A Matter of Life or Starvation

To ignore modern biotechnology as a possible solution to pressing food security challenges would be most unwise

By Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen
November 26, 2000 Bangkok Post

Modern biotechnology is not a silver bullet for achieving food security, but, used in conjunction with traditional or conventional agricultural research methods, it may be a powerful tool that should be made available to poor farmers and consumers in the fight against poverty.

Biotechnology is not, as some critics have charged, "a solution looking for a problem". The problems that it addresses are genuine and momentous. Poverty, food insecurity, child malnutrition, and micronutrient deficiencies will persist in the Asia-Pacific region through 2020, especially in South Asia. Region-wide, rapidly growing food demand will outstrip domestic production, due to declining rates of yield growth, low productivity among poor farmers, and competition from lower priced industrialised country imports.

Environmental degradation and declining growth in public investment in agricultural research and infrastructure pose additional obstacles.

As rural poverty persists in Asia, achieving equitable and sustainable growth will be an important task in the 21st century. Agriculture will play a prominent role. Even when rural people do not work directly in agriculture as farmers or as farm workers, many rely on employment and income related to agriculture. Moreover, where there are large numbers of rural poor people, agricultural growth is a catalyst for broad-based economic growth and development. Also, a healthy agricultural economy encourages natural resource conservation and helps meet growing food needs driven by rapid population growth and urbanisation.

Although there is tissue culture and other agricultural biotechnology research underway in many developing countries, most transgenic crops are planted in the developed world and for developed country markets. In 1999, North America accounted for 82 percent of genetically modified (GM) plantings, with the United States alone accounting for 72 percent.

In Asia, only China has a significant area planted to GM crops. The first country in the world to approve commercialisation of GM crops, China has authorised the environmental release of over 100 GM crops, including insect resistant-cotton; virus-resistant tobacco, papayas, green peppers, and potatoes; and slow ripening tomatoes. India has a major research programme, but has not approved commercialisation of GM varieties. There are modest research efforts in Thailand and the Philippines.

Conventional breeding vs biotechnology

First of all, current work in agricultural biotechnology involves the transfer of a single or a few genes between species and even from micro-organisms and animals to plants. While all plant breeding arguably involves "genetic modification", conventional breeding crosses different varieties within a single species. There is considerable debate about whether gene transfers across species boundaries entail significant risks to human health and the environment.

Secondly, the public sector's leading role in conventional crop research, especially in developing countries, has made improved seeds freely available although some are subjected to breeders' rights that may entail an initial charge. In contrast, modern agricultural biotechnology research is undertaken mostly by private sector companies that protect intellectual property rights through patents beyond the first release.

To date, little private sector agricultural biotechnology research has focused on developing country food crops other than maize. Moreover, there is little adaptation of research to developing country crops and conditions, through the "enlightened" (i.e., not-for-profit, public goods-oriented) public and philanthropic channels prominent in conventional breeding efforts in the developing countries. There is little biotechnology research on the productivity and nutrition of poor people.

Thirdly, while conventional breeding technology lies in the public domain, the processes used in modern agricultural biotechnology are increasingly subjected to intellectual property protection, along with their resulting products.

Benefits and Risks

Modern agricultural biotechnology, including genetic engineering, can help significantly in a comprehensive sustainable poverty alleviation strategy focused on broad based agricultural growth. Depending on the relevance of agricultural biotechnology research to the needs of the poor, the economic and social policy environment, and the intellectual property rights governing the technology, modern agricultural biotechnology can increase productivity, lower unit costs and prices for food, encourage nature conservation, reduce poverty and improve nutrition.

However, the introduction of modern biotechnology should be supported by national biosafety regulations that require thorough assessment of environmental risks, including the spread of desired traits from GM plants to unmodified plants (including weeds) through cross-pollination; the build-up of resistance in insect populations; unintended harm to other species; and the potential threat to biodiversity due to widespread monoculture of bio-engineered crops. These risks are particularly significant in the centres of origin and diversity of major food crops, including many parts of Asia.

Strong opposition to GM food in the European Union has resulted in severe restrictions on modern agricultural biotechnology, including a three-year moratorium on approval of commercial use of new GM agricultural products. The opposition is driven in part by perceived lack of consumer benefits, uncertainty about possible negative health and environmental effects, and widespread perception that a few large corporations will be the primary beneficiaries. v Failure to remove antibiotic-resistant marker genes used in research before a GM food is commercialised presents a potential although unproven health risk. China does not subject GM food to scrutiny beyond that required for conventional food. Having gone the farthest in developing agricultural biotechnology, among Asian countries, China should enhance its biosafety and food safety regulations, ensuring that field testing and even commercialisation gives systematic attention to potential environmental risks.

India, in contrast, has enacted regulations requiring special testing of all GM seeds, plants, and plant parts for both toxicity and allergenicity. A vigorous civil society and strong anti-GMO organisations are helping to ensure that biosafety is based much more on precaution. So far, India has not approved the commercial release of any GM crops, although large-scale field trials of Bt cotton are underway. This research is the object of some protest from anti-GM organisations.

In the Philippines, strict biosafety regulations are on the books, but the lack of human and institutional resources hampers their effective implementation. As in India, strong environmental and farmers organisations have questioned the need for GM crops.

In Thailand, regulations are tighter than in China, more effective than in the Philippines, and somewhat looser than in India. A potential problem is that regulation is overseen by the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, which is also responsible for promoting research. Nevertheless, appropriate laboratory and field test protocols have been developed, and research capacity has been strengthened at national institutions. A major issue in Thai research programmes is whether to rely on imported GM seeds, or to look at biotechnology and conventional breeding as tools to develop new crop varieties with desirable traits from Thailand's own biodiversity.

A Cautious Approach

Unless developing countries have policies in place to assure that small farmers have access to extension services, productive resources (such as land, water, and credit), markets, and infrastructure, there is considerable risk that the introduction of agricultural biotechnology could lead to increased inequality of income and wealth, as larger farmers capture most of the benefits through early adoption of the technology, expanded production, and reduced unit costs. Where biotechnology may offer substantial benefits for poor farmers in long-neglected less favoured areas, the need for attention to equity and adequate levels of public investment is particularly great.

Increased public sector research is essential for assuring that molecular biology-based science serves the needs of poor farmers and consumers, as in increased public-private cooperation. Poor people must be included in debate and decision-making about technological change. It is also essential to strengthen regulatory capacity in Asian countries. The biggest risk is that technological development will bypass poor people in a form of "scientific apartheid", focusing exclusively on industrialised countries and large-scale farming.

If opposition in developed countries leads to moratoria or outright bans on agricultural biotechnology research, developing countries will be unlikely to receive scientific or financial support for their research. This would likely preclude most such research in developing Asian countries, except in large countries such as China and India, and negatively affect opportunities to reduce poverty, food insecurity, child malnutrition, and natural resource degradation.


Dr Per Pinstrup-Andersen is Director-General of the International Food Policy Research Institute based in Washington DC. This article is adapted from his lecture at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) last week, in honour of the late AIT faculty, Dr Gunner Kjer Hansen.

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