such as soil type, moisture
levels, and weed pests, before determining what products will work best in
each particular situation.
Then, even after a producer works to make all the right decisions, weather
often becomes the deciding factor when it comes to bottomline profits. Too
little or too much rain, too cold or too hot, weather is the one factor
that farmers have yet to manage.
For instance, last year in parts of central Iowa, soybeans had to deal
with Labor Day weekend temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The hot temperatures sped along the maturation process, but the seed
quality suffered and the soybeans rapidly dried down to an ultra low 8 to
9 percent moisture level. (13 percent is the normal target delivery
standard.) This damaged some plants because they were brittle and resulted
in additional mechanical damage to the seed when harvested.
Environment Herbicide-tolerant soybeans are helping farmers protect the
environment by allowing changes in tillage practices and herbicide
applications. Through improved weed control, farmers also are producing
cleaner crops that contain fewer non-grain materials.
In its July 20, 2000, Agricultural Outlook Summary, the United States
Department of Agriculture (USDA) stated that planting biotech crops
appeals to farmers because these crops simplify pest management, reduce
pesticide use, and help control costs. Analysis by USDA's Economic
Research Service indicates that adoption of biotech corn, soybeans, and
cotton is associated with a decrease in the number pesticide treatments.
Also, the herbicide-tolerance trait in soybeans allows substitution of
glyphosate herbicides that are less persistent in the environment.
An independent study by Dr. Richard Phipps of the University of Reading,
England, that was published in the July 2000 issue of Feed Compounder
Magazine, reported that herbicide/insecticide use in biotech soybean and
cotton production had decreased by 20 and 80 percent respectively, and
that the use of biotech crops in North America has reduced the use of
agrochemicals by 4.5 million litres (about 1.9 million gallons).
Another important benefit of biotech crops that should not be overlooked,
is that biotech crops help farmers increase their use of no-till farming
practices that reduce soil erosion by up to 90 percent and reduce the
amount of greenhouse gases emitted by farm fields. On September 15, 2000,
The Wall Street Journal published an article about a study at Michigan
State University that showed that no-till farming, which is facilitated by
Roundup Ready soybeans, resulted in an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse
Critics of biotechnology cite the potential for herbicide resistance to
develop if farmers depend upon only one weed control system. Farmers would
agree that diverse technologies for weed control are an important part of
managing weeds and other pests. Unfortunately, the hysteria caused by
environmental activists in the European Union has frozen the regulatory
approval for new biotechnology-enhanced products that could diversify a
farmer's pest management options. One such product, a soybean resistant to
glufosinate herbicide, would provide farmers another choice in
seed/herbicide management systems, but the EU has not approved this
product despite the petition being submitted in 1998.
Summary ASA is a strong supporter of biotechnology because ASA's
farmer-leaders believe biotechnology is a tool for producing safer, more
nutritious food more efficiently and more abundantly. Agriculture
biotechnology benefits not only producers, but also consumers and the
Regulatory agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA), have declared these crops safe after completing
rigorous reviews of scientific testing. Soybeans grown from Roundup Ready
seedstock are the same in composition, nutritional profile and safety
(including allergenic potential) as any other commercially available
Agriculture biotechnology has been embraced by farmers because it reduces
input costs and provides increased production flexibility in conservation
tillage practices. Work also is under way to produce soybeans with output
traits that will directly benefit consumers. Soybean farmers recognize the
need for consumer understanding and acceptance of agriculture
biotechnology, and ASA continues to advocate open communication among
consumers, producers, researchers, industry leaders and the regulatory
CONTACT: Tony Anderson, ASA President, 740-437-7803, or,
firstname.lastname@example.org , or Bob Callanan, Communications Director,
314-576-1770, email@example.com , both of the American Soybean
Association, fax, 314-576-2786
Policy Implications Of The Precautionary Principle
Dana G. Dalrymple, U.S. AID (Via Agnet)
I write concerning the recent comments about the Precautionary Principle
Saunders and Ho
My purpose is not to discuss the principle itself further but rather the
policy implications of the discussion. I reflect the personal views of an
agricultural economist long involved in international agricultural
research for developing nations. Comstock outlines some of the starker
scenarios that might result from strict adherence to the principle.
