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March 30, 2000


Can Genetically engineered crops feed a hungry world? PRO and CON (We


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Can Genetically engineered crops feed a hungry world? PRO - We Must
Tap Biotech's Potential

C.S. Prakash

Thursday, March 30, 2000
San Francisco Chronicle


FOOD COMPANIES thinking about banning genetically modified grain
from their products should consider what happened to Frito-Lay when
the company decided to cave in to anti-biotech activists, who have
nothing but fear-mongering and pseudo science to support their

Frito-Lay recently told its corn producers to stop planting corn
that is genetically improved to ward off harmful insects. Even though
there was very little consumer demand for such an action, the company
apparently feared a food scare generated by activists and took the
step anyway. But the move was not enough to placate activists, who
still threaten action until the company does everything necessary to
declare its products free of genetically modified foods.

There is no science to support the ban of insect-resistant corn,
which forced Frito-Lay's producers to revert to chemical
insecticides. Two much larger grain purchasers have already reversed
anti-biotech decisions: Archer Daniels Midland, one of the nation's
largest purchasers and exporters of grain, and Cargill, the nation's
largest grain merchant. Cargill declared ``it's business as usual''
when it followed ADM's lead and began accepting transgenic grains
again. These hold-the-line decisions are extremely important in
blunting the pseudo-science of the activist community and moving
toward biotechnology's potential to help feed a hungry world. The
anti-biotech community claims there are ``10 reasons why
biotechnology will not ensure food security, protect the environment
and reduce poverty in the developing world.'' In stark contrast, more
than 1,800 members of the scientific community have signed a
statement declaring their belief that biotechnology is a powerful and
safe way to enhance substantially our quality of life by improving
agriculture, health care and the environment.

Over the next century, world population will approach 9 billion. But
purchasing power is concentrated in the developed countries, while
more than 90 percent of the projected population growth is likely to
occur in developing countries. It is not difficult to predict where
food shortages will occur. As UC Davis professor Martina McGloughlin
says, unless we are willing to accept starvation, or put parks and
the Amazon Basin under the plow, there is only one good alternative:
find ways to increase food production.

Biotechnology innovations are being developed to increase crop
yields and provide opportunities for growing crops on land otherwise
unable to support plant growth. High levels of aluminum, toxic to
plant roots, exist in the soil of more than one-third of the world's
arable land. The presence of aluminum can cause production losses of
up to 80 percent in corn, soybean, cotton and field beans. Mexican
researchers have isolated a gene that helps crops fight aluminum
toxicity and are now testing the gene in rice, which is a food staple
for more than half the people on earth. Likewise, exciting
discoveries are on the horizon that may help us grow crops in the
future under drought conditions or using sea water.

Sweet potato is a staple crop in Kenya, normally grown by poor women
as a primary food source for their families. A virus can wipe out an
entire crop. Efforts to eliminate the virus through conventional
cross-breeding were not successful. But Kenyan scientists, working in
conjunction with American biotechnology experts from the government
(U.S. Agency for International Development), a nonprofit foundation
(International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech
Applications) and a private corporation (Monsanto) have developed a
virus-resistant sweet potato that can potentially increase yields by
20 to 80 percent. Research in my laboratory at Tuskegee University
has also found a method to improve the protein content in sweet
potato, which, if successful, will bring much- needed nutritional
benefit to developing countries.

Biotechnology is being used to develop crops that deliver vitamins.
A research team led by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute
of Technology, in collaboration with scientists from the University
of Freiburg in Germany, have succeeded in producing beta-carotene, a
precursor to vitamin A, in rice. This rice strain may prevent
blindness in millions of children. Improved vitamin A nutrition would
also prevent up to 2 million infant deaths from diarrhea and measles,
according to United Nations Children's Fund. Efforts to develop rice
with high iron content are also in process and may help address
anemia, which afflicts a billion women on this planet. The
International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has already
developed and tested rice strains that can withstand diseases and
pests. These new seeds will be made available freely to farmers in
Third World countries.

Biotechnology improvements are in development that would allow
hybrid rice to be colonized by bacteria that fix nitrogen from the
atmosphere. Plants that are able to fix nitrogen improve productivity
in the absence of synthetic fertilizers, which are typically
unavailable to poor farmers.

The anti-biotech activists incorrectly suggest that the integration
of chemical pesticides and seed-use has led to lower returns for
farmers. To support that argument, they point to one obscure study,
while ignoring other far more comprehensive and respected studies
that report increased net returns and reduced chemical use.

Improved production economics, the introduction of crops spliced
with a gene that causes them to produce a natural insecticide (Bt)
and herbicide-resistant crops, have forced tremendous competition in
the herbicide and insecticide markets. Prices of many herbicides and
insecticides have been slashed by more than 50 percent in these
markets. Such price reductions led to significant discounting of weed
and insect control programs and even benefited farmers who have not
yet adopted biotechnology crops.

Anti-biotechnology activists argue against Western- style capitalism
and for boutique markets that sell organically grown, biotech-free
foods. But their arguments are not relevant to the issue of meeting
human needs or developing a sustainable and diverse ecology.
Companies that play into activist hands delay expansion of technology
that can solve many problems. And, ironically, as Frito-Lay has
demonstrated, they may be creating new problems for themselves.

