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Can Biology End World Hunger? 

Wednesday, Jul 5 2000
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DURING THE FIRST TWO YEARS OF LIFE, AN adequate supply of iron is critical for healthy growth, yet 30 percent of the world's population suffers from iron deficiency, mostly women and children, mostly in the developing world. Anemia, impaired learning ability, increased susceptibility to infection and reduced capacity to work (from lack of energy) are all consequences. In short, iron deficiency is a major health problem worldwide, with enormous social and economic costs. We can fight this scourge with biotechnology, Martina McGloughlin tells me. Indeed, a team of Swiss scientists has recently engineered a strain of rice with three times more iron than normal.

It is innovations like this one and the much ballyhooed "golden rice," with its high vitamin A content, that excite advocates of genetically modified foods. They argue that however genetic technologies are received in the First World, the Third World faces problems that only this technology can resolve. The biotech industry, which is using the theme of combating world hunger in a current slate of advertisements, is hoping this belief will be a key factor in turning the tide of public opinion its way.

But as with so many aspects of GM food, critics dispute the fundamental logic behind such dreams; they argue that high-tech solutions are not what is needed here, and question whether GM solutions can even be effective. Peter Rosset, an expert on world hunger and co-director of the Oakland-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First, notes that a primary reason for many vitamin deficiencies in the developing world is the lack of green leafy vegetables in the diet. That, he says, is the real problem that needs to be addressed. Giving people high-tech rice with an extra added nutrient is not going to resolve their problem, he says, because people whose diets are so poor they have one major vitamin or mineral deficiency are likely to suffer from others as well. Margaret Mellon, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, concurs. "How many micronutrients can you put into rice?" she asks. Will poor people have to choose between, say, vitamin-A-enriched rice and iron-enriched rice? Rather than trying to resolve these nutrient problems by engineering rice, both Mellon and Rosset suggest it would be better to focus on improving overall diet. Mellon also notes that most of the people suffering from these deficiencies are women and children. Where are the men getting their nutrients? she asks.

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Both Rosset and Mellon stress that there are many social and cultural factors that must be taken into consideration when addressing nutrition issues in developing countries. For instance, Mellon says, golden rice may well face opposition from Third World farmers themselves. "Most people who have a choice want white rice," she notes. For export purposes, Asian farmers would still have to grow white varieties, which means if they were going to eat golden rice at home, they would have to plant two different crops. Not only will that be more difficult, but two varieties planted in nearby fields might cross-pollinate, thereby diluting each strain. One might also wonder if eating (and growing) yellow rice would become a visible signal of poverty and, hence, stigmatized. The point is that simply throwing technology at the problem is not going to make it go away. There may well be a role for that technology, but, according to Mellon, it is disingenuous for the industry to suggest that with the advent of golden rice, the alleviation of vitamin-A deficiency is "a done deal." In short, it's a long way from the First World laboratory to the Third World farmer's table. â

Looming even larger than individual nutrient deficiencies is the possibility of wholesale food deficiency as world population increases. Everyone agrees that as the population climbs toward a projected 9 billion or 10 billion people over the coming decades, we are going to need more food than is currently being produced. A lot more. How are we going to do that? Many biotech advocates believe genetic engineering is our only possible means for averting widespread famine. What we need, they say, is a second "Green Revolution." In the '60s and '70s, crop yields in America, Europe and Asia were boosted by 20 to 30 percent through the introduction of new hybrid crop varieties, combined with the heavy use of fertilizers and irrigation. According to biotech advocates, genetic engineering is our only hope for a similar quantum leap in world food production.

Over the past 15 years, the Rockefeller Foundation has been a leading supporter of plant biotech research aimed at reducing world hunger. During that time the foundation has put $100 million into this effort -- it funded the development of both golden rice and iron-enriched rice -- and it has trained more than 400 scientists in developing countries in biotechnology techniques. In a speech in March to an international conference on GM foods, Gordon Conway, the foundation's president, expressed his feelings this way: "I believe we need a new revolution -- a Doubly Green Revolution, that repeats the successes of the old but in a manner that is environmentally friendly and much more equitable . . . [I believe] that is going to need the application of modern biotechnology -- to help raise yield ceilings, to produce crops resistant to drought, salinity, pests and disease, and to produce new crop products of greater nutritional value."

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