"Whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before; would deserve better of Mankind, and do more essential service for his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."
--The King of Brobdingnag, Gulliver's Travels, 1727The King of Brobdingnag was ahead of his time. Although British economist Thomas Malthus would shortly shock his contemporaries with the 1798 publication of An Essay on the Principle of Population-arguing that famine was inevitable because people were born at a faster rate than food could be produced-almost another 70 years would pass before a possible solution to Malthus' cruel equation could be found in the work of a Czech monk named Gregor Mendel, whose meticulous experiments breeding pea plants in his monastery garden would inspire research culminating in the discovery of DNA and the modern era of genetic engineering.
Today, a global debate is raging over whether biotechnology can transform the King of Brobdingnag's musings into reality. Nobody claims that genetically modified (GM) crops will be a panacea for hunger. But with global population growth soon outpacing food production, biotech proponents argue that genetic engineering can help feed the multitudes and expand crop productivity in the developing world by as much as 25 percent. Stories abound of miracle plants that are resistant to disease, pests, and drought. But other stories are circulating-stories about how purportedly safe GM corn poisoned monarch butterflies, about how genetic pollution could wipe out entire species of plants, and about how multinational biotech firms exploit world hunger to secure monopolistic control over the food supply of the developing world. Through the Internet and street protests, anti-biotech activists are successfully fomenting a public backlash against GM crops -- one that has engendered a bitter global trade dispute. At stake today is the regulation of an industry whose world market has increased from $75 million to an estimated $3 billion in the last five years. Tomorrow, the issue will be whether developing nations will have access to a technology that some say offers the best hope of providing food for the millions yet to be born.
The Revolution Is Always Greener
Over the next 25 to 30 years the world population is expected to increase by 2 billion. About 95 percent of that growth will occur in developing nations, where nearly 800 million people (more than the combined populations of the United States, Canada, Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan) are already undernourished. Farmers worldwide will have to increase food production by at least 50 percent to meet this growing demand. The predicament today mirrors the situation almost 30 years ago, when dire predictions emerged about imminent famine in overpopulated Asia. But even as these grim scenarios were riveting public attention, a quiet international endeavor was steadily increasing food production. The "Green Revolution," which began in the 1950s and continued into the 1960s, was a massive, coordinated effort to transfer the latest advances in agricultural technology -- such as new seed hybrids, fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation -- from developed countries to the developing world. The great Asian famine never happened, and since 1960, world grain harvests have doubled. But the Green Revolution might be nearing its peak. In recent years, increases in cereal harvests have dropped to 1.3 percent -- half of what they were 30 years ago [see charts on opposite page]. The success of the Green Revolution depended on ample amounts of fresh water (70 percent of which goes toward agriculture) and arable land, both of which are now in short supply. During the last 25 years, more than one fourth of the world's 8.7 billion hectares of agricultural lands, pastures, forests, and woodlands have degraded through misuse and overuse -- an additional 5 to 10 million hectares are lost each year. Population growth, urban expansion, and industrialization are also contributing to this decline [see chart on page 110]. Moreover, Ismail Serageldin, chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, warns that even with improved irrigation techniques, "humanity will still need at least 17 percent more fresh water to meet all of its food needs than is currently available." The "world water gap" already afflicts 31 countries -- in India alone this shortfall could reduce harvests by 25 percent.
Some critics blame the Green Revolution itself for perpetuating the real underlying cause of world hunger: poverty. They argue that the new, expensive agricultural technologies introduced to the developing world benefited a few wealthy landowners at the expense of poor farmers. As evidence they cite the hundreds of millions who remain undernourished even as global food prices have steadily declined. More than 1.3 billion people currently live below the poverty line, making it difficult for them to purchase food or grow the crops needed to sustain their families. Another criticism of the Green Revolution is that it has contributed to the environmental degradation of the developing world through its heavy reliance on toxic pesticides and weed-killing herbicides.
The Gene Revolution
Proponents of biotechnology contend the diminishing gains of the Green Revolution signal the need to mobilize for a "Gene Revolution." Genetically modified crops, which can be made resistant to drought and soil acidity, are said to be uniquely suited to thrive amid the conditions pervasive throughout the developing world. Moreover, biotech crops hold the potential to redress some of the environmental damage caused by the Green Revolution by minimizing the use of pesticides and herbicides. A gene derived from the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium has been spliced into corn crops to produce a "natural" toxin that kills corn borers, which cause $1 billion damage to U.S. corn crops annually. Some say the development of crops resistant to herbicides could cut down on the indiscriminate spraying of chemicals to control weeds.
In the developing world, biotech advocates see GM crops not merely as a way to put more food on the table, but as a means to help boost economic growth and alleviate poverty. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, agriculture accounts for 32 percent of the continent's gross domestic product (gdp), 20 percent of its exports, and a staggering 66 percent of its employment. Yet, agriculture has stagnated throughout the continent, in large part because post-independence African governments opted for a development strategy that emphasized industrialization at the expense of the agricultural sector. Some hope that increased crop productivity through biotechnology could have a multiplier effect on Africa's standard of living.
