How can we feed the Third World’s exploding population? "Not the way you
think," says author of new book.
Support for developing-world scientists, biotechnology, key to ending
Over the past half century, the United States has sent billions of tons of
food to famine-stricken countries—and that’s one reason many remain in a
dire struggle to feed themselves.
"Dumping our surplus grain depressed the prices of locally grown grain,
pushing farmers in those countries out of business," explains
environmental writer Richard Manning, author of "Food’s Frontier: The Next
Green Revolution" (North Point Press, October 2000), a new book on efforts
to establish sustainable agriculture in developing countries around the
The situation is critical. Industrial agriculture, mostly developed in the
1960s "Green Revolution," has reached its production limit. In some areas,
the combination of monocropping and heavy fertilizer and pesticide use
have actually reduced the land’s capacity to produce. Meanwhile, the
population of developing countries is expected to double by 2020.
Developing a Human Infrastructure
The second green revolution is a revolution not only in biological
science, but also in information distribution among scientists, farmers,
and consumers. Food’s Frontier documents the Minneapolis-based McKnight
Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program, which has funded
research and training in agricultural science in nine developing countries
in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Each project is headed by scientists
from the developing country, who identify the agricultural problem they
want to tackle and put together interdisciplinary teams of scientists such
as biologists, economists, and anthropologists. Each team collaborates
with counterparts in U.S. universities.
"We’re realizing that economic and cultural factors are as important as
biology, soil and climate in developing a secure global food supply,"
Manning said. "Certainly, you have to understand the biology behind the
interaction of, say, a chickpea and a pod borer if you want to reduce the
damage the pest does to the plant. But you also need to figure out how to
help Ugandan farmers learn about a method of planting that protects sweet
potato from weevils, or how to convince Mexican wholesalers that there’s a
potentially strong market in the United States for blue corn."
Benefits to U.S. Farmers
McKnight-funded research in areas like polyculture—the planting of several
crops amongst each other—and the discovery of natural protections against
pests in disease in wild relatives of common crops, also stand to benefit
"The Midwest is strewn with rural ghost towns whose small farmers were
driven away by huge agricultural firms farming thousands of acres of a
single crop. And the oversupply of grain has promoted widespread usage of
high-fructose corn syrup in processed foods, contributing to the epidemic
of obesity," Manning said. The McKnight project researching an ancient
Aztec polycropping system, still used by Mexican peasants, called milpa,
could provide a solution for reversing monoculture in the U.S.
Experiments underway in New York, Chile and Brazil crossing domestic
potatoes, plagued by a range of insect pests, with wild relatives of
potatoes, whose sticky leaves trap insects, are revolutionizing the
economics of potato farming both in the U.S. and worldwide.
"The intensive use of pesticides and herbicides has contaminated our water
and depleted our soils. It costs between $60 and $200 per acre per year to
spray potatoes with insecticide. A grower in upstate New York typically
gets about $6 for a hundred pounds of these potatoes, while organic market
pays $30 a hundredweight for pesticide-free potatoes," Manning said.
Biotechnology in Context
Three projects described in Food’s Frontier involve genetic engineering:
in Nanjing, China, creating scab-resistant wheat; in India, increasing the
efficiency of production and nutritional value of chickpea; and in
Shanghai, China, eradicating viral rice disease by eliminating the ability
of a planthopper insect to transmit the virus.
Recognizing that modern biotechnology has the potential to contribute much
to the solutions of agricultural problems in the developing world, Manning
dismisses the argument that genetic engineering is unnatural. "From
lop-eared rabbits to wine grapes, artificial forms of life as a result of
human-engineered selection surround us. Every form of life we call
domestic has a genetic makeup that is artificial as a result of human
activity," he said.
The biggest danger to the public regarding genetic engineering, Manning
feels, is when profit-motivated companies rush to patent and market an
untested technique. In contrast, McKnight-funded research remains in the
public domain, available to all who need it, and is carefully tested by
scientists who live among the farmers where the techniques will be used.
Manning found that Robert Goodman, a University of Wisconsin plant
pathologist who oversees the Collaborative Crop Research Program, has his
own doubts about the value of genetic engineering.
