Today in AgBioView: April 24, 2003
* 'The Benefits of Biotech' by Gregory Conko
* 'Reinvigorating Genetically Modified Crops' by Robert L. Paarlberg
The Benefits of Biotech
- Gregory Conko, Regulation, Spring 2003; 21 (www.cato.org)
'As the world’s population grows, environmental stewardship will require
science to find ways to produce more food on less land.'
Ever since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, environmental
activists have warned of a slowly developing but widespread ecological
catastrophe stemming from humankind’s release of synthetic chemicals into
the environment - particularly, the use of insecticides, herbicides, and
fertilizers. Although the misuse of agricultural chemicals can have
negative environmental impacts, fears that those chemicals would produce
ecological catastrophe have proven unfounded. More importantly, any
attempt to go without those chemicals would have meant sacrificing
tremendous productivity gains and having to bring new, undeveloped land
What if similar benefits could be gained without such a heavy dependence
on chemicals? Today, a new crop protection revolution is underway, and it
is helping farmers combat pests and pathogens while reducing humanity’s
dependence upon agricultural chemicals. Biotechnology has made tremendous
progress in transferring useful traits from one organism to another,
allowing plants to better protect themselves from insects, weeds, and
The benefits have been so great that farmers have made bioengineered seeds
perhaps the most quickly adopted agricultural technology in history. By
2002, just seven years after their introduction on the market, some 5.5
million farmers in more than a dozen countries planted over 145 million
acres with gene-spliced crops. That year, 34 percent of all corn, 71
percent of all upland cotton, and 75 percent of all soybeans grown in the
United States were bioengineered varieties. Biotech corn, cotton, and
soybean have increased yields, reduced agricultural chemical use, and
saved growers time, resources, and money.
The increased productivity made possible by those advances allows farmers
to grow substantially more food and fiber on less land. And each of those
benefits helps to lighten agriculture’s environmental footprint. Risk The
introduction of bioengineered crop varieties onto the market has not been
without controversy, however. Some critics have suggested that recombinant
dnamodification could make foods unsafe to eat, though most concerns have
revolved around the potential impact of bioengineered crops on the
environment. Environmentalists have claimed, for example, that
gene-spliced varieties could harm wild biodiversity by killing beneficial
insects and other living organisms, or by becoming invasive weeds. Those
and related concerns have been used as the justification for increasing
regulation on biotechnology in the United States and abroad.
While it cannot be claimed that modified crops pose no risks to the
environment, it is important that those risks be put into perspective. The
threat posed by any plant --bioengineered, conventionally bred, or wild --
has solely to do with the traits it expresses. Risk has nothing to do with
how, or even if, a plant was modified. Countless scientific bodies,
including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical
Association, and others, have concluded that genesplicing techniques
themselves are actually safer than traditional breeding methods because
breeders know which new genes are being added to plants and exactly what
function those genes perform.
Thus, bioengineered varieties are less likely, not more likely, to pose
environmental or human health risks than are conventionally bred plants
with similar traits. Critics of biotechnology, however, use out-of-context
scare stories about such risks to argue for increasing the regulation of
bioengineered crops across the board, regardless of the level of risk
individual varieties may pose.
Benefits Risk aside, no examination of biotechnology would be complete
without also considering the benefits such crops can deliver. After all,
if the goal of regulation is to improve environmental health, we have to
determine what benefits will be sacrificed when new products are delayed
in reaching the market or made more costly by the regulation in question.
Numerous human health benefits from bioengineered crops are on the horizon
and a few have already been realized. However, most of the benefits that
have already been delivered by gene-spliced plants are environmental.
Since 1996, bioengineered crops have reduced agricultural chemical use,
including insecticides and herbicides. Several varieties, nearly ready for
market, will also help to reduce fertilizer use.
Other products could increase agricultural productivity by allowing crop
plants to better resist plant diseases or tolerate extremes of heat, cold,
and drought. Of course, many critics of modern industrial agriculture
argue that the choice between biotechnology on the one hand and
agricultural chemicals on the other poses a false dichotomy. They argue
that organic production methods offer a more environmentally sensitive
alternative to both systems. However, concluding that organic farming is
better for the environment can only be done by ignoring the environmental
costs imposed by organic methods. By most measures, organic farming is, in
fact, more environmentally destructive than either conventional
agriculture or the biotech alternative.
The use of agricultural chemicals is an environmental paradox. On the one
hand, the runoff of agricultural chemicals into wetlands, streams, and
lakes, as well as seepage of those chemicals into groundwater, can pose
environmental problems. Overuse of chemical pesticides, for example, can
damage biodiversity in areas adjacent to fields and kill fish or other
important aquatic animals, insects, and plants. Overuse can even harm
agricultural productivity itself by killing beneficial insects such as
bees, other pollinators, and pest-eating insects in and around the fields.
On the other hand, the failure to use such products means low
productivity, which has its own adverse environmental impacts. It is
estimated that up to 40 percent of yield potential in Africa and Asia, and
about 20 percent in the industrialized world, is lost to insect pests and
pathogens despite the ongoing use of copious amounts of pesticides. One
benefit of agricultural biotechnology that has already been demonstrated
is its ability to help better control insect pests, weeds, and pathogens.
Among the most prevalent first generation products of agricultural
biotechnology have been crop varieties resistant to chewing insects. That
pest-resistance trait was added by inserting a gene from the common soil
bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into the dna of crop plants. Bt
that are toxic to certain insects, but not to mammals, fish, birds, or
other animals, including humans. The bacterial proteins occur naturally,
and foresters and organic farmers have cultivated Bt spores as a "natural
pesticide" for decades, so it was an obvious choice for investigation by
genetic engineers. Today, more than a dozen varieties of corn, cotton, and
potato with the Bt protein trait have been commercialized. Consider the
success of commercialized Bt corn in protecting plants from a range of
chewing pests such as the European corn borer, a caterpillar pest that
destroys an estimated $1 to $2 billion worth of corn each year.
Caterpillars are difficult to control because they actually bore into
stalks and ears of corn where they escape exposure to sprays.
The Bt trait has provided farmers with the first truly effective means of
controlling such infestations. Bt field corn varieties contributed to a
modest reduction in insecticide use and increased yields by between three
and nine percent, depending upon the intensity of infestation in a given
year. Bt sweet corn has reduced insecticide use by between 42 and 84
percent. And Bt potato varieties cut pesticide applications by about half.
