Agricultural Biotechnology and Moral Imperatives
In Vitro Plant, Vol 36(5), pp 309-311
In May 1999 the Nuffield Council on Bioethics published a report: "Genetically modified crops: the ethical and social issues" (Nuffield Council, 1999). Among the many recommendations of the report, most interest was raised by the recommendation which clearly states that we have a moral obligation to make genetically modified crops readily available to developing countries.
At the time of its publication, in the middle of the media storm over genetically modified (GM) food in the UK, this report received what can safely be called less than enthusiastic public support. Like so many works of great patience and careful thought that become entrapped in media frenzy, almost everybody had an opinion on it; no doubt in many cases one that was not supported by careful reading of the document. The practical result was that the most comprehensive thinking piece on GM crop development and ethics produced anywhere in the world so far has sunk without trace. The Nuffield Council report could not have come at a more appropriate time - when discussion about the societal (including ethical) implications of agricultural biotechnology had reached the mainstream of society and become a global subject for debate.
The acrimony of the discussion, and the disregard for facts as inputs as opposed to opinion, suggests that as with the safety debate, there is not much support for an informed discussion on this difficult subject. The Nuffield Council report highlighted the fact that the public debate happening in the glare of media attention does not live up to society's concern by presenting the GMO debate as a war between good and evil. It brought to the fore the commonsense observation that, as with every technology, the impact on society depends in the first place on how it is used, and to what purpose.
An important outcome of the Nuffield study is that it declared no winners in the public debate on agricultural biotechnology. It does, however, make a number of strong statements on the need to think beyond the promises and concerns attached to this particular technology. It revisits the difficult questions confronting global society with regard to food security as a technical, social, economic, political and ethical issue. The recommendations of the Nuffield Council on an ethical approach to the issue of GMOs and global food security are correct and timely (in fact rather late, if anything). They form a solid basis from which to further develop our thinking on transferring state-of-the-art biotechnology research to serve resource-poor farmers in developing countries. This paper aims to support this view by adding information on the large-scale economic forces at work in transfer of agricultural production capacity, and the place of biotechnology within this.
Firstly, the Nuffield Council's recommendations went much wider than the oft-quoted phrase on the moral imperative. In the chapter discussing developing countries, it says that we have a moral obligation to make available all state-of-the-art technology, together with state-of-the-art knowledge of their impact (including on the environment and health), so that these countries can make fully informed strategic decisions on their future food security. It calls for a wide-ranging program of technology transfer and capacity building to achieve that objective. Not that this call is particularly new. Some 2500 years ago, Confucius posited that "if a man is hungry, don't give him a fish, teach him how to fish". Creating the conditions for well-informed technology transfer remains a key method to free people.
The Nuffield Council justifies its opinion by a remarkably comprehensive description of the challenges facing rural development in the poorest countries, focusing on the socio-economic aspects. The report includes conclusions drawn from the broadest sweep of the available literature on this subject that has been made so far. It is precisely the emphasis on socio-economics that makes the document so valuable: it provides a first-class non-technology-driven analysis of the potential of agricultural biotechnology for developing countries.
This paper adds to the body of agro-economic reasoning in support of the central recommendation of the Nuffield Council report.
THE FOOD SECURITY ISSUE
The question before us in the coming decades is not whether we will be able to feed a growing world population with increasing food intake. We will. The question is where the additional needs will arise, who will fill them, and by what means.
According to FAOSTAT figures (FAO, 1999) +/- 90% of the global population increase in the next three decades will happen in the cities of developing countries. That means an additional 1.8 billion people who buy their food instead of producing it. In 1996, according to the same source, the developing world had a total urban population of +/- 1.7 billion. There is a broad consensus in the development community that such a massive population shift from the rural to the urban environment is undesirable. It is less clear how the trend can be slowed down, let alone reversed.
These figures also raise questions about the present emphasis in the development assistance programs of many European donor countries on politically correct subsistence farming systems. If the third world countryside is helped to feed itself, then who will feed its cities? If present trends continue, it is likely to farmers from developed countries. They are certainly up to the task, but is it a desirable solution?
Who feeds the cities of the third world has a profound impact on the distribution of improved living conditions within these countries. Especially in the poorest countries, what little economic development there is tends to be concentrated in the cities. That is where the emerging middle class lives, and that is where the limited public services (especially education and health care) tend to be concentrated. Although poverty in the slums is profound, and the massive inequalities are nowhere as visible as in the megalopolises of the third world, their attraction to the rural poor remains as strong as ever. As in Europe a century ago, poverty in the third world tends to receive more attention, but the deepest misery is spread out in the countryside.
If these cities are fed by the farmers in their own region, the economic exchange between local rural and urban economies will pump part of the money generated through development into the surrounding countryside. This is an internal application of the trade-not-aid principle: spreading the wealth, and providing the monetary capacity for the countryside to start attracting and paying for basic services. For those farmers to be up to the challenge, it is imperative that they gain access to the yield improvements generated by the agricultural sciences. Otherwise they will not even be in the race to supply these new, emerging markets. On the other hand, if they are fed by imported food from developed economies, the value added to their economies by development assistance will flow straight out of the country again, to pay for basic food needs. If the neglect of food production for the cities goes too far, domestic growth will not even manage to pay for the higher food bill for these new middle classes, and countries will end up accumulating debts to pay for their food while leaving their own farming systems underemployed. To a large extent this is the present trend. According to FAO, the overall balance for commodity food crops, (which includes >90% of the calories traded internationally) has been in the direction of developing countries since the late 1960s, gradually increasing to the present level of +/-110 million tonnes per year (and still rising).
