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Food Biotechnology: Promising Havoc or Hope for the Poor?

Proteus - a Journal of New Ideas; (2000) 17:38
By Anatole F. Krattiger

Despite its tremendous potential for safer and more nutritious foods, biotechnology has become a major source of international contention. Concerns about genetically modified plants intensified significantly over the last year, particularly in Europe, setting the terms for the international agribiotech debate and heavily influencing the policies of the World Trade Organization and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Yet the commercialization of these crops continues to significantly increase. In 1995, there were 4 million acres of biotech crops planted (James & Krattiger 1996); and 100 million in 1999 (James 1999). In the U.S., 50 percent of the soybean crop and more than one third of the corn crop were transgenic in 1999. These new crops are popular because they provide farmers, life sciences companies, and consumers with major benefits such as reduced pesticide applications, higher yields, and lower consumer prices (Wald 1999). The increased use of these crops, however, is also creating international friction over the political economy of agriculture, the environmental impact of agribiotechnology, the regulation of transgenic foods, consumer choice, and, of course, the relative competitiveness of nations.

As with any new technology, those countries that adopt it first gain the most. Technology adoption, however, is driven by capacity not by need. And so, in a tragic paradox, industrialized countries are currently reaping biotech' s benefits while developing countries, where most of the world's poor reside and where increases in agricultural productivity are absolutely critical, gain nothing. If the international community does not find novel ways to ensure that the poorest farmers also gain access to this revolutionizing technology, agribiotech will actually acerbate inequity between nations and further strain the already tense relationship between developing and industrialized countries.

How "Natural" Is Modern Biotechnology?

Biotechnology is not radically new. Any method that uses life forms to make or modify a product is biotechnology; brewing beer or making leavened bread is a "traditional" biotechnology application. In the early 1970s, however, it became possible to isolate individual genes from organisms and to transfer them into others without the usual sexual crosses necessary to combine the genes of two parents (Horsch et al. 1984; Bytebier et al. 1987). This requires the use of natural processes such as those provided by a common soil bacterium (Agrobacterium tumefaciens) that "inserts" or "transfers" some of its own genes into the root cells of plants (Chrispeels & Sadava 1994). This led to what is now termed "modem" biotechnology, which has opened the door to many helpful applications for human health, the environment, and agriculture. All insulin produced since 1983, for example, is "transgenic": a synthetic human gene, inserted into bacteria, now produces the exact replica of human insulin (Ladisch & Kohlmann 1992). Before this revolution in production, insulin was only available from animals at an extremely high cost and was subject to intolerance problems.

In agriculture, plant breeders have been moving genes from one species to another for a very long time through sexual crosses, often using "bridging" species. In wheat and rice, for example, many disease resistance traits were introduced from "alien" species (Khush & Toenniessen 1991). Biotechnology significantly broadens the available gene pool for plant improvement. Although some might object to moving genes from a bacterium, for example, into a plant on the grounds that this is not "natural" or ethical, it should be remembered that the similarity between bacteria and humans, for example, at the molecular or genetic level is much higher than most people would think. The mitochondria in each of our cells are most likely bacteria that once entered our cells and made multicellular organisms possible (Mikelsaar 1987). The genes of the soil worm Caenorhabditis elegans are 90 percent identical to those of mice and over 70 percent to those of humans (Karlin & Ladunga 1994). No one can therefore claim that a few genes out of the 140,000 genes that make up the human genome (Dickson 1999) contain the essential nature of that species. The nature of beings is either in the entirety of their genes or must be well beyond single genes. (See also Krattiger et al. 1994.) In any case, plant breeders have been moving genes from one species to another and there have never been any problems with those transfers. Biotechnology just allows for a larger gene pool for plant improvement.

