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Biotech and the Poor

By Per-Pinstrup Andersen

Wednesday, October 27, 1999; Page A31

The Sept. 17 Post editorial "Genetically Modified Confusion" accurately pointed out the misguided nature of much of the debate over agricultural biotechnology and genetically modified foods. A big part of the equation was mentioned only in passing, however: the effect of new agricultural technologies on the world's poor and hungry. Most of these people live in developing countries, and they stand to benefit more than anyone from biotech.

While "Frankenfood" and "terminator seeds" are buzzwords in the European media and, increasingly, in the United States, small farmers in Asia, Africa and Latin America must wonder what the fuss is about. For them, the heated debate over agricultural biotechnology risks closing off a huge opportunity to improve their lives.

Millions of farmers worldwide eke out livelihoods under poor and risky growing conditions while suffering from poverty, hunger and poor health. Around the world, more than 800 million people go to bed hungry. More than 170 million preschool children are undernourished. Some 5 million die every year from nutrition-related illnesses. More than a half-million children go blind each year from lack of vitamin A, and iron deficiencies are responsible for anemia among many millions of women and children, making them vulnerable to a host of diseases.

Agricultural biotechnology can be used to help Third World farmers produce more by, for instance, developing new crop varieties that are drought-tolerant, resistant to insects and weeds and able to capture nitrogen from the air. Biotech can also make the foods farmers produce more nutritious by increasing the Vitamin A, iron and other nutrients in the edible portion of the plant. In fact, in August researchers announced that they had succeeded in genetically modifying rice to provide more iron and vitamin A. The next step is to test the new rice for its effects on human health and the environment.

Thorough testing is of course necessary to ensure the safety of new crop varieties developed through biotechnology. Questions about safety must be addressed head-on, for people in both developed and developing countries. In addition, consumers have a right to know the contents of their food, so they can make informed choices.

But while concerns about biotechnology, even those that are ill-founded, can hold up its adoption in the industrial world without disastrous results, putting the brakes on biotechnology could have dire consequences for developing countries, where populations are growing rapidly and all arable land is already under cultivation. Consumers in industrial countries can afford to pay more for food, increase subsidies to agriculture and give up opportunities for better-tasting and better-looking food. The situation in developing countries is different.

For most people in developing countries, a better standard of living depends on increasing productivity in agriculture. Modern biotechnology research, together with appropriate policies, better infrastructure and traditional research methods, can bring benefits to millions of poor farmers and consumers.

Why should the debate over biotech in Europe and the United States matter for developing countries? Can't the developing countries simply establish their own policies? In theory they can, but in practice, it is nearly impossible. Developing countries cannot expect to receive any scientific or financial support for modern agricultural biotechnology from countries where such research methods are prohibited and where genetically modified food is considered too risky for their own populations to consume.

Moreover, most developing countries will not be able to undertake effective agricultural biotech research for their own urgent needs without the scientific and financial support of industrial countries. And if moratoriums on biotech research became widespread, developing countries would not be able to export genetically modified food and agricultural goods to Europe and other countries where they are prohibited.

Developing countries need more investment in strengthening biosafety testing and developing agricultural biotechnology suitable for their needs and their environments. Currently, biotechnology research in the developing world is taking place in only a few countries such as Brazil, China, Egypt, India and South Africa. Most biotech research is done by a few private corporations that focus on the agricultural sectors of industrial countries, where they expect the highest rate of return on their investment.

It is clear, then, that governments must invest in biotech research to help poor farmers and that the public and private sectors must work as partners. The potential of the new agricultural technologies is enormous, particularly for the poor in developing countries.

Condemning biotechnology for its potential risks without considering the alternative risks of prolonging the human misery caused by hunger, malnutrition and child death is as unwise and unethical as blindly pursuing this technology without the necessary biosafety.

The writer is director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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