In 2000, though, McDonald’s and Burger King restaurants bowed to activist
pressures and told their french-fry suppliers to stop using engineered
potatoes, so the varieties were removed from the market the following
Bt cotton is perhaps the most remarkable story, generating both
substantial reductions in pesticide use and substantial yield increases.
Cotton production requires very high doses of pesticides --well over 25
percent of all insecticides used globally are sprayed on that crop. So,
the introduction of Bt varieties made a significant contribution to
reducing global insecticide use. Between 1995 and 1999, the total volume
of insecticides to control the three worst cotton pests fell by 2.7
million pounds, or roughly 14 percent, in six U.S. states studied by the
Department of Agriculture. An analysis of 1999 harvests of Bt and
conventional cotton found an average yield increase of nine percent with
the Bt varieties that year. Such a large reduction in synthetic
insecticide use also saves resources that otherwise would be used in
Economists from Louisiana State University and Auburn University found
that, in the year 2000 alone, farmers planting Bt cotton varieties saved
3.4 million pounds of raw materials and 1.4 million pounds of fuel oil in
the manufacture and distribution of synthetic insecticides, while 2.16
million pounds of industrial waste were eliminated. On the user end,
farmers were spared 2.4 million gallons of fuel, 93 million gallons of
water, and some 41,000 ten-hour days needed to apply pesticide sprays.
Similar figures could easily be calculated for other bioengineered crops
In less developed nations where pesticides typically are sprayed on crops
by hand, use of Bt crops has even greater benefits. In China for example,
some 400 to 500 farmers die every year from acute pesticide poisoning.
Since the 1997 introduction of Bt cotton varieties in China, farmers
reduced the quantity of pesticides applied to cotton by more than 75
percent compared to conventional varieties. As a direct consequence,
farmers who planted only Bt varieties reported just one-sixth as many
pesticide poisonings per capita as those who planted only conventional
cotton. Smallholder farmers in the KwaZulu- Natal province of South Africa
have achieved similar productivity and resource savings.
The Monarch butterfly Unfortunately, Bt crops have been the primary target
of many environmentalists who claim that bioengineered plants could hurt
biodiversity. Interestingly, many of those same environmental
organizations, including Environmental Defense and the National Wildlife
Federation, actually supported the development of Bt crops in the late
1980s as a way to cut synthetic pesticide use. But once those products
became a commercial reality, attitudes changed. And after a 1999 report in
Nature suggested that pollen from Bt corn could kill Monarch butterfly
caterpillars, activists stepped up lobbying efforts to heighten
biotechnology regulation. The Nature report, however, was hardly news to
plant scientists because the corn was engineered to kill caterpillars.
Nevertheless, the paper’s publication triggered an immediate frenzy of
negative media coverage and activist protests.
However, Monarch larvae would also die if they were to be exposed to the
Bt bacilli that organic farmers use or to synthetic chemical pesticides.
The unasked question, then, is which production method would be safest for
Monarchs and other nontarget organisms? Follow-up studies have concluded
that, while Bt corn pollen could kill non-target insects including Monarch
butterflies, in actual field conditions the spread of pollen is too small
to represent a significant problem. Indeed, scaremongers who continue to
fret about the effects of Bt corn pollen on Monarch butterflies seem to
overlook the fact that Monarch populations have actually increased since
the 1996 introduction of bioengineered corn in the United States. The
gloomy scenario predicted by activists was authoritatively debunked by the
September 2001 publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences of six peer-reviewed papers describing two full years worth of
intensive field research by 29 scientists who found little or no effect of
Bt pollen on Monarchs.
That is not to suggest that no environmental harm could ever arise from
bioengineered pest-protected plants. But, while Bt crop varieties do
introduce a novel risk in the form of new vectors for insecticidal
proteins, the sheer reduction in the use of synthetic chemical
insecticides in fields planted with Bt varieties tends to reduce the
likelihood of ancillary environmental effects. To date, the evidence
depicts an overwhelmingly positive experience with commercialized
Among the most popular traits included in commercial bioengineered crop
plants is herbicide tolerance. That feature allows farmers to apply a
specific chemical herbicide spray over fields without damaging the growing
crop. The trait has been developed in some plants with conventional
breeding methods, but the process is more efficient and effective with
gene-splicing techniques. Varieties of canola, corn, cotton, flax, rice,
and sugar beet have all been bioengineered to tolerate herbicides, but by
far the most popular herbicide-tolerant crop plant is Monsanto’s Roundup
Ready soybean. Planted on over 70 percent of all soybean acres in the
United States, this variety is resistant to Monsanto’s proprietary
glyphosate herbicide, Roundup.
Farmers growing glyphosate-tolerant soybeans have realized herbicide cost
savings and a significant reduction in the number of soybean herbicide
treatments, although yields have not increased. The exact change in
herbicide use varies among regions and growers, ranging from increases of
as much as seven percent to reductions of up to 40 percent. Overall, the
adoption of Roundup Ready soybeans has led to a modest net reduction in
herbicide use. Nevertheless, adoption of those varieties accelerated a
shift from relatively more harmful herbicides to glyphosate, which is
generally considered an “environmentally friendly” chemical because it
degrades quickly and has an extremely low toxicity.
Similarly, adoption of herbicide-tolerant cotton varieties has shown a
shift from more toxic herbicides to glyphosate and other less toxic ones,
as well as a reduction in overall herbicide use of between 20 and 50
percent. And herbicide-tolerant canola varieties in Canada led to a 29
percent reduction in total herbicide use. Perhaps an even more important
benefit is that the use of herbicide-tolerant crops facilitates the
adoption of conservation tillage practices. The loosening of soil and
consequent erosion from wind and water is reduced by up to 90 percent
compared with plowing. That is a little-appreciated, but very important,
environmental benefit because eroded topsoil can be a troublesome
pollutant. Erosion removes more than 12 tons of topsoil per hectare from
U.S. cropland annually. When it runs off farm fields, soil can be
transported to lakes, ponds, and waterways where the sediment muddies
water, damages aquatic habitat, interferes with navigational and
recreational uses, and requires periodic dredging.
Farmers like conservation tillage, but it is considerably less practical
without the use of herbicides for weed control. And because growers do not
need to worry about damaging their crop, the adoption of
herbicide-tolerant varieties is a perfect compliment to conservation
tillage systems. Since the 1996 introduction of Roundup Ready soybeans,
conservation tillage acreage in the United States has increased by 35
percent. And, while many growers of conventional varieties are adopting
those tillage practices, U.S. farmers growing herbicide-tolerant soybeans
are 25 percent more likely to practice conservation tillage than farmers
growing conventional varieties.
