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November 20, 2000


FOOD BIOTECHNOLOGY: Promising Havoc or Hope for the Poor?


FOOD BIOTECHNOLOGY: Promising Havoc or Hope for the Poor?

Anatole F Krattiger

Published in Proteus - a journal of new Ideas; (2000) 17:38.

Despite its tremendous potential for safer and more nutritious foods,
biotechnology has become a major source of international contention.
Concerns about genetically modified plants intensified significantly over
the last year, particularly in Europe, setting the terms for the
international agribiotech debate and heavily influencing the policies of
the World Trade Organization and the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Yet the commercialization of these crops continues to significantly
increase. In 1995, there were 4 million acres of biotech crops planted
(James & Krattiger 1996); and 100 million in 1999 (James 1999). In the
U.S., 50 percent of the soybean crop and more than one third of the corn
crop were transgenic in 1999. These new crops are popular because they
provide farmers, life sciences companies, and consumers with major
benefits such as reduced pesticide applications, higher yields, and lower
consumer prices (Wald 1999). The increased use of these crops, however, is
also creating international friction over the political economy of
agriculture, the environmental impact of agribiotechnology, the regulation
of transgenic foods, consumer choice, and, of course, the relative
competitiveness of nations.

As with any new technology, those countries that adopt it first gain the
most. Technology adoption, however, is driven by capacity not by need. And
so, in a tragic paradox, industrialized countries are currently reaping
biotech’ s benefits while developing countries, where most of the world’s
poor reside and where increases in agricultural productivity are
absolutely critical, gain nothing. If the international community does not
find novel ways to ensure that the poorest farmers also gain access to
this revolutionizing technology, agribiotech will actually acerbate
inequity between nations and further strain the already tense relationship
between developing and industrialized countries.

How “Natural” Is Modern Biotechnology?
Biotechnology is not radically new. Any method that uses life forms to
make or modify a product is biotechnology; brewing beer or making leavened
bread is a “traditional” biotechnology application. In the early 1970s,
however, it became possible to isolate individual genes from organisms and
to transfer them into others without the usual sexual crosses necessary to
combine the genes of two parents (Horsch et al. 1984; Bytebier et al.
1987). This requires the use of natural processes such as those provided
by a common soil bacterium (Agrobacterium tumefaciens) that “inserts” or
“transfers” some of its own genes into the root cells of plants
(Chrispeels & Sadava 1994). This led to what is now termed “modem”
biotechnology, which has opened the door to many helpful applications for
human health, the environment, and agriculture. All insulin produced since
1983, for example, is “transgenic”: a synthetic human gene, inserted into
bacteria, now produces the exact replica of human insulin (Ladisch &
Kohlmann 1992). Before this revolution in production, insulin was only
available from animals at an extremely high cost and was subject to
intolerance problems.

In agriculture, plant breeders have been moving genes from one species to
another for a very long time through sexual crosses, often using
“bridging” species. In wheat and rice, for example, many disease
resistance traits were introduced from “alien” species (Khush &
Toenniessen 1991). Biotechnology significantly broadens the available gene
pool for plant improvement. Although some might object to moving genes
from a bacterium, for example, into a plant on the grounds that this is
not “natural” or ethical, it should be remembered that the similarity
between bacteria and humans, for example, at the molecular or genetic
level is much higher than most people would think. The mitochondria in
each of our cells are most likely bacteria that once entered our cells and
made multicellular organisms possible (Mikelsaar 1987). The genes of the
soil worm Caenorhabditis elegans are 90 percent identical to those of mice
and over 70 percent to those of humans (Karlin & Ladunga 1994). No one can
therefore claim that a few genes out of the 140,000 genes that make up the
human genome (Dickson 1999) contain the essential nature of that species.
The nature of beings is either in the entirety of their genes or must be
well beyond single genes. (See also Krattiger et al. 1994.) In any case,
plant breeders have been moving genes from one species to another and
there have never been any problems with those transfers. Biotechnology
just allows for a larger gene pool for plant improvement.