Saunders and Ho appear to dismiss his scenario and paint a much rosier
picture, but they do acknowledge the importance of continuing research,
although with substantial constraints on the basic side. Along the way
they get into the question of feeding a growing world population, and I
will take that as my starting point. It is important to do so, because the
initial assumptions concerning this issue can influence the discussion in
They argue that the world has the capacity to provide enough food to feed
itself today and in the future. This is perhaps factually correct as far
as current projections are concerned. But it is only part of the story and
leads to a fallacy of composition. This is largely because that food
supply capacity, both in terms of productive capacity and stocks, is
almost entirely in the developed nations. It does do the poor developing
nations little good, except as a source of emergency food aid (which is
expensive and not sustainable) or commercial imports (which they generally
cannot afford to buy). In either case, distribution can be a problem.
Moreover, future population growth will be almost entirely in the
developing nations. The most recent projections indicate that the
population of the developing world in 2050 will grow by two thirds: it
will be greatest in Africa (+152%), followed by Latin America (+55%), and
Asia (+48%). (New York Times, 2/28/01, p. A6)
How are the growing food needs of the developing nations to be met? A
combination of supply and demand activities is required. On the supply
side, the expansion of both cultivated area and productivity (yields) is
usually involved. The opportunity for the former is limited; thus
increasing productivity must carry the main burden. This in turn requires
research. Much research is already tied up with just maintaining
productivity in the face of biological, environmental, and other
constraints. These constraints will only become more challenging in the
future, especially in the face of increasing water shortages. Increasing
productivity under these conditions will therefore present additional
degrees of difficulty. In order to strengthen demand, economic growth is
needed, an even more multifaceted and complex task. Supply and demand can
overlap as increased productivity reduces the cost of production and
brings about increased returns for some farmers (usually the early
adopters) and lowers food costs for consumers. Markets are stimulated.
Thus productivity leads to an income effect which contributes to economic
development, a major point that is almost always overlooked in discussions
of this sort.
Saunders and Ho agree on the importance of continuing and expanding
research. They state, quite correctly, that "There should...be a major
effort devoted to developing better varieties of crops by conventional
breeding..." - a task which will be made more difficult by increasing
constraints on the exchange and use of plant germplasm. They also go on to
propose more research on "...organic, low-input farming methods." This is
currently a popular notion, and it makes some sense in developed countries
where organic products are usually sold at a premium price, offsetting
higher per unit production costs (see, for example, Nature, 4/19/01, p.
928). But organic, low input farming methods may have less to offer
developing nations because they may not do much to increase overall food
supply, lower prices, or increase effective demand (demand brought about
by income growth). While they may offer some benefits, they are a most
uncertain way out of the poverty trap.
The above forms of research are, in any case, basically applied in nature.
Saunders/Ho also support the continuation of basic research - but under
the condition that it "...should be done in the laboratory and in the
greenhouse under carefully contained conditions." They are concerned with
rushing ahead with commercial exploitation. This formulation overlooks an
important middle step: the enrichment of applied research by public
institutions, such as international agricultural research centers and
field adaptation and testing. When would it be safe enough for these
institutions to make use of the basic research and carry out these vital
tasks? How many years would go by while population growth continues at a
high rate in poor nations? Moreover, too great a preoccupation with
containment could have a perhaps unintended effect of holding back the
development and use of less controversial tools that might be of
considerable value in speeding and broadening the applied research process
in developing nations. In short, how much attention is to be given to the
opportunity cost of containment? Clearly, everything is connected with
everything else. There are few simple answers, either in science or
economics, particularly when they intersect. Inaction as well as action,
however well intended, can entail significant opportunity costs or
unintended effects. And what is true for developed countries may not be
true for poorer developing countries. The food problems of the developing
world deserve to be a major order of business and concern, not a residual
or appendage as they currently are in many discussions of this nature.
Transcript of the PBS 'Harvest of Fear'
Select Quotes -
JOHN LOSEY:: If you have the choice between putting out the Bt, which is
very specific to just lepidoptera, or butterflies, and spraying with an
insecticide which is generally fairly broad, you know, is going to almost
kill all the organisms that are out there, then you are having less
environmental impact almost undoubtedly by using the Bt then by using the
2. NORMAN BORLAUG, Texas A&M University: This organic movement is
ridiculous. For those who want to go the organic route, God bless them.