Super-weeds The primary concern among environmentalists regarding
bioengineered herbicide-tolerant crops is that the trait could be
transferred to wild plants through cross-pollination, creating so-called
'super-weeds' that might out-compete other wild plants and become
invasive. As with conventionally bred plants, there is some chance that
genes from biotech varieties could 'out-cross' with wild plants, but only
in regions where there are wild species related closely enough to the
biotech plants for ordinary sexual reproduction -- canola and wheat in
North America or rice in Asia, for example. Nevertheless, outcrossing is
only problematic when the genes in question could enhance the weeds’
ability to survive better in the wild. Because we do not normally spray
herbicides on wilderness areas, however, the herbicide tolerance trait
would not give the wild plant any selective advantage relative to other
species. Thus, while the transfer of a gene for herbicide tolerance into a
wild relative could create a nuisance for farmers, it is unlikely to have
any impact on native biodiversity.
Even in the event that herbicide tolerance genes were transferred to a
weed species, it is unlikely to be genuinely problematic, even for
farmers. Genetic tolerance to herbicides is highly specific. In fields,
farmers could still control herbicidetolerant weeds by using a different
herbicide. Indeed, herbicide- tolerant canola plants have been produced
with conventional breeding and have been commercially available in North
America for more than 20 years. No unmanageable weed problems have been
reported as a result of their use, even though several sexually compatible
wild relatives often grow very close to canola fields, and though canola
is a highly promiscuous out-crosser.
Just as with pesticides and herbicides, the overuse of nitrogen,
potassium, and phosphorous fertilizers and the presence of large amounts
of animal manures can have negative environmental impacts. Runoff from
fertilizers or manures into streams and lakes can cause excessive growth
of aquatic plant life and deplete the availability of absorbed oxygen
needed by other organisms. Despite such problems, fertilizers are an
important part of food production. "It is fantasy," notes agricultural
economist Tom DeGregori, "to suggest that we can grow crops and feed the
world’s population without some form of crop protection and soil nutrient
renewal."In many cases, even newly cleared lands need supplemental
nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous to improve soil quality. Many crop
plants will not grow to full maturity in alkaline soils unless phosphorous
fertilizer is added, and will not grow to full maturity in acidic soils
unless phosphorous or lime is added.
Nearly 30 million tons of phosphorous fertilizer is applied every year to
farm fields around the world. Even then, as much as 80 percent of what is
applied remains unavailable to plants in much of the world’s arable land.
More than two-thirds of global land area is naturally acidic or alkaline,
so phosphorous forms compounds with elemental aluminum, iron, calcium, and
magnesium in the soil. And because such large amounts of those mineral
additives go unused by plants, runoff becomes a significant pollution
Scientists at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Irapuato,
Mexico have bioengineered corn, tobacco, and papaya plants with a gene
from the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa to secrete citric acid from
their roots, which unbinds the phosphorous from other elements and makes
it available to the plants. The engineered varieties yield more leaf and
fruit than conventional plants when grown in acid soils with no added
phosphorous, and they require substantially less phosphorous fertilizer to
reach optimal growth. Research is now underway to modify other crop plants
such as rice and sorghum in the same way. And a similar discovery has
resulted in bioengineered rice and corn varieties that grow better in
alkaline soils. Once they are commercialized, such plants could reduce the
use of soluble mineral fertilizer by as much as 50 percent and improve
crop yields dramatically in the tropical regions where acidic and alkaline
soils are most prevalent.
The Organic Alternative
As we have seen, biotechnology already is contributing to improved
environmental stewardship. However, many critics of biotechnology argue
that the choice between bioengineered crop varieties and greater
agricultural chemical use is a false dichotomy. Organic and other
'natural' farming advocates believe that intensive agriculture, which
relies upon heavy use of synthetic and other 'off-farm' inputs, devastates
soil health, makes for unhealthy food of poor quality and taste, and has
serious detrimental impact on the surrounding environment. Yet claims that
organic farming is a nearer and dearer friend to the environment are
difficult to substantiate because organic practices merely trade some
environmental threats for others.
For example, organic farms do not use synthetic chemicals, but they do
still need to control pests, weeds, and pathogens. Instead of synthetic
pesticides, organic farmers use mineral- or plant-derived chemicals --
including copper sulfate, pyrethrum, ryania, and sabadilla -- to control
insects and plant diseases. Yet, ounce for ounce, most of those chemicals
are at least as toxic or carcinogenic as many of the newest synthetic
chemical pesticides. Pyrethrum, for example, has been classified as a
"likely human carcinogen" by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
scientific panel. Next, instead of soluble nitrogen, potassium, and
phosphorous fertilizers, organic farmers rely on animal manure and
so-called "green manures" such as legume nitrogen fixation or organic
plant matter to restore soil nutrients. However, plowing legume crops and
animal wastes into the soil leads to nitrate leaching into groundwater and
streams at rates similar to conventional soluble fertilizers. And once
animal manures and legume crops are broken down in the soil, the chemical
properties of the remaining nitrogen are identical to those of soluble
mineral fertilizers that are prohibited in organic farming.
Also, because organic farmers must control weeds by using frequent
mechanical tillage (or else sacrifice yields), organic agriculture
contributes to topsoil erosion and disturbs worms and other soil
invertebrates. Compared with modern conservation tillage practices,
organic weed control is much more environmentally damaging.
Finally, productivity from organic farming and ranching is substantially
lower than from conventional intensive agriculture. Organic farming
generates yields that are at least five to 10 percent lower than
conventional crop production and as much as 30 to 40 percent lower for
important staple crops such as potatoes, wheat, and rye. Organic livestock
productivity is approximately 10 to 20 percent lower than conventional
husbandry. Even those yield drags can be misleading because soil nutrient
replacement on organic farms requires lands to be fallowed with
nitrogen-fixing plants such as clover or alfalfa for two or three years in
every five or six. Conventional farming that incorporates soluble mineral
fertilizers does not need to fallow land. Thus, conventional farms can
achieve total yields per acre that are as much as 40 to 100 percent
greater than organic farms. Alternatively, they can match the yields of
organic farms with only 50 to 70 percent of the land.
