Engineering The Harvest Biotech could help fight hunger in the world's poorest nations--but will it?

Laura Tangley
March 13, 2000
U.S. News & World Report

Saffron-colored rice that saves millions of lives by banishing anemia and vitamin A deficiency from Asia. Sweet potatoes that resist a harvest-destroying virus in Africa. Maize that survives the devastating droughts and floods that routinely hit rural regions throughout the tropics. Such miracle crops may not be growing in farmers' fields, but genetic engineers around the world are working feverishly to develop them in the laboratory. And the crops' potential to alleviate human suffering has some scientists from poor nations asking whether today's heated debate over the safety of "Frankenfood" ignores the more serious hazard of not developing these seeds. Says Calestous Juma, a Kenyan who is special adviser to Harvard University's Center for International Development: "For the world's developing countries, one of the greatest risks of genetic engineering is not being able to use this technology at all."

The need to improve Third World agriculture is indisputable. Across large swaths of Asia, Latin America, and--especially--Africa, hunger and malnutrition are epidemic. According to Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and author of The Doubly Green Revolution, more than 800 million people worldwide are hungry or chronically undernourished--the majority women and young children. Each year, more than 5 million children under age 5 die from diseases related to malnutrition. Meanwhile, the populations of most developing nations are growing rapidly. In a recent report, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) estimates that to keep up with the world's rising food demand, farmers will have to produce 40 percent more grain by 2020. And this comes at a time when increases in crop production, even in the richest countries with the most fertile lands, have leveled off.

Genetic engineering has the potential to help ameliorate these problems by allowing scientists to splice into crops genes that could boost yields; make crops resistant to droughts, diseases, and pests; and enhance the nutritional quality of food. Yet, with just a handful of notable exceptions, most genetic engineers are not developing such crops. One obvious reason is that improvements to staples that feed the world's poor--sweet potato and cassava, for instance--offer little potential profit to biotechnology companies that answer first to their shareholders. But another problem, says Juma, is that the public furor over the potential hazards of biotechnology has scared off other promising sources of research funding. According to IFPRI's director general, Per Pinstrup-Andersen, neither proponents who hype biotechnology nor activists trying to stop it "are the people of the world who go to bed hungry."

Golden rice. The exceptions to profit-driven biotech, many funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, demonstrate the technology's potential. At the Cali, Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), for instance, Nigerian scientist Martin Fregene leads a project to map the genome of cassava--a staple food throughout Africa--that will help researchers introduce genes for insect and disease resistance. Another CIAT researcher, Venezuelan Zaida Lentini, has spliced into rice a gene conferring resistance to the hoja blanca virus, which can cut yields by half. And in Mexico, scientists have added to both rice and maize genes that help plants tolerate the toxic levels of aluminum that are common in many tropical soils.

For the poor, bad nutrition can be as serious a problem as too little food. The most dramatic advance on this front--reported recently in the journal Science--represents an unprecedented technical as well as humanitarian feat. With funds from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Swiss government, Ingo Potrykus and colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have created a genetically modified breed of rice containing beta carotene, the biochemical that turns into vitamin A. The developing world's leading cause of childhood blindness, vitamin A deficiency also makes about 230 million children more vulnerable to infection, causing more than a million deaths a year.

To produce "golden rice," the Potrykus team introduced three genes, two from daffodils and another from a bacterium. In contrast, most genetically modified crops produced so far contain just a single foreign gene. Now scientists at the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute are crossing the experimental rice with another variety that is consumed throughout Asia. They hope farmers will begin sowing golden rice--which will be made available free of charge--within two to three years.

Meanwhile, Potrykus has added to rice two additional genes that double the grain's iron content and increase the mineral's absorption. Iron deficiency and the anemia it causes are the world's most common nutritional disorders. Eventually, he hopes to combine the two genetically engineered rices, creating a variety that would provide in a typical Asian diet all the vitamin A and iron a person needs.

But Miguel Altieri, an agroecologist at the University of California-Berkeley, argues that, beyond these isolated cases, biotech research "has nothing to do with helping developing countries." Indeed, critics and supporters alike agree that genetically engineered crops commercialized so far are meant to help farmers in industrialized countries boost their yields and profits. Altieri argues that the needs of the poor are misleadingly being used to justify investment in biotech research.

Beyond lack of profitability and the controversy over risks, the greatest barrier to developing modified crops to help the poor comes from the industrialized world's system of intellectual-property rights. Even when private foundations like Rockefeller sponsor research, most of the biotechnology tools required--the gene gun used to inject DNA, for instance--are patented by private companies. Hoping to minimize such legal obstacles, Rockefeller's Conway has approached Monsanto and other biotech companies to ask if they would donate patented technologies to nonprofit institutions in developing countries.

Kenyan breakthrough. His track record provides cause for optimism. Last fall, following a request from Conway, Monsanto announced that it was abandoning plans to use "terminator" technologies, which render seeds of genetically modified crops sterile so they cannot be used for planting the following season. A Monsanto spokesperson says the company already has hosted a few scientists from developing countries who are working to modify staple foods, then donated the resulting products and processes to the researchers' home institutions. Kenyan scientists working at Monsanto, for example, have developed a genetically altered sweet potato that resists a devastating virus.

Even Conway and others who fervently believe in genetic engineering's power to help the poor say the technology's potential hazards must not be ignored. Before genetically modified seeds are planted in the field, they say, the crops should be tested for detrimental effects on either human health or the environment. Indeed, some ecologists warn that because the tropics house the wild relatives of many crop plants, there is a greater chance that foreign genes could escape into nature. But Florence Wambugu, a Kenyan scientist who helped create the genetically altered sweet potato, says such risks are not grave enough for foreign activists to try to exclude Africa from the biotechnology revolution. "Africans," she says, "can speak for themselves."


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