AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY AND MORAL IMPERATIVES
WILLY DE GREEF,
Head Regulatory and Government Affairs, Novartis Seeds, CH-4002 Basel,
Switzerland ( Published in "In Vitro Plant" Vol 36(5), pp309-311)
In May 1999 the Nuffield Council on Bioethics published a report:
"Genetically modified crops: the ethical and social issues" (Nuffield
Council, 1999). Among the many recommendations of the report, most
interest was raised by the recommendation which clearly states that we
have a moral obligation to make genetically modified crops readily
available to developing countries.
At the time of its publication, in the middle of the media storm over
genetically modified (GM) food in the UK, this report received what can
safely be called less than enthusiastic public support. Like so many works
of great patience and careful thought that become entrapped in media
frenzy, almost everybody had an opinion on it; no doubt in many cases one
that was not supported by careful reading of the document. The practical
result was that the most comprehensive thinking piece on GM crop
development and ethics produced anywhere in the world so far has sunk
without trace. The Nuffield Council report could not have come at a more
appropriate time - when discussion about the societal (including ethical)
implications of agricultural biotechnology had reached the mainstream of
society and become a global subject for debate.
The acrimony of the discussion, and the disregard for facts as inputs as
opposed to opinion, suggests that as with the safety debate, there is not
much support for an informed discussion on this difficult subject. The
Nuffield Council report highlighted the fact that the public debate
happening in the glare of media attention does not live up to society's
concern by presenting the GMO debate as a war between good and evil. It
brought to the fore the commonsense observation that, as with every
technology, the impact on society depends in the first place on how it is
used, and to what purpose.
An important outcome of the Nuffield study is that it declared no winners
in the public debate on agricultural biotechnology. It does, however, make
a number of strong statements on the need to think beyond the promises and
concerns attached to this particular technology. It revisits the difficult
questions confronting global society with regard to food security as a
technical, social, economic, political and ethical issue. The
recommendations of the Nuffield Council on an ethical approach to the
issue of GMOs and global food security are correct and timely (in fact
rather late, if anything). They form a solid basis from which to further
develop our thinking on transferring state-of-the-art biotechnology
research to serve resource-poor farmers in developing countries. This
paper aims to support this view by adding information on the large-scale
economic forces at work in transfer of agricultural production capacity,
and the place of biotechnology within this.
Firstly, the Nuffield Council's recommendations went much wider than the
oft-quoted phrase on the moral imperative. In the chapter discussing
developing countries, it says that we have a moral obligation to make
available all state-of-the-art technology, together with state-of-the-art
knowledge of their impact (including on the environment and health), so
that these countries can make fully informed strategic decisions on their
future food security. It calls for a wide-ranging program of technology
transfer and capacity building to achieve that objective. Not that this
call is particularly new. Some 2500 years ago, Confusius posited that "if
a man is hungry, don't give him a fish, teach him how to fish". Creating
the conditions for well-informed technology transfer remains a key method
to free people.
The Nuffield Council justifies its opinion by a remarkably comprehensive
description of the challenges facing rural development in the poorest
countries, focusing on the socio-economic aspects. The report includes
conclusions drawn from the broadest sweep of the available literature on
this subject that has been made so far. It is precisely the emphasis on
socio-economics that makes the document so valuable: it provides a
first-class non-technology-driven analysis of the potential of
agricultural biotechnology for developing countries.
This paper adds to the body of agro-economic reasoning in support of the
central recommendation of the Nuffield Council report.
THE FOOD SECURITY ISSUE
The question before us in the coming decades is not whether we will be
able to feed a growing world population with increasing food intake. We
will. The question is where the additional needs will arise, who will fill
them, and by what means.
According to FAOSTAT figures (FAO, 1999) +/- 90% of the global population
increase in the next three decades will happen in the cities of developing
countries. That means an additional 1.8 billion people who buy their food
instead of producing it. In 1996, according to the same source, the
developing world had a total urban population of +/- 1.7 billion. There is
a broad consensus in the development community that such a massive
population shift from the rural to the urban environment is undesirable.
It is less clear how the trend can be slowed down, let alone reversed.
