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Date:

July 21, 2000

Subject:

Biotechnology in the Battle Against Poverty and Hunger: Roger Beachy

 



World Renowned Plant Scientist Dr. Roger N. Beachy Testifies
Before U.S. Senate Committee to Explain the Role of Agricultural
Biotechnology in the Battle Against Poverty and Hunger in Developing
Countries


At a July 12, 2000 hearing in Washington, DC, Donald Danforth
Plant Science Center President Roger N. Beachy appeared before the
United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on
International Economic Policy, Export and Trade Promotion. The
hearing, chaired by Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, focused on the role
of biotechnology in combating poverty and hunger in developing
countries. Dr. Beachy was introduced at the hearing by Missouri
Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond.


Statement of Dr. Roger N. Beachy:


Senator Hagel, members of the subcommittee, and others in
attendance, thank you for the invitation to appear before the
Subcommittee on International Economic Policy, Export and Trade
Promotion. I am Roger N. Beachy, Ph.D., President of the Donald
Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis Mo. The Danforth Center was
established in 1998 as an independent, not for profit institution,
formatted on the model of the great independent biomedical research
institutes in the U.S. The goal of the Danforth Center is the discovery
of new knowledge in plant biology and applications of that knowledge to
develop more sustainable agriculture, to improve human nutrition and
human health, and to encourage commercial development of research
discoveries. In many ways the Danforth Center is unique in its mission,
as it has dedicated 10% of its resources and facilities to conduct
research specifically related to the needs of agriculture in developing
countries. This effort includes training scientists in the development
of intellectual and technical capacities that are relevant to their
home countries in the areas of plant science and biotechnology. The
website of the Center,
0000,0000,00FFwww.danforthcenter.org
provides current information about our charter and mission statement,
and the status of current research faculty and research programs.


I welcome the opportunity to present testimony on the importance of
research on plant sciences, agriculture, food and nutrition. The
particular focus of my remarks today relate to the importance of
research for the benefit of the poor in developing countries and as an
essential step in fighting hunger and disease. Few of us deny that
there are tremendous needs around the world for adequate amounts of
nutritious foods. Adequate food and nutrition are essential to ensure
the physical and intellectual growth and development of children that
leads to healthy and productive adults. For example, it in known that:


- Malnutrition in utero leads to increased diabetes,
hypertension, and heart disease;

- Malnutrition in utero can cause effects two
generations subsequent to the mother, with impacts on intelligence and
learning;

- Low calorie intake leads to kwashiorkor, marasmus, edema and other
conditions;

- Vitamin A deficiencies can lead to blindness; Folic acid (a B
vitamin) deficiencies reduce intelligence.


It is estimated that 850 million people currently are undernourished or
malnourished worldwide. 70% of the world's poor are in rural areas,
60% of which are in marginal environments where intensive agriculture
is not likely to be established. The challenge is to meet the current
needs, and to prepare for the eventuality that by 2040 the world's
population will reach 9 billion. Yet, there is limited land on which
to produce food without further destroying the important forests and
wilderness areas that produce life-giving oxygen, cleanse our air,
protect and sustain biodiversity, and assure that groundwater enters
the underground stores sufficiently purified to be suitable for human
consumption.


Agricultural producers in the U.S. have a growing awareness of their
duties as keepers of the environment; many are actively reducing the
use of harmful agrichemicals while maintaining highly efficient
production of safe foods. Plant scientists and agriculturists have
developed better crops and improved production methods that have
enabled farmers to reduce the use of insecticides and chemicals that
control certain diseases. Methods such as integrated pest management,
no-till or low-till agriculture have been tremendously important in
this regard. Some of the success has come through the judicious
application of biotechnology to develop new varieties of crops that
resist insects and that tolerate certain herbicides. For example,
biotechnology was used to develop varieties of cotton and corn that are
resistant to attack by cotton bollworm and corn borer. These varieties
have allowed farmers to reduce the use of chemical insecticides by
between 1.5 and 2 mil gallons, while retaining or increasing crop
yields. Crops that are tolerant to certain 'friendly' herbicides have
increased no-till and low-till agriculture, reducing soil erosion and
building valuable topsoil to ensure the continued productivity of our
valuable agricultural lands.


