By Tom Still
SAN FRANCISCO – Outside the convention hall, I stopped last week to chat with a protester whose sign read: “Biotechnology is making poor farmers poorer.” He was a young and pleasant enough guy – just caught up in his own rhetoric.
I told him biotechnology may be the last, best hope for the world’s poorest farmers, not to mention the hundreds of millions of people who don’t get enough to eat because drought, disease, worn-out soils, harsh growing conditions, pests and weeds that have grown resistant to herbicides are hampering food production.
He politely disagreed and rejoined his fellow demonstrators outside San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Here’s the story they refuse to hear.
More than two-thirds of the people in the world grow what they eat. Despite the successes of the “Green Revolution” that began in the 1960s, millions of them still suffer from hunger and lack of nutrition. The reasons are many, including first world farm subsidies that undercut poor farmers and developing world governments that impede markets and food distribution systems.
But another undeniable fact is that crops genetically improved during the Green Revolution were large-volume commodity crops, not crops grown solely by small-scale, subsistence farmers.
The first Green Revolution passed by many of those farmers. It was dependent on farming practices that required significant upfront investments – irrigation systems, machinery, fuel, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. By and large, that was beyond the reach of the average farmer scratching out a living in sub-Saharan Africa, or even the delta country of Mississippi.
“The New Green Revolution” isn’t capital intensive, but knowledge-intensive. The advances being made today due to biotechnology and genetic engineering are incorporated in the crop seed, which makes it possible for all farmers to reap the benefits.
In a sense, this isn’t new. People have been genetically engineering plants and animals for thousands of years, usually by trial and error, in a search for better crops and herds. Only since Gregor Mendel made a study of peas in the 1800s has science taken some of the chance, and time, out of the process. But the goals are pretty much the same as they have always been: Higher yields; resistance to diseases caused by fungi, bacteria and viruses; the ability to withstand hot summers, drought and short growing seasons; and resistance to pests and weeds,
Biotechnology does that by tapping into natural defense systems within plants, thus triggering mechanisms that allow plants to better protect themselves. It can also produce biopesticides, such as microorganisms and fatty acid compounds, that are toxic to targeted pests by harmless to humans, animals, fish, birds or beneficial insects.
Here are a few examples cited by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, or BIO, from its work around the world:
* Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has donated transgenic technology for controlling the papaya ring spot virus to research institutions in Brazil, Venezuela and Thailand, and provided training for scientists there.
* Japan’s International Cooperation Agency has built tissue culture facilities at an Indonesian research facility so scientists there can develop disease-free potato materials for planting. Indonesian scientists are also working with scientists at Michigan State University to develop insect-resistant potatoes and sweet potatoes.
* An Austrian lab is working with researchers in Kenya to transfer technology on cassava mutagenesis and breeding. Cassava is a low-protein, starchy staple in regions where cereal grains cannot be easily grown.
Monsanto, Pioneer, Astra-Zeneca and Unilever are prominent examples of companies that have transferred technology to help poor nations grow more and better sweet potatoes, potatoes, peanuts, papaya, cotton, corn, maize, palm oil and other crops.
And while demonstrators chant outside biotech conventions, the leaders of some of the world’s poorest nations are seeing real results. Consider the success of a single crop, biotech cotton. In China, insecticide use has dropped by 67 percent and yields have risen by 10 percent. In India, insecticide use fell by 50 percent and yields increased by 40 percent. Small farmers in South Africa saw yields grow by 25 percent while decreasing their insecticide sprays from 11 to four during the growing season.
This is not to suggest that development of biotech crops shouldn’t be closely monitored – or that alternatives such as organic farming aren’t a part of the solution. Simply, it is to assert the biotechnology may hold the key to feeding the world’s billions without unduly harming the environment. With a careful eye on unintended consequences, the “New Green Revolution” must continue, informed protests or not.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.