These figures also raise questions about the present emphasis in the
development assistance programs of many European donor countries on
politically correct subsistence farming systems. If the third world
countryside is helped to feed itself, then who will feed its cities? If
present trends continue, it is likely to farmers from developed countries.
They are certainly up to the task, but is it a desirable solution?
Who feeds the cities of the third world has a profound impact on the
distribution of improved living conditions within these countries.
Especially in the poorest countries, what little economic development
there is tends to be concentrated in the cities. That is where the
emerging middle class lives, and that is where the limited public services
(especially education and health care) tend to be concentrated. Although
poverty in the slums is profound, and the massive inequalities are nowhere
as visible as in the megalopolises of the third world, their attraction to
the rural poor remains as strong as ever. As in Europe a century ago,
poverty in the third world tends to receive more attention, but the
deepest misery is spread out in the countryside.
If these cities are fed by the farmers in their own region, the economic
exchange between local rural and urban economies will pump part of the
money generated through development into the surrounding countryside. This
is an internal application of the trade-not-aid principle: spreading the
wealth, and providing the monetary capacity for the countryside to start
attracting and paying for basic services. For those farmers to be up to
the challenge, it is imperative that they gain access to the yield
improvements generated by the agricultural sciences. Otherwise they will
not even be in the race to supply these new, emerging markets. On the
other hand, if they are fed by imported food from developed economies, the
value added to their economies by development assistance will flow
straight out of the country again, to pay for basic food needs. If the
neglect of food production for the cities goes too far, domestic growth
will not even manage to pay for the higher food bill for these new middle
classes, and countries will end up accumulating debts to pay for their
food while leaving their own farming systems underemployed. To a large
extent this is the present trend. According to FAO, the overall balance
for commodity food crops, (which includes >90% of the calories traded
internationally) has been in the direction of developing countries since
the late 1960s, gradually increasing to the present level of +/-110
million tonnes per year (and still rising).
All this is elementary, well known economics. The question is, how can we
advance development models that encourage regional agricultural
development as an engine to spread the added value of development among
the rural as well as the urban population in the poorest countries? For
that we have to improve both productivity and affordability. We can learn
from past successes as well as from our failures in mapping out the route
to achieve this (although the second is more fashionable these days).
An alternative "solution" might be to impose restrictions on international
trade in agricultural commodities, to preserve the competitiveness of
subsistence farmers in the developing world. This view ignores the basic
agricultural principle that higher food production can be achieved only
through one of two means: increased land area cultivated, or increased
yield. If third world farmers are to feed third world populations in the
future, they have to bring more land into production or dramatically
Over the past 30 years, the gradual introduction of new agricultural
practices and policies, supported by a strong agronomic research base,
have achieved what was considered very unlikely in the early 1970s: in
many developing countries the farming system managed to keep up with
population growth. More than that, food production in many of them grew
faster than their population, and without great increases in cultivated
areas (table 1). The countries in table 1 were chosen because they account
for almost half of the human population, and more than half of the
developing world. These countries have been remarkably successful in
achieving their increased food production virtually without increasing the
use of land, and this by itself is the biggest contribution of the green
revolution to the global environment.
TABLE 1: Changes in land use, population and cereal production in selected
countries 1966-96 (source: FAO, 1999)
Bangladesh China India Indonesia
Arable land area -11 +22 +2 -1
Population +102 +65 +88 +83
Cereals production +104 +155 +170 +247
Without it, we would now be cultivating several million square kilometres
of land that are at present free of human interference. During the next
three decades these four countries alone will add another 1 billion people
to the world's cities. If their agricultural systems are going to feed
them, they will need all the agricultural science and technology they can
get just to keep up. On top of that, they will have to phase out a number
of agricultural practices that are considered unsustainable: the present
reliance on irrigation and certain categories of pesticides are prime
examples of this. But they will also have to dramatically reduce the
amount of fertilizer used per unit crop, and other material inputs that
have helped spur the enormous growth in agricultural output of the past
To replace all these inputs in any agricultural system is a daunting task.
