Agricultural biotechnology, a dynamic
new science that uses genetic engineering to enhance the output
and value of many agricultural products, may hold the key to helping
stop world hunger.
But if the environmental movement has
its way, further development of this promising new technology
will be halted, consigning hundreds of millions of impoverished
residents of the developing world to additional decades of starvation
Environmentalists argue that agricultural
biotechnology poses too many risks to human health and the environment,
and that its use should be sharply curtailed or even banned altogether.
However, an overwhelming number of scientists from around the
world emphatically dismiss these objections as unfounded. It would
thus be a tragedy if misinformation spread by the environmental
movement about agricultural biotechnology is allowed to win the
day and the world is deprived of its great potential to improve
and save lives.
There is simply too much at stake.
Starvation and disease continue to hamper
the poorest nations of the world:
* At least 800 million people suffer from
* Sub-Saharan Africa has an infant mortality
rate of 9.2% and three million children in the region have gone
blind due to a deficiency of Vitamin A.2
* An estimated 1.3 billion people live
on less than $1 per day, insufficient income to purchase an adequate
One reason that so many nations suffer
from hunger is that their climates are often inhospitable for
efficiently producing agricultural products. Of the 42 highly
indebted poor countries of the world, 39 are located in tropical
or desert regions where growing conditions are less than optimal.4 Plant
viruses, soil erosion, costly fertilizers and pesticides and inadequate
storage are endemic problems for developing world farmers - problems
that too frequently they cannot overcome. In 1999, for example,
the mosaic plant virus destroyed 60% of Africa's cassava crop5 and
30%- 40% of the worldwide papaya harvest is lost each year to
But agricultural biotechnology can play
a major role in helping end this human suffering. Through gene
manipulation, scientists have been able to alter many of the staple
food crops that developing nations depend on, such as cassava,
rice, maize and potatoes, to make them more resistant to disease,
more nutritional and more productive. With the help of bioengineered
seeds that "vaccinate" crops with their own herbicides
and pesticides, crop losses to disease and insects can be minimized
and farmers can produce more plentiful harvests. Also, crops can
be grown on previously unplantable lands using no-till farming,
a type of farming that does not require heavy-duty farm machinery
to till the soil but relies on the herbicides within the plant
to destroy unwanted weeds. With the no-till technique, farmers
can plant on land previously too steep for farming. Very important
too is that no-till farming cuts down on farmers' production costs
because they do not have to rely as heavily on machinery, fuel,
chemicals and labor.7 A major environmental benefit - which environmentalists
curiously ignore - is that no-till farming can reduce erosion
of critical topsoil by anywhere from 70% to 98%.8
Another major benefit of biotechnology
is that it can significantly improve the nutritional content of
various foods. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology,
for instance, have developed a new breed of rice that has a higher
content of iron, thus helping to address an iron deficiency suffered
by 3.7 billion people worldwide. Iron deficiency can lead to the
development of anemia, a disease characterized by insufficient
red blood cells. The rice also contains enough Vitamin A to satisfy
daily requirements in just a 300-gram serving while the same amount
of standard rice contains little or no Vitamin A.9 Besides
causing blindness, lack of Vitamin A has been linked to heart
disease and some cancers. The United Nations Children's Fund estimates
that one to two million deaths of children between ages one and
four each year could be prevented if these children got more Vitamin
A. Rice fortified with Vitamin A would be especially welcomed
by several Asian countries where 80% of daily caloric intake consists
of rice.10 But rice is by no means the only food that can
add this much-needed vitamin to the diets of the populations of
developing countries. Just recently, an international team of
scientists used genetic engineering to create a tomato with three
times the normal level of beta-carotene, which the human body
processes into Vitamin A.11
Agricultural biotechnology also yields
medicinal benefits. Researchers have developed a vaccine for the
hepatitis virus that can be taken via banana consumption, negating
the need for injection vaccines that require extensive storage
and sterilization. Through the simple act of eating a banana,
a patient could receive a hepatitis vaccination for a mere $.02
per dose instead of the current rate of $125 per dose.12
Despite the vast possibilities of agricultural
biotechnology, environmentalists such as Greenpeace's Benedikt
Haerlin make unsubstantiated claims that governments need to "protect
the environment and consumers from the dangers of genetic engineering."13 Contending
that agricultural biotechnology is a dangerous and untested technology,
environmental activists warn of a litany of environmental horrors
that agricultural biotechnology could spawn, such as so-called
"superweeds" spreading over the landscape, resistant
to human attempts at control.14
Such claims, however, have no basis in
Nearly 2,300 scientists from around the
world - including respected Nobel prize-winners - have signed
a petition organized by Dr. C.S. Prakash, director of the Center
for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, strongly
endorsing the environmental and nutritional safety of foods modified
through agricultural biotechnology. These scientists are especially
supportive of agricultural biotechnology's potential to feed a
hungry world - and improve the environment at the same time. Their
petition states: "Through judicious deployment, biotechnology
can also address environmental degradation, hunger and poverty
in the developing world by providing improved agricultural productivity
and greater nutritional security."15
Indeed, agricultural biotechnology can
offer much benefit to the environment by way of less soil erosion,
lower amounts of fertilizer run-off into waterways and decreased
use of pesticides and herbicides.
Environmentalists' war against agricultural
biotechnology, a technology that has so much potential to alleviate
human suffering and improve the environment, is not only illogical
- it is immoral. Sadly, affluent Western environmentalists are
more concerned with rigid adherence to their wrongheaded ideology
than saving the lives of millions of people in the developing
1 "Modern Food/Biotechnology:
Facts and Figures," The Alliance for Better Foods, 1999.
2 "Sub-Saharan Africa: Data & Statistics," World
3 Anatole Krattiger, "The Importance of Ag-Biotech to Global
Prosperity," International Service for the Acquisition of
4 Jeffrey Sachs, "By Invitation: Helping the World's Poorest,"
The Economist, August 14, 1999.
5 William H. Danforth, "The Promise of Genetically Modified
Crops Outweighs the Fears," St. Louis Dispatch, January 9,
6 Krattiger, 1998.
7 Martina McGloughlin, director of the University of California-Davis
Biotechnology Program, "Martina McGloughlin's Remarks to
Sen. Bond's Remarks," UC Davis News, November 30, 1999.
8 "Backgrounder- Food Biotechnology," International
Food Information Council, downloaded November 22, 1999 from http://ificinfo.health.org/backgrnd/bkgr14.htm.
9 "Increasing the Nutritional Value of Rice," Biotechnology
Industrial Organization, 1999.
10 "Benefits of Food Biotechnology for World Hunger,"
The Alliance for Better Foods, 1999.
11 "Genetically Engineered Tomato Packs Nutritional Punch,"
CNN Interactive, downloaded May 29, 2000 from http://www.cnn.com.
12 "Edible Vaccines," Biotechnology Industrial Organization,
13 "Biosafety Protocol: Historic Step in Fight Against Environmental
Damage from Genetically Modified Organisms," Greenpeace International,
downloaded May 24, 2000 from http://www.greenpeace.org/pressreleases/geneng/2000jan29.html.
14 "Risks of Genetic Engineering," Fact Sheet, Union
of Concerned Scientists.
15 "Scientists in Support of Agricultural Biotechnology,"
Petition organized by Dr. C.S. Prakash, director of the Center
for Plant Biotechnology Research, Tuskegee University.
Michael J. Centrone is a research associate
for The National Center for Public Policy Research's Environmental
Policy Task Force. Comments may be sent to [email protected].