Let them spend more money for their food. But looking at the world at
large, this is an impossibility ... Most of the people who are opposing
biotechnology, they've never known hunger. These people say that the
little farmer should permanently accept that he's gong to stay on that
three-acre farm with a hoe and a machete. That's fine in Utopia, but don't
give the world the false idea that they can produce the food that's needed
for six billion people.
3. GORDON CONWAY, President, The Rockefeller Foundation: Whether or not
people in developed countries like biotechnology, they should not deny
those potential benefits to the developing countries. We've got 800
million chronically undernourished people. We've got 1.5 billion more
people who will be added to the world population by the year 2020. That's
an enormous number of people to be fed. And we believe that biotechnology,
along with agriculture ecology, is going to be able to feed that
4. FLORENCE WAMBUGU, Kenyan Scientist: They [Greenpeace] don't have a clue
what they're talking about because most of those people who talk like that
get all of their food from the supermarket, and they just think how it is
going to appear in another place in another supermarket.
The transport costs in this country are huge. Even if that food was
donated for free, it would have to cost something when it arrives here.
And there is the pride. If you cannot feed your family, if you cannot feed
yourself, you have a mentality that makes you feel you are useless. People
have pride in feeding their family. People have pride in being able to
purchase. Everybody- how would anybody like to be a beggar? How would you
like to be there waiting that until some food comes, you are going to stay
Debate: Genetically Modified Foods: A Site Map Of The Debate
HMS Beagle Issue 78 May 12, 2000
Debate Documents Designer Beans: A Synopsis of the Debate Day 1: Effects
Day 2: Benefits Day 3: Risks Participants Literature Cited Debate Feedback
Internet sites relating to the debate How to cite the debate
Editor's Note The use of molecular engineering to manipulate the qualities
of food crops is one of our most volatile public issues. The controversy
over agricultural biotechnology, as it is commonly known, has motivated
protesters to destroy fields of engineered plants and to demonstrate
peacefully at international meetings. It has moved nations and groups of
nations to pass laws and adopt policies, multinational corporations to
alter their way of doing business, and scientists and advocates the world
over to sign petitions, hurl accusations, and declare that it's time for
researchers to become more like the activists who challenge them. What is
the best existing scientific evidence that documents any effects, related
to either environmental alterations or food safety, from genetically
modified (GM) foods? How does society most stand to benefit from GM foods?
Which of these effects represent new or increased risks, over and beyond
those risks presented by foods that are derived through conventional
technologies and agronomic practices? Complete document available at:
The Reputable Swiss Federal Institute Of Technology Plant Biologist Ingo
Potrykus On Greenpeace And The Opposition Against Genetic Engineering
May 3, 2001 Das Magazin via Debate 2001 Interview: Roger Köppel and Finn
Canonica “This is the English version of an interview given by Ingo
Potrykus to a well known weekly Magazine in Switzerland called 'Das
Magazin'. It comes weekly with the daily newspaper 'der Tagesanzeiger',
well known for its sharp critizism of transgenic crops. Thanks to Jens
Katzek and his crew for the translation into English. The interview of
Ingo Potrykus is sort of a breakthrough in Swiss journalism, since too
often the developers and scientists are not heard properly, here an
example proving the contrary.” – Klaus Ammann
Opposition against plant genetic engineering is getting fiercer.