The Importance Of Productivity
The importance of agricultural productivity for ecological stewardship and
habitat conservation should be evident. The loss and fragmentation of
native habitats caused by agricultural development, along with the
conversion of both wilderness areas and agricultural lands into
residential areas, are widely recognized as among the most serious threats
to biodiversity. According to a recent report published by Future Harvest
and IUCN/The World Conservation Union, "reducing habitat destruction by
increasing agricultural productivity and sustainability" is one of the six
most effective ways to preserve wildlife biodiversity.
Over the past 50 years, the world’s population doubled from three billion
to six billion, and it is expected to grow by an additional three billion
in the next half-century. Fortunately, over the past five decades, the
development of better plant varieties and animal breeds, and the
production and better use of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and
other agronomic technologies -- collectively known as the "Green
Revolution" -- dramatically increased per-acre agricultural yields. That
is perhaps the most remarkable environmental success story in history.
From 1961 to 1993, the earth’s population increased 80 percent, but
cropland increased only eight percent, all while percapita food supplies
rose. Higher food demand was met almost totally by increasing per-acre
yields. Had that not been the case and agricultural productivity in 1993
remained at the 1961 level, producing the same amount of food would have
required increasing the amount of cropland and grazing land by 80 percent
or more. In other words, an additional 27 percent of the world’s land area
(excluding Antarctica) would have had to come into agricultural use.
Surely, that would be an environmental nightmare far greater than any of
those imagined by opponents of agricultural technology.
Still, similar yield increases will be necessary in the twenty- first
century if the projected population is to be fed with an equally light
impact on the environment. The projected increase in food demand can be
supplied in one of two ways: increasing the land area dedicated to
agriculture or increasing agricultural productivity. Though the ability of
conventional technology to increase agricultural productivity over the
past few decades has been impressive, it is not guaranteed to continue.
Annual increases in agricultural productivity have been declining in
recent years. Cereal yields per hectare rose 2.2 percent per year in the
late 1960s and 1970s, but only 1.5 percent per year in the 1980s and early
1990s, and as little as just 1.0 percent by the end of the '90s.
Consequently, some scientists believe new breakthroughs will have to come
from bioengineering techniques. Fortunately, biotechnology is much more
flexible, precise, and powerful than those earlier methods of genetic
manipulation, and rapid productivity gains of five, 10, and even 25
percent in individual varieties from a single added trait are not
As important as pest and weed control and soil nutrients are to crop
productivity, controlling the destructive forces of nature do not end
there. Plant pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi cause billions
of dollars in crop losses worldwide. Already, virus-resistant varieties of
potato, papaya, squash, and melon have been approved for commercial
cultivation, and varieties of citrus fruits, peanuts, tomatoes, and
tobacco have all been engineered and are awaiting commercialization. A
more difficult challenge has been engineering resistance to a range of
bacterial and fungal pathogens, though some successes have already been
had. Extremes in temperature, periods of drought, and impure water are
also significant factors that limit the productivity of crop plants.
Researchers in Brazil have bioengineered tobacco plants to over-express a
gene that reduces dehydration during periods of drought. Other researchers
have identified plant genes that will help crops better survive bouts with
extreme heat and with soils affected by excess mineral salinization.
Scientists at the University of Toronto and the University of California,
Davis have engineered tomatoes and other plants that are so tolerant to
salt that they not only grow in salty soil, they can also be irrigated
with brackish water with only a modest negative effect on plant growth.
Those improvements and many others, made possible only with recombinant
dna techniques, will go a long way toward improving the yield potential of
the world’s most important crops.
Because of the complexity of plant transformation, many of the promised
benefits of biotechnology are still many years away. But the biggest
threat bioengineered plants face is overly restrictive policies based on
the false notion that there is something inherently dangerous about
biotechnology. Of course, not all the products of gene-splicing will prove
to be better than the best conventional ones. Some will have inferior
agronomic properties; others may express traits that pose genuine
environmental or human health risks. But to gauge the value of individual
applications or agricultural biotechnology as a whole, we have to place
their risks and benefits into a broader context that does not ignore the
risks posed by conventional and organic production practices or our
ability to manage those risks responsibly. Yet that is exactly how
advocates of increased regulation would have us examine them: without
reference to the place biotechnology occupies in the broader spectrum of
plant modification and other agricultural practices.
Numerous attempts have been made in recent years to increase the
regulatory burden borne by the products of biotechnology --through both
agency rulemaking and congressional legislation. All of those attempts
have two things in common: They require regulators to consider only the
risks of bioengineered crops and not their benefits, and they hold
gene-splicing to a standard of safety that could not possibly be met by
non-biotech products and practices. Heightened regulation of certain
high-risk plant varieties may indeed be warranted. But the appropriate
level of oversight cannot be achieved simply by singling out bioengineered
varieties for differential treatment. When biotechnology is evaluated on a
level playing field, farmers, consumers, and regulators will find that it
outshines its competitors.
R E A D I N G S
Agricultural Biotechnology: Updated Benefit Estimates, by Janet Carpenter
and Leonard Gianessi. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Food and
Agricultural Policy, January 2001.
Agriculture and Modern Technology: A Defense, by Thomas R. DeGregori.
Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 2001.
Feeding the World in the Twenty-First Century, by Gordon Conway and Gary
Toenniessen. Nature, Vol. 402, No. 6761 (1999).
Field Testing Genetically Modified Organisms: Framework for Decisions,
prepared by the National Research Council. Washington, D.C.: National
Academy Press, 1989.
The Genetically Modified Crop Debate in the Context of Agricultural
Evolution, by C.S. Prakash. Plant Physiology, Vol. 126, No. 1 (2001).
IFT Expert Report on Biotechnology and Foods, prepared by the Institute of
Food Technologists. Chicago, Ill.: Institute of Food Technologists, 2000.
Meeting Global Food Needs: The Environmental Trade-Offs Between Increasing
Land Conversion and Land Productivity, by Indur M. Goklany. Technology,
Vol. 6, Nos. 2-3 (1999).
Pandora’s Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified
Foods, by Alan McHughen. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Policy Controversy in Biotechnology: An Insider’s View, by Henry I.
Miller. Austin, Texas: R.G. Landes Company, 1997.
