Food Fight

By Sebastian Mallaby
July 9, 2001 The Washington Post

In the global AIDS debate, activists pummeled pharmaceutical giants until they discounted drugs for poor countries. In the global food debate, activists assail agribusiness giants with precisely the opposite motive. The agribusiness folks want their genetic technology to relieve malnutrition in the southern hemisphere. But last week activists from Greenpeace vandalized a plantation of genetically modified corn in Brazil. The Greenpeace Web site demands that governments ban genetically engineered crops.

This is murderous nonsense. Over the next two decades world population is projected to grow by between 2 billion and 2.5 billion. This increase, together with rising incomes, means that crops will have to grow by about a third, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. We could do that by chopping down forests and planting marginal lands, which would be environmentally awful. Or we could do it by boosting yields with new technology.

Is this technology safe? No test has suggested that genetically engineered crops harm human health. On the other hand, a lack of plentiful cheap food harms human health enormously. Half the children in South Asia and a third in sub-Saharan Africa are malnourished. Among other consequences, these children suffer iodine deficiency, which causes mental retardation, and Vitamin A deficiency, which causes blindness.

Some anti-genetic activists, such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), say the poor won't be able to afford new-fangled crops. Kucinich cites the "so-called green revolution," which was supposed to conquer hunger and in his view didn't. But the green revolution – involving improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides – more than doubled cereal production in South Asia between 1970 and 1995. Despite enormous population growth, it cut the malnutrition rate from 40 percent to 23 percent. What the green revolution began, the gene revolution can continue.

Kucinich and like thinkers suppose that poor countries should rediscover traditional culture and eschew inappropriate Western technologies. But a report from the U.N. Development Program, to be published tomorrow, blows a hole in this conceit. The threat to development is not inappropriate technology but a lack of technology – medicines, Internet hookups, biotechnology. It's one thing for affluent consumers to eschew transgenic foods. It's another for the affluent to impose their choices on poor people. China has shown that genetically modified rice can boost yields by 15 percent in the Third World. But Greenpeace pressures developing countries not to follow China's lead. When Kenya faced famine last year, the antis urged the Kenyan government to refuse U.S. food aid because some of it was genetically modified.

Last year the world's governments adopted a U.N. protocol on biosafety. More than 100 countries have signed on, and the ratification process is beginning. The protocol says countries (read: paranoid rich countries) can bar some agricultural imports if they fear their biotech content – even if these fears are founded on a "lack of scientific certainty." Nobody quite knows whether this provision will be trumped by the World Trade Organization's rules. But the mere possibility that transgenic crops may cause exclusion from rich markets dissuades many developing countries from adopting them.

Yes, transgenic crops carry risks. The Monarch butterfly is famous because the damage it suffered from modified corn is the closest to a smoking gun that the antis have come up with. But damage to the Monarch has to be weighed against the prospect that fewer forests will be cleared and fewer children will go hungry. It also must be weighed against damage to the Monarch from not embracing biotechnology. The alternative to butterfly-killing corn may be corn sprayed with butterfly-killing pesticides.

If the skeptics would embrace the new technology, they could get on with the other half of their agenda. The critics are right that agribusiness giants have patented a disturbing chunk of this new field – not just the new seeds, but the methods used to make them. That could mean that the techniques of biotechnology are used predominantly to develop seeds for rich consumers who can pay, rather than for poor farmers whose need is most urgent.

For the moment, the industry is offering more high-tech seeds to the Third World than browbeaten governments feel able to accept. But one day, African scientists who succeed in modifying cassava – a crop that agribusiness has all but ignored – may be sued for using patented gene-transfer techniques. There's something for activists to worry about.


The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.

2001 The Washington Post Company

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