Environmental organisations, ethics groups, consumer protectionists and
other organisations bet on primordial fears of Dr Mabuse clad in white and
conducting murderous experiments in his lab. Travelling lecturers like the
US critic Jeremy Rifkin have been considerably gaining ground in the
struggle for the attention of an ever more insecure audience. Since nobody
has so far succeeded in furnishing scientifically tenable evidence of any
negative impacts of genetic engineering - i.e. to date neither animals nor
humans have demonstrably suffered injury from genetically modified plants
or foods - opponents are mainly working with bleak forecasts for the
future and risk projections, leading to a situation where science has to
prove its innocence under increasingly difficult conditions. In
Switzerland there is the Kafkaesque scenario that experiments that might
help exonerate genetic engineering are rarely realised, because the laws
that make them possible in the first place are interpreted with growing
severity under the pressure of genetic engineering opponents. ETH
researchers are shrugging their shoulders, voice indignation or resign
themselves to the situation. Rumour has it that thinking is no longer
One of the most vigorous critics of genetic engineering critics is Ingo
Potrykus, plant biologist and professor emeritus of the ETH, who has
developed the so-called vitamin A rice in a greenhouse outside Zurich that
would resist a hand grenade attack. This genetically engineered crop is to
solve one of the biggest nutrition problems in developing countries,
namely iron and vitamin A deficiency which causes every year the death of
one to two million children and blindness in hundreds of thousands of
cases. Together with his partner Peter Beyer (University of Freiburg),
Potrykus engineered a rice crop with substances that the body synthesises
to vitamin A. Experts believe the 'Golden Rice' to be a wonder cure able
to fight more diseases and sufferings than any other drug in the history
of mankind, so Charles Arntzen of Cornell University. For this reason
Potrykus developed the new rice applying strictly non-commercial criteria
for free use by small farmers in Third World countries. The scientist's
relations with industry are limited to agreements granting companies, in
exchange for the free release of the Golden Rice in developing countries,
the commercial rights of use in the industrial world (there is very little
in it for Potrykus). It took over two years to fully settle the patent
rights but in mid-January the rice was handed over to the public as a gift
in a symbolic ceremony in Manila. Currently over 20 research institutes
worldwide are testing how to cross the rice with local varieties.
Regardless of the potentially beneficial effects of the Golden Rice
genetic engineering opponents are preparing to make a stand against it,
headed by the 'protest multi' Greenpeace. With no proof whatsoever being
supplied, it is claimed that the rice is either worthless, harmful or
superfluous, demanding the global food problem to be solved by a
redistribution of all foodstuffs available.
Obviously there cannot be what must not be - which is that companies and
scientists for once make a more sustainable contribution to development in
the Third World than the protest lobby which sits on its high horse of
morality and criticises and judges while now as in the past millions of
children die from vitamin A deficiency.
Potrykus received hate mail and was threatened in case the rice would be
released. He implied to the 'New York Times' that he was sometimes worried
about his safety. In a long essay published in the 'Frankfurter
Allgemeine', the former ETH professor criticised the 'hidden motives' of
his opponents who spread the absurd rumour that this genetically
engineered rice causes hair loss and impotence: 'These critics do anything
to prevent the distribution of the Golden Rice to farmers striving for
self-sufficiency. Such a thing might be acceptable in rich countries where
people can have a carefree life also without genetic engineering. But it
is intolerable in countries where it is a matter of life or death (...)'
In the United States Potrykus, who appears in public with a modesty close
to shyness, is feted as a visionary and the great hope of an unjustly
maligned technology. The 'Time Magazine' put him on the cover of its US
edition but did not do so in Europe for fear of the militant opposition
genetic engineering encounters in our latitudes. The 'New Yorker', the
'New York Times' and the 'Financial Times' praised Potrykus's rice as an
invention that points the way to the future. Meanwhile also US TV stations
have contacted the German scientist who has received numerous offers to
continue his career at an elite university stateside. In Zurich the plant
biologist's merits, who himself suffered from malnutrition in Germany
after the war, are underrated with a restraint that is typical of the city
of Zwingli. Since his retirement Potrykus has no longer his own office at
the ETH. At least he was allowed to keep the front door key, and his
successor enables him to continue his work at a small scale for some time.
Interview with Ingo Potrykus:
Professor Potrykus, after 10 years of research you are holding the
solution to one of the most pressing medical problems of humankind in your
hands. All the same, in the eyes of many you are the prototype of the evil
genetic engineer. - Opposition to genetic engineering is nothing new in
Switzerland, it goes back to the early 80s. Probably some members of the
successful anti-Kaiseraugust movement* have found a worthwhile field of
activity here. In any case, I was faced right from the start with
organised protest structures. *Note: this refers to anti-nuclear power
Was there ever a matter-of-fact approach in the discussion on genetic
engineering? - In my experience the discussion was highly emotional from
the beginning. There was opposition also at the ETH, for example from a
group that would have liked to have a chair of bio-agriculture. The
conflict was bound to break out when we wanted new laboratories to start a
modern research institute and needed the room occupied by the herbariums
in the agronomy building. In response the ETH and Zurich university
decided to merge their herbariums in order to save space. Unsurprisingly
my genetic engineering research did not find much sympathy after that. On
the other hand, from the first moment I was strongly supported by the
university's management and my colleagues.
