Food for Thought: Biotechnology and World Hunger

Safety of New Crops Spurs a Debate

ROME, JUNE 15, 2002 ( The World Food Summit held here this week to review progress in alleviating hunger put the spotlight again on genetically modified crops.

The United States defended its use of biotechnology in agriculture, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told the summit that biotechnology can fight hunger by increasing productivity, improving crop quality and reducing the need for chemical pesticides.

Scientists and seed companies have been promoting the use of genetic modifications for years. But ecology and consumer groups have been fierce critics, doubting the safety of the products for human consumption and concerned about effects on the environment.

Genetic engineering involves inserting genes in plants to add specific traits. For the most popular crops, bacteria genes have been added to make the plants toxic to pests or tolerant of herbicides.

Writing April 24 in the Guardian newspaper in Britain, Johnjoe McFadden, professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey, pointed out that many of the more than 1 billion people who live on less than $1 a day, rely on rice as a staple of their diet. Yet rice is prone to many diseases and insect attacks, he said.

“Genetic engineering to generate varieties resistant to disease, pests, drought or salinity could revolutionize Third World farming,” argued McFadden. This new technology can benefit the poor, he said, as long as countries resist the “Western anti-technology lobby” that is trying to prevent its use.

Another defender of biotechnology is Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the Green Revolution that helped poor countries dramatically improve crop yields.

Writing in the May 13 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Borlaug contended that we must “produce nearly three times as much food for the more populous and more prosperous world of 2050, and from the farmland we are already using, in order to save the planet´s wildlands.”

He explained that for this reason he signed a declaration in support of protecting nature with high-yield farming and forestry. Others signatories include George McGovern, a former senator and the U.S. representative to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and Per Pinstrup-Andersen, winner of the 2001 World Food Prize. The FAO organized the food summit.

Borlaug explained: “If the world were still getting the low crop and livestock yields of 1950, at least half of today´s 16 million square miles of global forest would already have been plowed down.”

The benefits of high-tech crops were also defended by Jim Wells, senior vice president of an environmental consulting company, and director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation from 1991 to 1999. Writing in the Los Angeles Times of June 4, Wells argued that organic agriculture is not capable of meeting food needs while at the same time protecting the environment.

Researchers at the Hudson Institute recently analyzed pesticide use in the United States and ran some calculations on switching to totally organic pest-control techniques. Applications of sulfur, an element used for disease control by both organic and conventional fruit and vegetable farmers, would increase from the current U.S. annual use of 78 million pounds to 840 million pounds. Use of copper compounds, also important to organic producers, would increase to 116 million pounds from 13.7 million pounds. Use by farmers of such quantities of copper and sulfur would lead to long-term soil and environmental contamination from these broadly toxic elemental pesticides, Wells contended. Safety checks recommended

Responding to concerns over the safety of genetically modified food, the UK Royal Society issued a report last February. GM foods, the report said, pose a negligible risk to human health, though tighter regulations are needed to reassure consumers, BBC reported Feb. 4.

Professor Jim Smith, who chaired the working group, said: “We have looked at all of the available research, and found nothing to suggest that the process of genetic modification makes potential foodstuffs inherently unsafe.”

Smith said the “rather piecemeal approach” to the regulation of GM foods in the United Kingdom, and the European Union in general, means that there might be some important gaps and inconsistencies. “It is obvious that consumers want their food to be safeguarded by rules that are rigorous enough to prevent any loopholes,” he said. “But the legislation must not be so restrictive that it removes any incentive for introducing new food products that are potentially beneficial to society.”

Similar conclusions were reached in the United States by the National Academy of Sciences in a February report. A 12-member panel of scientists issued a 320-page study on biotech crops that recommended the government study them more carefully before giving approval, and should also monitor them for possible environmental damage afterward, the Associated Press reported Feb. 21.

But, the scientists stated, there is no evidence that the genetically engineered crops now on the market have caused ecological problems. Fred Gould, a North Carolina State University scientist who led the study, said the problems it cited amounted to “small loopholes.” He added: “We are offering suggestions for a system that is functioning. We´re not condemning the system.”

One problem the study noted is that the government allows biotech companies to keep too much of their research data from the public by classifying the material as business secrets. The same data are sometimes made public in Canada and Europe, the study said.

In Europe, where governments have been much more reluctant to approve the new crops, a report published last year by the European Union went so far as to suggest that genetically modified food may even be safer than regular products.

The biosafety report summarized 81 research projects financed by the European Union over the last 15 years, at a cost of $64 million, on genetically modified crops and products made from them, the AP reported Oct. 9.

The research has not found “any new risks to human health or the environment, beyond the usual uncertainties of conventional plant breeding,” said the European Commission. “Indeed, the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods.”

Biotech food has also been examined by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in its report “Science and the Future of Mankind: Science for Man and Man for Science.” Nicola Cabibbo, president of the academy, presented the conclusions of a document, “Study Document on the Use of Genetically Modified Food Plants´ to Combat Hunger in the World,” which contains the consensus opinion of the academy.

“Agriculture as it is currently practiced is unsustainable, as is indicated by the massive losses of topsoil and agricultural land that have occurred over the past few decades, as well as by the unacceptable consequences of massive applications of pesticides,” notes the study. “Techniques to genetically modify crop plants can make important contributions to the solution of this common problem.”

The report also points out the need to take into account the needs of developing countries: “Special efforts should be made to provide poor farmers in the developing world with access to improved crop plants.” It also calls for greater attention to the need to produce crops suitable to the needs of Third World countries.

Introducing genetically modified crops demands care, as noted by recent studies. And the needs of farmers and developing nations must be heeded so as to avoid undue domination by a few large biotech companies. But the consensus of scientific opinion is that biotechnology, prudently applied, has ecological benefits and can be part of the solution in eliminating hunger.

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