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December 25, 2000


Biotechnology and the Poor


Biotechnology and the Poor

Maarten J. Chrispeels, Member of the National Academy of Sciences

Division of Biology Unive of California San Diego, California 92093
Plant Physiology, September 2000, Vol. 124, pp. 3–6
http://www.plantphysiol.org © 2000
American Society of Plant Physiologists (Editor’s Choice)

Eight hundred million people on earth are poor and malnourished. They live
on less than a dollar a day and cannot be sure that their fields will
yield enough food or that they will earn enough money to buy food. Forty
thousand people die each day of malnutrition, one-half of them children.
The doubling of food production enabled by the Green Revolution
unfortunately did not solve the problems of malnutrition and hunger. There
were about a billion hungry people some 40 years ago, and population
projections show that there may still be 600 million poor people by 2025,
when the earth’s population will have grown to 8 billion. The Green
Revolution did many things, but it did not wipe out poverty. Not enough
jobs were created in either the rural areas or the cities to generate the
purchasing power that provides farmers with the incentive to grow more
food. It is ironic that hunger persists while the prices for agricultural
commodities are at an all time low. Can this problem be solved?

Some try to get rid of the whole issue with the canards “It’s just
politics” or “It’s only a matter of distribution.” “Fix the distribution
problem and hunger will disappear.” This answer is as facile as it is
incorrect. To eliminate malnutrition and hunger, food production and
purchasing power both need to increase in developing countries. In
addition, food production needs to increase in developed countries as well
so that grain can be exported at a price the poor can afford. Since land
and water are the most limiting resources for food production, there is
only one option: to increase yields on the available land. Indeed, there
is very little extra land that can be put to the plow. By 2020, the
world’s farmers will have to produce 40% more grain (200 million extra
tons in the developed countries and 500 million extra tons in the
developing countries). According to the forecasts of the International
Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC (Pinstrup Anderson et
al., 1999), the less developed countries will double their grain imports
(mostly maize and wheat) by 2020. The reason is that the projected
production increase of 500 million tons in those less developed countries
will still not satisfy demand. That imported grain will come from North
America, Australia, the European Union, and the former Soviet Union. Thus
trade will increase (assuming that prices remain stable and low), but
redistribution is not the answer to the problem of hunger because there is
not enough production capacity in the developed countries to satisfy the
expected world demand.

The answer to the problems of the poor, according to a number of
organizations that oppose genetically modified (GM) crops, is more
organic, regenerative agriculture. We certainly need more sustainable
regenerative agricultural practices (Pretty, 1995), but “organic” farming
is the type of agriculture already practiced by the poor, primarily
because they do not have the means to buy fertilizers, pesticides, and
irrigation equipment. According to Dyson (1999), sub-Saharan Africa, where
most food crop production is “organic,” is unlikely to see much
improvement in its already dismal food situation. Exhaustion of the soil
caused by the lack of fertilizers is depressing yields and pushing
agriculture onto more erodable soils. Organic agriculture is nearly always
nitrogen starved unless land is set aside for the sole purpose of
producing green manures, a luxury the poor can ill afford. Agriculture as
it is practiced now in much of sub-Saharan Africa is environmentally
unsustainable and a new approach that will require considerable investment
in agricultural research is needed. This new approach must be research
driven and will most certainly include GM crops.

Those who oppose GM crops are also quick to point out that this technology
primarily benefits the multinational corporations that sell the seeds, and
that these corporations are more interested in their own bottom line
(always referred to as “corporate greed”) than in “feeding the poor.” True
enough, the big corporations are not working on the crops of the poor,
such as cassava, millets, sorghum, sweet potatoes, yams, and legumes
(other than soybeans). Furthermore, they are not giving away their
technology to poor countries because they want to recover the costs of
their investments in biotechnology. The poor will not have the resources
to purchase transgenic seeds from multinationals. Research on these crops
in the public sector is also unfortunately quite limited. Rice, an
important crop of the poor, is an exception, with some research in the
corporate sector and considerable research in the public sector taking
place, primarily as a result of the Rockefeller Foundation’s initiatives.
So, if the poor won’t have the means to buy the GM seeds from the
multinationals, what then needs to happen for the developing countries to
benefit from GM technology?

