'Twixt cup and lip — biotechnology and resource-poor farmers
Robert Tripp, Nature Biotechnology, Febr 2001 Vol 19 No 2 p 93
Robert Tripp, Overseas Development Institute, 111 Westminster Bridge Road
London SE1 7JD, UK
Although there seems no doubt that transgenic crops will find many
applications in developing countries, their potential contribution to
poverty reduction is not well understood. Many observers have correctly
pointed to biotechnology's capacity for offering productivity gains to
meet increasing food demand. What they discuss less frequently, however,
are the challenges in allowing those gains to be realized by resource-poor
One of the most frequent points of comparison is the Green Revolution. It
led to the widespread adoption of productive new varieties, but the impact
was greatest in relatively favored environments, where markets were well
established and inputs were available. Transgenic crops could circumvent
such requirements. Engineered resistance to pests and disease could
eliminate the need for expensive chemicals; changes in crop physiology
could address limitations of poor soils or climate; nutritional
enhancement can address dietary deficiencies caused by inadequate crop
production. Transgenic crops could deliver benefits to resource-poor
farmers within the seed. But real value will only accrue to such farmers
if a number of largely nontechnical barriers can be overcome.
At least two infrastructural problems may significantly limit the poverty
relevance of transgenic crops.
If biotechnology is to be directed toward poverty reduction, then public
biotechnology research will have to address crops and areas that are
unattractive to the private sector. Such research requires a significant
investment of public resources. There is a natural tendency to direct such
investments toward areas with high expected returns or where political
pressure on the research system is most effective. The poorest farmers are
usually without much political influence. In endeavoring to fulfill an
intention to develop "pro-poor" technology, the significant countervailing
forces against targeting marginalized farmers, especially by underfunded
public research systems, need to be acknowledged and addressed. A second
infrastructural barrier is the seed industry in many developing countries.
In many instances, liberalization has brought an end to inefficient public
seed production without providing the incentives for an adequate private
sector replacement. Where a commercial seed industry is in place this
offers an obvious pathway, but many farmers (such as those in most of
sub-Saharan Africa) do not have access to such markets. Even where a
commercial seed industry exists, its ability to serve resource-poor
farmers depends on responsible and well-informed input retailers and some
degree of consumer awareness. In the case of publicly developed varieties,
there may be additional options for seed distribution including
government-sponsored multiplication and distribution (relying on
subsequent farmer-to-farmer diffusion), or small-scale seed projects.
However, the larger programs may entail considerable expense, and the
experience to date with small seed projects has not been encouraging.
There is a third factor, too: the adequacy of farmers' access to
information about production problems and alternatives. This challenge is
certainly not confined to biotechnology. However, the nature of many
transgenic varieties exacerbates it.
Briefly, the problem is this. Many modern varieties, including those of
the Green Revolution, rapidly diffuse to farmers. Such varieties often
succeed because they offer radically different and easily distinguishable
characteristics. Farmers learn about the management requirements of new
varieties and their advantages and disadvantages, often through trial and
error. They build a body of knowledge that guides them in choosing
particular varieties to suit particular circumstances, and then managing
them appropriately. However, in many areas where modern varieties are
widely grown it is not uncommon to find that farmers are uncertain about
the identities of "second-generation" modern varieties (many of which
offer precisely the disease or pest resistance envisioned for transgenic
varieties). This identity confusion erodes the value of the associated
knowledge, and it is directly relevant for the prospects of biotechnology.
The precision of genetic engineering, avoiding the trade-offs
characteristic of conventional plant breeding by providing, for instance,
disease resistance without any other changes in a variety's appearance or
performance, is a double-edged sword. If a new transgenic variety is not
immediately distinguishable from conventional varieties, what are the
chances that farmers will recognize and demand it? The answer in this case
depends on the distribution and severity of the particular disease, but
farmers may not be able to draw causal inferences from the variety's
performance in fields where many other yield-limiting factors are probably
Nutritionally enhanced transgenic crops may be similarly difficult to
recognize. Even in cases of severe nutritional deficiency, farmers are
unlikely to make a connection between the consumption of a particular
variety and health status. If the new variety cannot be easily identified,
then accompanying nutrition education is necessary to help farmers (and
other consumers) recognize the appropriate variety and use it properly.