All this is elementary, well known economics. The question is, how can we advance development models that encourage regional agricultural development as an engine to spread the added value of development among the rural as well as the urban population in the poorest countries? For that we have to improve both productivity and affordability. We can learn from past successes as well as from our failures in mapping out the route to achieve this (although the second is more fashionable these days).
An alternative "solution" might be to impose restrictions on international trade in agricultural commodities, to preserve the competitiveness of subsistence farmers in the developing world. This view ignores the basic agricultural principle that higher food production can be achieved only through one of two means: increased land area cultivated, or increased yield. If third world farmers are to feed third world populations in the future, they have to bring more land into production or dramatically increase yields.
Over the past 30 years, the gradual introduction of new agricultural practices and policies, supported by a strong agronomic research base, have achieved what was considered very unlikely in the early 1970s: in many developing countries the farming system managed to keep up with population growth. More than that, food production in many of them grew faster than their population, and without great increases in cultivated areas (table 1). The countries in table 1 were chosen because they account for almost half of the human population, and more than half of the developing world. These countries have been remarkably successful in achieving their increased food production virtually without increasing the use of land, and this by itself is the biggest contribution of the green revolution to the global environment.
TABLE 1: Changes in land use, population and cereal production in selected countries 1966-96 (source: FAO, 1999)
Without it, we would now be cultivating several million square kilometres of land that are at present free of human interference. During the next three decades these four countries alone will add another 1 billion people to the world's cities. If their agricultural systems are going to feed them, they will need all the agricultural science and technology they can get just to keep up. On top of that, they will have to phase out a number of agricultural practices that are considered unsustainable: the present reliance on irrigation and certain categories of pesticides are prime examples of this. But they will also have to dramatically reduce the amount of fertilizer used per unit crop, and other material inputs that have helped spur the enormous growth in agricultural output of the past half century.
To replace all these inputs in any agricultural system is a daunting task. European Union (EU) agriculture is feeling this in its efforts to become more environment-friendly. But the challenge facing the EU is nothing compared to that faced by developing countries. Within the EU we do not have to increase food production. Nor do we have to provide hundreds of millions of farmers with a viable future. Nor do we have to vastly expand the countryside-city trade systems to distribute food for a billion additional people. Given these additional challenges, to state that we do not need a technology is to take an enormous gamble with the future well-being of other people.
The relentless innovation drive in agronomy over the past 50 years has led to the lowest food prices ever at the farm gate (table 2). The benefit to the consumer, especially the poor consumer, is that food has become more affordable than ever.
TABLE 2: real farm prices of maize and soybean in the 20th century (source: USDA)
It is a hot subject for debate whether availability of food to the poor is best generated by production increases or by better distribution of buying power. To a large extent this is a meaningless discussion. More production, without the means to bring it where it is needed, is as useless as improving buying power but with nothing to buy with it. Both elements interact. Buying power can be increased by two means: by increasing the revenue of the consumer, or by reducing the cost of goods. The historically low agricultural product prices generated by a century of productivity increase through innovation have been a key factor in increasing the buying power of the poor. In these days of relative plenty (at least as perceived in developed countries awash in food), surplus food is often seen as a nuisance, and the research that will continue to drive productivity up as a waste of time and money. Yet it is precisely this oversupply that keeps food affordable for the poorest.
THE MORAL IMPERATIVE
When we talk about food security, enough simply is not enough, because in the most egalitarian of worlds there will always be inefficiencies and inequalities. It is our moral duty to ensure that we continue to develop the means to overproduce food, because in the real world this is the best way to improve the chance that the poor and the destitute can receive enough.
Can science make it happen? That is not certain, but it is clear that any successful answer to the challenge will have to include all the science we have at our disposal. Whether we call it technology, or agronomy, or indigenous knowledge, is essentially playing with words. Better productivity comes from innovation translated into economic reality by appropriate policies. The improvement in crop productivity over the past century, and especially since 1950, is the result of a continuous cycle of innovation and the translation of its results into farm practice. At least on the genetic side, the pace of innovation is slowing. Breeding has not added much to the potential productivity of crops in the past two decades, and this is beginning to show in the productivity increase at the farm level. Most recent breeding has been defensive, for example to keep up existing resistance against pests and diseases.
The over-capacity produced by fast technological progress will generate pressure on prices by causing surpluses, but these can be handled with sensible economic policies in the agricultural sector. An empty R&D pipeline, however, is a guarantee for long-term structural shortages in the global food supply that will translate into long-term increases in food prices. Nothing could do more to reverse a century of work to make food more affordable for those who can least afford it.
A structural increase in basic food prices is a minor nuisance for the wealthy economies of the north; for the poor in the south it means under-nourishment or starvation. That is why it is our duty to ensure that we have more scientific and technological innovation available at short notice than is actually needed. And in any realistic scenario, the advances brought by agricultural biotechnology will always play an important role.
The most important issue raised by the Nuffield Council report was that the choice of which technologies developing countries will use in their attempts to ensure food security does not belong to us. It belongs only to them. What belongs to us is the moral obligation to inform their decision-making process, and to ensure that they have access to the technologies.
Nuffield Council. Genetically modified crops: the ethical and social issues. http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/bioethics/publication/modifiedcrops/index.html; 1999
FAO. FAOSTAT. http://apps.fao.org/cgi-bin/nph-db.pl?subset=agriculture;