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ENGINEERING THE HARVEST; BIOTECH COULD HELP FIGHT HUNGER IN THE WORLD'S
POOREST NATIONS-BUT WILL IT?
March 13, 2000 U.S. News
Saffron-colored rice that saves millions of lives by banishing anemia and
vitamin A deficiency from Asia. Sweet potatoes that resist a
harvest-destroying virus in Africa. Maize that survives the devastating
droughts and floods that routinely hit rural regions throughout the
tropics. Such miracle crops may not be growing in farmers' fields, but
genetic engineers around the world are working feverishly to develop them
in the laboratory. And the crops' potential to alleviate human suffering
has some scientists from poor nations asking whether today's heated debate
over the safety of "Frankenfood" ignores the more serious hazard of not
developing these seeds.
Says Calestous Juma, a Kenyan who is special adviser to Harvard
University's Center for International Development: "For the world's
developing countries, one of the greatest risks of genetic engineering is
not being able to use this technology at all."
The need to improve Third World agriculture is indisputable. Across large
swaths of Asia, Latin America, and-especially-Africa, hunger and
malnutrition are epidemic. According to Gordon Conway, president of the
Rockefeller Foundation and author of The Doubly Green Revolution, more
than 800 million people worldwide are hungry or chronically
undernourished-the majority women and young children. Each year, more than
5 million children under age 5 die from diseases related to malnutrition.
Meanwhile, the populations of most developing nations are growing rapidly.
In a recent report, the International Food Policy Research Institute
(IFPRI) estimates that to keep up with the world's rising food demand,
farmers will have to produce 40 percent more grain by 2020. And this comes
at a time when increases in crop production, even in the richest countries
with the most fertile lands, have leveled off.
Genetic engineering has the potential to help ameliorate these problems by
allowing scientists to splice into crops genes that could boost yields;
make crops resistant to droughts, diseases, and pests; and enhance the
nutritional quality of food. Yet, with just a handful of notable
exceptions, most genetic engineers are not developing such crops. One
obvious reason is that improvements to staples that feed the world's
poor-sweet potato and cassava, for instance-offer little potential profit
to biotechnology companies that answer first to their shareholders.
But another problem, says Juma, is that the public furor over thepotential
hazards of biotechnology has scared off other promising sources of
research funding. According to IFPRI's director general, Per
Pinstrup-Andersen, neither proponents who hype biotechnology nor activists
trying to stop it "are the people of the world who go to bed hungry."
Golden rice. The exceptions to profit- driven biotech, many funded bythe
Rockefeller Foundation, demonstrate the technology's potential. At the
Cali, Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT),
for instance, Nigerian scientist Martin Fregene leads a project to map the
genome of cassava-a staple food throughout Africa-that will help
researchers introduce genes for insect and disease resistance. Another
CIAT researcher, Venezuelan Zaida Lentini, has spliced into rice a gene
conferring resistance to the hoja blanca virus, which can cut yields by
half. And in Mexico, scientists have added to both rice and maize genes
that help plants tolerate the toxic levels of aluminum that are common in
many tropical soils.
For the poor, bad nutrition can be as serious a problem as too little
food. The most dramatic advance on this front-reported recently in the
journal Science-represents an unprecedented technical as well as
humanitarian feat. With funds from the Rockefeller Foundation and the
Swiss government, Ingo Potrykus and colleagues at the Swiss Federal
Institute of Technology in Zurich have created a genetically modified
breed of rice containing beta carotene, the biochemical that turns into
vitamin A. The developing world's leading cause of childhood blindness,
vitamin A deficiency also makes about 230 million children more vulnerable
to infection, causing more than a million deaths a year. To produce
"golden rice," the Potrykus team introduced three genes, two from
daffodils and another from a bacterium. In contrast, most genetically
modified crops produced so far contain just a single foreign gene. Now
scientists at the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute
are crossing the experimental rice with another variety that is consumed
throughout Asia. They hope farmers will begin sowing golden rice-which
will be made available free of charge-within two to three years.
Meanwhile, Potrykus has added to rice two additional genes that double the
grain's iron content and increase the mineral's absorption. Iron
deficiency and the anemia it causes are the world's most common
nutritional disorders. Eventually, he hopes to combine the two genetically
engineered rices, creating a variety that would provide in a typical Asian
diet all the vitamin A and iron a person needs.
But Miguel Altieri, an agroecologist at the University of
California-Berkeley, argues that, beyond these isolated cases, biotech
research "has nothing to do with helping developing countries." Indeed,
critics and supporters alike agree that genetically engineered crops
commercialized so far are meant to help farmers in industrialized
countries boost their yields and profits. Altieri argues that the needs of
the poor are misleadingly being used to justify investment in biotech
research. Beyond lack of profitability and the controversy over risks, the
greatest barrier to developing modified crops to help the poor comes from
the industrialized world's system of intellectual-property rights. Even
when private foundations like Rockefeller sponsor research, most of the
biotechnology tools required-the gene gun used to inject DNA, for
instance-are patented by private companies. Hoping to minimize such legal
obstacles, Rockefeller's Conway has approached Monsanto and other biotech
companies to ask if they would donate patented technologies to nonprofit
institutions in developing countries.
Kenyan breakthrough. His track record provides cause for optimism. Last
fall, following a request from Conway, Monsanto announced that it was
abandoning plans to use "terminator" technologies, which render seeds of
genetically modified crops sterile so they cannot be used for planting the
following season. A Monsanto spokesperson says the company already has
hosted a few scientists from developing countries who are working to
modify staple foods, then donated the resulting products and processes to
the researchers' home institutions. Kenyan scientists working at Monsanto,
for example, have developed a genetically altered sweet potato that
resists a devastating virus.
Even Conway and others who fervently believe in genetic engineering's
power to help the poor say the technology's potential hazards must not be
ignored. Before genetically modified seeds are planted in the field, they
say, the crops should be tested for detrimental effects on either human
health or the environment. Indeed, some ecologists warn that because the
tropics house the wild relatives of many crop plants, there is a greater
chance that foreign genes could escape into nature.
But Florence Wambugu, a Kenyan scientist who helped create the genetically
altered sweet potato, says such risks are not grave enough for foreign
activists to try to exclude Africa from the biotechnology revolution.
"Africans," she says, "can speak for themselves." -ooo-