In those cases where a nutritionally superior variety can be recognized
(as in the case of yellow, vitamin A-enriched rice), there may be the
problem that the variety is seen as a low-status product, aimed at the
poor. (For instance, any campaign to convince people who grow and consume
white maize to switch to more nutritious yellow varieties would face
There are thus several factors that suggest caution in making predictions
about the poverty impact of transgenic crops. My purpose here is not to be
unduly pessimistic, but to ask researchers to be realistic in their
approach to biotechnology's potential contribution to agricultural
development and poverty reduction. Biotechnology will only be effective if
it is part of a package of broader changes that include the provision of
adequate information and the development of seed delivery systems. First,
public agricultural research must be better supported. Investments in
biotechnology laboratories, without concomitant attention to developing
researchers' capacities to interact with farmers, will be ineffective.
Second, a clearer division of labor and better collaboration between
public and private research is in order. Third, policies must be in place
to strengthen the agricultural sector, to support a domestic seed industry
and to develop adequate markets.
These tasks are the responsibility of national governments, donor
agencies, and private industry (which must contribute more to poverty
reduction). They require a long-term commitment to building the
institutions that support a productive and equitable agriculture.
From: (Brad Mitchell)
Subject: Infrastructure for Biotechnology?
We have all heard the arguments about the pros and cons of agricultural
technology - pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and biotechnology. The
Green Revolution is touted by some as being one of the great
accomplishments of modern society and others as one of the great evils. A
distinction is often made between the applications of agricultural
technology in developing countries and developed ones.
I have had the pleasure to work in both developing countries and developed
ones. I have come to the conclusion that there is a strong correlation
between the infrastructure that surrounds the technology, and the amount
of benefit derived from that technology. The more infrastructure
(education, regulations, oversight) the greater the benefits and the lower
the negative impacts. The less developed the infrastructure, the lower the
benefits and the greater the negative impacts.
In my opinion, the negative impacts of the Green Revolution were not so
much a result of the introduced technology, but a result of having an
inadequate infrastructure behind it. Pesticide poisonings and development
of pest resistance were, and are, by far more frequent in countries where
Extension Education and Regulation are under-funded and otherwise
inadequate. The result is that the technology is often blamed for the
problems, rather than the fact that it was introduced into a "market" that
was not prepared for it.
Ten years ago when I was in India, I saw a strong difference between rice
growers and cashew growers in the degrees of benefits and problems they
had with pesticides. Being a major crop, there was a strong effort from
the Ministry of Agriculture in training and education for rice
cultivation. Rice growers demonstrated fairly good knowledge Integrated
Pest Management and safe handling of pesticides. Cashews however, were of
little financial consequence nationally, and little was provided to cashew
growers in terms of education. Few could distinguish between a beneficial
insect and the target pest. Many still mixed tanks of methyl parathion
with their hands. The result was what one would expect - rice growers
benefited economically from the use of pesticides with few apparent health
problems. Cashew growers spent more money on pesticides than they save,
and had a relatively high incidence of poisoning.
I have yet to see or hear of any concerns with developing an
infrastructure around agricultural biotechnology, other than to warn of
over-regulation. I am very concerned that we are falling into the same
trap with agricultural biotechnology as we did with the first Green
Revolution, which was to introduce a technology without the infrastructure
to support it's use.
This is of particular concern in developing countries, but may also be of
concern in certain areas of developed countries. Most applications of
agricultural biotechnology in the US have been targeted towards major
crops - corn, wheat, soy, cotton. I assume that extension folks in areas
where major crops are grown extensively are actively educating growers on
this new technology. However, there is considerably less grower education
here in the Northeast on ag biotechnology (none that I know of in
Massachusetts). Still, the technology still makes it here. A corn grower
from a nearby state told me that he was going to plant Bt corn for a pest
I know it to be ineffective against. I was reminded immediately of the
Indian cashew growers.
