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Old 16-09-2003, 04:06 AM
David Kendra
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September 8, 2003
Biotechnology Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Bruce Chassy
Via AgBioView at
Biotechnology has the potential to play a key role in reducing chronic
hunger, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, which missed out on the "green
revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s, says Bruce Chassy, professor and
executive associate director of the Biotechnology Center at the University
of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He urges more public investment in
agricultural research, education and training at the local, national and
regional levels.
Food aid is one of several global mechanisms created to deal with hunger and
food insecurity. The need for food aid around the globe varies from specific
responses to acute and episodic shortages to long-term donations of food to
abate continuing chronic inability of some regions to become agriculturally
self-sufficient. While agricultural biotechnology is not a panacea to food
insecurity, it is likely to play a vital role in the delivery of food
assistance and reduction of hunger for generations to come.
The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares the right of access
to food and freedom from hunger as a fundamental right.
Although we live in a world of unprecedented prosperity and technological
development, 800-850 million people are malnourished. More than 200 million
of these are children, many of whom will never reach their full intellectual
and physical potential. Another 1-1.5 billion humans have only marginally
better access to food and often do not consume balanced diets containing
sufficient quantities of all required nutrients.
The majority of this nutritionally at-risk population lives in developing
countries. Most, perhaps 75 percent, live in rural agricultural regions.
Most are very poor. There is a well-recognized link between poverty and
hunger. In fact, family income is probably the single most important
determinant of adequacy of access to food. The World Food Summit in 2002
reaffirmed a commitment made by the international community five years
earlier to halve the number of hungry people by the year 2015. That goal
will not be met unless agricultural productivity and personal income can be
improved in the world's poorest regions.
It is argued by some that eliminating poverty is more important than
producing more food since there is more than enough food produced in the
world to feed everyone. Economists tell us that there is a surplus of food
in the world - or at least a surplus of grain that when tabulated as
potential caloric intake could theoretically adequately feed the current
global population. But the sad lesson of both recent and ancient history is
that adequate food supplies do not reach everyone. The large number of
hungry people proves that. It is pointless to argue whether poor
agricultural productivity or extreme poverty is more to blame when people
are starving. What is clear is that if the rural poor can produce a surplus
of food in a more efficient and sustainable manner, there will be adequate
food supplies, increasing income and the opportunity for supporting rural
While most experts would agree that the only long-term solution to hunger is
economic development and the elimination of poverty, people who are food
self-sufficient through local or regional agriculture will not go hungry.
Unfortunately, neither the required increases in agricultural productivity
nor the necessary rural development will happen overnight. The question
then becomes "What do we do in the meanwhile?" The short-term solution for
the hungry is food aid. But even food aid has become politicized as skeptics
have charged that it is simply a way for rich over-producing nations to
eliminate the surpluses produced by their heavily subsidized farmers. The
skeptics also assert that food aid robs local farmers of markets and makes
them hungrier. These arguments ignore the daily reality faced by hundreds of
millions of hungry people for whom the immediate alternatives are simple:
continued hunger and ultimate starvation or the acceptance of food aid.
The Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s helped India and China and other
Asian countries become agriculturally self-sufficient net exporters of food
in the last three decades. The increased productivity has been accompanied
by increases in personal income and stimulus to national economies.
Similarly, through application of new technology, agricultural productivity
per hectare has doubled in most developed countries in the same timeframe.
The development of new high-productivity agricultural technologies resulted
from investment in agricultural research performed in government
laboratories, research universities, and non-governmental institutes such as
the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)
centers scattered around the globe. A crucial element of success has been
the deployment of effective systems of outreach education and technology
transfer. Research and technology transfer has also taken place in the
private sector.
For a variety of complex reasons, improvements in agricultural productivity
did not take place in all developing countries. Quite the contrary, some of
the least developed countries are now even less able to produce sufficient
food. There, the Green Revolution never happened. While civil unrest and
political corruption may have contributed greatly to this phenomenon, from
an agricultural point of view, the failure lies in the lack of investment in
and adoption of new technologies and management practices. Often this
occurred because there was not sufficient attention paid or investment made
in research to develop effective local or region-specific strategies and
Sub-Saharan Africa is a region where growth in agricultural production has
not kept pace with expanding need. As a whole, the region has some of the
poorest and most depleted agricultural soils. Only 4 percent of the farmed
land is irrigated. Significant areas of agricultural land are at risk of
becoming desert while in some parts of the region excessive humidity and
high temperatures contribute to a high incidence of disease and pests.
Weeds such as Striga stifle yields. Droughts are commonplace in some parts
of the region. Outright crop failure is common and poor yields are endemic.
There is clearly a need to develop crop varieties and management strategies
that are more productive under these conditions. High on the list of desired
traits are crops with enhanced resistance to environmental stresses such as
drought, temperature and salinity; enhanced resistance to diseases and
pests; and improved agronomic properties and yield potential. The heavy
reliance on a few staple crops makes biofortification - the boosting of the
vitamin and mineral components of foods to enhance the nutritional value -
an attractive strategy as well.
