Genetically Modified Foods Fill Developing World Silos

By Andrew S. Holbrook (Harvard U.)
March 13, 2001 U-WIRE

(U-WIRE) CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – M.S. Swaminathan, architect of the Indian "green revolution" in the late 1960s that doubled crop yields in just four years, painted a confident picture on Friday at Harvard University of sustained rises in agricultural output in the developing world, fueled by genetically modified foods and other new technologies.

The green revolution introduced superior plant breeds and increased rice and wheat farmers' productivity. It has been widely credited with having prevented famine in Swaminathan's home country.

In a lecture at the Science Center sponsored by the University Committee on Environment, Swaminathan outlined what he called an "ever-green revolution" that would produce continued productivity gains but prevent farmers from exhausting the soil and water supply.

"There is no complacency. There is no time to relax," he said. "One must defend the gains that have already been made. ... We must make new gains in farming systems."

Environmentalists and others have objected to a key element of Swaminathan's plan – genetically modified foods – saying the ecological impact is uncertain. Already, Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Brazil and other countries have curbed farmers' use of these modified crops.

Though he said no such crops have been approved for planting in India, Swaminathan predicted genetically engineered crops would gain approval there within the next five or six years. He said they would cause crop yields to climb consistently over the next 50 years.

Genetically modified foods could also have nutritional benefits, he said. For example, he said that "golden rice," which is enriched in beta-carotene, could help to combat vitamin-A deficiency, which kills a million children worldwide every year.

But Swaminathan cautioned that genetically modified products are not cure-alls that will eradicate health problems, such as children's blindness.

"There's a lot of hype in the media," he said. "The overstatements have hurt the cause. It is not possible to achieve all that."

He called for more research on other crops, as well as poultry and fish, which he said are essential to ensuring the poor eat well-balanced diets.

Swaminathan also said scientists will have to work with social scientists to resolve ethical concerns over genetically engineered organisms.

As he talked of "reaching the unreached," Swaminathan said developing countries are threatened by major social divides, especially gender gaps and unequal access to technology.

He described "micro-planning" projects he and his team of researchers have carried out to begin closing those gaps, such as low-cost greenhouses and wireless Internet connections.

After his lecture, Swaminathan faced questions challenging his reliance on individual farmers in an era of large, dominant multi-national agricultural firms.

Though he acknowledged "you can't beat them," Swaminathan said he believed his small-scale projects would set a self-replicating example for the entire country.

"I was very surprised by how optimistic he was," said McKay Professor of Environmental Engineering Peter P. Rogers, who attended the lecture.

According to Rogers, who has studied natural resources in India and elsewhere, India's water table is falling and some studies have suggested demand for water will far outstrip supply within 20 years.

Since water is key to agriculture, that could mean a gloomier forecast for continued rises in farming output, though Rogers said he did not necessarily dispute Swaminathan's outlook.

"He's always been upbeat," Rogers said. "He has reason to be optimistic. He's done it one time before."

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