July 12, 2000
before the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on International Economic Policy, Export and Trade Promotion. The hearing, chaired by Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, focused on the role of biotechnology in combating poverty and hunger in developing countries. Dr. Beachy was introduced at the hearing by Missouri Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond.
Statement of Dr. Roger N. Beachy:
Senator Hagel, members of the subcommittee, and others in attendance, thank you for the invitation to appear before the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy, Export and Trade Promotion. I am Roger N. Beachy, Ph.D., President of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis Mo. The Danforth Center was established in 1998 as an independent, not for profit institution, formatted on the model of the great independent biomedical research institutes in the U.S. The goal of the Danforth Center is the discovery of new knowledge in plant biology and applications of that knowledge to develop more sustainable agriculture, to improve human nutrition and human health, and to encourage commercial development of research discoveries. In many ways the Danforth Center is unique in its mission, as it has dedicated 10% of its resources and facilities to conduct research specifically related to the needs of agriculture in developing countries. This effort includes training scientists in the development of intellectual and technical capacities that are relevant to their home countries in the areas of plant science and biotechnology. The website of the Center, www.danforthcenter.org provides current information about our charter and mission statement, and the status of current research faculty and research programs.
I welcome the opportunity to present testimony on the importance of research on plant sciences, agriculture, food and nutrition. The particular focus of my remarks today relate to the importance of research for the benefit of the poor in developing countries and as an essential step in fighting hunger and disease. Few of us deny that there are tremendous needs around the world for adequate amounts of nutritious foods. Adequate food and nutrition are essential to ensure the physical and intellectual growth and development of children that leads to healthy and productive adults. For example, it in known that:
It is estimated that 850 million people currently are undernourished or malnourished worldwide. 70% of the world's poor are in rural areas, 60% of which are in marginal environments where intensive agriculture is not likely to be established. The challenge is to meet the current needs, and to prepare for the eventuality that by 2040 the world's population will reach 9 billion. Yet, there is limited land on which to produce food without further destroying the important forests and wilderness areas that produce life-giving oxygen, cleanse our air, protect and sustain biodiversity, and assure that groundwater enters the underground stores sufficiently purified to be suitable for human consumption.
Agricultural producers in the U.S. have a growing awareness of their duties as keepers of the environment; many are actively reducing the use of harmful agrichemicals while maintaining highly efficient production of safe foods. Plant scientists and agriculturists have developed better crops and improved production methods that have enabled farmers to reduce the use of insecticides and chemicals that control certain diseases. Methods such as integrated pest management, no-till or low-till agriculture have been tremendously important in this regard. Some of the success has come through the judicious application of biotechnology to develop new varieties of crops that resist insects and that tolerate certain herbicides. For example, biotechnology was used to develop varieties of cotton and corn that are resistant to attack by cotton bollworm and corn borer. These varieties have allowed farmers to reduce the use of chemical insecticides by between 1.5 and 2 mil gallons, while retaining or increasing crop yields. Crops that are tolerant to certain 'friendly' herbicides have increased no-till and low-till agriculture, reducing soil erosion and building valuable topsoil to ensure the continued productivity of our valuable agricultural lands.
Although biotechnology has increased productivity for American and Canadian farmers, the technologies are not widely available or not adapted for application in parts of the world that could benefit most. Those peoples who most require more food and better nutrition are amongst those that are not seeing the rewards of scientific discovery. In Asia and Africa where rice is the main food, stem borers and other insects, and virus and fungal diseases continue to suppress crop yields. Diseases caused by fungi and viruses destroy crops and decrease yields of crops such as groundnut, chickpeas, papaya, sweet potato, yams, cucumbers, melons, and a host of other fruits and vegetables. However, modern methods of crop improvement, coupled with better farming practices, can make a real and significant difference in crop production in the tropical, poor regions of the world. Biotechnology can be used to reduce crop losses due to disease, insect attack, and post-harvest deterioration and rotting.