Using modem biotechnology, plants can be made more resistant to insects,
bacteria, fungi, and viruses, all of which lead to global production
losses of well over 35 percent. The cost of these enormous losses is
estimated at over US$200 billion annually (Krattiger 1997). But modem
biotechnology can do more than simply increase crop yields. Food quality
enhancement also offers great benefits. Reducing certain enzymes in fruits
and perishable vegetables, for example, reduces their perishability and
significantly cuts postharvest losses (Neupane et al. 1998). In addition,
certain naturally occurring substances in plants can be increased such as
anticancer compounds naturally found in soybeans (Wang & Wixon 1999),
vitamin A in rice (Burkhardt et al. 1997), iron content in cereals (Theil
et al. 1997), or more non-saturated fatty acids in canola (Kramer & Sauer
1993), and other oil crops. Plants can also be used to deliver edible
vaccines, which would have a tremendous impact in developing countries
(Arntzen 1996, 1998).

Indeed, all of these technologies are important for developing countries
where farm to market transport systems are grossly inadequate and cooled
storage almost nonexistent and where diets often lack nutritional balance.
Over 100 million people in South and Southeast Asia alone suffer or are at
risk from vitamin A deficiency, which particularly afflicts women and
children (Lotfi et al. 1996). Because rice is a staple food that Asians
depend on for 4070 percent of their total food intake, improving the
nutritional value of rice alone with higher beta carotene content for
Vitamin A, higher levels of iron, higher levels and better quality
proteins would make a bigger difference than any food technology has ever
made (see http://www.cgiar.org/irri). It is important to stress that all
of these technological applications are proven today and available today.
They could be deployed in the near term if only someone would donate and
invest in their transfer to benefit the poor.

How “Natural” Are Modern Biotechnology’s Risks?
One cannot responsibly discuss biotechnology without addressing its
potential risks. Like any technology, agribiotech has inherent risks that
must be carefully considered. Yet in over fourteen years, with 30,000
field trials and hundreds of millions of hectares cultivated, no new risks
associated with genetically modified crops have appeared (James &
Krattiger 1996). This is not to say that the technology will not impact
the environment, but most indications are that the impact will be positive
(Butler & Reichhardt 1999). Consider, for example, that the first wave of
transgenic crops displaced millions of dollars worth of harmful
agricultural pesticides.

Population, Agriculture, and the Environment in One Generation from
Now—Malthus: Yes or No?
In 1998, Business Week declared on one of its covers that the 21” Century
would be the “Biotech Century.” The potential of this powerful technology
to affect the prosperity of the human race over the next century is
certainly immense (Krattiger 1998), but the problems we confront are also
immense. At the beginning of the new millennium, there are 6 billion
people on planet earth. Of these, 2.8 billion nearly half the world’s
population live in poverty. They lack adequate food and nutrition, the
means to educate their children, and such basic necessities as clean water
and adequate shelter (World Bank 1999). In fact, 1.4 billion people live
on less than a dollar a day and 800 million people go hungry for the
better part of every year of their lives (Pinstrup Andersen & Pandya Lorch
1999a,b). This is neither morally acceptable nor politically sustainable
when the other half of the world lives in material abundance.

Thomas Malthus (17661834) predicted over two hundred years ago that the
planet could not sustain its human population growth, but thanks to
technological innovations the crises he predicted have not yet
materialized. In the next generation, however, world population will
increase dramatically, and over 90 percent of that increase will take
place in developing countries. Urbanization will increase (with an
additional 3 billion urban dwellers by 2025), and the diets of people will
continue to change, consisting more of processed foods, particularly meat.
Consequently, because processed foods require more raw material and
because higher urban consumption leads to higher food waste, the demand
for food and feed will increase more than population growth. It is unclear
how developing countries will be able to meet these needs. Alex McCalla
has usefully summarized four views on whether or not the world can meet
future food demand (1998):

-The Conventional View states that over the next twentyfive to thirty
years we must double food production on the same area of land in
agricultural use today. The conventionalists cite past increases in
agricultural productivity to argue that food demand can be met and that
Malthus has to wait.

-The Optimists place more emphasis on rates of income growth, on the
income elasticity of the demand for food, and on sustained investments in
agricultural research and development. They conclude that it will be
increasingly easy to meet food demand over the next few decades. They
conclude that Malthus never was.

