Will China Get A Monopoly On Food Technology?

Dennis T. Avery
February 3, 2000
Journal of Commerce

Is it possible the First World will give China a virtual monopoly in agricultural biotechnology, destined to be one of the most valuable technologies of the 21st century?

Have the United States and Europe thrown away billions of dollars in agriculture-related biotech earnings and hundreds of thousands of clean, high-tech research and support jobs?

The United States and Europe have spent billions of dollars doing basic research in genetically modified crops and animals to make foods that are better tasting, more nutritious and kinder to the environment.

Will China now step in and charge the United States and Europe steep royalties for the right to grow the new organisms that result from this research?

Those are all strong possibilities in the wake of the environmental group Greenpeace's stunningly swift and successful campaign to ban genetically modified foods.

First World investors were afraid to be caught in another controversy like tobacco, or another set of baseless class-action lawsuits like the controversy over silicone breast implants.

They've bailed out on agricultural biotechnology long before governments dared act. To duck the controversy, Monsanto's orphaned agricultural biotech unit will be dumped into a hostile stock market along with its multibillion-dollar laboratories and patents. Ditto for the big agricultural biotech units of Europe's Novartis and Zeneca.

And don't expect the laid-off scientists to land jobs at public research institutions. Those labs will be even more gun-shy of agricultural biotechnology now than the private sector.

This has nothing to do with risks to people or the environment. Despite media hype, no real dangers related to biotech foods have ever been documented. But Greenpeace seems to want a smaller, poorer human population, so it's willing to frighten the world back into the scientific Dark Ages.

The one thing certain is genetic engineering in food production will not disappear.

When the astronomer Galileo published his proofs in 1632 that the Earth revolved around the sun, the Catholic Church put him under house arrest. The church had declared the Earth the center of the universe. But people could never look at the sun in quite the same way again. They had new knowledge.

The First World may be so comfortable it can afford to pass up biotech foods. But the Third World is still struggling to provide adequate diets for its growing population.

The developing world's choices are stark. It can either use biotechnology to raise yields, grow more low-yield crops by clearing tropical forests, or import food from the West. Given those choices, biotech foods look awfully attractive.

Most Third World countries are too small or poor to advance agricultural biotechnology on their own. Countries like Brazil and Argentina could assemble the scientific resources, but they're afraid of losing their export sales to nervous European and Japanese consumers.

India might like to develop high-yielding biotech crops to ease its farmland shortage, but its own prickly activists are still arguing over hybrid seeds. They're likely to hamstring Indian biotech into the near foreseeable future.

China is the one country in the world with the scientific power to carry biotechnology forward in agriculture, the urgent need for massive amounts of additional food and feed, and no need to allow unfounded food scares to be published in its newspapers.

China already has more than 1 million farmers growing genetically modified cotton, corn and soybeans because of lower costs. Anyone who doubts China's ability to carry forward good science is ignoring the country's fabulous history and its recent ballistic missile tests.

"Golden rice" by itself may be enough to secure genetically engineered foods' reputation among Chinese consumers.

Asian women are at high risk of birth complications because of iron deficiency due to the phytate in the rice they eat. Golden rice counteracts the phytate and provides ample dietary iron. It also contains plenty of Vitamin A, also lacking in many rice-culture diets.

The International Rice Research Institute is already breeding golden rice genes into popular rice varieties for the people of Asia and Africa. Is Greenpeace callous enough to try to frighten poor rice-culture consumers away from golden rice and back to childhood blindness?

Using biotechnology, China should be able to produce highly attractive foods, such as healthier fats for cooking, allergy-free nuts, more tender steaks and, at last, a tasty off-season tomato. Every vitamin and mineral needed by the human body could be engineered into our foods, saving consumers billions of dollars in food supplements.

When First World consumers find out about such goodies, China can export them or charge farmers in other countries a fee to grow them.

The biotech crops will also feature sharply higher yields, especially on marginal farmlands where drought and acid soils currently limit production.

First World farmers will lose a significant part of their export potential, of course, if Third World farmers can produce higher yields and more desirable specialty foods through biotechnology. At the moment, that seems to be the price they pay for farming in a rich, overfed country.

Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, Va., and is director of global food issues for the Hudson Institute of Indianapolis. This article was distributed by Bridge News.


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