Foes of biotechnology ignore global hunger

By C.S. Prakash
Copyright 1999 Atlanta Journal-Constitution
December 5, 1999

Anti-technology activists accuse corporations of "playing God" by genetically improving crops, but it is these so-called environmentalists who are really playing God, not with genes but with the lives of poor and hungry people.

While activist organizations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote fear through anti-science newspaper ads, 1.3 billion people, who live on less than $1 a day, care only about finding their next day's meal. Biotechnology is one of the best hopes for solving their food needs today, when we have 6 billion people, and certainly in the next 30 to 50 years, when there will be 9 billion on the globe.

Those people, who battle weather, pests and plant disease to try to raise enough for their families, can benefit tremendously from biotechnology, and not just from products created by big corporations. Public-sector institutions are conducting work on high-yield rice, virus-resistant sweet potato and more healthful strains of cassava, crops that are staples in developing countries.

But none of these benefits will be realized if Western-generated fears about biotechnology halt research funding and close borders to exported products. Public perception is being manipulated by fringe groups opposed to progress and taken advantage of by politicians favoring trade protectionism.

There is no safety reason for this. Foods produced through biotechnology are just as safe, if not safer, than conventionally produced foods because they are rigorously tested. David Aaron of the U.S. Commerce Department recently told the Senate Finance Committee that "13 years of U.S. experience with biotech products have produced no evidence of food safety risks; not one rash, not one cough, not one sore throat, not one headache."

More recently, a panel of entomology experts has questioned the only seemingly legitimate environmental issue raised to date --- the alleged threat to Monarch butterflies.

Yet activists continue to look for a new cause, a new evil in this technology. While these well-fed folks jet around the world plotting ways to disrupt the technology, they cannot or will not see the conditions of millions who are at grave risk of starvation. Activists resist development of longer-lasting fruits and vegetables, at the expense of Third World people who have no refrigeration to preserve their foods.

Critics of biotechnology invoke the trite argument that the shortage of food is caused by unequal distribution. There's plenty of food, they declare, we just need to distribute it evenly. That's like saying there is plenty of money in the world so let's just solve the problem of poverty in Ethiopia by redistributing the wealth of Switzerland (or maybe the United Kingdom, where the heir to the throne is particularly opposed to companies "playing God" with biotechnology).

The development of local and regional agriculture is the key to addressing both hunger and low income. Genetically improved food is "scale neutral," in that a poor rice farmer with one acre in Bangladesh can benefit as much as a large farmer in California. And he doesn't have to learn a sophisticated new system; he only has to plant a seed. New rice strains being developed through biotechnology can increase yields by 30 to 40 percent. Another rice strain has the potential to prevent blindness in millions of children whose diets are deficient in Vitamin A.

Edible vaccines, delivered in locally grown crops, could do more to eliminate disease than the Red Cross, missionaries and U.N. task forces combined, at a fraction of the cost.

These are some of the benefits that the Church of England saw when church leaders recently issued a position statement on "playing God" through biotechnology: "Human discovery and invention can be thought of as resulting from the exercise of God-given powers of mind and reason; in this respect, genetic engineering does not seem very different from other forms of scientific advance."

More recently, the Vatican director on bioethics, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, criticized the "catastrophic sensationalism with which the press reports on biotechnology" and he rejected the "idea of conceiving scientific progress as something that should be feared."

So, if scientists who are developing biotechnology are not "playing God" in the eyes of these religious leaders, what are we to think of self-appointed guardians who would deny its benefits to those who need it most? We have the means to end hunger on this planet and to feed the world's 6 billion --- or even 9 billion --- people. For the well-fed to spearhead fear-based campaigns and suppress research for ideological and pseudo-science reasons is irresponsible and immoral.

C. S. Prakash directs the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala.

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