C.S. Prakash is a professor and director at the Center for Plant
Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, Ala.

Can Genetically engineered crops feed a hungry world? CON
Biotech Will Not Feed the World
Miguel A. Altieri
Thursday, March 30, 2000
San Francisco Chronicle


MOST PROPONENTS of agricultural biotechnology assert that
genetically modified crops are essential to feed the 840 million
undernourished people in the world, and to reduce the poverty of the
1.3 billion people who live on less than $1 per day. They believe
that the biorevolution can be harnessed to serve the food and
nutritional needs of the world's poor. But will such potential
benefits of genetically engineered food crops ever become practical
enough to rid the world of hunger?

Pro-biotechnology scientists say that with new research methods,
biotechnology can be used to develop new crop varieties that are
drought tolerant, resistant to insects and weeds, able to fix
nitrogen from the atmosphere and even increase the nutrient content
in the edible portion of plants. Proponents say modern biotechnology
offers enormous opportunities to poor farmers and low-income
consumers in developing countries.

The first problem with that argument is that there is no
relationship between the prevalence of hunger and a country's
population. For every densely populated and hungry nation like
Bangladesh, there is a sparsely populated (but also hungry) country
like Brazil.

Even in the midst of superabundance in the United States, there are
between 20 million and 30 million malnourished people. Thus, even
though crop yields per acre improved dramatically between the late
1960s and the early 1990s, these advances in agriculture have only
trimmed the ranks of the world's undernourished by 8 percent -- to
840 million from 920 million.

Poverty is the key reason why 840 million people do not have enough
to eat. In the past 30 years, enough food was produced to feed
everyone -- had it been more evenly distributed. Hunger is not a
matter of agricultural limits, but a problem of masses of people not
having access to food or the means to produce it.

Biotechnology proponents, however, argue that food production will
not keep pace with the growth of the global population, which is
expected to add 73 million people every year from now until 2020. The
biotechnology proponents say hunger will persist unless the potential
of biotechnology is realized. I say, if the root causes are not
addressed, hunger will persist no matter what agricultural
technologies are used.

At most, biotechnology has the yet-unrealized potential to deal with
the issues of quality and quantity of food but does not address
distribution and access. Insisting on technological solutions to
hunger ignores the tremendous complexity of the problem. It is too
easy to fall into the ``paradox of plenty'' -- more food accompanied
by greater hunger. Any method of boosting food production that
deepens inequality is bound to fail to reduce hunger.

This is particularly true for biotechnology, which is being promoted
by private corporations to whom poor farmers (who produce most of the
basic food crops in the developing world) do not represent an
attractive market.

For example, the new strain of rice that is capable of producing
provitamin A, which is being heralded as the best that agrobiotech
can offer the developing world, constitutes a solution that ignores
the root causes of why there are 2 million children at risk of
vitamin A deficiency. In rural areas of the developing world, food
preferences are culturally determined. Asians will not likely consume
``orange rice'' in the midst of abundant white rice.

In fact, Asian small farmers grow diverse rice varieties with
varying nutritional content and adapted to a wide variety of
environmental conditions. The resulting genetic diversity heightens
resistance to plant diseases and enables farmers to derive multiple
nutritional uses.

If, as expected, transgenic seeds continue to be developed and
commercialized exclusively by private firms, poor farmers will
continue to find them too expensive to purchase. The few that will
have access to bioengineered seeds will be hurt by becoming
dangerously ``dependent'' on the annual purchase of such seeds.
Choices are surely also being denied to poor farmers when private
industries insist upon protecting biotech patents that deny seed
saving, an aspect that is of fundamental cultural importance to
traditional farmers, who for centuries have saved and shared seeds.

Food production will have to come from agricultural systems in
countries with the largest population growth. This poses a major
challenge for biotechnology in these tropical countries where farmers
are not only resource poor -- with no access to credit, technical
assistance or markets

--but where about 370 million rural poor live in arid or semi-arid
zones or in steeply sloped areas. In the past, such farmers were
bypassed by advances in agriculture known as the Green Revolution
because their soil, water and labor methods were unsuited to the
demanding and costly management practices of improved seeds and
accompanying need for pesticides and fertilizers. Biotechnology will
exacerbate the problem even more. Some scientists and policymakers
posit that a solution would be to increase government investments in
biotechnology research. However, larger investments may not yield the
desired results. Corporate legal rights to biotechnology is affecting
the development of transgenic crops by public institutions. Moreover,
the seed distribution channels and networks to reach farmers are
being privatized, focusing on commercial farms rather than on poor

Much of the needed food can be produced throughout the world by
small farmers using agroecological technologies. In fact, new rural
development approaches and simple technologies spearheaded by farmers
groups and nongovernmental organizations around the developing world
are already making a difference.

These results are a breakthrough for achieving food security and
environmental preservation in the developing world, but realizing
their potential depends on investments, policies, institutional
support and attitude changes on the part of policymakers and the
international scientific community.

Failure to promote such people-centered agricultural research and
development will miss an historic opportunity to raise agricultural
productivity in economically viable, environmentally benign and
socially uplifting ways.

Miguel A. Altieri is an entomologist at UC Berkeley.