Although biotechnology has increased productivity for American and
Canadian farmers, the technologies are not widely available or not
adapted for application in parts of the world that could benefit most.
Those peoples who most require more food and better nutrition are
amongst those that are not seeing the rewards of scientific discovery.
In Asia and Africa where rice is the main food, stem borers and other
insects, and virus and fungal diseases continue to suppress crop
yields. Diseases caused by fungi and viruses destroy crops and
decrease yields of crops such as groundnut, chickpeas, papaya, sweet
potato, yams, cucumbers, melons, and a host of other fruits and
vegetables. However, modern methods of crop improvement, coupled with
better farming practices, can make a real and significant difference in
crop production in the tropical, poor regions of the world.
Biotechnology can be used to reduce crop losses due to disease, insect
attack, and post-harvest deterioration and rotting.


This is best demonstrated by several examples. Consider the virus
disease that causes a severe ringspot disease in papaya - the disease
reduces papaya production and kills the trees in Asia, in parts of
Latin America, and in Africa. Consider the virus leaf curl disease on
white potatoes, the virus that causes leaf yellowing in sweet potatoes
throughout east and central Africa. Consider the virus that causes
stunting and yellowing in rice, a disease referred to as tungro,
throughout central Asia. Each of these important diseases can be
controlled through biotechnologies that increase the resistance of
these plants to the viruses.


Consider next the production of cotton in India, Pakistan, Egypt and
other countries where the boll worm, boll weevil and other insect pests
can reduce yields and farmer profits, to the point where farmers in
some parts of India commit suicide rather than face the effects that
come with financial losses. When smallholder farmers in China and
South Africa grew native cotton varieties that contain the B.t. gene
for insect resistance that was introduced by biotechnology, farmers
realized between $150 and $200 per hectare increased profits. It is
estimated that more that a million farmers (combined) in these two
countries have benefited from insect resistant varieties of cotton.
The increased profit came because farmers did not need to purchase or
apply insecticides to control the pests. A related study implies that
farmers that used fewer pesticides also had fewer medical problems and
required fewer trips to doctor's offices. These are real and tangible
benefits of biotechnology.


Perhaps the most striking examples of how biotechnology can improve
human nutrition are found in varities of rice and canola that have been
improved by biotechnology to increase the amounts of beta-carotene.
This precursor of Vitamin A is in short supply in diets in many parts
of the world. There is great hope and expectation that consumption of
foods from these crops will alleviate or reduce the chronic Vit A
deficiencies in the diets of many of the poor in Asia and Africa. Other
research is underway to use similar types of biotechnologies to
increase the levels of other vitamins, and to improve the amount of
proteins in crops that have low levels of protein, such as potatoes and
cassava. Researchers are also developing foods that can deliver certain
types of therapeutic substances, such as vaccines, that stimulate the
body's defense against certain endemic diseases.


During the past 20 years I have been privileged to participate in the
development of knowledge that contributed to certain agricultural
biotechnologies. For example, in the early 1980s my laboratory at
Washington University in St. Louis, in collaboration with scientists at
Monsanto Company, developed a method to produce plants that resist
infection by certain types of virus diseases, using biotechnology. My
labs at Washington University and later at The Scripps Research
Institute (La Jolla, CA) also made relevant discoveries in the areas of
gene regulation, disease resistance, and vaccine development.


>From the mid-1980s, when we made some of the early discoveries in
biotechnology, I have made a committed effort to apply them to improve
agriculture and human health of peoples in developing countries. The
reasons for this decision are obvious: First, there is a growing need
to improve the efficiency of food production worldwide, while
decreasing reliance on agrichemicals. Second, there is a need to
increase the nutrition and healthiness of peoples around the world.
Third, there is a great need for more well-trained scientists in
developing countries that can develop and use modern methods to improve
food production and quality in developing countries. All of us here
recognize that there are many challenges to the production,
preservation and distribution of adequate food of high nutrition, and
to ensure food security for all peoples. Science can provide only part
of the solution; nevertheless, we determined to do what we could to
address the needs of agriculture in Africa, Asia and Latin America.


