Ideas & Trends: A Food Fight For High Stakes
February 4, 2001 The New York Times
Such actions raise a troubling question about the critics of biotechnology. Are they so against it that they are willing to let people die? Indeed, the critics, most of whom live in wealthy countries, are increasingly being called imperialists for opposing a technology that could be used to develop improved crops for poor nations.
''To deny desperately hungry people the means to control their futures by presuming to know what is best for them is not only paternalistic but morally wrong,'' Hassan Adamu, until last week Nigeria's minister of agriculture and rural development, wrote in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post.
Until now, the debate about biotechnology has focused on whether modified crops are safe for consumption and for the environment. And it has largely pitted the United States against anti-biotech Europe, neither of which faces much risk of hunger.
But there is a growing recognition that the third world might have the swing vote on whether genetically modified agriculture succeeds or fails. So both sides are courting developing countries -- though some experts say the poor are being used as pawns.
Focusing on hunger rather than safety could help the beleaguered biotechnology industry because it emphasizes the potential benefits, not the risks. The critics say the industry is using the poor to justify selling their products to the rich.
''The feeding-the-world argument is a very carefully engineered P.R. exercise to create some moral legitimacy for this technology,'' said Brian Halweil, an analyst at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. He points out that the industry concentrates on crops like herbicide-resistant soybeans for farmers in the Midwest, not drought-tolerant millet for subsistence farmers in Africa.
Not all critics want to stop biotechnology; some just want to increase testing and regulation. But the most zealous seem to say that virtually no benefit could outweigh the risk of genetic pollution from transferring genes between species. In remarks to reporters last year, Benedikt Haerlin of Greenpeace dismissed the importance of saving African and Asian lives if it meant unleashing the technology.
In fairness, most critics contend that biotechnology won't alleviate hunger in the first place. The world already produces enough food, they say, but the poor can't afford to buy it. And they note that peasant farmers in India have destroyed fields of genetically engineered crops, so it is not only well-fed environmentalists who oppose them.
MANY critics see biotechnology as the latest incarnation of corporate agriculture, which is heavily dependent on pesticides and which replaces diverse crops with single varieties. Such an approach, they say, is antithetical to lower-tech sustainable farming practices, like better crop rotations, which in some cases can produce dramatic gains at lower cost. There is also a fear that poor farmers, who often save seeds from one year's crop to plant the next, will have to buy expensive biotech seeds every year, making them dependent on multinational companies or driving them off their land if they cannot afford the costs.
Biotechnology companies ''don't really want to get to the crux of the matter, which is about control of the food system,'' said Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First, a food-policy research institute in Oakland.
Biotech backers, and many other food experts, say that for some farmers and some regions, absolute shortages of production are a problem. And while early efforts were indeed aimed at crops for rich countries, there are now numerous projects to develop third world crops that are resistant to pests, drought or poor soil. Such crops could lessen, not increase, the need for expensive inputs like pesticides and water. And in any case, farmers are free not to use the new seeds, if they choose.
''For us to take an attitude that these farmers are gullible and ignorant and we have to take care to protect them from Western influences is absurd,'' said C. S. Prakash, a professor at Tuskegee University who is developing genetically modified crops for the third world. He accuses biotech opponents of romanticizing the old ways that left people in poor health and abject poverty.
The poster crop in this debate is ''golden rice,'' which contains bacterial and daffodil genes that allow it to make a nutrient that the body converts to vitamin A. Such rice could help alleviate a vitamin deficiency that blinds and kills millions of people each year. Developed by public sector scientists in Switzerland and Germany, the rice seed is to be given free to poor farmers in developing countries.
BUT some critics have denounced golden rice as a Trojan horse aimed at winning acceptance of genetically engineered food. They say the rice doesn't contain enough of the vitamin-A precursor to make a difference and that, anyway, the diet of hungry children lacks the fat and protein needed to convert the precursor into vitamin A. They say that solving just one vitamin deficiency won't make much difference for children who suffer from multiple nutrition problems. They also say there are other ways of providing vitamin A, like vitamin capsules or unpolished rice.
Some proponents agree that it is unclear how much vitamin A the rice can provide. But, they say, why does trying it preclude other approaches -- which obviously haven't solved the problem yet -- from being pursued as well?
Ingo Potrykus, the Swiss scientist who led the development of golden rice, said opponents have a ''hidden political agenda.'' In an article to be published in the journal In Vitro Plant, he writes: ''It is not so much the concern about the environment, or the health of the consumer, or help for the poor and disadvantaged. It is a radical fight against a technology and for political success.''
In fighting to keep golden rice from the poor in developing countries, he adds, the opposition ''has to be held responsible for the foreseeable unnecessary death and blindness of millions of poor every year.''
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