Were you ever physically attacked?
- No. Most problems arose when I tried to initiate a discussion with the
students of the department of environmental natural sciences. There was a
group of students who vehemently opposed my research activities without
having any knowledge of the facts. I was shouted down more than once, and
the general atmosphere was almost comparable with that in the time of the
What were the reactions in the general public? Your discovery is not only
a scientific sensation, it is also an important contribution to the fight
against hunger and malnutrition.
- Well - I received much hate mail over the internet, especially after it
became quite clear that the Golden Rice was to come. I was warned not to
distribute rice seeds in developing countries or I would have to suffer
Did you need special protection for your laboratories?
- Due to the large number of threats I sometimes needed to involve the
ETH's security service who advised us how to protect our research work
from attacks by opponents. This problem also goes back a long way; the
university's management decided as early as in 1988 to construct our new
greenhouse as a high security building - not only in terms of biological
safety but also to resist attack. I should think that there is no
comparable greenhouse anywhere in the world.
Are the Swiss genetic engineering opponents more militant than others?
- The genetic engineering opponents in Switzerland are militant but I am
happy to say that they restrain themselves in the use of violence. The
extreme opposition to genetic engineering seemed to me over many years
mainly a phenomenon of the German-speaking countries, linked with a
romantic concept of nature. Surprisingly this mental attitude has been
spreading over the past few years also in other nations. Despite this
experience I was amazed that my rice research met with so much hostility,
because I am convinced that the Golden Rice is a perfect example of how
genetic engineering can be applied to improve farming in the Third World
and to fight hunger and malnutrition.
Probably this is what you also told your opponents at Greenpeace.
- Here in Zurich I spoke for over six hours with the head of the
Greenpeace campaign, Benedikt Haerlin. At the end of our meeting I was
under the impression that this important representative of the
anti-genetic engineering lobby was taking a more factual attitude. However
finally Haerlin said that all my statements sounded very well but
Greenpeace opposed genetic engineering as a matter of principle.
- I think genetic engineering is an ideal issue for Greenpeace to
instrumentalise latent fears. It seems likely that Greenpeace cannot
afford to compromise in this issue, because then the organisation would
lose clout. If Haerlin strayed only one inch from the official line, he
would most probably have to find himself a new job. I know of one concrete
case where the spokesperson of an environmental organisation had to resign
after this person realised that radical opposition to genetic engineering
rather harmed than benefited the cause of the organisation.
According to Greenpeace and other NGOs, hunger and malnutrition are a
- If we were able to equally distribute all foodstuffs available
worldwide, nobody would have to starve. But this is utopic. If an equal
distribution is the objective, the easiest way to implement it is in the
form of money. Then everyone could buy what he or she needs. Unfortunately
not even the resources and climatic conditions for agricultural production
offer such a degree of equality that optimal farming is possible in all
countries. The utopia of a redistribution involves the risk of the search
for feasible solutions being abandoned.
Why are you against this utopia?
- At the moment sufficient quantities of food are produced for the current
population. But we witness an incessant population growth. In roughly 30
or 40 years there will be 3 billion people more on our plant It is
imperative to increase food production in the Third World in order to
prevent future disastrous famines. As everybody knows we have three food
production systems: oceans, pastures and arable lands. Over the last 30
years we have considerably improved the productivity of these systems.
That was the basis for the so-called green revolution which has fed 2
billion additional people. But now we have come to a point where the
oceans must be managed with great care; their potential is exhausted. This
is true also for pastures. Yields cannot go up any further. More food can
come only from arable lands. Therefore good use must be made of all
available strategies to improve agricultural yields, both in terms of
quantity and quality. This is not only about the lack of calories, it is
also about the lack of certain vitamins such as vitamin A, and trace
elements for example iron and zinc.
Industrial countries could simply distribute vitamin A tablets.
- This is exactly what they are already doing. To my knowledge WHO, the
World Health Organisation, invests annually 100 million dollars in
distributing vitamin A. All the same, every year 500,000 children go blind
due to vitamin A deficiency. Handing out tablets free of charge does not
solve the problem, because there are no infrastructures for their
distribution and helpers cannot reach many needy persons. Therefore
Greenpeace thinks that building roads is more useful than giving a chance
to the Golden Rice.