Recent advances in molecular biology and genomics greatly enhance the plant
breeder's capacity to introduce new traits into plants. Commercial
applications of agricultural biotechnology have already produced crops such
as Bt-maize, rice, potatoes, cotton and sweet corn (sweet maize) that can
protect themselves against insects; virus-resistant papaya, squash and
potatoes; and herbicide-tolerant crops such as wheat, maize, sugar cane,
rice, onions and beets that allow more effective weed management.
There is accumulating evidence that these biotech crops can be more
productive and profitable for farmers. Major reductions in costs for labor,
energy and chemicals have been documented. The crops have also proven to be
environmentally-friendly, particularly with regard to biodiversity,
reduction of agricultural chemicals in soil and water, and decreased
exposure of workers and communities to chemicals.
There is also an emerging international consensus of scientific and
regulatory opinion that crops derived through biotechnology are safe to eat
as food and feed and beneficial for the environment. These and other
promising technologies are now being directed at improving the production
and yield of African staple crops: banana, cassava, maize, millets, oil
crops, peanut, potato, rice, sorghum, soybean, sweet potato and wheat.
Protein-enhanced sweet potatoes and potatoes and carotene-enhanced rice and
oilseeds promise to improve the nutritional value of the diet. Thus, over
the long term, agricultural biotechnology promises to play a crucial role in
the improving agricultural productivity and reducing the environmental
impact of agriculture leading to agricultural sustainability and food
security in many regions of the world. While it would be foolish to say that
agricultural biotechnology alone will solve the world's food problems, it
would be equally foolish to assert that food insecurity can be eliminated
without agricultural biotechnology.
In recent years, there has been a significant change in the organization of
agricultural research directed at improving food security. It is now
recognized that research needs to be done at local, national and regional
levels in order to address specific agricultural challenges and produce new
varieties appropriate to local agriculture and customs. This change is
particularly focused on utilizing and expanding local scientific and
agricultural human and capital infrastructure that can work in partnership
with international scientists and funding. Although the path is clear and
there are numerous successful examples of these kinds of international
partnership, global funding for such activities falls far short of that the
level required to achieve global food security in the next decades.
Widespread local or regional crop failure often leads to acute food
shortages and hunger. The reason for episodic events can be as varied as
flood, droughts or civil war. The United Nations, national governments and
an assortment of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) often respond by
mobilizing an immediate food aid program. Food aid distribution can be
hindered by lack of infrastructure for storage and transportation of food,
and there are often concerns for the security of aid workers.
Recently, a new obstacle to food aid distribution has been identified.
Repeated crops failures in Southern Africa have placed millions of people in
six nations at risk. In response, the United States offered food aid that
included substantial shipments of maize. The maize supply in the
United States is approximately 30-35 percent insect-protected Bt-maize
developed through biotechnology. This variety of maize had been approved by
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as safe for
consumption as food and feed. It was commingled with conventional maize in
the U.S. commodity system. However, since the intended recipient nations did
not use biotech seed varieties and imported few commodities such as maize,
they for the most part lacked specific laws and regulatory systems with
respect to foods produced through biotechnology. Genetically modified (GM)
maize was an unapproved food in their regulatory systems. In light of the
global scare campaign against GM foods, several countries hesitated to
accept the aid. Ultimately, intensive international consultation and
fact-finding satisfied all of these countries save Zambia, which continued
to refuse GM food aid. One obvious conclusion to be drawn from this
experience is that regulatory systems and training need to be in place
before the need for food aid again arises.
What the experience of recent decades has taught is that agricultural
biotechnology can be a powerful tool in the development of improved crop
varieties for developing countries. The promised benefits can only be
realized in a permanent and sustainable manner when the countries that
benefit play a role in defining the need, developing the solution and
implementing the education and technology-transfer systems. Each nation must
decide what agricultural goals are in its national interest and what
technologies are consistent with consumer acceptance and customs. Shared
ownership leads to good stewardship.
Partnerships that lead to shared ownership can solve another challenge to
applying technology. One major concern about agricultural biotechnology is
that the seeds are owned and sold by large multi-national corporations who
might eventually exert external domination and control local seed markets
and farmers. An additional problem is that developing countries may have
limited access to intellectual property rights that would provide them
access to modern agricultural technologies such as new seed types. To help
counter these challenges and promote public sector uses in developing
countries, a consortium of public universities and public sector
institutions has recently announced the formation of the Public Sector
Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA). PIPRA will work to
make public-sector research available to more of the people who want it and
insure freedom to operate. Multi-national corporations have also
demonstrated their willingness to donate their technology and expertise to
such efforts.
There is a holistic answer to all these food security needs and concerns.
The global community needs to invest more capital in creating agricultural
institutions and infrastructure in countries that face food security
challenges. Investment must be made in legal and regulatory systems,
agricultural research, transportation and processing systems, and education.
The success of the Land Grant University system in improving agriculture and
contributing broadly to society in the United States over the last 140 years
demonstrates that the development of human capital and educational systems
is as important as scientific discovery. The creation of institutions and
public/foundation funding mechanisms would create a platform for
international collaboration that is open to government, university and
private-sector collaborators. If the world community is to arrive at its
stated goal of food security for every person, it must put aside ideological
and political divisions and pragmatically embrace each and every technology
that leads to sustainable food security.

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