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Can Genetically Engineered Crops Feed a Hungry World?
YES - We Must Tap Biotech's Potential

San Francisco Chronicle
By C.S. Prakash
Thursday, March 30, 2000

Food companies thinking about banning genetically modified grain from their products should consider what happened to Frito-Lay when the company decided to cave in to anti-biotech activists, who have nothing but fear-mongering and pseudo science to support their demands.

Frito-Lay recently told its corn producers to stop planting corn that is genetically improved to ward off harmful insects. Even though there was very little consumer demand for such an action, the company apparently feared a food scare generated by activists and took the step anyway. But the move was not enough to placate activists, who still threaten action until the company does everything necessary to declare its products free of genetically modified foods.

There is no science to support the ban of insect-resistant corn, which forced Frito-Lay's producers to revert to chemical insecticides. Two much larger grain purchasers have already reversed anti-biotech decisions: Archer Daniels Midland, one of the nation's largest purchasers and exporters of grain, and Cargill, the nation's largest grain merchant. Cargill declared "it's business as usual'' when it followed ADM's lead and began accepting transgenic grains again. These hold-the-line decisions are extremely important in blunting the pseudo-science of the activist community and moving toward biotechnology's potential to help feed a hungry world. The anti-biotech community claims there are "10 reasons why biotechnology will not ensure food security, protect the environment and reduce poverty in the developing world.'' In stark contrast, more than 1,800 members of the scientific community have signed a statement declaring their belief that biotechnology is a powerful and safe way to enhance substantially our quality of life by improving agriculture, health care and the environment.

Over the next century, world population will approach 9 billion. But purchasing power is concentrated in the developed countries, while more than 90 percent of the projected population growth is likely to occur in developing countries. It is not difficult to predict where food shortages will occur. As UC Davis professor Martina McGloughlin says, unless we are willing to accept starvation, or put parks and the Amazon Basin under the plow, there is only one good alternative: find ways to increase food production.

Biotechnology innovations are being developed to increase crop yields and provide opportunities for growing crops on land otherwise unable to support plant growth. High levels of aluminum, toxic to plant roots, exist in the soil of more than one-third of the world's arable land. The presence of aluminum can cause production losses of up to 80 percent in corn, soybean, cotton and field beans. Mexican researchers have isolated a gene that helps crops fight aluminum toxicity and are now testing the gene in rice, which is a food staple for more than half the people on earth. Likewise, exciting discoveries are on the horizon that may help us grow crops in the future under drought conditions or using sea water.

Sweet potato is a staple crop in Kenya, normally grown by poor women as a primary food source for their families. A virus can wipe out an entire crop. Efforts to eliminate the virus through conventional crossbreeding were not successful. But Kenyan scientists, working in conjunction with American biotechnology experts from the government (U.S. Agency for International Development), a nonprofit foundation (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications) and a private corporation (Monsanto) have developed a virus-resistant sweet potato that can potentially increase yields by 20 to 80 percent. Research in my laboratory at Tuskegee University has also found a method to improve the protein content in sweet potato, which, if successful, will bring much- needed nutritional benefit to developing countries.

Biotechnology is being used to develop crops that deliver vitamins. A research team led by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in collaboration with scientists from the University of Freiburg in Germany, have succeeded in producing beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, in rice. This rice strain may prevent blindness in millions of children. Improved vitamin A nutrition would also prevent up to 2 million infant deaths from diarrhea and measles, according to United Nations Children's Fund. Efforts to develop rice with high iron content are also in process and may help address anemia, which afflicts a billion women on this planet. The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has already developed and tested rice strains that can withstand diseases and pests. These new seeds will be made available freely to farmers in Third World countries.

Biotechnology improvements are in development that would allow hybrid rice to be colonized by bacteria that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. Plants that are able to fix nitrogen improve productivity in the absence of synthetic fertilizers, which are typically unavailable to poor farmers.

The anti-biotech activists incorrectly suggest that the integration of chemical pesticides and seed-use has led to lower returns for farmers. To support that argument, they point to one obscure study, while ignoring other far more comprehensive and respected studies that report increased net returns and reduced chemical use.

Improved production economics, the introduction of crops spliced with a gene that causes them to produce a natural insecticide (Bt) and herbicide-resistant crops, have forced tremendous competition in the herbicide and insecticide markets. Prices of many herbicides and insecticides have been slashed by more than 50 percent in these markets. Such price reductions led to significant discounting of weed and insect control programs and even benefited farmers who have not yet adopted biotechnology crops.

Anti-biotechnology activists argue against Western- style capitalism and for boutique markets that sell organically grown, biotech-free foods. But their arguments are not relevant to the issue of meeting human needs or developing a sustainable and diverse ecology. Companies that play into activist hands delay expansion of technology that can solve many problems. And, ironically, as Frito-Lay has demonstrated, they may be creating new problems for themselves.

CS Prakash is a professor and director at the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, Ala. (http://agriculture.tusk.edu/)