Gregory Conko is director of food safety policy at the Competitive
Enterprise Institute. This article was adapted from the author’s chapter
The Boons of Biotech in the forthcoming book Farming the Environment:
Agriculture’s Environmental Triumph, by J. Bishop Grewell and Clay Landry
(Purdue University Press, 2003). Conko can be contacted by e-mail at
Reinvigorating Genetically Modified Crops
- Robert L. Paarlberg, U.S. National Academy of Sciences's 'Issues In
Science & Technology' (Spring Issue 2003) (Forwarded by Julia A. Moore,
Science Advisor at NSF)
'Poor farmers in developing nations will benefit if the United States
asserts itself in the international arena to develop and promote
United States officials were shocked in August 2002 when the government of
Zambia, on the verge of a major food crisis, began to refuse the import of
free corn from the United States as food aid, because some of that corn
might be 'genetically modified' (GM). This was the same corn Americans had
been consuming since 1996, and the same corn that the United Nations World
Food Programme (WFP) had been distributing in Africa - including Zambia -
over the previous six years, but now the Zambians were rejecting it
Three other countries facing possible famine in the region - Zimbabwe,
Mozambique, and Malawi - also decided to reject GM corn from the United
States as food aid, unless the corn was milled to prevent it from being
planted. One of the stated concerns of these governments was the fear that
if some of unmilled GM corn imported as food aid was instead planted by
farmers, these nations would lose their current status as "GM-free"
countries, compromising their ability in the future to export food and
farm products to the European Union (EU).
These events persuaded trade officials in the United States that the more
restrictive policies toward GM foods that had taken hold in Europe were
now a threat not just to commercial farm commodity sales, but also to the
efficient international movement of food aid for famine relief. The WFP
was able to replace most U.S. corn shipments to Zambia with non-GM corn
from Tanzania and South Africa, but not before hardships in the country
increased. In January 2003, a mob of 6000 hungry villagers in one rural
town in Zambia overpowered an armed policeman to loot a storehouse filled
with U.S. corn, in the knowledge that the government was soon going to
insist it be taken out of the country.
In the wake of this crisis U.S. officials renewed calls for a relaxation
of regulatory and import restrictions on GM crops and foods in Europe.
U.S. officials pointed out that even scientists in Europe had been unable
to find any evidence of added risk to human health or the environment from
any the GM crop varieties approved so far. In 2001, the EU Commission for
Health and Consumer Affairs released a summary of 81 separate scientific
studies, all financed by the EU rather than private industry, conducted
over a 15-year period and aimed at determining whether genetically
modified products were unsafe, insufficiently tested, or under-regulated.
None of these studies found any scientific evidence of added harm to
humans or the environment from any approved GM crops or foods. In December
2002 even the French Academies of Sciences and Medicine drew a similar
conclusion. The Academies issued a report which said, "there has not been
a health problem 'or damage to the environment' from GM crops. This report
blamed the rejection and over-regulation of GM technologies in Europe on
what it called a „propagation of erroneous information."
Early in 2003, believing its scientific and legal case to be sound, the
United States Government moved steadily closer to a formal challenge of EU
regulations toward GM foods and crops - particularly an EU moratorium on
new GM crop approvals - in the dispute settlement body of the World Trade
Organization. The United States does have a solid scientific and legal
case, but we shall argue below that the political and commercial
foundation for challenging the EU on GM crops and foods is currently quite
weak. In the looming confrontation between the U.S. and the EU over GM
food trade regulations, the political and commercial influence of the EU
is likely to exceed that of the United States. The likely result will be a
continued spread, into the developing world, of highly precautionary
EU-style regulations on GM foods and crops. The big losers, if the EU wins
this fight, will not be commercial farmers in the United States. The big
losers will be poor farmers in developing countries, who will be denied
new GM options to overcome serious farm productivity constraints.
Reasons for the Restricted Planting of GM Crops
GM seeds have been commercially available since 1995, yet ninety-nine
percent of all the world‚s plantings of GM-food and feed crops are still
restricted to just four countries in the Western Hemisphere˜the United
States, Canada, Argentina, and (illegally) Brazil. This restricted
planting of GM-food and GM-feed crops reflects, more than anything else, a
globalization of Europe‚s highly precautionary regulatory approach toward
this technology. Globalization is often depicted, by its critics, as the
same thing as Americanization, as an international spread of U.S. tastes,
U.S. regulatory preferences, and U.S. technologies. So why, in this case,
we are seeing European tastes and regulatory preferences triumph? Consider
four channels of influence through which this European triumph is now
taking place: Intergovernmental organizations, development assistance,
non-governmental organizations, and international food and commodity
It is unsurprising that European influence dominates within most of the
Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) that currently deal with GM foods
and crops. European governments work hard to maintain and develop their
influence within IGOs, while the U.S. government too often ignores or
disrespects IGOs - by failing to ratify conventions, failing to send
high-ranking delegations to IGO meetings, or failing to pay dues on time.
This U.S. history of disregarding or disrespecting IGOs is now producing
adverse consequences in the area of international regulation of GM crops.
The IGOs that should be promoting GM-crops are not doing so, and the IGOs
that are regulating GM-crops are doing so in the manner Europeans prefer.
International agricultural organizations and development organizations
such as UN FAO, CGIAR, and the World Bank should be promoting GM crops,
because these organizations are production-oriented, pro-technology, and
also traditionally pro-U.S. But U.S. financial support and diplomatic
attention to these organizations has weakened in the past decade, so in
the current climate of European misgivings toward GM-crops, these
organizations have all backed away from promoting GM crops.
The FAO mostly provides advice now in how to regulate GM technologies, not
how to shape their development or promote their use. The director general
of FAO has even stated publicly that GMOs are not needed to meet the
objective of alleviating world hunger by 2015. The United States
government, which has been delinquent in paying its dues to FAO, has lost
influence within the organization. At an FAO summit in 2002 the U.S.
pressed FAO for an endorsement of GM crops, but the best the organization
could come up with was an endorsement of what it called "new technologies
including biotechnology". By using the word biotechnology instead of rDNA
technology, or GMOs, or GM, the FAO signaled its discomfort with GM crops.
Nor is the CGIAR system promoting GM-crops. It is true that the
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines is
supposed to be developing 'golden rice.' But that will be difficult since
they have decided not to conduct any GM-crop field trials in the
Philippines, lest they stir up the anger of local anti-GM NGOs. Only two
out of IRRI‚s 800 scientists are working on 'golden rice' at the moment.
Elsewhere in the CG system, CIMMYT is participating in an insect resistant
maize project for Africa, but this major CG center is not paying for the
project. It is being financed instead by the Novartis Foundation. In the
current CGIAR annual report, there is only one reference to genetically
modified crops, in the ISNAR section, but this reference is to the
regulation of possible biosafety threats from GM crops, not possible
benefits. So the CG system is hardly championing this new technology. This
reticence is again no surprise, given the fact that European contributions
to the CG budget are now twice as large as contributions from North
America. Those who pay the piper call the tune.