In 1988, with the aid of a small grant from the Rockefeller Foundation
and the agreement of the French government's public research
organization ORSTOM (now known as IRD) an ORSTOM scientist, Dr. Claude
Fauquet, joined my group at Washington University and we initiated a
research project on rice tungro virus disease. This project expanded to
include developing efficient methods to produce transgenic rice plants,
and methods for tissue culture and genetic transformation in cassava,
also known as manioc. In 1991 the project was relocated with me to The
Scripps Research Institute. Through the increased support of ORSTOM,
the Rockefeller Foundation and a modest amount of support from USAID
provided via a project at Michigan State University we built a strong
research group: it was designated the 'International Laboratory for
Tropical Agricultural Biotechnology' (ILTAB). ILTAB was relocated to
the Danforth Center early in 1999. Between 1991 and today, ILTAB has
trained more that 130 scientists from 19 countries, including from
Africa, Asia, and Latin America; more than 70% have returned to their
home institutions and maintain contact with the Center. Trainees have
participated in research programs that are directly related to the
research needs of their home institutions.


Research at ILTAB has produced a number of successes, including:


- DNA diagnostic tools to detect plant geminiviruses;

- Worldwide databases for geminiviruses and potyviruses;

- Convenient techniques for developing transgenic rice plants;

- Transgenic varieties of rice that are tolerant to rice tungro
disease;

- Transgenic varieties of rice that are resistant to bacterial blight;

- The first transgenic cassava plants;

- Transgenic varieties of cassava that exhibit resistant to African
cassava mosaic virus and east African cassava mosaic virus;

- Collaborations with scientists from around the world on research
projects on crops such as sweet potato, yams, banana, tomato, sugar
cane.


These projects have been successful because of support, largely from
the French government and the Rockefeller Foundation, and because of
excellent colleagues in other countries. For example, greenhouse and
field studies of plants developed at ILTAB that are being conducted in
China and other countries in Asia are made possible because regulatory
approval for tests has been given by local governmental agencies, most
of which have adapted U.S. guidelines and superimposed local scientific
oversight. In other countries regulations are not yet in place and
testing cannot be conducted. Many countries in Asia and Africa simply
do not have the scientific capacity or infrastructure to judge the
safety issues that have come to be associated with the use of
biotechnology in food production. We, the U.S., have not kept apace
with the rapid growth of science and technology. We have not looked
ahead to address the issues of acceptance of transgenic crops and foods
derived therefrom, or to the acceptance of biotechnology in general.
We, the scientific community, stand ready to participate in whatever
manner we can to provide the scientific expertise and technologies that
are relevant to improve food production, nutrition, and food safety to
those from developing, poor countries. We are anxious to provide
training environments, to conduct research on tropical crops, to
participate in electronic communications that can build bridges and
transfer much needed information. In short, we want to be relevant to
agriculture outside of the U.S. as well as within the U.S. What is in
short supply, however, are the funds that can make this happen. We need
the commitment from our government to provide the training, and modest
infrastructure, that allows scientists to create knowledge to develop
and feed themselves bread. We cannot simply send the wheat from which
to make bread. What we must do is create the atmosphere of
collaboration in science, as opposed to colonialization in science, and
work together to further the production of sufficient food of high
nutritional content to meet the needs of those that request our help.
Only when such needs are met will they be prepared to face their health
needs. Only then will vaccines be successful, and anti-HIV drugs and
other pharmaceutical treatments reach their full potential. Make no
mistake about it; food and nutrition are absolute keys to health,
productivity, and social stability. It is not too late for the U.S. to
recognize the issues, to chart the way to collaboration, and to be the
world leader to implement meaningful solutions.


Thank you for your attention and your dedication.


Respectfully submitted, July 12, 2000:


Roger N. Beachy, Ph.D.

President

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

St. Louis, Missouri