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 # 289  

 June 2000




Biotechnology: Putting an End to World Hunger

by Michael Centrone

 

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 and misery.

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 malnutrition.1

* 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 diet.3

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 viral infection.6

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 fact.

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 world.



Footnotes:

1 "Modern Food/Biotechnology: Facts and Figures," The Alliance for Better Foods, 1999.
2 "Sub-Saharan Africa: Data & Statistics," World Bank, 2000.
3 Anatole Krattiger, "The Importance of Ag-Biotech to Global Prosperity," International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech, 1998.
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, 2000.
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, 1999.
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.

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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].



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