Fear of diminished European financial support, and fear of criticism from
European NGOs, has now also paralyzed the World Bank on GM crops. Three
years ago, the World Bank attempted to draft a strategy document on GM
crops, but because of political opposition at the top this strategy paper,
as bland as it was, never gained official approval. Now the World Bank‚s
strategy on GM-crops is not to promote them, but to study them. In late
summer 2002, the Bank announced a three-year global consultation process
designed to examine the „possible benefits‰ of this new technology, and
also the alleged drawbacks. No danger of running into any criticism from
the EU with this approach.
While most of the IGOs that should be promoting GM crops are not doing so,
a number of equally powerful IGOs are taking a distinctly European
approach toward regulating this new technology. For example, the United
Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is now using funds from the Global
Environment Facility (GEF) to help developing countries draft
precautionary biosafety regulations for GM-crops. UNEP wants such
regulations be in place before these countries begin any planting of
GM-crops, whatever the delay or administrative cost this might imply.
Also under the auspices of UNEP, within the Convention on Biological
Diversity (CBD), a new Cartagena Biosafety Protocol was negotiated in
2000. This protocol explicitly endorses "the precautionary approach" and
allows governments to limit imports of living GM-crops and seeds, even
without scientific demonstration of a specific risk to the environment. It
states that under conditions of scientific uncertainty no government
should be prevented from blocking imports of GM-crops or seeds. In the
world of science, of course, safety is always uncertain. Experimental
science can demonstrate the presence of a risk, but never the complete
absence of risk. Testing for the Nth hypothetical risk, and for the Nth
year of exposure to that Nth risk, becomes a formula for endless delay.
The terms of the Cartagena Protocol were modeled after an earlier
convention, the Basel convention on trans-boundary movement of hazardous
wastes, so a bias against GM technology was part of this new agreement
from the start. U.S. influence over the negotiations was diminished,
because the United States Senate had never ratified the original
convention on biological diversity. Since the United States was not party
to the convention, it had to participate in the Protocol negotiations as
an "observer" - not a good way to control the outcome.
Development Assistance is a second channel through which European
influence over GM crop regulations is extended internationally. The United
States used to finance development assistance generously, hoping to
influence policies in poor countries, but since the end of the cold war
U.S. assistance programs have withered. This is particularly true in the
area of agriculture. Between 1992 and 1999, USAID support for agricultural
development assistance fell by more than 50 percent. In Africa, the U.S.
largely withdrew from agricultural development assistance work.
Agricultural specialists were no longer sent to the field, AID missions
were closed down, and people were brought home. Meanwhile, European donors
remained very much on the scene, ready to advise African governments on
how to regulate GM-crops. The Dutch, Danes, and the Germans remained
active, consistently advocating ratification of the new Cartagena Protocol
and formal adoption of a Europe-style precautionary principle. Developing
countries were warned not to plant GM-crops until precautionary biosafety
screening procedures are fully in place.
The result has been an export of European-style regulatory systems into
these developing countries, even though the need for agricultural
productivity growth is higher than in Europe and even though the capacity
to implement complex biosafety screening procedures is much lower. The
practical result has been regulatory paralysis. Once demanding biosafety
screening requirements are written into the laws of poor countries,
cautious politicians and bureaucrats discover that the safest thing,
politically, is to give no GM crop approvals at all. Approving nothing is
the best way to conceal a weak technical capacity to screen GM
technologies case by case basis, and also a good way to avoid criticism
from NGOs and avoid difficult questions from the media.
This is one reason so few biosafety approvals for GM crops have been given
in the poorest countries of the developing world. Not a single country on
the African continent, other than South Africa, has yet approved any
GM-crops for commercial planting. In all of developing Asia, not a single
country, other than the Philippines, has given a single biosafety approval
for the planting of any major GM-food or feed crop -- no corn, soybeans,
no rice. Only an industrial crop - Bt cotton - has been approved, in a few
Asian countries. We sometimes hear the question, "If this technology is so
good, why aren‚t more poor farmers in the developing world planting
GM-crops?" The reason is, their own government regulators have not yet
made it legal for them to do so.
European-based NGOs are another source of external influence over GM crop
regulations in poor countries. Environmental and anti-globalization NGOs
have invested heavily in an effort to block this new technology. These
NGOs have been instrumental in forcing the EU to impose a moratorium on
new GM crop approvals since 1998, and now they are working to prevent
approvals in the developing world. Greenpeace has invested $7 million to
stop genetic engineering, focusing particularly on developing countries
that have not yet approved any GM crops.
Of course, private biotech companies like Monsanto spend a lot more than
this to promote the spread of GM-crops, but NGOs go beyond paid media
campaigns; they also employ direct actions, street protests, and lawsuits
to generate free media attention. NGO lawsuits have emerged as a proven
method for delay in poor countries. In 1998, Monsanto thought it had won
official approval in Brazil for five varieties for Roundup Ready soybeans.
A local consumer NGO and the Brazilian office of Greenpeace filed a
lawsuit and found a sympathetic federal court judge to issue an injunction
that stopped the approval. This case has been caught up in the Brazilian
court system ever since, so it remains illegal to plant any GM seeds in
Brazil, even though farmers there have been eager to do so - and, indeed,
are smuggling in GM seeds from Argentina illegally.
In India, when a local partner of Monsanto began conducting field trials
to attain biosafety approval for Bt cotton, NGOs with European links
invaded the trials, uprooted the cotton plants, and burned them. The
Indian government had been told by the NGOs that the plants contained a
so-called 'terminator' gene; This was not true, but headlines were made,
public interest litigations were filed, and the approval of GM-cotton was
delayed for two years. Now India has gone ahead with GM cotton, but it
still has not approved any GM food or feed crops, and in the fall of 2002
the Government of India began to refuse imports of GM corn and soya from
the United States as food aid. Earlier, NGOs had complained that this food
aid was "contaminating" India's food supply.
European-based NGOs are also actively seeking to keep GM crops out of
Africa. And as in India, they don‚t want African states to accept GM
products even for emergency or humanitarian food relief. In southern
Africa in 2002-03, roughly 15 million people in six drought-stricken
countries required international food aid. But as mentioned earlier, the
international aid deliveries were slowed because governments in the region
did not want to accept GM corn from the U.S. as food aid. Political
leaders in this region had been frightened away in part by NGO campaigns
conducted by groups such as Action Aid from the United Kingdom and Friends
of the Earth from the Netherlands.