This is best demonstrated by several examples. Consider the virus disease that causes a severe ringspot disease in papaya - the disease reduces papaya production and kills the trees in Asia, in parts of Latin America, and in Africa. Consider the virus leaf curl disease on white potatoes, the virus that causes leaf yellowing in sweet potatoes throughout east and central Africa. Consider the virus that causes stunting and yellowing in rice, a disease referred to as tungro, throughout central Asia. Each of these important diseases can be controlled through biotechnologies that increase the resistance of these plants to the viruses.
Consider next the production of cotton in India, Pakistan, Egypt and other countries where the boll worm, boll weevil and other insect pests can reduce yields and farmer profits, to the point where farmers in some parts of India commit suicide rather than face the effects that come with financial losses. When smallholder farmers in China and South Africa grew native cotton varieties that contain the B.t. gene for insect resistance that was introduced by biotechnology, farmers realized between $150 and $200 per hectare increased profits. It is estimated that more that a million farmers (combined) in these two countries have benefited from insect resistant varieties of cotton. The increased profit came because farmers did not need to purchase or apply insecticides to control the pests. A related study implies that farmers that used fewer pesticides also had fewer medical problems and required fewer trips to doctor's offices. These are real and tangible benefits of biotechnology.
Perhaps the most striking examples of how biotechnology can improve human nutrition are found in varities of rice and canola that have been improved by biotechnology to increase the amounts of beta-carotene. This precursor of Vitamin A is in short supply in diets in many parts of the world. There is great hope and expectation that consumption of foods from these crops will alleviate or reduce the chronic Vit A deficiencies in the diets of many of the poor in Asia and Africa. Other research is underway to use similar types of biotechnologies to increase the levels of other vitamins, and to improve the amount of proteins in crops that have low levels of protein, such as potatoes and cassava. Researchers are also developing foods that can deliver certain types of therapeutic substances, such as vaccines, that stimulate the body's defense against certain endemic diseases.
During the past 20 years I have been privileged to participate in the development of knowledge that contributed to certain agricultural biotechnologies. For example, in the early 1980s my laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis, in collaboration with scientists at Monsanto Company, developed a method to produce plants that resist infection by certain types of virus diseases, using biotechnology. My labs at Washington University and later at The Scripps Research Institute (La Jolla, CA) also made relevant discoveries in the areas of gene regulation, disease resistance, and vaccine development.
From the mid-1980s, when we made some of the early discoveries in biotechnology, I have made a committed effort to apply them to improve agriculture and human health of peoples in developing countries. The reasons for this decision are obvious: First, there is a growing need to improve the efficiency of food production worldwide, while decreasing reliance on agrichemicals. Second, there is a need to increase the nutrition and healthiness of peoples around the world. Third, there is a great need for more well-trained scientists in developing countries that can develop and use modern methods to improve food production and quality in developing countries. All of us here recognize that there are many challenges to the production, preservation and distribution of adequate food of high nutrition, and to ensure food security for all peoples. Science can provide only part of the solution; nevertheless, we determined to do what we could to address the needs of agriculture in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
In 1988, with the aid of a small grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and the agreement of the French government's public research organization ORSTOM (now known as IRD) an ORSTOM scientist, Dr. Claude Fauquet, joined my group at Washington University and we initiated a research project on rice tungro virus disease. This project expanded to include developing efficient methods to produce transgenic rice plants, and methods for tissue culture and genetic transformation in cassava, also known as manioc. In 1991 the project was relocated with me to The Scripps Research Institute. Through the increased support of ORSTOM, the Rockefeller Foundation and a modest amount of support from USAID provided via a project at Michigan State University we built a strong research group: it was designated the 'International Laboratory for Tropical Agricultural Biotechnology' (ILTAB). ILTAB was relocated to the Danforth Center early in 1999. Between 1991 and today, ILTAB has trained more that 130 scientists from 19 countries, including from Africa, Asia, and Latin America; more than 70% have returned to their home institutions and maintain contact with the Center. Trainees have participated in research programs that are directly related to the research needs of their home institutions.
Research at ILTAB has produced a number of successes, including:
Thank you for your attention and your dedication.
Respectfully submitted, July 12, 2000:
Roger N. Beachy, Ph.D.
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Last Updated on 7/28/00
By Karen Lutz Benbrook