One of the main arguments of genetic engineering opponents targets
patenting. They say that with patents biotech companies use 'life'
belonging to all humans to enrich themselves in an arrogant manner.
- I am not happy with the patenting situation either, but there is no
point in dreaming of a patent-free utopia. And it is barely understandable
why no patents should be granted in biotechnology when all other forms of
intellectual property are patentable. If we want to fight hunger
effectively we must face reality and strive for - and not against - a fair
use of patents. It is a fact that we were only able to develop our rice
just because there are patents. Many of the technologies we resorted to
were only publicly accessible because inventors had their rights protected
by patents and without this form of protection a large number of the
technologies we used would have been kept secret. Therefore we should
focus on the question how to apply the knowledge we have to the benefit of
Greenpeace claims that genetically modified plants contain new unknown
proteins that might trigger allergies.
- Needless to say that all conceivable risks including allergic reactions
were studied before we released our rice to farmers and consumers. There
are standards and rules for transgenic materials which have successfully
prevented anyone from coming to harm. Nevertheless, it is surprising that
allergies were never an issue in connection with other foods. For example:
With the import of kiwis, which have an immense allergenic potential,
thousands of new proteins were 'released' onto the population. Also
biologically daring crossbreeds such as nectarines are nothing but a
mobilisation of a large number of genes between different organisms. Here
it is hard to see the difference to transgenic plants.
And what about the horror scenario of outside genes in plants that
transfer to microorganisms in the soil and turn them, for example, into
- Where 'horizontal gene transfer' is concerned, I supervised in the
mid-nineties a doctoral thesis which closely looked into this question
under optimal conditions. Probably no more informative series of
experiments has been conducted to this day. The outcome of the study is
that 'horizontal gene transfer' - to the extent that it takes place at all
- is so rare that it is not verifiable by way of experimentation. The
likelihood of a horizontal transfer is almost null. And if, contrary to
all expectation, such a transfer occurred the consequences would depend on
what gene is transferred. Since we have not worked on the Golden Rice with
pathogenic genes even our opponents have a lot of trouble to come up with
a concrete risk.
Greenpeace fears that pollen of new genetically engineered plants, such as
the Golden Rice, might be carried away by wind and pollinate other plants
which subsequently mutate into hard to control weeds.
- Rice pollen flies over a distance of not more than a few centimetres.
Theoretically hybridisation with other plants cannot be fully excluded but
we should not forget that we have worked with genes that are perfectly
safe to humans and the environment. Provitamin A and the genes needed for
it have been part of our food since the beginnings of humankind. Every
green plant has the genes for this metabolic process so there is not the
slightest basis neither for any ecological advantage nor for any risk to
the biosphere due to the Golden Rice.
But is it not objectionable that genetic engineers, so-to-speak, join
together what was not joined together by nature? For example, the thought
of frog genes in strawberries is rather irritating.
- I am not aware of anyone who wants to transfer a frog gene to
strawberries, whatever his purpose may be. Quite naturally the spontaneous
reaction is invariably that such an idea it is absurd and unnecessary. But
this does not mean that the use of animal genes in plants should be
generally rejected. We would like to have more provitamin A in the Golden
Rice, and one of the conceivable strategies to get it is to transform
provitamin A into vitamin A. Only animals can do this so that we might
have to use an animal gene. Since we as biologists view genes as neutral
information, this would be 'biologically' thinkable. I realise that we
would encounter acceptance problems.
What is the very worst that could happen in the cultivation of such
plants? What could be the worst case scenario in genetic engineering?
- I have often tried to discuss with scientists and Greenpeace people what
the worst case scenario in connection with the Golden Rice could
realistically look like. So far they still owe me an answer. Is it not
remarkable that for 20 years worst case scenarios have been widely
described whilst genetic engineering has been used worldwide for 25 years
without harming anyone? I think that with this wealth of experience no
other technology comes up to such high safety standards. We could count
ourselves lucky if all the other technologies we use daily without even
thinking about them came close to genetic engineering in terms of safety.