Right now, most growers in the northeast tell me their main source of info
on biotech seeds is the seed salesman. I don't discount the value of
advice from salesman, but as the sole source of information, it is
dangerous. Salesman generally work on commission which creates a strong
bias towards giving any information out which might curtail the use of a
product they sell. We have had several new pesticide chemistries
introduced in the past few years here and development of resistance has
occurred in a very short time.
Anyway, I would be very interested in hearing from group members on their
thoughts on the need to develop an infrastructure for biotechnology. I am
particularly interested in hearing from Industry folks on their
plans/efforts to ensure an adequate infrastructure before they introduce a
technology into a country or location. - Brad
Greenpeace: `Irresponsible' to Say Biotech Will Feed the World
(with Replies from the author and the editor below)
Letters column, 21st Century Science & Technology, Winter 2000-2001
To the Editor:
Of all the false promises made by the biotechnology industry, the most
irresponsible is the suggestion that genetically modified (GM) crops will
solve world hunger (``Genetically Engineered Crops Can Feed the World!''
by Channapatna Prakash) [Summer 2000, p. 10]. Aid agencies around the
world agree that there is more than enough food currently grown to feed
At a recent biotech industry conference in Vancouver, Canada, Dr. Prakash
pointed out that 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. This is
true. These people go to bed hungry for a number of tragic reasons: some
because they cannot afford the food which is grown, others because war,
political corruption or the general ineptitude of a distribution system
denies them access to food. There is no biotech fix for these problems. At
best, widespread growth of GM crops in developing countries will make food
even less affordable; at worst it will destroy the biodiversity of these
nations and their ability to feed their hungry populations.
While it is understandable that biotech companies and those working on
their behalf are seeking any and all potential markets for their products,
let's not confuse their desire to make a profit with some altruistic wish
to solve world hunger. To do so is to trivialize a global problem and is,
- Peter Tabuns, Executive director, Greenpeace Canada
The original article by Prakash can be seen at
The Author Replies
World hunger and poverty are due to a variety of causes. For the majority
who live in rural areas of developing countries and are dependent on
farming, low agricultural productivity and subsistence farming are the
primary reasons why they are poor and hungry. Scientific solutions to
improve crop productivity, where biotechnology can play a catalytic role,
will empower the already marginalized rural sector, by boosting food
production, enhancing the income for the small farmer and improving their
There is no single credible evidence that bioengineered food are unsafe,
or that these crops affect biodiversity. It is ridiculous to say that by
increasing the efficiency of food production and cutting down the use of
inputs on the farm (with biotechnology) will make food less affordable.
True, there is plenty of food in the world. But,it is insulting and
patronizing to propose to a farmer in a developing country, that he seek
food aid from the West. What we need is enhanced production of crops in
developing countries to boost local economies through technology and
trade. The best way to distribute the food to the needy is by empowering
them to be more productive and prosperous to produce their own food or to
have increased income to buy their food. An improved knowledge-base can
help the developing country farmer to improve the productivity and
profitability of the farm by cutting down losses due to diseases, pests,
stress, and post-harvest storage. Biotechnology research clearly has shown
that this could be done.
If an American farmer can profit from growing insect-resistant corn, and
cut down the use of pesticides on his farm, why could not a farmer in
Kenya or Mexico also benefit from this technology? It is not just big
corporations that are promoting these products, but also many public
institutions, such as national agricultural research and CGIAR Centers.
Just look at ``Golden Rice'' enriched with beta-carotene, developed at the
Swiss Institute of Federal Research, that can help cut down blindness
among millions of children dependent on rice in Asia.
No biotechnology proponent claims to solve ``all'' the problems causing
world hunger, but clearly the massive problem of global food security
cannot be addressed without the help of science. It would be irresponsible
for Greenpeace and other organizations to deny the developing world--where
more than 70 percent of its people are dependent on farming and who spent
much of their income on food--access to modern scientific developments
because of their anti-development, anti-technology, and anti-corporate
ideology. Does Greenpeace offer any viable alternative solutions to
improve food production in the face of increasing population and
diminishing land and water resources?
The prosperity of the West is not happenstance; it is due to the strategic
development of science and technology in a free market environment.