Using modem biotechnology, plants can be made more resistant to insects, bacteria, fungi, and viruses, all of which lead to global production losses of well over 35 percent. The cost of these enormous losses is estimated at over US$200 billion annually (Krattiger 1997). But modem biotechnology can do more than simply increase crop yields. Food quality enhancement also offers great benefits. Reducing certain enzymes in fruits and perishable vegetables, for example, reduces their perishability and significantly cuts postharvest losses (Neupane et al. 1998). In addition, certain naturally occurring substances in plants can be increased such as anticancer compounds naturally found in soybeans (Wang & Wixon 1999), vitamin A in rice (Burkhardt et al. 1997), iron content in cereals (Theil et al. 1997), or more non-saturated fatty acids in canola (Kramer & Sauer 1993), and other oil crops. Plants can also be used to deliver edible vaccines, which would have a tremendous impact in developing countries (Arntzen 1996, 1998).

Indeed, all of these technologies are important for developing countries where farm to market transport systems are grossly inadequate and cooled storage almost nonexistent and where diets often lack nutritional balance. Over 100 million people in South and Southeast Asia alone suffer or are at risk from vitamin A deficiency, which particularly afflicts women and children (Lotfi et al. 1996). Because rice is a staple food that Asians depend on for 4070 percent of their total food intake, improving the nutritional value of rice alone with higher beta carotene content for Vitamin A, higher levels of iron, higher levels and better quality proteins would make a bigger difference than any food technology has ever made (see http://www.cgiar.org/irri). It is important to stress that all of these technological applications are proven today and available today. They could be deployed in the near term if only someone would donate and invest in their transfer to benefit the poor.

How "Natural" Are Modern Biotechnology's Risks?

One cannot responsibly discuss biotechnology without addressing its potential risks. Like any technology, agribiotech has inherent risks that must be carefully considered. Yet in over fourteen years, with 30,000 field trials and hundreds of millions of hectares cultivated, no new risks associated with genetically modified crops have appeared (James & Krattiger 1996). This is not to say that the technology will not impact the environment, but most indications are that the impact will be positive (Butler & Reichhardt 1999). Consider, for example, that the first wave of transgenic crops displaced millions of dollars worth of harmful agricultural pesticides.

Population, Agriculture, and the Environment in One Generation from Now-Malthus: Yes or No?

In 1998, Business Week declared on one of its covers that the 21" Century would be the "Biotech Century." The potential of this powerful technology to affect the prosperity of the human race over the next century is certainly immense (Krattiger 1998), but the problems we confront are also immense. At the beginning of the new millennium, there are 6 billion people on planet earth. Of these, 2.8 billion nearly half the world's population live in poverty. They lack adequate food and nutrition, the means to educate their children, and such basic necessities as clean water and adequate shelter (World Bank 1999). In fact, 1.4 billion people live on less than a dollar a day and 800 million people go hungry for the better part of every year of their lives (Pinstrup Andersen & Pandya Lorch 1999a,b). This is neither morally acceptable nor politically sustainable when the other half of the world lives in material abundance.

Thomas Malthus (17661834) predicted over two hundred years ago that the planet could not sustain its human population growth, but thanks to technological innovations the crises he predicted have not yet materialized. In the next generation, however, world population will increase dramatically, and over 90 percent of that increase will take place in developing countries. Urbanization will increase (with an additional 3 billion urban dwellers by 2025), and the diets of people will continue to change, consisting more of processed foods, particularly meat. Consequently, because processed foods require more raw material and because higher urban consumption leads to higher food waste, the demand for food and feed will increase more than population growth. It is unclear how developing countries will be able to meet these needs. Alex McCalla has usefully summarized four views on whether or not the world can meet future food demand (1998):

-The Conventional View states that over the next twenty-five to thirty years we must double food production on the same area of land in agricultural use today. The conventionalists cite past increases in agricultural productivity to argue that food demand can be met and that Malthus has to wait.

-The Optimists place more emphasis on rates of income growth, on the income elasticity of the demand for food, and on sustained investments in agricultural research and development. They conclude that it will be increasingly easy to meet food demand over the next few decades. They conclude that Malthus never was.