The experiences with the Golden Rice suggest that genetic engineering
opponents do not so much care about the environment and consumers and
hardly about the fight against hunger and malnutrition in the Third World;
rather they seem to want a radical war against these new technologies for
What do you think are the motives of Greenpeace for this vehement fight
against genetic engineering?
- I am perfectly aware that many idealists are active for Greenpeace. I am
thinking of those who get in rubber dinghies to stop whaling or risk their
lives to draw attention to adverse ecological situations. But there is
also the other face of Greenpeace. It is a tightly run organisation whose
main objective is to motivate with spectacular actions the largest
possible number of people to donate money. And those who donate money
probably think of the idealists. At present Greenpeace has annually
between 120 and 130 million dollars at its disposal.
Is the critic of big business also a big business-style organisation?
- Greenpeace has no doubt many characteristics of the so much demonised
'multinationals'. The large political success of Greenpeace is due to the
paradox that Greenpeace knows how to live the image of a modern Robin Hood.
Do you see Greenpeace rather as Robin Hood's opponent, the Sheriff of
- The Greenpeace activists are so appealing to many, because they assume
with near perfection the role of upright people who bravely fight for a
good cause. Greenpeace has managed to become established as the
outstanding moral authority and to exert political power on this basis.
This is a serious reproach. Do you have any examples?
- There was a revealing scene on television where the arrogance with which
Greenpeace makes politics became quite obvious. In connection with an
action on "genefoods" the spokesman of Greenpeace said, and I quote him
word for word: 'All we have to do is say „boo!‰ and they all do what we
want them to do.'
Consequently PR managers of the big food companies should get their
training from Greenpeace.
- Greenpeace is indeed a PR miracle. I think hardly anybody else has
instrumentalised with so much skill subliminal feelings of unease or fear
in the general public for own political purposes. When drafting the
research plan for the Golden Rice I took into account all points of
criticism brought forward by genetic engineering opponents since the
mid-eighties, and there is a lot of justified criticism of how genetic
engineering is put into practice. But after the Golden Rice had been
developed this product was fought at least as vehemently as, for example,
insect-resistant maize. Evidently all this is not about finding solutions
to concrete problems, the purpose is to generally demonise an entire
Why does nobody dare to start fighting the anti-genetic engineering
propaganda of Greenpeace and other NGOs?
- I think many have tried but given up, because it is so difficult.
Wherever you go, Greenpeace was already there to poison the surroundings
with arguments. A little episode from the ETH may suffice: Already 6 years
ago we wanted to send rice to the International Rice Research Institute
(IRRI) in Manila. One of our students was working for Greenpeace and he
managed to gain the confidence of my assistant. At any rate, Greenpeace
knew on what date, at what time and by which courier service the rice was
to be collected here. Greenpeace stole the rice and put on the usual show
on television, with people wearing protective suits and gas masks. Since
there was no doubt who had provided Greenpeace with information, we
discussed the case with the ETH's management. Finally it was decided not
to report the student to the police, and he was allowed to continue his
studies. It is not important to me to sue this young man as an individual
but the described case highlights Greenpeace's dubious methods and proves
that the organisation is rarely called to account for them.
How do you explain that NGOs succeed in demonising and stopping products
even before scientific studies are implemented?
- One of the most important strategies is certainly to give the impression
that genetic engineering is only in the interest of big industry. But this
just not true, on the contrary. Genetic engineering could help solve food
problems especially in poor countries so that it could give most to those
who have almost nothing today. Genetic engineering is mainly in the
interest of humans who do not have enough to eat.
Genetic engineering opponents resort to the 'precautionary principle' in
research. They demand that all risks be fully excluded.
- I do not think that this principle has been observed more strictly in
any other technology right from the start. There is not a single
biological system where all risks can be fully excluded, and this is true
also for bio-farming. It is unfair to demand an absolute freedom from risk
for an arbitrarily chosen system. We should evaluate genetic engineering
in a balancing consideration of advantages versus possible disadvantages
and use established methods - the so-called biosafety assessments - for
this purpose. For example, before our rice is released all conceivable
risks will be examined. Without anticipating the outcome, I can say
already now that there will be hardly any risk worth mentioning. On the
other hand we have the possible advantages. The Golden Rice can make a
contribution to preventing that every year 500,000 children go blind and
millions of mothers die in childbed. Consequently every delay in the
practical use of the Golden Rice means that there will be unnecessarily
another hundreds of thousands of blind children and dead mothers. What
weighs heavier? A possibly still unidentified, indefinable and
hypothetical risk or the predictable blindness and deaths of hundreds or
thousands of humans in the Third World?