Developing countries are just awaking to this wisdom, and many will soon
catch up with the West, unless hindered by activists who are interested in
keeping the 'status quo'.
- C.S. Prakash, Professor of Plant Molecular Genetics, Director, Center
for Plant Biotechnology Research, Tuskegee University
The Editor Replies
We find it less than honest that an organization which supports terrorism
and genocide (such as by opposition to nuclear energy and the banning of
DDT), should label promotion of a useful technology as 'irresponsible" and
From: firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.cgfi.org.
"Nature's Toxic Tools: The Organic Myth of Pesticide-Free Farming"
by Alex Avery of Hudson Institute can be downloaded at
Introduction and conclusions below: Organic pesticides are the most
heavily used agricultural pesticides in the U.S., according to the most
recent data on U.S. pesticide use. Data from the National Center for Food
and Agricultural Policy in Washington, DC show that two pesticides
approved for use on organic crops are the most heavily used pesticides in
the United States.1 Oil, an organic insecticide, was the single most used
pesticide in the United States in 1997, with farmers using 102 million
pounds on 22 different crops that range from almonds and walnuts to cotton
and strawberries. Sulfur, an organic fungicide, was the second most used
pesticide on U.S. farms in 1997; growers used 78 million pounds of sulfur
on 49 different crops, ranging from alfalfa and avocados to mint and
watermelons. In fact, these two organic-approved pesticides alone
accounted for over 23% of all U.S. agricultural pesticide use in 1997,
with oil accounting for 56% of all insecticides and sulfur accounting for
59% of all fungicides. (See Figure 2) 1 National Center for Food and
Agricultural Policy, National Pesticide Use Database,
Conclusion A major U.S. shift to organic agriculture would mean more
pesticide use, not less; more toxicity, not less; and higher pressures on
agricultural and other natural resources without any apparent offsetting
Style and Substance: Communicating Agbiotech
(Forwarded by Chris Adams )
Feb. 2001 AgBiotech Bulletin & Infosource Vol 9, Issue 1
On one side, we have children in Monarch butterfly costumes accompanied by
activists with a shaky premise; on the other, a scientist with charts,
graphs and a compelling body of evidence. In the age of the 10-second
sound bite, who wins?
According to rhetorician Dr. Jennifer MacLennan, the contest isn't even
close. "There was a time when people trusted science," she says. "Now
there is suspicion, as ethical questions aren't being dealt with, or even
The Rhetoric of Fear Anti-biotech activists have tapped into a powerful
rhetoric as old as Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein - the scientist
arrogantly pursuing forbidden knowledge, playing God, and paying the
ultimate price for his hubris. The plot line is still popular in horror
movies today.Add to this modern scientific and regulatory disasters like
thalidomide and mad cow disease, plus actors in lab coats hawking
everything from soap to diet supplements, and you have a profoundly
"We don't trust the science because we can't trust what the marketers do
with the science," MacLennan says. According to MacLennan, who holds the
D.K. Seaman Chair in Technical and Professional Communications at the
University of Saskatchewan's College of Engineering, facts by themselves
don't persuade. This is because the average person doesn't have the skill
or knowledge base to know if the facts are true. People may insist they
make decisions based on logic but they really listen to their gut - which
reacts to emotion. And with emotion, the kid in the butterfly suit trumps
the scientist behind a microphone every time.
"It's a far more complicated question than 'what are the lab results',"
MacLennan says. "The very nature of science is that the last word is never
in, but we must act as though it is." She warns that while the public may
be unsophisticated in their knowledge, they are extremely sensitive to
attempts to manipulate their opinion. "Attention has to be paid to
reassuring people on the level where they're hurting. More spin doctoring
Understanding versus Persuasion This idea is consistent with public
relations theory, in particular, a model described as "two way symmetrical
communication" by James Grunig in the seminal public relations work,
Excellence in Public Relations & Communication Management. In this model,
the goal is not selling or persuading, but understanding - a dialogue.
"The public should be just as likely to persuade the organization's
management to change attitudes or behavior as the organization is likely
to change the publics' attitudes or behavior," Grunig writes. This model
is held up as the most preferred way to do public relations. Research
shows organizations that use this model enjoy success in the public arena
as well as at the bottom line.