-The Pessimists are more cautious about productivity increases, noting that while from 1950 to 1993 grain productivity increased on average by 2 percent, the actual increase was 3 percent from 1950 to 1983, and scarcely I percent from 1983 to 1993. Pessimists are also concerned about the potential of the natural resource base. They conclude that the world' s grain demands will exceed tradable supplies by over 500 million metric tons equivalent to two times the amount of currently traded grains and that Malthus is right around the comer.

-The "Industrialized Countries Will Fill the Gap" Believers argue that productivity in tropical and subtropical agriculture will decrease significantly and that the shortfall of grains will be 800 million metric tons, but they contend that industrialized countries can fill the productivity gap. It seems they never heard of Malthus! All these projections are necessarily based on assumptions such as yield increases and the amount of available land. Even a small change in any direction of the assumptions leads to extreme differences in the projections. More importantly, however, there is a fundamental omission in all of these projections: none of them distinguishes between the "demand" and the "need" for food. Because markets respond to effective demand not to human need projections based on economic models are invariably limited. Food commodity prices have dropped by more than half over the last thirty years, but 800 million people in developing countries are still chronically undernourished. These people are so poor that they do not have money to purchase commodities or food and thus exercise "demand." The poor are so poor that they are economically invisible! For them, Malthus already is and has been for a long time.

The steady decline in commodity prices over the last three decades to today's all time lows does not capture the real demand for food. In fact, a good portion of the price decline can be accounted for by increases in agricultural subsidies in industrialized countries (principally the USA, the European Union, and Japan), which today amount to US$362 billion annually ("Financial Indicators" 1999). Declining prices for agricultural commodities do not measure increased global prosperity, as many argue, but increased global disparity. And so none of these projections, which are invariably based on current and past commodity prices, can offer us a view of the future.

Consider the effects of agricultural subsidies and how they artificially depress prices. This has a huge effect on the global trading system because it acts as a perverse incentive that discourages other nations (primarily developing countries) from becoming more productive. It denies developing countries a fair share in global trade and without any benefit to consumers or producers in industrialized countries. It discourages developing countries from freeing their trade in agricultural commodities, which in turn affects the prices and availability of the very same exports that industrialized countries so desperately seek. We should recall that subsidies were often instituted with a very short time frame in mind and that they were left in place due to special interests. And although critical in the short term, subsidies have not prevented the decline of the fanning population in industrialized countries nor have they slowed the process of vertical integration in the food system, which makes the farmer little more than a contract worker in the end.

Many economists would argue that today's declining food prices have increased and improved human welfare. But current prices exclude some cost components and fail to accurately reflect the world's food supply needs (Cohen 1998). These prices do, however, reflect the inequalities between nations. It is, of course, politically impossible to abolish agricultural subsidies in the near term, and so other solutions must be found. One way to create greater equity between poor and rich nations which will increase demand for commodities is to use new technologies to increase the agricultural productivity of resource-poor farmers who cannot afford additional inputs. And this is where biotechnology can make a big difference. By making resource poor farmers more productive, biotechnology increases overall global prosperity. We should therefore act quickly to accelerate the transfer of agricultural biotechnology to developing countries.

Who Will Deliver Biotechnology's Promise to the Poor? But quite naturally, the corporations who have developed most of these agricultural biotechnology applications are first focusing on markets that will allow them to recoup their expensive investments in agribiotech. They are currently concentrating on large area crops (such as corn, soybeans, and cotton) in industrialized countries where agriculture is more profitable and where intellectual property rights are well established and enforceable. Furthermore, the high cost of product development, now exacerbated by the consumer debate in Europe, has led many corporations to merge and form life sciences companies. This, in turn, has led to increased consumer concerns about a few large multinational corporations dominating the food production and supply chain, which has spurred on calls for legislative action. Yet the structure of the seed supply market, of commodity trade, and of food processing is so complex that even if the total number of biotechnology companies were reduced by half, the remaining companies would still not have a monopoly.