-The Pessimists are more cautious about productivity increases, noting
that while from 1950 to 1993 grain productivity increased on average by 2
percent, the actual increase was 3 percent from 1950 to 1983, and scarcely
I percent from 1983 to 1993. Pessimists are also concerned about the
potential of the natural resource base. They conclude that the world’ s
grain demands will exceed tradable supplies by over 500 million metric
tonsequivalent to two times the amount of currently traded grainsand that
Malthus is right around the comer.

-The “Industrialized Countries Will Fill the Gap” Believers argue that
productivity in tropical and subtropical agriculture will decrease
significantly and that the shortfall of grains will be 800 million metric
tons, but they contend that industrialized countries can fill the
productivity gap. It seems they never heard of Malthus! All these
projections are necessarily based on assumptions such as yield increases
and the amount of available land. Even a small change in any direction of
the assumptions leads to extreme differences in the projections. More
importantly, however, there is a fundamental omission in all of these
projections: none of them distinguishes between the “demand” and the
“need” for food. Because markets respond to effective demand not to human
need projections based on economic models are invariably limited. Food
commodity prices have dropped by more than half over the last thirty
years, but 800 million people in developing countries are still
chronically undernourished. These people are so poor that they do not have
money to purchase commodities or food and thus exercise “demand.” The poor
are so poor that they are economically invisible! For them, Malthus
already is and has been for a long time.

The steady decline in commodity prices over the last three decades to
today’s all time lows does not capture the real demand for food. In fact,
a good portion of the price decline can be accounted for by increases in
agricultural subsidies in industrialized countries (principally the USA,
the European Union, and Japan), which today amount to US$362 billion
annually (“Financial Indicators” 1999). Declining prices for agricultural
commodities do not measure increased global prosperity, as many argue, but
increased global disparity. And so none of these projections, which are
invariably based on current and past commodity prices, can offer us a view
of the future.

Consider the effects of agricultural subsidies and how they artificially
depress prices. This has a huge effect on the global trading system
because it acts as a perverse incentive that discourages other nations
(primarily developing countries) from becoming more productive. It denies
developing countries a fair share in global trade and without any benefit
to consumers or producers in industrialized countries. It discourages
developing countries from freeing their trade in agricultural commodities,
which in turn affects the prices and availability of the very same exports
that industrialized countries so desperately seek. We should recall that
subsidies were often instituted with a very short time frame in mind and
that they were left in place due to special interests. And although
critical in the short term, subsidies have not prevented the decline of
the fanning population in industrialized countries nor have they slowed
the process of vertical integration in the food system, which makes the
farmer little more than a contract worker in the end.

Many economists would argue that today’s declining food prices have
increased and improved human welfare. But current prices exclude some cost
components and fail to accurately reflect the world’s food supply needs
(Cohen 1998). These prices do, however, reflect the inequalities between
nations. It is, of course, politically impossible to abolish agricultural
subsidies in the near term, and so other solutions must be found. One way
to create greater equity between poor and rich nations which will increase
demand for commodities is to use new technologies to increase the
agricultural productivity of resource-poor farmers who cannot afford
additional inputs. And this is where biotechnology can make a big
difference. By making resource poor farmers more productive, biotechnology
increases overall global prosperity. We should therefore act quickly to
accelerate the transfer of agricultural biotechnology to developing

Who Will Deliver Biotechnology's Promise to the Poor?
But quite naturally, the corporations who have developed most of these
agricultural biotechnology applications are first focusing on markets that
will allow them to recoup their expensive investments in agribiotech. They
are currently concentrating on large area crops (such as corn, soybeans,
and cotton) in industrialized countries where agriculture is more
profitable and where intellectual property rights are well established and
enforceable. Furthermore, the high cost of product development, now
exacerbated by the consumer debate in Europe, has led many corporations to
merge and form life sciences companies. This, in turn, has led to
increased consumer concerns about a few large multinational corporations
dominating the food production and supply chain, which has spurred on
calls for legislative action. Yet the structure of the seed supply market,
of commodity trade, and of food processing is so complex that even if the
total number of biotechnology companies were reduced by half, the
remaining companies would still not have a monopoly.