An Industry Response According to Ray Mowling, information, not advocacy,
is the aim of the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI). Its goal is
to reach opinion leaders and food shoppers with the "other side of the
story" about biotech.
The CBI is pro-biotech, stressing the benefits of the technology. This is
done through advertising in print and on television, a Web site,
information packages, and support for other similarly minded
organizations. CBI advertisements started running in Canada last May, as
part of a three to five year campaign. Similar efforts are underway in the
U.S. and Mexico. Mowling presented some initial materials and preliminary
results at the Ag-West Biotech Annual General Meeting last October.
Campaign tracking has already yielded information on what does and doesn't
"For the opinion leaders, people want and are looking for more detailed
information," Mowling says. "The consumer profile is different. Some
people don't want information; they just want to hear from a trusted
authority that what they're eating is safe." The overall aim is to create
a receptive environment for biotechnology. Mowling cites educational
efforts like the demonstration lab at the Saskatchewan Agricultural
Biotechnology Information Centre (SABIC), and the demonstration farm run
by the Centre for Safe Food at the University of Guelph as examples. "If
we don't have that positive environment, we're not going to get an
opportunity to grow and improve the technology," he says. Scientists as
Communicators Another initiative is aimed at the people who know the
technology best: scientists. Michael Bechtel, Manager of the Agricultural
Biotechnology Initiative (abi) at the University of Saskatchewan, helps
train scientists to speak to non-technical audiences and the media.
"The language of biotech, the language of science, is not the Queen's
English as most know it," he says. "Most scientists are not aware they are
speaking in a language different than everyone else." Bechtel explains
that before biotechnology came along, people didn't think too much about
crop farming. If they thought about it at all, they trusted the plant
breeders and regulators to do their jobs. A new variable is the
anti-biotech movement - people that simply don't trust the technology for
whatever reason. These groups don't necessarily know any more about
biotech, but spread fear. This doesn't automatically reflect the general
"The general public doesn't understand the technology," Bechtel says.
"What we need is to give an honest translation of the information so
everyone can understand what's going on." "It's not necessarily that
they're afraid of it. They don't understand it."
The overall mandate of abi is to help scientists take their ideas from the
lab to the market. Bechtel says that after extensive consultation with the
research community, effective communication was identified as one of the
most urgent needs. Courses were developed to give scientists hands-on
training in speaking with the media, managing issues, and communicating in
a crisis. The courses are designed for small to medium sized companies -
less than 50 employees. This reflects the character of Saskatchewan's
biotech community and about 80 per cent of the industry as a whole.
However, Bechtel reports people have come from as far away as Alberta and
Ontario to take advantage of abi, and inquiries have come from the U.S.,
southeast Asia and India. So far, about 75 people have taken the courses.
The ultimate aim is not propaganda, or even persuasion. It's making sure
the correct information is heard, so people can make informed decisions.
"We have to be perceived as balanced and non-prejudicial, presenting the
information in a fair and balanced manner," Bechtel says. "That's what
we're trying to achieve."
(Resources: The Council for Biotechnology Information at
http://whybiotech.com; The Agricultural Biotechnology Initiative at
http://www.abi.usask.ca, Dr. Jennifer MacLennan at email@example.com,
The Centre for Safe Food at
http://www.plant.uoguelph.ca/safefood and Excellence in Public Relations &
Communication Management, James E. Grunig [contributor and editor].)
A transgenic in the family
- English translation of the French story about Jose Bove's father posted
earlier: Le transgénie de la famille from Le Canard enchaîne Par Dominique
Durand 31 janvier 2001
It's a tough day for the weather-beaten farmers this 31st of January: They
must return on the double from the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre,
with its warm anti-globalist ambience, drag-queens, its Chevènement, José
Bové and two french under-secretaries, the Green Party representative Guy
Hascoët and the French secretary of state for commercial relations,
François Huwart, who was deprived of a seat during the debate on
international commerce! Meanwhile, prime minister Lionel Jospin shuttled
Fabius et Moscovici off to Davos. According to the government, there is
definitely not "two different discourses on globalization." Go figure!