European Union (EU) agriculture is feeling this in its efforts to become
more environment-friendly. But the challenge facing the EU is nothing
compared to that faced by developing countries. Within the EU we do not
have to increase food production. Nor do we have to provide hundreds of
millions of farmers with a viable future. Nor do we have to vastly expand
the countryside-city trade systems to distribute food for a billion
additional people. Given these additional challenges, to state that we do
not need a technology is to take an enormous gamble with the future
well-being of other people.
The relentless innovation drive in agronomy over the past 50 years has led
to the lowest food prices ever at the farm gate (table 2). The benefit to
the consumer, especially the poor consumer, is that food has become more
affordable than ever.
TABLE 2: real farm prices of maize and soybean in the 20th century
Prices ($ tonne-1)
Period Maize Soybean
1910-1920 350-400 700-800
1950-1960 225-275 600-700
1990-2000 90-110 200-250
It is a hot subject for debate whether availability of food to the poor is
best generated by production increases or by better distribution of buying
power. To a large extent this is a meaningless discussion. More
production, without the means to bring it where it is needed, is as
useless as improving buying power but with nothing to buy with it. Both
elements interact. Buying power can be increased by two means: by
increasing the revenue of the consumer, or by reducing the cost of goods.
The historically low agricultural product prices generated by a century of
productivity increase through innovation have been a key factor in
increasing the buying power of the poor. In these days of relative plenty
(at least as perceived in developed countries awash in food), surplus food
is often seen as a nuisance, and the research that will continue to drive
productivity up as a waste of time and money. Yet it is precisely this
oversupply that keeps food affordable for the poorest.
THE MORAL IMPERATIVE
When we talk about food security, enough simply is not enough, because in
the most egalitarian of worlds there will always be inefficiencies and
inequalities. It is our moral duty to ensure that we continue to develop
the means to overproduce food, because in the real world this is the best
way to improve the chance that the poor and the destitute can receive
Can science make it happen? That is not certain, but it is clear that any
successful answer to the challenge will have to include all the science we
have at our disposal. Whether we call it technology, or agronomy, or
indigenous knowledge, is essentially playing with words. Better
productivity comes from innovation translated into economic reality by
appropriate policies. The improvement in crop productivity over the past
century, and especially since 1950, is the result of a continuous cycle of
innovation and the translation of its results into farm practice. At least
on the genetic side, the pace of innovation is slowing. Breeding has not
added much to the potential productivity of crops in the past two decades,
and this is beginning to show in the productivity increase at the farm
level. Most recent breeding has been defensive, for example to keep up
existing resistance against pests and diseases.
The over-capacity produced by fast technological progress will generate
pressure on prices by causing surpluses, but these can be handled with
sensible economic policies in the agricultural sector. An empty R&D
pipeline, however, is a guarantee for long-term structural shortages in
the global food supply that will translate into long-term increases in
food prices. Nothing could do more to reverse a century of work to make
food more affordable for those who can least afford it.
A structural increase in basic food prices is a minor nuisance for the
wealthy economies of the north; for the poor in the south it means
under-nourishment or starvation. That is why it is our duty to ensure that
we have more scientific and technological innovation available at short
notice than is actually needed. And in any realistic scenario, the
advances brought by agricultural biotechnology will always play an
The most important issue raised by the Nuffield Council report was that
the choice of which technologies developing countries will use in their
attempts to ensure food security does not belong to us. It belongs only to
them. What belongs to us is the moral obligation to inform their
decision-making process, and to ensure that they have access to the
Nuffield Council. Genetically modified crops: the ethical and social
FAO. FAOSTAT. http://apps.fao.org/cgi-bin/nph-db.pl?subset=agriculture;
From: "Nill, Kim"
Subject: #2-Response To Red Porphyry's Inaccurate Statement That "Milling
& Grinding Processes Reduce Mycotoxins In Grains"
As is typical, "Red" has engaged in diversion and has not addressed the
fact that his assertion i.e., "milling and grinding processes reduce
mycotoxin levels in grain" was totally false. That is the heart of the
matter... and false assertions dismissing this huge benefit of Bt corn are
a common tactic for agbiotech opponents, who want to deny that the
currently-grown biotech crops have some large benefits for the world's
Now his (below) assertion that "Mycotoxins are not something that U.S. or
Canadian consumers need to worry about from the standpoint of consumption
of food. Period." is added to it. The extensive U.S./Canadian testing and
screening-out of mycotoxin-containing commodity grains.... misses a large
portion of the fresh corn-on-the-cob... that is purchased from roadside
stands, farmers markets, etc... often at a premium (not 'cheaper').