These companies can be heard preaching that biotech will feed the world. But will their deeds meet their words? Both the short and long term interests of these companies should compel them to act, and some have. Several companies, such as Monsanto, Novartis, AgrEvo, and AstraZeneca, have donated food biotechnology applications for the poor under projects brokered by ISAAA (see e.g. www.isaaa.org; ISAAA 1999). In the short term, what is at stake is the public' s trust; in the long term it is the world's peace and prosperity. If we fail to lift the millions of urban poor out of poverty, food security issues will threaten world peace and accelerate environmental destruction. Companies have many opportunities to reach out to the poor in developing countries. Because these people are not going to be their customers for the foreseeable future and they may never be if no one helps them work their way out of poverty corporations can donate biotechnology to the poorer developing countries without affecting their own commercial markets. In fact, allowing the productivity of agriculture to increase in rural, poor areas will eventually bring many more potential customers into the market system. It is, after all, in the rural areas where nearly 80 percent of the world's poor reside (and not in urban dwellings contrary to most popular beliefs).

The Promise of Public Private Partnerships

Delaying the transfer of food biotechnology to developing countries is ethically and economically bankrupt. Choices often require tradeoffs; and while Europe and other industrialized nations can afford to pursue every possible objection to the use of agricultural biotechnology, people facing malnutrition and poverty in developing countries cannot. Their needs require a pragmatic approach based on the conclusions of science. Yet their voices are rarely included in the debate about biotechnology. The terms of the debate must be revised and a larger vision adopted. The industrialized countries have no right to impose their choices and values on developing countries whose circumstances are radically different.

Those who argue that new technologies are not required to feed the world today have a point. It is all about food distribution. But developing countries do not buy the surpluses that are produced in Europe nor the surpluses that could be produced in the USA (with high environmental costs due to increased fertilizer and chemical use) because they do not have the cash to purchase them. Besides, it is neither desirable nor politically feasible from the national security perspective of developing countries to import a good portion of their basic food. Foreign aid and food aid could alleviate poverty temporarily, but these band aids do not solve the underlying problem of food production. Improved technologies are needed to alleviate poverty because that s where the effort has to be made from within: to increase the productivity, incomes, and livelihoods of the poor around the world. The only option is to increase productivity in developing countries. This will alleviate poverty, increase the purchasing power of the poorer nations, enable them to sell surpluses on the world market in areas where they are more competitive, and eventually make it possible for them to purchase more commodities from industrialized nations, which would benefit the agricultural sector of industrialized countries as well.

The Green Revolution in the late 1960s and 1970s illustrates how important agricultural productivity is for rural prosperity, food security, and environmental protection. A total of 2 billion tons of cereals are produced worldwide today on 700 million hectares (FAO 1997). Without Green Revolution technologies, India would need to cultivate another 100 million hectares to feed itself (calculations by the author). But these 100 million hectares of land are currently used to grow vegetables and fruit, to produce export commodities (providing important foreign currency), or they have never been cultivated. This last point is very important since any additional land would be fragile, marginal land, where the impacts on biodiversity would be greatest.

With pre 1960s technologies, the world would need another 1.7 billion hectares of land for cereals alone! Where could that come from? Even with all technology options, including biotechnology fully deployed, not even the USA could meet such a challenge. It is critical to continue to invest in and deploy new technologies to maintain prosperity. The world must increase agricultural production in an environmentally sound and sustainable way, but it should also do so in a more equitable way. Agricultural biotechnology will be a large part of the equation.

In this regard, globalization has brought about something very important, namely the realization that there is ample need and room for very effective public/private partnerships. Building on the comparative advantages of each sector, such partnerships are powerful new mechanisms to mobilize global science and technology in areas such as health (Sachs 1999). Yet in agriculture, the basis of health in developing countries, no major radical new schemes have been developed or implemented. Forging public/private partnerships in agricultural biotechnology is an essential part of the solution to world hunger, and it is a solution that both sides can take part in. It is not a handout and it is not about dependency. Instead, such partnerships are two-way streets that can benefit both. Countries, for example, can contribute germplasm, and corporations can provide technology. This leads to enhanced germplasm for developing countries and larger markets for companies through higher incomes for farmers. The public/ private partnership is the road to the future of agricultural biotechnology, a road that offers the entire world greater prosperity, greater dignity, and greater hope. It is the road we should take toward a safer, more prosperous, and more equitable 21st century.