To understand the answer to that question we might first examine why there
are still so many poor in spite of the spectacular successes of the Green
Revolution. Spectacular indeed, when we consider that during the past 40
years, 3 billion people were added to the world’s population. The Green
Revolution concentrated on three crops (rice, wheat, and maize) and
adapted cultivars for those areas of the world where they would have the
greatest impact on food production. Cultivars need to be bred for specific
conditions of climate and soil and need to be resistant to the diseases
and insects that are prevalent in the regions where they will be planted.
Food production was raised substantially in large areas of the developing
world, but other areas, especially Africa, were bypassed. An important
feature of the Green Revolution is that the research was carried out in
the public domain, and that the genetically improved crop varieties were
given away free to the farmers without concerns for the intellectual
property rights of those who produced them. It is unfortunate that “public
sector support for agricultural development has collapsed across the
board” according to Robert Paarlberg, with a 57% drop in foreign aid to
agriculture in poor countries between 1988 and 1996 and a 47% decrease in
lending by the World Bank for agriculture and rural development between
1986 and 1998 (Paarlberg, 2000). The benefits of the Green Revolution’s
technologies unfortunately were not spread evenly over society. This
uneven distribution of technologies was the biggest failure of the Green
Revolution and is the reason why some such as Vandana Shiva, the Indian
physicist who heads the Research Foundation For Science, Technology and
Natural Resource Policy in Dehradun, India, now strenuously oppose GM
crops. Shiva’s opposition to GM crops is so strong that she demanded that
the United States stop using GM crops in its food aid for the victims of
the recent super cyclone in the state of Orissa in India. As with the
adoption of all technical innovations, there were winners and losers
during the Green Revolution. It is now clear that many governments
(national or local) did not do enough to ensure an even spread of the
benefits among the different types of farmers and the different
socioeconomic groups. For example, in Asia, many women farmers were
displaced from the land and had to become part-time hired laborers,
impairing their abilities to satisfy their own nutritional needs and those
of their families. In Mexico, the businessmen who owned large irrigated
wheat farms in northern Mexico benefited greatly from the Green Revolution
strains, whereas the small maize and bean farmers of Chiapas and other
mountainous regions were left behind. Gordon Conway, a champion of the
Green Revolution, presents a detailed discussion of these problems in his
recent book, The Doubly Green Revolution, and gives examples of successes
and failures of spreading the benefits of the Green Revolution (Conway,

Production of genetically modified crops is not a complex technology and
is clearly within the capabilities of national research institutes in many
developing countries (e.g. Argentina, China, India, Mexico, Brazil, South
Korea, and many others). Genetic modification of crops using recombinant
DNA technology is also within reach of the institutes of the Consultative
Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), including Centro
Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo (CIMMYT) in Mexico,
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in The Philippines, and the
International Institute For Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria.
Furthermore, these institutes have already assumed responsibility for
biotechnological research and a number of crop improvement projects are
under way. These institutes see biotechnology as a tool and not as an end
in itself. Crop improvement through biotechnology need not be equated with
transgenic plants. For example, marker-assisted breeding is a powerful
biotechnology that can find widespread application with the crops of the
poor. Detailed linkage maps of these crops will be tremendously useful. As
these CGIAR institutes focus on their needs, they will want and need to
reach out to public institutions in developed countries. Will the
scientists there respond, or will they be preoccupied with their own
research agendas? Alliances such as the Cassava Biotechnology Network that
bring together researchers from many countries are an effective way to
create synergy toward a common goal.

What is the role of the private sector (biotechnology companies) in this
process? The private sector leads in every aspect of the agricultural
biotechnology revolution and activities in the public sector will have to
marshal the strength of the private sector through public-private
partnerships. Such partnerships must be based upon mutual trust and common
goals. The private sector can work with the CGIAR institutes and with
national research institutions (the foreign equivalents of the U.S.
Department of Agriculture) of developing countries to transfer
technologies, train scientists, provide hands-on experience in
intellectual property management, and facilitate the nocost or lowcost
licensing of inventions. Since the cost of these inventions is being
charged to the consumers in developed countries, such approaches amount to
a transfer of wealth by large corporations from the developed world to the
developing world. There are many avenues open to the private sector to
make sure that the activities of this sector do not deprive the poor of
their rightful access to this technological revolution.

We are beginning to see some examples of such alliances, such as the
decision by Monsanto to make the rice genome “public.” This cooperation
will certainly help the breeders; whether it will help the genetic
engineers depends on the conditions that Monsanto will attach to the use
of the information. The genomic era will generate so much information that
public-private partnerships are the only way in which that information can
be utilized for the benefit of all. The recent decision by Astra Zeneca to
help develop the “golden rice” is certainly a step in the right direction.
Similarly, the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development (http://
www.foundation.novartis.com/nfhome.htm) has a number of projects in
developing countries.