Just in time for the vote count on the chamber of agriculture elections,
José Bové returns from Brasil, where the local authorities kindly gave him
24 hours to flee, after having proceeded with his ritual sacrifice of
genetically modified crops on the laboratory altars of the Monsanto group.
The Brasilian interior minister is awfully civil: whilst Chevènement was
at Beauvau, he would have forcefully exiled this leftist savage within the
So Bové put 400 hectars of corn and soy plants to the sword. "During the
Middle Ages, people burned witches at the stake. Today, they set fire to
genetically modified crops", remarks José Bové in a despairing tone. Who?
José Bové the father, 71 years of age, former director of the French
National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA)in Bordeaux, who dined
with an Aamerican journalist from "Newsweek" over rack of lamb and some
fine Bordeaux wine at the INRA cafeteria. José Senior is a pensive man:
"Look at the bananas", he begins.
He then explains that French researchers are working on a genetically
modified banana capable of preventing cavities, a boon to certain African
countries where the use of toothpaste is not the norm.
What chasm stretches between father and son? A banana, which would
certainly not have been well received at Porto Alegre. "His entire
discourse has demonized transgenic plants", sighs José Senior, who in his
own time discovered the cause of a disease afflicting 300 million
Brasilian orange trees including those in Porto Alegre. In China, it is
known as the yellow dragon disease, a disease spread by insects who refuse
to be demoralized by regular insecticides. The solution, according to
father Bové? "Create a disease-resistant orange tree."
An animated discussion must surely ensue during dinner time at the Bové
homestead (over natural rack of lamb and organic Bordeaux wine naturally).
The latest tantrum of young José at Porto Alegre occurred when he learned
that those wily coyotes at the WTO (World Trade Organization), after
digesting the lessons gleaned from the riots at the Seattle summit, were
considering having their next round of meetings in pleasant Qatar, right
in the middle of the desert.
At least, in the desert of Qatar, there is little chance of slipping on a
genetically modified banana peel.
To: The Editor Independent
From: Meredith Lloyd Evans - BioBridge
Subject: GM crops and racism
Sir: The latest fear-mongering by so-called green groups about GM crops,
GM food and the safety of GM field trials is more than ever a wilful
misrepresentation of the facts and the reality. Whether we eat a mouthful
of food from a conventional farm, an organic farm or a GM source, we get
genes and DNA. There's no 'purity' here - it's a mixture of food genes and
bacterial genes, with fungal and yeast genes thrown in for good measure.
If we are to be worried about genes from different types of organism
together, we should be more worried about eating a BLT sandwich, with its
mix of animal DNA and uncooked vegetable genes, or sushi and sashimi, with
fish and rice DNA together. If we are scared about toxins and chemical
poisons, we should be more worried about the contaminants on organic food
than the traces of residue on conventional foods and we should welcome the
reduction and absence of residues in GM food.
The present propaganda coming out of self-appointed organisations, about
GM crops growing next to conventional crops, is the exact equivalent of
telling us that a Catholic seminary, a Jewish cheder or a Muslim mosque
will 'pollute the racial purity' of an English enclave, the English
enclave will have its English status removed, the common humanity of the
other organisations will be denied and they should be destroyed. The
attitudes and statements of so-called environmental groups and organic
associations are deceitful, morally and scientifically, when taken at face
value and are ethically abhorrent when their full impact is assessed.
Their negative, negative, negative, has no place in assisting us make
informed decisions about the future of GM technology.
Yours sincerely - Mr Meredith Lloyd-Evans, Managing Partner Arcadia
From: Frederic Abraham
Subject: So called "step back" in science... "Gimme a break!"
Hi, My comment will be brief (about some post on the canadian report): I
wonder how is it a "step back" for science to investigate in genomics and
the environmental implications of GE apllicated in agriculture? As far as
I'm concerned it's at best a "step back" for economical endeavor... not
for science! It IS scientifical inquiry at it's best!