Personally, for the sake of U.S. & Canadian consumers, I wish all of that
fresh corn (e.g., sold in roadside stands) was "Bt".
From: Alex Avery
Subject: Re: Pollan's NY Times article Dan Solomon
Dan Solomon wrote:
>If Greenpeace (or the Rockerfeller Foundation) decides to throw
>millions of dollars at VAD, why should it be aimed at Golden Rice?
>While the NYT article was a clearly partisan piece, it did repeat
>issues which I've yet to see satisfactorily addressed.
These issues have been addressed. Already the varieties are producing
20-40% of the RDA for vitamin A.
How will golden
>rice be more efficient than other VAD-fighting strategies? Given the
>amount of money that has been and remains to be spent on golden rice
>development and promotion, would similar investments in low-tech
>proposals, (FAO-style family gardens, other methods of increasing
>availability of fruits and vegetables) have
>clearly promised less adequate results?
Yes, they would be significantly less adequate. The true promise of
biotechnology is that once you have developed the technology, it is damned
cheap to sustain and proliferate it. And most of all, it perpetuates
itself under the care of even the smallest and poorest farmers/gardeners.
It doesn't require refrigeration, no new processing technology, isn't a
new food that could face cultural resistance, etc. In short, the golden
rice effort will be remembered in history as a brilliant application of a
proven technology to address a long-standing problem not easily solved by
any existing technologies. Supplementation is a strategy that requires
establishing a permenant infrastructure and constant influxes of money to
sustain it--and in a short time, vastly higher sums than will ever be
invested in golden rice.
While the initial investment with Golden Rice or any other GE technology
is high (although not all that high, as Roger Morton pointed out all the
money invested so far would only purchase enough Vit A for 11,000 children
for one year--and this only covers the purchasing costs, let alone the
huge distribution costs--nearly impossible in areas with no roads!), that
is essentially all the investment that needs to be made. As an example,
once Roundup-Ready crops proved the technology, it's dirt cheap to make
new RR crops. Sitting on the shelves of labs in the U.S. right now are RR
strawberries, RR mint, RR lettuce. These crops have vastly higher yields
and quality because of effective weed control--the biggest problem by far
in strawberry and lettuce production. These crops are ready to go and were
produced for a silly-small amount of money--in fact, many were done in
very average university labs. The only reason they aren't on the market is
because of consumer fears and Monsanto's understandable desire to control
the stewardship of the RR technology (ie. prevent weeds from becoming
Roundup resistant by having too many crops using the technology.)
As Henry Miller keeps pointing out--and thank you Dr. Miller--the promise
of biotech is having lots of companies making lots of different biotech
crops. The big reason we don't now have that is because of over-regulation
and negative consumer opinion whipped up by lying, charlatan activists who
aren't held to any real ethical or honesty standards.
The Golden Rice argument is a total diversion--and one in which we're all
caught. Their cause absolutely requires that they discredit Golden Rice
because it is truly changing peoples minds about Ag biotech. If they
aren't successful at trashing golden rice, they'll lose the whole debate.
They have been desperately attempting to find something on which to
discredit golden rice since the effort was first announced. Now they think
they have a something: that biotech can't deliver on what THEY claim it
promised. They have put all of us on the defensive trying to prove that a
technology still in development (and clearly golden rice is a total
success as far as the project's initial goals) will solve the VAD problem
tomorrow without any complications. It won't, but it will be a huge
help--and will help the most in the areas where conventional approaches to
combating VAD work the least well.
If anyone out there still thinks these jerks are truly concerned with the
world's poor or the environment, this ought to be a wake-up call.
