Report Cites Benefits of Biotechnology for Developing Countries

By Cat Lazaroff

MEXICO CITY, Mexico, July 11, 2001 (ENS) - Many developing countries might reap great benefits from genetically modified foods, crops and other organisms, concludes the Human Development Report 2001, commissioned by the United Nations Development Program and released Tuesday. These crops could significantly reduce malnutrition and help poor farmers working marginal lands, the report says.

The report analyzes the potential of biotech and information technologies for developing countries, assesses the technology achievements of 72 countries, and ranks 162 countries according to their level of human development.

rice

So called "golden rice" has been genetically modified to carry additional Vitamin A, which could help combat vitamin deficiency in children in developing countries (Photo courtesy International Rice Research Institute)
Genetically modified agricultural techniques could create virus resistant, drought tolerant and nutrient enhanced crops that have enormous potential for improving food security in Africa, Asia and Latin America, concludes the report. These crops could significantly reduce malnutrition, which still affects more than 800 million people worldwide, the report argues.

While acknowledging that environmental and health risks need to be addressed, the report argues that these risks can be managed.

Far greater public investment in research and development is needed to ensure that biotechnology meets the agricultural needs of the world's poor, says Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, lead author of the report.

"We can't count on the private sector alone to do the job," Fukuda-Parr said, noting that for profit research mostly caters to the needs of high income consumers, rather than those in developing countries who have little purchasing power.

The report points out in particular that there is an urgent need to develop modern varieties of millet, sorghum and cassava, which are staple foods for poor people in many developing countries.

papaya

Transgenic papaya on right is more resistant to the virus than the papaya on the left (Photo courtesy Dennis Gonsalves, Department of Plant Pathology, Cornell University)
Mark Malloch Brown, the Administrator of UNDP, agrees, noting that such public investments are already producing impressive results. He points to a recent successful effort by UNDP, the Japanese Government and other international partners to develop new varieties of rice.

"These varieties have 50 percent higher yields, mature 30 to 50 days earlier, are substantially richer in protein; are far more disease and drought tolerant, resist insect pests and can even out-compete weeds," noted Brown. "And they will be especially useful because they can be grown without fertilizer or herbicides, which many poor farmers can't afford anyway. This initiative shows the enormous potential of biotech to improve food security in Africa, Asia and Latin America."

For three years, sales in Europe of genetically modified corn, tomatoes, potatoes and cotton - often described in the media as "Frankenstein foods" - have been put on hold because of fears over potential health and environmental hazards. The Human Development Report argues that the risks of genetic modification can be managed, but that most developing countries will need help in doing so.

It points out that problems with biotechnology and food safety are often the result of poor policies, inadequate regulation and lack of transparency. For instance, poor management by European regulators led to the spread of mad cow disease, notes the UNDP.

These challenges can be especially great in developing countries where resources are scarce and expertise is often lacking. The report points to Argentina and Egypt as examples of developing countries that are moving forward in creating national guidelines, approval procedures and research institutes to evaluate the risks of genetically modified crops.

wheat

Geneticist Ann Blechl looks at root growth on genetically engineered wheat plants that may carry new genes for resistance to a common plant disease (Photo by Jack Dykinga, three photos courtesy Agricultural Research Service)
According to the report, current debates in Europe and the United States over new biotechnologies mostly ignore the concerns and needs of the developing world. Western consumers naturally focus on potential allergic reactions and other food safety issues.

People in developing countries, however, may be more interested in better crop yields, nutrition, or the reduced need to spray pesticides that can sicken farmers. Meanwhile, multinational biotechnology companies, eager for sales, tend to play down the difficulties that developing countries may have in managing the environmental risks posed by genetically modified organisms.

"The voices of people in poor countries, who stand to gain or lose the most from these new technologies, have not yet been heard," said Fukuda-Parr.

The report calls for more research into the long term impacts of genetically modified organisms and advocates labeling genetically modified products so that consumers make informed choices. Australia, Brazil, Japan and the United Kingdom already require such labels, and surveys show that more than 80 percent of consumers in the United States want them as well.

Not everyone embraces biotechnology as the best solution to the nutritional needs of the world's poor. Dr. Miguel Altieri of the University of California - Berkeley, who has worked for 20 years with non-governmental organizations in Latin America, suggests a different solution.

trees

Technician Christine Berry checks on futuristic peach and apple "orchards". Each dish holds tiny experimental trees grown from lab-cultured cells to which researchers have given new genes (Photo by Scott Bauer)
Agroecology, a mixture of different approaches to agriculture that do not rely on pesticides or genetically engineered crops, could make a substantial contribution to world food production and is an alternative to biotechnology and the use of fertilizers, he says.

"There are methods that are much more environmentally sound, socially and culturally acceptable, that can raise yields and at the same time conserve the natural resource base, increase income and also empower farmers," Altieri told ENS.

In agroecology, different crops are mixed to increase the number of natural predators that will control the pests.

"We have created pest problems with pesticides, now we're going to create even more pest problems with transgenic crops," said Altieri. The development of pests resistant to toxins genetically engineered into plants is just a matter of time, Altieri warned. "You can delay it, but it's going to happen."

"The key to the whole thing is to activate soil biology, because the organisms in the soil are decomposing organic matter and mineralizing the nutrients, so you have to add soils that are biologically active," Altieri said.

Agroecology is based on local resources, so farmers do not become dependent on corporations or governments, avoiding one risk posed by patented engineered crops. Altieri questions how farmers could gain access to patented technologies.

barley

This bioengineered barley carries a gene that may help the plants resist attack by barley yellow dwarf virus (Photo by Jack Dykinga)
"Knowledge is proprietary. It belongs to corporations and is not accessible to farmers," he said. Altieri feels that biotechnology has emerged through the quest for profit, not to solve the problems of small farmers.

"Scientists are defending biotechnology ... but at the same time there's a lot of money from corporations going into universities, influencing the researchers in those universities in the wrong direction," Altieri said.

The full text of the Human Development Report 2001 is available at: http://www.undp.org/hdr2001