The creation of an international clearinghouse or institute funded by the
large multinationals (Am I a dreamer?) to foster such a partnership would
be a significant development to bolster the confidence of scientists and
the public that the agricultural biotechnology industry is serious about
the transfer of technology. We don’t need another institute that does
research, but a high profile institute that fosters and mediates
interactions between the public and the private sector: a group of people
who make a real effort to solve the difficult problems that arise in these
international collaborations. Such an institute could also be involved in
placing lawyers from developing countries in intellectual property
management environments where they can learn this important trade. Less
developed countries have very little expertise in this field and are at a
serious disadvantage when they sit down at the bargaining table with the
representatives of industry. Regaining the trust of the public will
require more than “education campaigns.” The public will support the
multinationals if they are perceived to be truly concerned with helping to
solve what looks to me like the greatest challenge of the 21st century:
feeding 9 billion people with a sustainable agricultural production

The application of biotechnology to the problems of the poor will not be
straightforward and the models we have from developed countries will
probably not be applicable. Agriculture in developing countries does not
need to be “modernized” although it does need to be improved. The
developing countries can hopefully skip the high input unsustainable phase
through which agriculture is now passing in developed countries and
proceed immediately to more sustainable practices. Agricultural research
for the crops and problems of the poor has to proceed from the bottom up,
not from the top down. Crops have to be created that fit not only in the
agroecology of the poorest regions often characterized by marginal and
heterogeneous environments, but the crops must also fit into the social
and economic systems.

Agricultural research has to start with studying farming practices (so
called “on farm research”), asking the farmers—men and women—what they
want, allowing the farmers to make choices between often conflicting
objectives such as higher yield versus yield stability, and examining the
possibility of marketing the excess production. Will the crop be used by
women in their kitchen gardens or by men in their cash crop fields? Aid
workers have to begin by soliciting the help of the farmers to describe
farming practices and analyze these practices to pinpoint problem areas
and opportunities. Together, the aid workers and farmers have to generate
a range of choices that the farmers could implement. The major objective
of this approach is not the transfer of technology, but empowerment of the
farmer to improve production. The major objective has to be the
productivity and profitability of smallholder farms with synergy between
food crops, cash crops, livestock, agroforestry, and aquaculture with
integrated management of soil, water, and nutrients (Serageldin, 1999).
This goal and the process for achieving it are more important than the
introduction of GM crops. There are many aspects of providing food for the
poor that are well beyond the control of either laboratory scientists or
agricultural advisors in the field. The governments of poor countries must
realize that agriculture can be an important engine of economic growth and
therefore must invest more in agricultural research. These governments
need to encourage agricultural development and create the rural
infrastructure that will permit crop surpluses to be marketed.

Cheap food policies that favor the urban poor are attractive to city
dwellers but discourage development of food production capacity in the
countryside. Such policies amount to a transfer of wealth from the
agricultural sector to the industrial sector. This does not mean that
countries should not strive for self sufficiency at all costs (Runge and
Senauer, 2000). Rather, developing countries should look at the entire
package—food production, rural development, job creation, land reform, and
lending institutions— and enact enabling policies. Developing countries
need to examine whether these policies would benefit only the big farmers
who rely primarily on purchased outside inputs, or also the smaller
farmers who might be engaged in more sustainable practices. If the entire
framework for supporting agricultural development is put into place, then
biotechnology can also play a role. “Biotechnology is only one tool, but a
potentially important one, in the struggle to reduce poverty, improve food
security, reduce malnutrition, and improve the livelihoods of the rural
and the urban poor” (Persley, 1999).

Are the prospects for achieving these goals good? Only if we put our
collective shoulder to the wheel, not only in the lab but also in the
social/political arena. Funding for agricultural research has declined 50%
on a worldwide basis. The intrusion of intellectual property rights into
the arena of crop improvement, while beneficial to the economies of the
developed world, is making the lives of many researchers more difficult.
The failure of the United States to ratify the 1992 Convention on
Biological Diversity is decidedly unhelpful. The cacophony of voices
opposing GM crops is casting an aura of suspicion over all “genetic”
research and improvement of crops. And yet we know that there are no
health issues at stake in the consumption of GM crops and that the
environmental issues of GM crops that are still unresolved pale in
comparison to the environmental impact of rural populations that practice
low yield agriculture on marginal lands.

Similarly, the ethical considerations of genetic engineering of crops pale
in comparisons to the ethical considerations of not improving the lives of
the poor. I remain optimistic that we will overcome those obstacles to
solve a great challenge of the 21st Century: feeding the human population
in an environmentally sustainable manner.


Conway G (1999) The Doubly Green Revolution. Comstock Publishing
Associates, Ithaca, NY
Dyson T (1999) World food trends and prospects to 2025. Proc Natl Acad Sci
USA 96: 5929–5936
Paarlberg R (2000) The global food fight. Foreign Affairs 79(3): 24–38
Persley GJ (1999) Agricultural Biotechnology and the Poor: Promethean
Science. (http://www.cgiar.org/biotech/ rep0100/persley.pdf)
PinstrupAnderson P, PandyaLorch R, Rosegrant MW (1999) World Food
Prospects: Critical Issues for the Early TwentyFirst Century.
International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC
Pretty, JN (1995) Regenerating Agriculture. Joseph Henry Press,
Washington, DC
Runge CF, Senauer B (2000) A removable feast. Foreign Affairs 79: 39–51
Serageldin I (1999) Biotechnology and food security in the 21st Century.
Science 285: 387–389