These campaigns last summer scared the government of Zambia into banning
the importation of any GM products as food aid, even though 2.5 million
Zambians were hungry and at risk of famine. The government of Zambia then
reaffirmed this import ban on GM food aid in November 2002, after a team
of government experts traveled to Europe and North America to seek advice
on the issue. Among the experts they consulted in London, Brussels, and
Amsterdam were NGO leaders from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and
other organizations deeply opposed to GM technologies. They were
particularly influenced by the views of the British Medical Association,
which had no evidence of any added health risks from GM foods but was
clinging to a position it had taken three years earlier that the
technology had not yet been sufficiently tested for all hypothetical
Frustrated with this crisis, United States officials at one point late in
2002 asked the EU and the WHO to reassure officials in southern Africa
that there was no scientific evidence of risk from the corn being offered,
and to remind the Zambians that even EU regulators had given food safety
approvals to some varieties of GM corn and soybeans. But the first
response from the EU was to say this was a matter between the United
States and Zambia. WHO Director General Gro Brundtland also disappointed
the United States by saying only to a group of health ministers from
southern Africa that the GM corn was "not likely" to present a risk.
International markets are a fourth and final channel through which
European attitudes toward GM-foods and feeds are now spreading beyond
Europe. It was originally assumed that once the United States began
growing GM-food and feed products, the technology would quickly become
pervasive. The United States is the world‚s biggest exporter of
agricultural goods, so these products would have to be accepted worldwide.
That was the wrong way to look at the matter. In international commodity
markets, it is the big importers, not the big exporters, who usually set
standards. In any competitive market, the customer is always right. Even
when the customer is wrong, the customer is right.
In commodity markets the big customers are not the exporters but the
importers, led by Europe and Japan. The EU and Japan together take in $90
billion worth of agricultural imports every year. From developing
countries, specifically, the EU is the big importer. Europe alone imports
75 percent more farm products from developing countries every year than
the United States. The EU imports more food and farm products from
developing countries than the United States, Japan, Canada, and Australia
combined. Accordingly, developing countries that aspire to export farm
products must pay close attention to European consumer preferences and
European import regulations.
If it were only consumer opinion in Europe that was weighted against GM
foods, nobody could really complain, since that would be a free market
outcome. The customer is always right. But increasingly in Europe, it
isn‚t just consumer opinion that is blocking imports of GM-products. It is
now also a variety of official EU regulations and policy actions, some of
which go beyond the apparent preferences of European consumers. European
consumers have shown they are willing to pay small premiums in the market
for GM-free food, but only small premiums. Meanwhile, politicians and
regulatory bureaucrats in Europe are setting in place rules that could
effectively remove GM products from the shelf completely. It seems that
European food safety regulators, having under-regulated BSE, dioxin, and
hoof and mouth disease, are hoping to restore their credibility in part by
over-regulating GM foods. Without any scientific evidence or risk, the EU
is going ahead with a system for tracing and labeling GM products that
could drive them out of the EU market completely.
These new regulations go beyond the informal EU moratorium on new GM
biosafety approvals, a policy which has required, since 1998, an import
ban on any bulk commodity shipments from the U.S. possibly containing
unapproved GM-varieties. This import ban has cost U.S. exporters about
$300 million a year in lost corn sales, and is now threatening to trigger
a WTO dispute, but a more serious regulatory issue looms: the new
traceability and labeling regulations currently being enacted by the EU
Parliament and Council. The EU says it is enacting these regulations in
order to facilitate lifting of the moratorium; EU consumers, green party
leaders, and anti-GM activists may be less likely to object to new GM crop
approvals is strict traceability and labeling rules are in place. But
under these new rules any developing country hoping to export farm
products to Europe may be compelled to remain GM free.
These new traceability and labeling regulations will impose costly new
product segregation requirements on any exporters of GM products to
Europe. Mandatory GM labeling will be extended to animal feed as well as
to human food, and even to processed products where there is no longer any
physically detectable GM content. Fraudulent claims of GM-free content for
such processed products will be almost impossible to prosecute. But the
traceability regulation is the one that could drive labeled GM products
out of the market completely in Europe. This regulation will oblige every
operator in the food chain to maintain a legal audit trail for all GM
products, recording where they came from and where they went. This is
intended to facilitate enforcement of the new labeling rule, and also to
make possible a quick removal from the food chain of any GM product that
might prove to be unsafe.
In Europe, because farmers are not growing any GM crops, this new
traceability requirement will not require any added physical segregation
of products; it will be a burdensome paperwork requirement, but mostly
just a paperwork requirement. Not so in the United States or in other
countries where GM crops are grown and exported. Such countries will now
have to present documentary audit trails for any GM product they wish to
sell in Europe, which means they will have to start segregating GM from
non-GM products at home, and tracing GM products through the U.S. market
as well. Segregating GM from non-GM bulk commodities can mean building two
of everything - two sets of grain elevators in every county, two
categories of railroad cars and river barges, separated drying and
processing facilities, and segregated export elevators. At the very low
threshold of contamination likely to be permitted under the new EU
regulation (shipments will probably have to be 99.1 percent free of any GM
content to escape the label and traceability requirement), this
segregation process will be so costly as to raise the export price of the
commodity shipments in question. Fearing either loss of access to Europe
or loss of competitiveness, U.S. farmers might eventually have to retreat
from planting GM seeds.
These new EU regulations are arguably in violation of the Sanitary and
Phytosanitary (SPS) and Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) agreements of
the WTO. The moratorium on new approvals violates the SPS agreement
because it is not based on any scientific evidence of risk. Even EU
Commission officials admit there is no scientific evidence to justify the
moratorium. The new Traceability and Labeling Regulation, when it comes
into force sometime later this year, will probably violate the TBT
agreement of the WTO, under both article 2.1 ('like products') and also
Article 2.2 ('legitimate objective'). We do not yet know if the U.S.
government will try to bring a formal challenge to these new regulations
in the WTO. In the case of the moratorium, the U.S. has been threatening
for the past four years. In January 2003, Trade Representative Robert
Zoellick announced that he personally favored bringing such a case soon.