Hudson Institute Center for Global Food Issues
From: Rick Roush
Subject: the late Donella Meadows
Ounce Of Precaution - The Precautionary Principle Versus Risk Management
-By Donella Meadows
What do you do when you want to move fast but the way ahead is dark,
possibly dangerous and almost entirely unknown? Accelerate? Proceed
with moderation? Slow way down? Stop? ......(etc)
---- Donella Meadows was an adjunct professor at Dartmouth
College and director of the Sustainability Institute in Hartland,
Vermont. She died on February 20, 2001. Copyright 1999-2000 The Florence
From: "Robert Vint"
Subject: Michael Pollan's article in the NY Times
Dear Dr Kava,
You state that we should not miss the chance to alleviate Vitamin A
deficiency on the basis of political ideology - but you then advocate a
'solution' based on the introduction of a single Western wonder-crop. Is
this not a political stance, a strategy that helps us avoid addressing the
real issues? - certainly many peasant farmers think it is (see extract
from statement below). In fact all technologies have social and economic
implications so we cannot avoid getting involved in politics (with a small
All the evidence shows that communities generally grew and ate much more
diverse vegetable-rich diets when their people had their own land and
practiced polyculture prior to the introduction of colonial - and then
corporate - agricultural systems based on single crops, high expenditure
and low labour. This is why we now have unprecedented millions of
landless, jobless, undernourished people in urban slums eating nothing but
stale white rice. These technological fixes, like those of the first
'green revolution', only encourage us to postpone, for yet more decades,
tackling the real causes of poor diet - landlessness, inequality and
agricultural monoculture. They are as short-sighted as solving congestion
by building more roads or tackling high-school shoot-outs by issuing
JOINT STATEMENT TO THE PRESS 2 June 2000 BIOTHAI, KMP and MASIPAG in
cooperation with VIA CAMPESINA and GRAIN Genetically Engineered Rice Good
for PR, Not the Poor Say Southeast Asian Farmers' Groups ... extract...
... Farmer-led solutions to malnutrition: Vitamin A rice is a techno-fix
to the problems of the poor decided upon and developed, without
consultation, by scientists and experts from the North. For many groups in
Asia, this rice is disconnected from the causes of malnutrition at ground
level. Farmers' own experiences of diversification show that there are
many ways to address vitamin A deficiency in Asia without isolating the
problem from socio-political realities. For example, encouraging the
reintroduction of locally grown varieties of vegetables rich in
micronutrients including vitamin A has been successful in Bangladesh and
One of the most serious threats posed to the future welfare of Indians is
the Green agitation against genetically modified (GM) foods. In the UK,
Greenpeace has organised burning of fields on which scientific trials of
GM crops were being conducted.
Surprisingly, the leader of this vandalism, an aristocrat Lord Melchett
was acquitted by a jury. There has been a general whipping up of hysteria
all over Europe over what have been labelled Frankenstein foods.
But if GM crops are the creation of a Frankenstein, so is virtually
everything we eat. 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.
As Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, states: The fact is
that genetic modification started long before humankind started altering
crops by artificial selection. Mother Nature did it, often in a big way.
For example, the wheat groups we rely on for much of our food supply are
the result of unusual (but natural) crosses between different species of
grasses. Todayís bread wheat is the result of the hybridization of three
different plant genomes, each containing a set of seven chromosomes, and
thus could easily be classified as transgenic.
Maize is another crop that is the product of transgenic hybridization ...
Neo-lithic humans domesticated virtually all of our food and livestock
species over a relatively short period 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. Several
hundred generations of farmer descendants were subsequently responsible
for making enormous genetic modifications in all of our major crop and
... To see how far the evolutionary changes have come, one only needs to
look at the 5000-year-old fossilized corn cobs found in the caves of
Tehuacan in Mexico, which are one-tenth the size of modern maize varieties.
Thanks to the development of science over the past 150 years, we now have
the insights into plant genetics and plant breeding to do what Mother
Nature did herself in the past by chance. Genetic modification of crops is
not some kind of witchcraft; rather it is the progressive harnessing of
the forces of nature to the benefit of feeding the human race.
For what biotechnology merely does is to isolate individual genes from
organisms and transfer them into others without the usual sexual crosses
necessary to combine the genes of two parents. It is the natural successor
to the Green Revolution which was also based on genetic science in the
development of hybrid seeds for maize, wheat and rice.