These companies can be heard preaching that biotech will feed the world.
But will their deeds meet their words? Both the short and long term
interests of these companies should compel them to act, and some have.
Several companies, such as Monsanto, Novartis, AgrEvo, and AstraZeneca,
have donated food biotechnology applications for the poor under projects
brokered by ISAAA (see e.g. www.isaaa.org; ISAAA 1999). In the short term,
what is at stake is the public’ s trust; in the long term it is the
world’s peace and prosperity. If we fail to lift the millions of urban
poor out of poverty, food security issues will threaten world peace and
accelerate environmental destruction. Companies have many opportunities to
reach out to the poor in developing countries. Because these people are
not going to be their customers for the foreseeable future and they may
never be if no one helps them work their way out of poverty corporations
can donate biotechnology to the poorer developing countries without
affecting their own commercial markets. In fact, allowing the productivity
of agriculture to increase in rural, poor areas will eventually bring many
more potential customers into the market system. It is, after all, in the
rural areas where nearly 80 percent of the world’s poor reside (and not in
urban dwellings contrary to most popular beliefs).

The Promise of Public Private Partnerships
Delaying the transfer of food biotechnology to developing countries is
ethically and economically bankrupt. Choices often require tradeoffs; and
while Europe and other industrialized nations can afford to pursue every
possible objection to the use of agricultural biotechnology, people facing
malnutrition and poverty in developing countries cannot. Their needs
require a pragmatic approach based on the conclusions of science. Yet
their voices are rarely included in the debate about biotechnology. The
terms of the debate must be revised and a larger vision adopted. The
industrialized countries have no right to impose their choices and values
on developing countries whose circumstances are radically different.

Those who argue that new technologies are not required to feed the world
today have a point. It is all about food distribution. But developing
countries do not buy the surpluses that are produced in Europe nor the
surpluses that could be produced in the USA (with high environmental costs
due to increased fertilizer and chemical use) because they do not have the
cash to purchase them. Besides, it is neither desirable nor politically
feasible from the national security perspective of developing countries to
import a good portion of their basic food. Foreign aid and food aid could
alleviate poverty temporarily, but these band aids do not solve the
underlying problem of food production. Improved technologies are needed to
alleviate poverty because that s where the effort has to be made from
within: to increase the productivity, incomes, and livelihoods of the poor
around the world. The only option is to increase productivity in
developing countries. This will alleviate poverty, increase the purchasing
power of the poorer nations, enable them to sell surpluses on the world
market in areas where they are more competitive, and eventually make it
possible for them to purchase more commodities from industrialized
nations, which would benefit the agricultural sector of industrialized
countries as well.

The Green Revolution in the late 1960s and 1970s illustrates how important
agricultural productivity is for rural prosperity, food security, and
environmental protection. A total of 2 billion tons of cereals are
produced worldwide today on 700 million hectares (FAO 1997). Without Green
Revolution technologies, India would need to cultivate another 100 million
hectares to feed itself (calculations by the author). But these 100
million hectares of land are currently used to grow vegetables and fruit,
to produce export commodities (providing important foreign currency), or
they have never been cultivated. This last point is very important since
any additional land would be fragile, marginal land, where the impacts on
biodiversity would be greatest.

With pre 1960s technologies, the world would need another 1.7 billion
hectares of land for cereals alone! Where could that come from? Even with
all technology options, including biotechnology fully deployed, not even
the USA could meet such a challenge. It is critical to continue to invest
in and deploy new technologies to maintain prosperity. The world must
increase agricultural production in an environmentally sound and
sustainable way, but it should also do so in a more equitable way.
Agricultural biotechnology will be a large part of the equation.

In this regard, globalization has brought about something very important,
namely the realization that there is ample need and room for very
effective publicprivate partnerships. Building on the comparative
advantages of each sector, such partnerships are powerful new mechanisms
to mobilize global science and technology in areas such as health (Sachs
1999). Yet in agriculture, the basis of health in developing countries, no
major radical new schemes have been developed or implemented. Forging
public/private partnerships in agricultural biotechnology is an essential
part of the solution to world hunger, and it is a solution that both sides
can take part in. It is not a handout and it is not about dependency.
Instead, such partnerships are two-way streets that can benefit both.
Countries, for example, can contribute germplasm, and corporations can
provide technology. This leads to enhanced germplasm for developing
countries and larger markets for companies through higher incomes for
farmers. The public/ private partnership is the road to the future of
agricultural biotechnology, a road that offers the entire world greater
prosperity, greater dignity, and greater hope. It is the road we should
take toward a safer, more prosperous, and more equitable 21 st century.