"We’ll eventually have the same problem with genetically engineered plants
as we do with more traditional approaches—the pests and diseases we are
trying to repel are going to develop their own defenses," Goodman said.
The alternative is not to look only at a single gene, but at the entire
sequence of genes in a particular plant, as well as the sequence of genes
in the organisms living in the surrounding soil and air. With this
information, scientists, rather than transferring single genes from one
plant species to another, can manipulate a plant’s own genes to stimulate
certain interactions with the other organisms in its environment. Goodman
predicts this practice, called genomics, will render genetic engineering
obsolete within a matter of years.
"By the end of the decade we’re going to look back at current genetic
engineering technology, with its parlor tricks like sweeter tomatoes, as
being primitive and almost arcane," Goodman said. "We are finally
recognizing that nature is unimaginably complex. To survive, we need to
learn to respect and harness that complexity, because at a fundamental
level, genetic improvement is integral to human society."
"No one ever said feeding a planet of six billion people would be without
consequences," Manning said. "But helping third world scientists feed
their own people ensures a sensitivity to culture and environment that we
missed in the first green revolution."
Author: Richard Manning
A passionate environmentalist, Richard Manning has learned to appreciate
the complexity involved in understanding the forces affecting our planet’s
ecology. When the Minnesota-based McKnight Foundation approached him about
writing a book detailing its Collaborative Crop Research Program that
supports research for sustainable agriculture in developing countries,
Manning seized the opportunity to chronicle "the next Green Revolution."
"Farming is humanity’s biggest footprint on the planet, the greatest
source of environmental damage," says Richard Manning, author of Food’s
Frontier: The Next Green Revolution. "At the same time, our ability to
produce mountains of cheap food allows us to ignore the population
problem. Food feeds us, but it also feeds the planet’s destruction.
Agriculture is our most pressing and under-analyzed environmental
No stranger to controversy (a newspaper series on which his 1991 book,
Last Stand: Logging, Journalism, and the Case for Humility, is based cost
him his reporting job at the Missoulian), Manning is well aware of the
debate surrounding genetically engineered crops and foods. In Food’s
Frontier, he presents a nuanced view of genetic engineering, a view he
came to embrace after touring agricultural research sites in the nine
developing countries where the crop research program is being funded. "I
was told a story of pregnant field workers dripping with so much pesticide
it looked as though they had showered in it. I met a Ugandan scientist who
literally had to sweep human skeletons, victims of violent political
strife, from the entrance of his research station in order to begin
working on solution that would feed his people. When faced with situations
like these, American and European opposition to biotechnology research
seems naïve, or even arrogant," Manning says.
Manning follows his convictions beyond his writing career and into his
daily life. In 1991, Manning and his wife, Tracy, designed and built an
environmentally sensitive house in western Montana using place-conscious
methods and materials such as timber framing, an on-demand water heater,
earth sheltering, and a composting toilet. His book A Good House: Building
a Life on the Land (1993) records the entire building process and argues
that frugality must be built into daily life by bucking such wasteful
trends as constructing increasingly expansive homes.
A Michigan native, Manning did most of his undergraduate work at the
University of Michigan and served as a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford
University, where he studied conservation biology, ecology, and philosophy
of science. His other books include: Grassland: The History, Biology,
Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie (1995); One Round River: The
Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot (1998); and Inside
Passage: An Account of Biodiversity and Economy in the Coastal Temperate
Rainforests of North America (fall 2000). His reporting has received the
Audubon Society Journalism Award, the R.J. Margolis Award, and three C.B.
Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution and the McKnight Foundation
Collaborative Crop Research Program
WORLD HUNGER: Frequently Asked Questions
>Isn’t there enough food in the world to feed everyone? Why do we need
Nutrition, distribution, and sustainability go into the equation of what
constitutes "enough" food. There is enough grain to satisfy human energy
needs, but not enough protein, vegetables, and fruits to ensure an
adequate, balanced diet. The grain glut in some parts of the world
actually contributes to malnourishment—filling bellies without building
strong, healthy bodies. Further, current agricultural techniques on the
land that is available for growing food will not be able to meet the need
of a population which is projected to double within 30 years in the poorer
nations of the world.
