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Agricultural Biotechnology And Its Discontents Biotechnology’s potential to both enhance and undermine food security

Updated: August 21, 2010 10:54 am

Biotechnology’s promise to enhance agricultural productivity and feed a growing population has wide appeal. But many potential pitfalls juxtapose its great promise, including threats to human health, biodiversity and, perhaps most significantly, increased inequality of income and wealth between industrial and developing country agricultural production.

At first blush, the development and introduction of agricultural biotechnologies would seem a godsend for a world challenged to squeeze higher crop yields from diminishing resources of water and arable land. Under the rosiest scenarios, the application of biotechnology could enhance the prospect of food security in poorer nations and provide enhanced economic security to small landholders in developing economies.

                Biotechnology, a direct descendant of pioneering 19th century work in genetics, manipulates organisms at the gene, chromosome or DNA level to improve plants for specific uses, such as achieving higher yields from a batch of seeds, developing plants that are resistant to pests, or enhancing the nutritional value of crops by boosting their content of beta carotene or iron.

                But there are also risks associated with agricultural biotechnology. Local plant varieties may fall out of favor, thus narrowing genetic variation. Pest resistance may lead to the evolution of super pests, leaving local farmers without knowledge of techniques such as crop rotation to cope with the phenomenon.

                Perhaps most significantly, biotechnology tends to rely on proprietary, often patented, products not always available or affordable to developing world farmers. The concentration of intellectual property among a limited number of seed purveyors can lead to monopolistic or oligopolistic market models, as well as higher prices to farmers and consumers. It can also lead to a situation where biotechnology is available only to rich farmers, leaving poor farmers behind.

                Today’s world faces a looming and acute food shortage. An increasing global population has led to increased demand for food and a reduced per capita availability of arable land and irrigation water. The improved purchasing power and increased urbanisation of an emerging middle class in developing countries lead to higher per capita grain requirements due to an increased consumption of animal products.

                “Because land and water for agriculture are diminishing resources, there is no option but to produce more food and other agricultural commodities from less arable land and irrigation water,” MS Swaminathan, who heads an agricultural research foundation in Chennai, India, told the ISN. “In other words, the need for more food has to be met through higher yields per units of land, water, energy and time.”

                This is where biotechnology comes into play.

The promises and pitfalls of agricultural biotechnology

                The science of genetics began with the discovery in 1865 by Gregor Mendel of inheritance patterns in peas. The 20th century saw a steady march in the understanding of the genetic makeup of living organisms from microbes to humans, including the nature of genetic mutations, and how they can be induced; the structure, function and manipulation of DNA; and the complete mapping of the human genome, which had a direct impact on humankind’s understanding of other organisms, including plants.

                “Biotechnology may help achieve the productivity gains needed to feed a growing global population,” wrote Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a professor at Cornell University, and Marc J Cohen, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, in an article published by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a consortium of 15 worldwide agricultural research and development centers. “It can introduce resistance to pests and diseases, heighten the tolerance of crops to adverse weather and soil conditions, improve the nutritional value of some foods, and enhance the durability of products during harvesting or shipping.”

                New crop varieties could reduce reliance on pesticides, reducing farmers’ costs and benefiting the environment and public health. “Research on genetic modification to achieve weed control can increase farm incomes and reduce the time women farmers spend weeding, allowing more time for the child care that is essential for good nutrition,” Pinstrup-Andersen and Cohen wrote.

                Biotechnology could also aid the development of crops that absorb water more efficiently, thus conserving that all-important resource. By raising productivity in food production, agricultural biotechnology could help reduce the need to cultivate new lands and help protect ecosystems.

                The risks posed by biotechnology fall into a number of baskets. Health risks include the possibility of transferring the potential for human allergies from one species to another through genetic manipulation. These risks may be alleviated through testing prior to commercialization of new genetically altered food products as well as proper labeling.

                Ecological risks primarily involve the potential threat to biodiversity. In a country of small landholders like India, the challenge to biodiversity involves the replacement of numerous local crops with only one or two varieties. “Modernization of agriculture has resulted in a narrowing of the base of food security, both in terms of the number of species constituting the food basket and the number of genetic strains cultivated,” said Swaminathan. “The need of the hour is to enlarge the food basket and not shrink it further.”

Closing the equity gap

Socioeconomic and ethical challenges threaten the potential benefits of biotechnologies but are amenable to mitigation through international cooperation.

                “Local cultivars [varieties] have often been the donors of many useful traits, including resistance to pests and diseases,” said Swaminathan.

                But if small farmers lack access to “delivery systems, extension services, productive resources, markets, and infrastructure, there is considerable risk that the introduction of agricultural biotechnology could lead to increased inequality of income and wealth,” wrote Pinstrup-Andersen and Cohen. “In such a case, larger farmers are likely to capture most of the benefits through early adoption of the technology, expanded production, and reduced unit costs.”

                In fact, a lag between early and late adopters is the likely scenario, according to Wojciech Florkowski, a professor of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Georgia. Early adopters will benefit, not only through increased sales of their higher-yielding crops, but also by enabling an “expansion of the scale of production,” he told the ISN, by acquiring “land taken over from those who leave farming” for lack of resources to exploit the latest technologies.

                Needless to say, early adopters will be those farmers who are resource rich to begin with. The rich will get richer and the poor poorer.

                A related issue is whether farmers in developing countries could become locked into a cycle of dependence on patented seed. “Growing concentration among companies engaged in agricultural biotechnology research may lead to reduced competition, monopoly or oligopoly profits, exploitation of small farmers and consumers, and extraction of special favors from governments,” wrote Pinstrup-Andersen and Cohen.

                There have been some efforts underway to ameliorate such a situation. When rice rich in beta carotene was developed in Germany, a humanitarian trust licensed some of the patents and provided them to organizations in the developing world free of charge. The Government of India is pouring money into a similar effort involving a number of plant varieties, according to Swaminathan.

                Swaminathan wishes for an elevated level of corporate social responsibility, through which owners of intellectual property would make that know-how available to the developing world. But the ultimate solution to the equity problem, for Swaminathan, lies in the development of an international scheme for compulsory licensing of biotechnologies.

                A compulsory licensing regime for the dissemination of drugs to combat HIV/AIDS was agreed to in the Doha round of international trade talks, he noted. A similar arrangement for green technologies was proposed in the Copenhagen climate change talks earlier this year. Compulsory licensing has a history dating back to the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property of 1883.

                “As Einstein said, ‘The product of the human brain must be available to everyone,” quoted Swaminathan.

                The failure to redress the equity issue would have dire implications to the efforts to provide food security to the developing world, according to Pinstrup-Andersen and Cohen. “Modern biotechnology could bypass poor people,” they wrote. Opportunities for reducing poverty, food insecurity, child malnutrition, and natural resource degradation will be missed, and the productivity gap between developing and industrial country agriculture will widen.


By Peter Buxbaum

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