Apart from the hunger problem in the Third World, should not the heretical
question be put to our biofarmers whether, in the final analysis, genetic
engineering agriculture is an environmentally sounder method than
- Objectively nothing speaks against a combination of bio-farming and
genetic engineering. The decision against genetic engineering is mainly a
marketing decision, because an image that relies on the key word 'natural'
is not to be put at stake.
What does the word 'natural' actually mean? In a manner of speaking, is a
plant with an outside gene expelled from Paradise?
- A biologist's answer to this question is quite easy: There is nothing
more natural than genes. Plant breeding and genetic engineering are
basically one and the same thing. Radical champions of 'nature' would have
to live on grass. None of our cultivated plants, from spelt to cherry and
apple trees or potatoes, are indigenous Swiss plants. All of them were
brought to Switzerland by our ancestors without the approval of ethics or
biosafety commissions. What an incredible ecological risk! In central
Europe we have hardly any indigenous plants at all except for forest
trees, grass and carrots. Moreover genetic engineering opponents have been
successfully painting a picture of farming that ceased to exist a long
time ago. But a growing world population cannot be fed with false idylls
and noble utopias. Many farmers in developing countries only stick to
'bio-farming' because they are too poor to buy other agricultural inputs.
I fail to comprehend why the notion of a child out in the fields all day
long and picking weeds but unable to go to school and have a better future
is deemed romantic by some.
In this context you were also speaking about neocolonialism.
- Just one example: Thailand wants to cultivate the Golden Rice. It is one
of the few countries that produces enough rice to export it. Now European
rice importers have informed the Thai government they are not willing to
buy from Thailand if the country decides to cultivate transgenic rice. In
other words, Europeans make the choice if Thailand is allowed to fight
blindness and many other diseases with the help of genetic engineering.
This is what I call neocolonialism.
But one could also speak of obscurantism. It is a fact that esoteric
approaches have been booming for years in parallel to the hostility toward
- This is probably a phenomenon of the affluent society. I personally
could not care less what others believe in if it was not the Third World
that has to suffer the consequences.
Is it not the task of institutions such as the ETH to protect people
against this new obscurantism? Why do the important institutions remain
- They do not want to find themselves in an exposed position, and I can
almost understand them. Pressure from Greenpeace is immense. Even the
World Health Organisation treads carefully. I contacted David Clugstone,
director of WHO's 'Food and Health' programme, asking him if they would
support my rice project. After all, WHO has the official mandate to fight
vitamin A and iron deficiency and finances a programme to do so. But the
whole thing came to nought. I was under the impression that even WHO was
afraid of getting caught up in the machinery of genetic engineering
Why did the ETH not make a stronger commitment?
- Probably the ETH preferred not to seek an eminent role in this
What consequences will this attitude have? Is this mental climate a risk
to Switzerland as a research location?
- Yes, unfortunately it is. I can perfectly understand any young scientist
who looks for another field of activity. Moreover everyone will ask why
one should invest money without being welcome. It is not so much basic
research that is in danger but applied research where it is tried to make
good use of new findings in solutions to practical problems. A moratorium
for the release of transgenic plants is under discussion. There are no
sound scientific reasons for such a step but it is hoped to bring a
certain bonus for Swiss bio-farmers who could market products from a
'genetic engineering-free zone'. This is understandable, but a moratorium
in Switzerland would be the worst possible signal for plans to further
develop the Golden Rice as a tool in the fight against blindness and death
in developing countries.
Thus a moratorium would mean a step backward in science?
- Most certainly at international level. Activities realised here at the
ETH rank no doubt among the leading achievements worldwide. Impacts of a
moratorium would be devastating and turn Switzerland into the first
country in Europe where thinking is no longer permitted as far as genetic
engineering is concerned.
A return back to the times before the Enlightenment?
- One should wonder whether the Enlightenment has taken place at all.
During the debate, did you never have the feeling of being in the wrong
- We are in the wrong movie.