But the Gene Revolution differs from the Green Revolution in one crucial respect: It is very expensive. According to one estimate, the cost of bringing a new GM crop variety to market can range from $30 to $50 million. The president of the U.S. -- based Biotechnology Industry Organization has characterized biotechnology as "one of the most capital and research intensive industries in the history of civilian manufacturing." So, whereas research institutes supported by government agencies and philanthropic foundations developed many of the agricultural technologies that launched the Green Revolution, corporations in the United States and Europe are the driving force behind the technology that would be needed to launch the Gene Revolution. (The private sector, in fact, accounts for more than 80 percent of international biotechnology research.) The crops being developed are typically not food staples in the developing world, such as rice and cassava, but crops suited for the U.S. and European markets, such as corn and cotton.
As a result, the agricultural community is trapped in a Catch-22 situation: The countries in the Third World that most need to develop GM crops cannot afford the technology, and the corporations in the industrialized countries that possess the technology cannot hope to recoup their high research-and-development costs and remain commercially viable if they give away their genetic patents. If biotechnology is to be truly accessible to poor countries, then corporations, countries, development agencies, philanthropic organizations, and research institutions will have to find innovative ways to encourage public-private research while simultaneously protecting international intellectual property rights.
But that challenge is complicated by a significant obstacle. Worldwide, a coalition of environmentalists, consumer groups, and public health advocates have stirred up a public backlash against biotechnology, and in doing so they have scored major legislative victories. The European Union (EU), already jittery about public food safety in the aftermath of the Mad Cow disease scare in 1996, was galvanized by widespread media reports of a controversial study concluding that Bt corn was lethal to monarch butterflies. The EU now demands that all GM food be labeled, which makes biotech vegetables about as attractive to consumers as a carton of milk bearing a skull and crossbones. Moreover, the EU has not approved any new GM products for marketing since October 1998, even though 14 applications are awaiting approval. Some European supermarkets have removed all GM food from their shelves, while major corporations such as the Swiss-owned Gerber Products Company are refusing to use GM ingredients.
Asian countries such as Japan are following suit, and the backlash is also spreading to the developing world. "What the Europeans have rejected due to environmental and health hazards is now being dumped on Indians," complained one anti-biotech activist as protesters rallied in New Delhi to oppose a U.S. shipment of soybeans suspected to be genetically modified. In Brazil-where some farmers are so anxious to plant biotech crops that they are smuggling in seeds from neighboring Argentina -- a suit filed by the country's Institute of Consumer Defense, Institute of Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources, and Greenpeace led a federal judge to ban the planting of GM soybean crops until the government implements more comprehensive regulations governing the sale and use of GM foods. Despite repeated claims from biotechnology corporations that this consumer backlash is not adversely affecting business, there are signs to the contrary. In the United States, where almost 72 percent of the world's GM crops are grown [see chart on this page], the Department of Agriculture recently reported that it expects an average 6 percent decline in the planting of biotech corn, soybeans, and cotton this year. The anti-biotech Union of Concerned Scientists lost no time in declaring the report a "turning point" for farmers who now realize that they "can't force this down the Europeans' throats." In an attempt to pre-empt a backlash in the United States, the seven major biotech companies have committed up to $50 million for an unprecedented advertising campaign touting the benefits of GM foods. Meanwhile, other countries are more than willing to fill the market niche being denied to biotech firms. The Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul now promotes itself as a genetically modified crop-free zone in a bid to win business from European companies. Thailand has approached India with an offer to buy animal feed that is guaranteed to be free of GM ingredients.
These developments frustrate biotech proponents in developing countries, who worry that declining profits and growing restrictions on genetic research could stifle the flow of financial and scientific support from industrialized countries. And if the moratoriums against biotechnology become more widespread, developing countries might find themselves unable to export their genetically modified crops abroad. Seeing trouble on the horizon, some biotech advocates have begun lashing out against international activists as elitist do-gooders who prey upon Third World anxieties over foreign exploitation and purport to suppress GM crops on behalf of the downtrodden. "Western nations like England or Switzerland can afford the luxury of ignoring crop biotechnology," declares a pamphlet published by an association of Indian farmers, adding that activists opposed to biotechnology threaten to perpetuate the status of farmers as "an underclass of Indian society." Luiz Antonio Barreto de Castro, the head of Brazil's National Technical Commission of Biosafety, sought to reassure public fears with the ironic observation: "For the first time, populations of the First World countries will serve as the guinea pigs for the countries of the Third World."
Whatever the outcome of the biotechnology debate, it promises to be a long, grinding argument that will continue to pit nongovernmental organizations against corporate boardrooms, the sovereign right of nations to decide what food is safe against the growing drive to eliminate barriers to trade, and the inexorable forces of the market economy against the steady degradation of the global environment. Meanwhile, millions of hungry people are consigned to wait and watch on the sidelines, as the rest of the world struggles to unravel the complex legacy of a lone Czech monk tending pea plants in his monastery garden.
Mark Strauss is senior editor of Foreign Policy magazine.
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Last Updated on 7/5/00
By Dan Ellis