Can Biology End World Hunger?

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.

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."

It's a truly admirable vision, but again, Peter Rosset questions whether this high-tech approach will produce the desired results. He notes that since the Green Revolution there is indeed more food per person in the world, yet despite that, hunger has continued to grow. There are now almost 800 million people who don't get enough to eat. According to Rosset, the major cause for hunger is not inadequate technology but economic inequity, something that has been increasing in recent years. In the Western world, he says, we have become obsessed with the idea of technological fixes. Scientists, in particular, "tend to ascribe a central role to technology in increased food production," but social scientists have a different analysis, which sees technology as just one factor in a larger matrix, and hence as just one potential approach to a solution. As Rosset sees it, if we really want to wipe out hunger, then first and foremost we need to tackle the roots of economic injustice.

Rosset insists that we have the capacity to feed 10 billion people without biotechnology. "In many cases, African and Latin American farmers are producing way below what they could produce with current technology," he says. The key is that they do not have an economic incentive to produce more. Rosset has traveled extensively in the Third World, and time and again, he says, he has seen how small farmers get squeezed out of agricultural systems. In Honduras, for example, Rosset says, there are lots of farmers with 10-acre farms who are only planting three or four acres for their own family's use. With food prices falling worldwide, it isn't economically viable to plant the rest, so they go away to cities several months a year to seek work. Increasingly -- as in the U.S., so in the developing world -- only large farms are profitable. "These farmers really don't need any more technology," Rosset says. "What they need is to stop the â economic biases against them." That means local biases, such as difficulty obtaining small loans, but it also means the global bias toward downward-spiraling food prices. In a global sense, the price of cheap food is steep indeed.

But is it necessarily a black or white choice? Might it be possible for biotechnology to play a role in the developing world without disenfranchising small farmers? UC Davis plant scientist Alan Bennett believes this can be the case. "Much of this technology is a replacement," he says, "especially for the chemically intensive farming." Looking to the future, we have to find alternatives not just to chemical herbicides and pesticides, but also to the heavy use of fertilizers. Biotech can play a role here by creating crops that will grow more efficiently in poor and arid conditions, Bennett says; it can also help with disease and pathogen control. As an example, Bennett cites fellow UC Davis scientist Pam Ronald's work on pathogen-resistant rice. Ronald has taken a pathogen-resistance gene from a wild (nonedible) strain of rice and transferred it into edible strains. The gene is now being given freely to rice institutes around the world for incorporation into local varieties. There is nothing about this technology that necessarily favors large-scale farming, Bennett says. "There are a lot of technologies off the shelf now that small farmers could use."

One of the obstacles here is that even if developing nations are given free access to relevant genes, in order to engineer these genes into local crop varieties they still have to use the various "enabling technologies" on which genetic engineering relies. Most enabling technologies are owned and patented by large companies like Monsanto. Bennett suggests that since "One of the key things biotech companies tout is that this will help to feed the hungry," then "the onus is on them to put their money where their mouth is" and make the technology available. Not willing to wait for them to take that initiative, however, Bennett has organized a group of American scientists to begin developing an alternative slate of enabling technologies for the public domain.

As in America, then, the central issue is not whether we use genetic engineering per se, but what we see as the future of agriculture itself. All the problems faced by our own farmers are also being faced by farmers of the developing world, where the repercussions are even more enormous -- due to the sheer scale of the problem. Several billion of the world's people still live on the land. What will happen to their livelihoods -- and to their very lives -- if they are made redundant by large-scale industrialized farms? Where will they find work? Will already-overcrowded Third World cities be able to absorb this immense influx of poor, ill-educated people? The specter of this possibility is huge indeed. Peter Rosset, for one, insists that this cannot be our vision of the future and that the developing world must not be pushed down the path of industrialized agriculture. What his organization is "fighting for," he says, is "the right of different countries to have different models of agriculture." How does he feel about the chances of success? Rosset, who as much as anyone knows the monumental forces at work here, was in Seattle as part of the December protests against the World Trade Organization. Before Seattle, he tells me, he had very mixed feelings, but "After Seattle I'm a lot more optimistic."