In the case of the Traceability and Labeling Regulations, since they are
not yet in place, a formal WTO case is not yet an option, but the U.S.
government has been working hard to influence the drafting if these
regulations, hoping to weaken their likely impact on U.S. exports. The
U.S. has asked that the threshold of permitted contamination to be raised;
the U.S. wants labels to be required only if some GM content is physically
detectable; and the U.S. wants to be able, when labeling exports, to say
that products or shipments 'may contain' certain GMOs, rather than having
to say exactly which GMOs are contained in the product. But these U.S.
requests found little support when the EU Councils of Agricultural and
Environmental Ministers approved the new regulations late in 2002. Only
the UK appeared ready to call for any weakening of the regulation, while
the French, at the other extreme, wanted GM labels not only on all
processed GM foods but also on meat from animals that have been fed GM
crops, and even on GM pet foods.
If the U.S. does try to use a WTO case against these EU regulations, the
result will probably be more frustration. The U.S. could win legally, but
lose politically and commercially. The WTO can be useful at times for
pressuring the EU Commission, or even the EU Council, into scaling back
trade distortions linked to traditional farm producers subsidies, under
the CAP. But for the purpose of scaling back trade impediments linked to
consumer food safety fears (or phobias) the WTO is a weak instrument. Food
safety in Europe falls under the co-decision provision of the EU treaty,
which means it is an issue for the European Parliament (EP) as well as for
the Council and the Commission. Once a piece of legislation has been
approved by the EP, reversing or changing that legislation through an
application of WTO pressure from the outside will almost surely fail. On
food safety issues, the WTO has almost no credibility inside the EP
because the WTO is not a food safety organization, it does not embrace the
precautionary principle, and it is not democratic.
The United States learned the limits of WTO dispute settlement powers in
the food safety area with the recent beef hormone case, where the U.S. won
(twice) in the WTO‚s dispute settlement body, but still failed to open the
EU market to hormone treated beef. The hormone ban was popular with
consumers in Europe and had been endorsed by the EP, so the Council
decided to comply with WTO rules by paying the U.S. an annual fine rather
than lift the ban.
Even if the U.S. were to win a case in the WTO against EU GM food
regulations, there is thus little guarantee that U.S. food sales to Europe
would increase, either because the EU would decide to pay a fine or accept
retaliation rather than comply, or because the spectacle and publicity
surrounding the challenge would drive European consumers, and private
importers, even farther away from GM-contaminated U.S. products.
The regulatory movement in Europe toward tighter restrictions on
GM-imports is thus almost certain to continue. This has been noticed by
agricultural exporters world-wide, and it is now the single greatest
inducement for so many governments around the world to remain GM-free. If
governments can keep their farm sectors GM-free, they won't have to worry
about losing access to the EU markets. The minute they start planting GM
food or feed crops, they will have to set in place the costly product
segregation systems required to comply with Europe's new traceability and
labeling regulations, or they will lose access to Europe. This was one
reason for the GM food rejections in Africa. Several years ago private
importers in Europe said no to purchasing beef from Namibia, because that
beef was partly raised on GM corn grown in South Africa. When Zambia
officially reaffirmed its GM food aid ban in November 2002, it included
fear of lost export sales to Europe as one of its reasons.
Fear of such export losses in Europe is now slowing down the technology
even in some strongly pro-GM countries, such as Argentina. Since 1998,
Argentina has made it a policy not to approve any new GM-varieties until
those varieties have been approved for import into the EU (where there
have not been any approvals since 1998). China, another early GM
enthusiast, has similarly decided to hold back on the commercial approval
of the planting of GM maize or soybeans or rice. China began its slowdown
on GM crops after a shipment of soy sauce made in Shanghai from U.S.
soybeans was turned away at the EU border because there might be a GM
origin to the soy sauce.
Even the United States and Canada are slowing down some new GM crop
technologies, such as GM wheat, for fear of losing export sales of wheat
or flour in Europe, or in Japan. In the extreme, as noted earlier, the
United States could even decide that the only affordable way to retain its
access to the EU and Japanese markets in the future will be to pull back
from planting any GM varieties of soybeans, maize, and corn. GM cotton
production can continue to spread in the U.S. and elsewhere, but GM food
and feed crop production might go into decline.
Who Will Lose if the EU Wins?
The likely outcome described here will not have to be a calamity for U.S.
farmers. It might only mean turning the clock back to 1995, returning to
the use of non-GM seeds by corn and soybean farmers. U.S. farm income
would dip slightly because production costs would increase, and the
spraying of insecticides and herbicides would also increase slightly. But
these costs might be seen as preferable to embracing expensive EU-style
product segregation procedures and traceability and labeling regulations.
Paying the price to segregate, trace, and label would be a risky gamble if
U.S. farmers wanted to keep planting GM varieties, since products going to
Europe with a GM label could be rejected by many private importers and
never make it to the supermarket shelf. If the U.S. were to back away from
planting GM corn or soybeans, the big commercial losers would be the
companies that originally developed these crops, not the farmers currently
growing them, and few tears would probably be shed for these companies on
either side of the Atlantic.
The big losers, if Europe's precautionary principle spreads
internationally, will be poor farmers in the developing world. If this new
technology is killed in the cradle, these farmers could miss a chance to
escape the low farm productivity that is helping to keep them in poverty.
Poor farmers in tropical countries are facing unsolved problems from crop
pests, crop disease, low soil fertility, and drought. This is one reason
food production in Africa, on a per capita basis, has been declining for
the last 30 years. Since 1975, the number of malnourished children in
Africa has more than doubled to reach 30 million. Fifty million Africans
suffer from vitamin A deficiency, and 65 percent of African women of
childbearing age are anemic. Two-thirds of these poor and poorly fed
Africans are farmers, so for them increased farm productivity would be the
best escape from poverty and hunger. GM technologies hold out some promise
for helping these poor farmers. Maize farmers in Kenya who lose 45 percent
of their crop to stem borers could be helped if given the chance to plant
Bt maize. Cowpea farmers in Cameroon who lose more than half of their crop
to pod borers and weevils could be helped if given a chance to grow Bt
cowpeas. It might soon be possible to use rDNA techniques to provide these
farmers with even more desperately needed drought-resistant or
nitrogen-fixing food crop varieties.
Africa is a continent with large and growing problems of chronic
malnutrition linked to low agricultural productivity. It can scarcely
afford to see this technology abandoned because of the precautionary
preferences of prosperous and well-fed people in rich countries. But that
is the direction we are now moving. If we turn back the clock on GM
technologies in rich countries, farmers will still be prosperous and
consumers will still be well fed. But if we turn back the clo