Don't tell me that GE applicated in crop improvement is more
scientifical... (I even wonder sometimes if it should bear the title of
science). It's as if when something coming from scientific research is
applied (and is financially benefical...), then it is automatically raised
to Science... As if doubt and inquiry should not be tolerated in
Science... Come'on colleagues!
See below comments by Manning,
GLOBAL INTRODUCTION OF GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS
Robert L. Manning , firstname.lastname@example.org , Independent Consultant
Transgenic technology and its products are being strongly promoted in the
United States and internationally by the biotechnology and feed
industries. The United States government is promoting its use and
supporting its global acceptance as an essential element of free
international trade. The government's policy was established without
adequate deliberation or public debate on this powerful new technology
that raises profound and difficult scientific, ethical, social and
Business corporations, responding to the opportunity for growth and
enhanced profits, actively promote the technology. The momentum is
increasing rapidly, despite growing concern in many quarters. New
transgenic developments are being announced almost daily, and
multinational companies continue their efforts to introduce transgenic
crops, focusing particularly on the developing world, where increasing
food production is seen as a pressing need.
The anticipated profitability of the technology is largely dependent on
genetic patents, allowable under a controversial Supreme Court ruling. The
issue may someday be reviewed by the Court, but today patentability makes
the field very attractive financially to researchers and to business
The drive to deploy this technology ignores the real possibility that
widespread introduction of transgenic organisms will cause harm far
greater than any benefits it may bring. All new technologies carry risks;
in this case, the technology is powerful, and its application far-reaching
and potentially dangerous to human health and the earth's ecosystem.
This issue is too important to let the prospect of important gains
distract us from the need to understand the risks and potential costs. At
this stage, the scientific knowledge is rudimentary, the net gains in
agricultural productivity and the potential profits are both uncertain,
and the health and environmental risks are little understood.
Unique health and environmental risks
Many competent scientists whose careers and financial futures do not
depend on the successful promotion of the technology believe that its
widespread introduction is premature and presents extremely serious and
largely unpredictable risks to both human health and the natural
environment. They consider it a radical departure from traditional
agricultural practices that have depended on hybridization of plants and
domestic animals for improvement of productivity and the introduction of
The effects of direct introduction of genes from one species to the genome
of another are poorly understood. Among the unknowns are the full original
function of the transferred gene, exactly how the transplanted gene will
function in the modified organism, the full effect of the new gene on the
organism into which it has been transferred, and the ecological
consequences of introduction of the new and unique organism into the
One possible consequence of application of this technology that cannot be
ignored is further disruption of the earth's biosphere, the intricate web
of interdependent life forms and processes on which human well-being, and
in fact all life, depends. The biosphere is the result of four billion
years of evolutionary adaptation by all existing life forms to slow
changes in the earth's environment. Its processes are only minimally
understood, even after the great scientific advances of recent years.
Despite our present ecological ignorance we are allowing optimism about
potential benefits, prospects of economic and commercial gain, and our
limitations of imagination and will, to put at risk this intricately
balanced system. The consequences for human life on earth are
unpredictable and perhaps unimaginable.
The solution to hunger in the developing countries? There are many
underutilized and far less risky approaches to solving this critical
global problem. Among them are: broadened application and further
development of conventional and sustainable agricultural practices and
improved food distribution methods,increased support for political reform
and education (which could help deal with the issue of population growth,
improve nutrition and move us toward more rational and sustainable
patterns of consumption), and increased economic, technical and scientific
aid from the wealthy nations
It is incumbent on our political leaders, I believe, to give urgent
priority to these more conservative solutions and to end the present rush
into the much more radical and risky deployment of transgenic
biotechnology. There is need for coordinated international action on this
fateful issue; leadership by the United States in policy and in action is
crucial for all of us.
Existing American policies, statutes and institutions are inadequate to
deal with the fundamental challenge of this technology. Agencies such as
the FDA, the Department of Agriculture, and the EPA, under present laws
and proposed voluntary guidelines, cannot deal effectively with the
complex issues involved.
The scientific community has an indispensable role and a great
responsibility. Scientists must make understood both what they know and,
with appropriate humility, the limitations of that knowledge. They must
help ensure that what we humans do today will not threaten the future of
human life on this planet.