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May 12, 2000


Trusting science to help feed the world's billions


TimesTrusting science to help feed
the world's billions

Maarten J. Chrispeels

San Diego Union

May 5, 2000

The greatest challenge facing humanity today is how to make food
production sustainable in the face of the burgeoning human population,
which is growing by 80 million people each year and is forecast to
reach 9 billion within this century. Solving this problem will test our
human ingenuity and our political will to the limit. Agriculture has
had an amazing record of achievement: For 50 years, the astonishing
growth of the human population has been paralleled by an equally
astonishing increase in food production. Farmers, helped by plant
breeders and by new technologies, have coaxed ever higher yields from
the soils they so carefully cultivate. Between 1960 and 1995, the
yields of rice and wheat increased more than twofold, because clever
plant breeders recognized the need to breed varieties that were adapted
to local climates and could resist diseases.

Although not widely recognized, the impact of this "Green Revolution"
on humanity has been as profound as the discovery of antibiotics or the
invention of the automobile. Huge tracts of marginal lands and
wilderness were saved from the plow, while at the same time proving
wrong the doomsday prophets of the 1960s who predicted worldwide
starvation by the mid-1970s.

The success of the Green Revolution, which fed billions of additional
people, depended on the application of new agricultural technologies in
combination with genetically improved crop varieties. Its impact has
not been entirely benign -- more agricultural chemicals, losses of
forest land to crop fields, a loss of genetic diversity in our crop
plants and the appearance of pesticide- resistant pests. Nevertheless,
billions lead better lives because of this development. Unfortunately,
it appears that these advances have run their course and that new ideas
-- new technologies and new kinds of genetically improved crops -- are
needed to raise crop production further to feed the next 3 billion
people. Genetic engineering of crop plants offers an environmentally
friendly way to do that -- a technology that could increase the
nutritional value of crops, while reducing the use of pesticides. In my
own laboratory at the University of California San Diego, we have
recently developed, in collaboration with researchers in Australia, the
first insect-resistant crop seeds by inserting a gene from a bean plant
into a previously nonresistant garden pea. This eliminates the need for
insecticides to protect the seeds. The genetically engineered
pest-resistant crops planted in 1998, permitted a 12 percent drop in
the use of pesticides in the United States, according to the National
Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, a Washington D.C.-based
nonprofit organization. My colleagues at UCSD, led by Martin Yanofsky,
last month announced that they identified the genes that causes "pod
shatter" in canola plants, a process that causes farmers to lose as
much as half of the oil-bearing canola seeds. By eliminating
pod-shattering genes from these plants, a simple process using
genetic-engineering techniques, Yanofsky estimates that farmers can
double their yields of canola seeds. That means that farmers can plant
their canola crops on half as much land and use half as much
fertilizers and pesticides.

The environmental and food-production benefits of genetically
engineered crops are clear. Yet the application of these powerful new
tools to feed the world's burgeoning population is being hampered by
opponents of agribusiness who have frightened consumers into believing
that these genetically modified crops are unnatural or may harbor
hidden toxins. Last month, a National Academy of Sciences panel
concluded that crops genetically engineered to produce their own
pesticides are safe, just as safe as other crops. However, protests
continue in Europe, Latin America and Asia, threatening U.S. food
exports and raising questions among lawmakers here over whether such
foods should be labeled separately from other food, which ironically
may contain more chemical pesticide residues. A study just released by
the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that genetically engineered
corn contains lower levels of cancer causing mycotoxins, because the
grain is much less damaged by insects and therefore free of the molds
that produce mycotoxins. Proponents of organic agriculture say that
they would prefer that we return to the practices of yesteryear, when
agriculture was sustainable. By their own calculations, this type of
agriculture can only feed about 4 billion people. "Which 4 billion?" is
a question that is never answered. Organic agriculture is now practiced
by hundreds of millions of resource-poor farmers in Africa, South
America and Asia, and they don't see the advantages. Only the upscale
consumers in developing countries, who can afford the products of
organic agriculture, see it as the solution to the world food problem.

Genetic engineering is an easy target and scapegoat, because so far
only biotech companies and farmers have benefited from genetic
engineering. Few benefits have as yet flowed to the consumers,
especially the consumers in poor countries.

Benefits for rich and poor consumers are in the pipeline. The recent
announcement that vitamin A-rich "golden" rice will help cure blindness
and child mortality in countries where rice is the staple, is but one
example. There is little doubt that this new technology, which
represents the culmination of 25 years of research in plant molecular
biology and genetics, is here to stay. It is the latest development of
our 10,000-year-long march that started with harvesting grasses in
South China and the Fertile Crescent of the Near East. It represents a
technological breakthrough in the last decades of the 20th century akin
to the development of the computer. And, in concert with sustainable
agricultural practices, it holds the potential to produce a new,
environmentally friendly Green Revolution that can feed our planet's
burgeoning population.

(Dr. Chrispeels is a professor of plant biology at University of
California, San Diego....CSP)