Biotech Isn't A Luxury In Some Nations
Jennifer A. Thomson And Zhang-Liang Chen
The biotechnology debate in Europe is dominated by cultural and ethical issues, potential food and environmental safety questions and an underlying skepticism with regard to the role of multinational corporations and "industrialized" agriculture. The case for biotechnology in developing countries can be made much more easily: It is needs-based.
Rich countries may engage in lengthy disputes about real or imagined risks. We suggest that is largely a luxury debate. Meanwhile, the rest of the world needs to focus on a rigorous risk-benefit analysis. From the perspective of many developing and newly industrialized countries, agricultural biotechnology's benefits are very real and urgently needed today and indispensable tomorrow.
The developing world cannot afford to let Europe's homemade problems negatively impact the future growth in our countries.
In South Africa, small-scale farming still is the norm rather than the exception. Field trials with genetically modified crops have been taking place since the mid-1990s, and commercial planting of crops with insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant traits started in 1998. The results are extremely encouraging. The benefits are tremendous, especially in small-scale farming. Studies in the Makatini Flats in the KwaZulu-Natal province in 1998 showed a 20% yield increase in cotton through the use of insect-resistant, genetically modified cotton seed. Preliminary results from the 1999 growing season even suggest a twofold yield increase in this area.
In the cases of some commercial farmers, operators were able to forgo pesticide spraying completely. We also observed an increase in beneficial insects in and around the fields planted with "Bt" cotton. These field results stand in marked contrast to the fears in some industrialized countries that such crops might endanger "non-target" insects, such as the monarch butterfly in the United States.
Biotechnology offers farmers and consumers in South Africa more than just higher yields and pesticide-free crops. The nation's geography and climate regularly bring drought to large areas that otherwise could produce substantial farm crops. Drought-tolerant seed research is making tremendous progress in South African laboratories, promising improved production and economic opportunity.
Half-way around the world, China has more than 20% of the world's population and only 7% of the world's arable land. With the still-rapid increase of its population and changing eating habits, as well as an ongoing loss of cultivable and, food security is an imminent concern.
China turned to biotechnology to hit this concern head-on, beginning in the mid-'80s. More than 100 laboratories across the country have been involved in the effort. In 1997, China started to commercialize transgenic crops, most of them with traits such as insect and virus resistances. Roughly 1 million acres of transgenic crops were planted, making China one of the world's top three countries growing transgenic crops.
As Europe hems and haws, China's research effort is moving forward at a brisk pace. Scientists are now, or will be, focusing on bacterial, fungus and virus resistance, salt and drought tolerance, nutritional enrichment and quality improvement. Additionally, even more advanced applications, such as "bio-pharming" for edible oral vaccines and recombinant pharmaceuticals, are in the picture.
Given the socioeconomic realities and needs in countries like South Africa and China, it is almost trivial to discuss whether they should use a technology that already has shown its benefits to their populations. These countries cannot afford to limit themselves to the industrialized world's narrow interpretation of risk assessment. Likewise, they cannot afford to allow the Western debate to slow developing countries' access to already existing and expected future benefits of biotechnology.
Jennifer A. Thomson is head of the Department of Microbiology at, the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Zhang-Liang Chen, director of, the National Laboratory of Protein Engineering and Plant Genetic, Engineering in China, chairs the UNESCO plant biotechnology committee
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