I was editing the final version of this paper while on a work trip to
Thailand. That visit coincided with the celebrations of the 72n’ birthday
of His Excellency, the King of Thailand. Everyone wanted to be part of the
celebrations, and on 5 December 1999, the entire city of Bangkok came to a
halt. All the lights went out at 7:59 Pm, and each and every Thai, young
and old, came out to light a candle in the street and sing in unison a
series of secular and sacred birthday songs. I was deeply moved to see an
entire democratic nation find one symbol and freely unite around it. I
felt this extraordinary event was a manifestation of basic, essential
human values. Clearly, however, one may wonder whether these thoughts have
anything to do with biotechnology transfer, science and technology, or
poverty alleviation.

But this inspiring sight led me to consider my own and ISAAA’ s efforts in
these areas. Too often the abstract operations of institutions work to
elide even the faces of those we seek to help, and we cannot be too
frequently reminded of the common humanity that connects all of us to one
another. If we want to mobilize global science and technology for the
betterment of the lives of billions, maybe we need to rethink our
strategies and place more emphasis on evoking and mobilizing the basic
human values that link us together. One such fundamental value is trust,
and I believe that people who know and trust each other can and will make
better decisions. Partnerships are fundamentally relationships between
people. Building confidence and trust among the public sector, the private
sector, and the various organizations, which are working to deliver the
benefits of global science and technology to the poor, must be a priority

With the advent of the life sciences, the potential to improve the human
situation is unprecedented in history. Globalization has many upsides and
downsides, but one upside is that it can help us mobilize science and
technology to improve the lives of people throughout the world like never
before. Yet this promise is ours only if we deploy improved products to
the poor and wealthy alike. New plant biotech initiatives are clearly
warranted to deliver the capabilities of the new technology to the world’
s poorest two billion people. United together, the readers of this paper
are uniquely positioned to bring these benefits to those who urgently need
them although this will require of us innovative, bold, and sometimes
daring actions. The memory of the children in Bangkok holding their
candles with hopeful looks will provide me with all the reason and courage
I need to make my contribution. Let us not waste these first years of the
new Millennium when people all over the world are united around the idea
of a new beginning and are hopeful for a better future. Now is not the
time for complacency. Let us work today for a more prosperous, equitable,
and human tomorrow.

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H. Holben, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., is assistant professor of food and nutrition
in the School of Human and Consumer Sciences and has an adjunct
appointment in African Studies at Ohio University, Athens. His primary
research interests include food security and rural health. He explains
that the pawpaw is a food commonly consumed in African culture.

1) Dr. Krattiger, a Swiss citizen, is executive director of ISAAA
(International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications)an
international nonprofit organization with centers in Africa, Southeast
Asia, Europe, and North America. Sponsored by public and private
institutions, ISAAA transfers agricultural biotechnology applications from
industrial countries, particularly proprietary biotechnology from the
private sector, to developing countries for their benefit. Dr. Krattiger
started his career as a farmer in Switzerland before pursuing
undergraduate studies in agronomy. He then earned an M.Phil. in plant
breeding and a Ph.D. in genetics and biochemistry from Cambridge
University, UK. He has served as associate scientist at the International
Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico (CIMMYT) and as an executive
consultant for the creation of ISAAA; he also established a
biotechnology/biodiversity program at the International Academy of the
Environment in Geneva before assuming his current responsibilities with
ISAAA. 2) Note added since the publication of this article: Dr. Krattiger
recently created bioDevelopments (International Consultants), dedicated to
leverage private sector resources to unleash the potential of food
biotechnology for the benefit of resource poor farmers in the developing
world. He can be contacted under bioDevelopments LLC, POBox 4235, Cornell
Business & Technology Park, Ithaca NY 14852, USA; afk3@cornell.edu