The GM crop revolution began in 1995-96 in the US, and spread rapidly
between 1996 and 1999, but only in three countries Argentina, Canada and
the US. In 1995 there were 4 million acres of biotech crops planted, which
had risen to 100 million in 1999.
In the US, 50 per cent of the soyabean crop and more than one-third of the
corn crop were transgenic in 1999. These GM crops provide major economic
benefits as they have reduced pesticide applications, given higher yields
as well as lower consumer prices (Krattiger, 2000). They have been readily
adopted where they have been introduced.
China began commercial GM crop production in 1997 on the basis of a strong
indigenous GM crop research programme launched as part of Deng Tsiao
Pingís initiative in sponsoring a major Chinese public research initiative
in biotechnology. By 1996, Chinese scientists were researching more than
47 different types of GM plants, and more than 80 state-funded
institutions were involved in GM research.
By contrast, Indiaís public research effort on GM technology is puny a
mere Rs 5.1 crore in 1998-99. It is still illegal for farmers to grow GM
crops in India. This is the result of NGO agitations beginning with the
attacks on the so-called terminator seeds of Monsanto, which is the major
commercial company which tried to introduce GM cotton to India.
This was followed by agitation against any field trials of GM cotton in
India. As the respected Washington think-tank IFPRI reports, Indiaís
cotton crop is threatened by boll-weevils that have become resistant to
chemical sprays. GM cotton provides an alternative.
Yet, attempts by Monsanto to gain bio-safety approval for their GM cotton
has been stymied by NGOs that have filed lawsuits and sponsored physical
attacks on field trials. By contrast, China has readily adopted Monsantoís
It is, of course, Monsanto that is the red rag for the Greens. Monsanto,
they claim, has just changed its way of making profits from poisoning
people first through its sales of Agent Orange to the US army as a
defoliant in the Vietnam war to promoting its Frankenstein foods.
Yet, as has been repeatedly noted by several scientific bodies, there is
no danger to the environment or health from GM foods. These include a
2,100-signatory declaration in support of biotechnology by scientists
worldwide, by the US National Academy of Science, by the US House of
Representatives Committee on Science and by a Nuffield Foundation study in
Since 1994, more than 30 crore North Americans have been eating several
dozen GM food but not one problem with health or the environment has been
noted (Whelan (2000). Yet the hysteria continues. To see the misanthropy
at its heart, there is no better example than that of the miracle golden
Scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zurich) and the
International Rice Research Institute (Philippines) have successfully
transferred genes producing beta-carotene a precursor of vitamin A into
rice to increase the quantities of vitamin A, iron and other
As the GM rice produces beta-carotene, it has a bronze-orange appearance,
and hence its name golden rice. It promises to have a profound effect on
the lives of millions suffering from vitamin A and iron deficiencies which
lead to blindness and anaemia respectively.
It has been estimated that more than 18 crore children, mostly in
developing countries, suffer from vitamin A deficiency, of whom 20 lakh
die from it each year. About 100 crore people suffer anaemia from iron
deficiency. In India, 50,000 children go blind each year from vitamin A
The new golden rice is being distributed free of charge to public
rice-breeding institutions around the world. Once the new rice is tested
and adapted, millions will be able to reduce their risks of these
disabling diseases at little or no cost . But Greenpeace has mounted a
campaign to prevent the necessary field trials taking place in India.
Yet as Professor Portykus, the inventor of golden rice, has noted though
it satisfies all the demands of the Greens they still oppose it. As he
notes: the new rice has not been developed by or for industry; (it)
benefits the poor and disadvantaged; provides a sustainable, cost free
solution, not requiring other resources; is given free of charge and
restrictions to subsistence farmers; can be resown each year from the
saved harvest; does not reduce agricultural biodiversity; does not affect
natural biodiversity; has no negative effect on the environment; has no
conceivable risk to consumer health and could not have been developed with
traditional methods. It is wicked to put impediments as the Greens have
sought to do in its development and adoption.
(All the references can be accessed at http://agbioview.listbot.com, and
are also in my inaugural Julian Simon memorial lecture: "The New Cultural
Imperialism", Liberty Institute, New Delhi)