The logistics of distribution make it impossible to simply spread existing
supplies around the planet. In some countries, a poor system of roads or
lack of trucks means that farmers’ crops are rotting in the fields while
people go hungry in the cities.
Eighty percent of the world’s population works the land in some way.
Simply distributing excess food from one part of the world to another
drives local farmers out of business, leaving the population poor and
bereft of future food supplies.
>What must take place to prevent widespread world hunger in the coming
Both in the developing world as well as at home, wealthy countries must
support full development of local agricultural potential using sustainable
methods that are sensitive to local human culture. The developing world
especially needs support to build a robust scientific infrastructure and
two-way communication links between farmers and scientists. Plant
breeding, biotechnology, and agronomy need to be applied as aggressively
to neglected crops as they have been to grain crops. And everywhere, Green
Revolution methods must be refined to lessen dependence on pesticides,
irrigation, and fertilizers. We must attend to the integrity of local
rural communities and make village life tenable.
>What are some non-bioengineering techniques that will increase crop
In addition to conventional plant breeding, system approaches such as
integrated pest management, and refinement and re-examination of methods
such as crop rotation, limited tillage, and intercropping can help
increase yields on farms throughout the world. Education efforts and
effective distribution of improved varieties of plants will make the
>If we know of non-biotechnological ways to increase food production, why
aren’t farmers around the world using them?
The weakest link in our food production system worldwide is what American
agriculture calls extension. We simply have not learned the most effective
ways of distributing technology and information to farmers, nor of
gathering the wisdom of progressive farmers. This becomes especially
problematic in countries with low literacy rates and little or no rural
>Isn’t over-population responsible for hunger in much of the world?
Wouldn’t increasing food production merely exacerbate over-population?
The poorest people have the most children. When farmers and villagers are
a bit better off financially, there is a decline in birth rates, so the
development of sustainable local agricultural systems of poor countries
may help stabilize the population.
>What role must the developed world play in helping alleviate world
The most effective role is to invest in an intellectual infrastructure of
developing world scientists who understand their culture, economy, and
environment, and in building local agricultural capacity.
>Are we foisting unwanted technologies on poor people?
There has been a tendency for developed countries funding research in the
developing world to "call the shots" regarding needs and approaches. In
many cases the technologies being promoted are inappropriate. For example,
large multinational agribusiness companies promote heavy use of pesticides
that are toxic to humans in countries where worker safety regulation is
lax or non-existent. Bolstering a local intellectual infrastructure
ensures that local scientists select technology appropriate to their
places, helping avoid this problem. The McKnight Foundation is doing its
part to lead the way toward the use of technologies that truly respond to
needs and priorities set by people from the poor countries.
>Haven’t agricultural innovations, like the development and massive use of
pesticides and monocropping, caused enough problems? Why should we trust
The issue is not "new" vs. "old" technologies, but appropriateness of
technologies. Agriculture innovations of the first Green Revolution made
major positive contributions to reducing food insecurity and increasing
safety of agricultural production. We are absolutely dependent on
continuing innovation for future advances in agricultural production and
improved environmental performance, especially in the area of crop
genetics and breeding. One goal of these new technologies, and ones
developed even further in the future, is to replace problem methods with
more refined and benign methods.
>What kind of genetic engineering projects is The McKnight Foundation
All of the Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) projects include
biotechnology to some degree, but genetic engineering per se is currently
limited to three. Indian researchers are engineering winged bean and
peanut genes encoding protease inhibitors into chickpea, making chickpea a
less effective diet for insects that can easily break down chickpea
proteins. Scientists from Nanjing, China, are working on a number of
approaches to make wheat resistant to a fungus which both harms the plant
and produces toxins that are harmful to humans. In one study, the Nanjing
group’s partners at Kansas State University are testing whether genes from
micro-organisms and other plants may help wheat develop fungus resistance.
In Shanghai, China, a rice virus spread by the plant hopper insect is
being fought by teaching an organism called a symbiont, which lives inside
the insect, to create antibody proteins.