I was editing the final version of this paper while on a work trip to Thailand. That visit coincided with the celebrations of the 72n' birthday of His Excellency, the King of Thailand. Everyone wanted to be part of the celebrations, and on 5 December 1999, the entire city of Bangkok came to a halt. All the lights went out at 7:59 Pm, and each and every Thai, young and old, came out to light a candle in the street and sing in unison a series of secular and sacred birthday songs. I was deeply moved to see an entire democratic nation find one symbol and freely unite around it. I felt this extraordinary event was a manifestation of basic, essential human values. Clearly, however, one may wonder whether these thoughts have anything to do with biotechnology transfer, science and technology, or poverty alleviation.

But this inspiring sight led me to consider my own and ISAAA' s efforts in these areas. Too often the abstract operations of institutions work to elide even the faces of those we seek to help, and we cannot be too frequently reminded of the common humanity that connects all of us to one another. If we want to mobilize global science and technology for the betterment of the lives of billions, maybe we need to rethink our strategies and place more emphasis on evoking and mobilizing the basic human values that link us together. One such fundamental value is trust, and I believe that people who know and trust each other can and will make better decisions. Partnerships are fundamentally relationships between people. Building confidence and trust among the public sector, the private sector, and the various organizations, which are working to deliver the benefits of global science and technology to the poor, must be a priority endeavor.

With the advent of the life sciences, the potential to improve the human situation is unprecedented in history. Globalization has many upsides and downsides, but one upside is that it can help us mobilize science and technology to improve the lives of people throughout the world like never before. Yet this promise is ours only if we deploy improved products to the poor and wealthy alike. New plant biotech initiatives are clearly warranted to deliver the capabilities of the new technology to the world' s poorest two billion people. United together, the readers of this paper are uniquely positioned to bring these benefits to those who urgently need them although this will require of us innovative, bold, and sometimes daring actions. The memory of the children in Bangkok holding their candles with hopeful looks will provide me with all the reason and courage I need to make my contribution. Let us not waste these first years of the new Millennium when people all over the world are united around the idea of a new beginning and are hopeful for a better future. Now is not the time for complacency. Let us work today for a more prosperous, equitable, and human tomorrow.


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David H. Holben, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., is assistant professor of food and nutrition in the School of Human and Consumer Sciences and has an adjunct appointment in African Studies at Ohio University, Athens. His primary research interests include food security and rural health. He explains that the pawpaw is a food commonly consumed in African culture.

  1. Dr. Krattiger, a Swiss citizen, is executive director of ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications)an international nonprofit organization with centers in Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America. Sponsored by public and private institutions, ISAAA transfers agricultural biotechnology applications from industrial countries, particularly proprietary biotechnology from the private sector, to developing countries for their benefit. Dr. Krattiger started his career as a farmer in Switzerland before pursuing undergraduate studies in agronomy. He then earned an M.Phil. in plant breeding and a Ph.D. in genetics and biochemistry from Cambridge University, UK. He has served as associate scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico (CIMMYT) and as an executive consultant for the creation of ISAAA; he also established a biotechnology/biodiversity program at the International Academy of the Environment in Geneva before assuming his current responsibilities with ISAAA.

  2. Note added since the publication of this article: Dr. Krattiger recently created bioDevelopments (International Consultants), dedicated to leverage private sector resources to unleash the potential of food biotechnology for the benefit of resource poor farmers in the developing world. He can be contacted under bioDevelopments LLC, PO Box 4235, Cornell Business & Technology Park, Ithaca NY 14852, USA; afk3@cornell.edu