>How is the CCRP assessing the risks of the new technologies it is
The CCRP funds and entrusts local researchers, together with members of
agricultural and health communities in their countries, to make these
assessments. The CCRP’s role is to arrange things so that the right
questions will be asked, the right experiments will be done, and the right
people will be interpreting the results. Because none of the research is
being done for profit, there is not the profit-driven pressure that exists
in commercial labs to rush technologies to market before they’ve been
>Do genetically engineered foods pose risks to human health and safety?
Inappropriate use of genetic engineering in food crops could harm humans,
but appropriate use may reduce or eliminate the dangers from our current
exposure to pesticides and herbicides. The potential benefits of some
genetically engineered foods could greatly outweigh the risks, considering
how much we have already learned from genetic modification by breeding and
other naturally-occurring forms of genetic manipulation. With developing
countries’ populations doubling by the year 2030, we are facing an
impending food crisis. Without investment in innovation, including genetic
engineering, to help developing countries sustain themselves, many people
will suffer from an inadequate diet. Genetic engineering methods should be
employed with the utmost care and regulation and, most important, remain
in the public realm, so that all of the information about genetic
engineering, including the risks, is available to all people.
>Do genetically engineered foods pose risks to the environment?
Genes introduced into a crop species, by whatever method, have a certain
chance of "escaping" to other plants from the same crop species, and in
the wild to closely related wild relatives. If the genes being used come
from bacteria or fish, or unrelated plant species that would not normally
cross with the modified crop, then there is potential for diffusion over
long periods of time of "foreign" genes into wild plant populations. That
could lead to new weed problems, and it certainly would be considered by
many people to be "unnatural."
Another potential problem is harming non-target or beneficial organisms,
like caterpillars of the Monarch butterfly. This, however, is much more of
a problem with other agricultural technologies used now, like pesticides,
which now kill Monarch butterflies, and herbicides, which kill weeds that
provide food for the Monarch caterpillar. It is still not clear whether
and how seriously Bt (insect toxic) crops will affect the Monarch
butterfly. If this turns out to be a true problem, then it can be avoided
by engineering plants that do not have the Bt protein in its pollen.
>How can we ensure the safety of new agricultural techniques?
There is no such thing as a "perfect" agricultural system. From Roman
times, humans have recorded concerns about adverse effects of agriculture
on the environment. There are a number of ways to reduce risk, many of
which are more easily implemented through funding in the public domain,
which reduces the pressure to rush new technologies to market and allows
open access to data. Risk is heightened by industrial agriculture’s mass
production methods, and can be more carefully monitored by localized
agriculture taking place on a smaller scale. Involving the public in
agricultural decision-making, and careful testing of products of new
technologies before making them available to farmers, help ensure
environmental safety and health. Further research will lead to safer
practices, such as genomics—ways of making plants and their surrounding
environment more efficient at employing their own inherent defenses
against pests and diseases—thus reducing or eliminating the use of riskier
technologies like pesticides, herbicides, and even genetic engineering.
>How will poor, hungry nations afford biotechnological products, like
genetically modified plant forms?
Many countries will not be able to afford them, at least those that are
sold commercially. Empowering local public researchers, such as in
universities and ministries of agriculture, to develop and popularize such
technologies that are appropriate for the local situation is the best way
to ensure that the needs of hungry people in poor countries are met.
The McKnight Foundation
The McKnight Foundation Collaborative Crop Research Program, begun in
1993, seeks to increase food security in developing countries. The total
financial commitment is $53.5 million over 15 years. Teams that have been
funded are: Brazil/Chile–Cornell/North Dakota State (potatoes); Nanjing,
China–Kansas State (wheat); Shanghai, China–Yale and John Innes Centre in
the United Kingdom (rice); Ethiopia–Cornell (tef); India–Washington State
(chickpea); Mexico–University of California at Davis (corn, beans, squash,
quelites); Peru–Pennsylvania State (root and tuber crops); Uganda–North
Carolina State (sweet potato); and Zimbabwe–University of Wisconsin at
The McKnight Foundation is a private philanthropic organization founded in
1953 to assist nonprofit organizations and public agencies that strive to
improve the quality of life for all people, particularly those in need.