21st Century Science & Technology
Genetically Engineered Crops Can Feed the World!

by Dr. Channaputra S. Prakash

(Full text of article from summer 2000 21st Century)

The Real Benefits

The Right Way to Biodiversity

‘Royalty Free’ Licensing

The Real Hysteria

Agricultural Development Key

Scientists in Support of Agricultural Biotechnology

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 the food needs of the poor today, when we have 6 billion people in the world, and certainly in the next 30 to 50 years, when there will be 9 billion on the globe.

Products from biotechnology are no less safe than traditionally bred crops. In fact, they may be even safer, because they represent small, precise alterations with the introduction of genes whose biology is well understood. Often these genes are derived from other food crops. Further, genetically improved products are subjected to intensive testing, while conventional varieties have never been subjected to any such regulation for food safety or environmental impact.

Traditional methods of developing crops involve wild crosses with weedy relatives of crop plants, and many characteristics, such as resistance to disease and pests, have been routinely introduced into crop plants from their weedy and distant relatives over hundreds of years. Hundreds of unknown genes, of whose traits we have little knowledge, are also introduced into these food crops through these conventional plant breeding methods.

This cross-breeding has posed no serious threat to the environment in terms of crop invasiveness, gene flow to weeds, or biodiversity. Yet, these fears are invoked for genetically improved crops, which possess similar traits but which are developed through rapid genetic-modification processes.

Many of these “concerns” are technical issues that could be addressed through appropriate research, and not through emotional debates or militant activism. But public perception is being manipulated by fringe groups opposed to progress and being taken advantage of by politicians.

Dr. Channaputra S. Prakash
Dr. C. S. Prakash

The Real Benefits
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 large corporations. For example, 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.

Biotechnology improvements are in development that would allow hybrid rice to be colonized by bacteria that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. Plants that are able to fix nitrogen improve productivity in the absence of synthetic fertilizers (which are typically unavailable to poor farmers). Further, improved tools such as cryopreservation, developed by bio-technologists, will help in the ex situ preservation of biodiversity, while creative techniques, such as gene shuffling, will help create more biodiversity and, perhaps, will even re-create extinct crop traits.

Molecular biology techniques, such as the use of DNA markers and genomics, are providing valuable insights into the dynamics of biodiversity in crop plants, and thus helping our efforts to understand crop evolution and relatedness between different varieties, thus enabling the intelligent use of the available biodiversity.

The anti-biotech activists incorrectly suggest that the integration of chemical pesticides and seed-use has led to lower returns for farmers. To support that argument, they point to one obscure study, while ignoring other, far more comprehensive and respected studies that report increased net returns and reduced chemical use.

To take one example of lowered costs: Improved production economics, the introduction of crops spliced with a gene that causes them to produce a natural insecticide (Bt), and herbicide-resistant crops, have forced tremendous competition in the herbicide and insecticide markets. Prices of many herbicides and insecticides have been slashed by more than 50 percent in these markets. Such price reductions have led to significant discounting of weed and insect control programs and have even benefitted farmers who have not yet adopted biotechnology crops.

None of these benefits will be realized, however, if Western-generated fears about biotechnology halt research funding and close borders to exported biotech products. Anti-biotechnology activists argue against Western-style capitalism and for boutique markets that sell organically grown, biotech-free foods. But their arguments are not relevant to the issue of meeting human needs or developing a sustainable and diverse ecology.

The Right Way to Biodiversity
The preservation of biodiversity will be critical to the sustained success of agriculture. Contrary to the hysteria of the elitist environmentalists, we must develop a healthy working relationship among governments of developing nations, scientists, and multinationals.

For example, in the case of India, the government’s Department of Biotechnology, and other scientific agencies, have done admirable work to deal with safety issues of genetically improved crops by developing a strong, reliable, and trustworthy regulatory mechanism to meet the rightful concerns of the Indian public about the possible impact of genetically improved crops on the environment and human health. The existing biosafety framework now requires that all genetically modified organisms must undergo a rigorous review and safety assessment prior to their import, field testing, or release. The government should also enhance its legal system by instituting penalties for those who do not follow the regulations, strengthen and enforce its anti-trust laws to prevent monopolies, and impose product-liability laws to force corporate responsibility.

Scientists and companies involved in genetically improved crop development, on their part, have an obligation to be transparent about their affairs and make efforts to communicate with farmers and the public about the nature of their products and any inherent risks they pose. Multinational companies have vast resources, with a huge edge in their knowledge base, and can play a constructive role in India’s progress. Few Indian companies have such resources or a willingness to invest in long-term projects, with little hope of immediate revenues, in the face of political and economic uncertainty.

‘Royalty Free’ Licensing
The multinational biotech companies, on their part, should soften their position on intellectual property by providing “royalty free” licensing of their core technologies for use by public institutions such as ICAR (the Indian Council for Agricultural Research) on noncommercial and orphan crops of importance to Indian farmers and consumers such as bajra, thur dal, horsegram, and ragi. Further, these companies should consider voluntarily establishing a trust fund from the profits generated by genetically improved crops, to promote biodiversity conservation and public awareness of biotechnology.

There is also a need to foster research into the social, ethical, economic, and environmental impact of emerging technologies in agriculture, as this will not only help predict any negative ramifications of such interventions, but also evolve strategies to deal with them.

The Real Hysteria
A frequent fear invoked against the use of genetically improved crops is their possible impact on the environment. But what can be more environmentally friendly than a crop variety that requires little or no pesticide? How can a crop variety that is three times as productive—and thus decreases the pressure to cut down forest lands for agricultural expansion—be against nature? Yet, one hears that “biotechnology is incompatible with nature” and is “not natural.”

We need to remember that agriculture is inherently an “unnatural” activity!

Human beings, since the dawn of civilization, have been meddling with nature to provide the needed food, fiber, and shelter for the sustenance of humankind. None of our present-day crops resemble their weedy relatives. Nor would they survive in the wild, as they have all been altered substantially through selection by farmers over thousands of years to be more adaptable and productive.

A similar situation exists with livestock and poultry and, for that matter, even our pets—dogs and cats. Genetically improved crops are a logical extension of this human activity, and thus are no more unnatural than what has been practiced for eons. Suman Sahai of the Gene Campaign, New Delhi, has rightly reminded us that we should harvest the power of science and technology to improve the living conditions of our people, and our most ethical drive is in alleviating poverty, hunger, and starvation death.

The full weight of scientific research supports the safety of biotechnology. 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.” Also recently, a panel of entomology experts has questioned the only seemingly legitimate (and certainly most media-hyped) 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. These 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).

More nutritious rice is expected from the descendants of these plants, whose ancestors were grown by Gideon Schaeffer from tissue-cultured cells specially selected for their high lysine content.

Scott Bauer/Agricultural Research Service

Agricultural Development Key
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 that farmer 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 United Nations 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 those 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.

Dr. C.S. Prakash is a Professor of Plant Molecular Genetics and the Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University. He oversees the research of food crops of importance to developing countries, and the training of postdoctoral scientists, graduate students, and undergraduate students in plant biotechnology. The founder of AgBioWorld (see http://www.agbioworld.com), which has been active in promoting the benefits of bio-engineering and countering the lies of overzealous environmentalists, Dr. Prakash recently organized more than 2,000 scientists to sign a statement supporting agricultural biotechnology .

Agricultural Research Service
Corn that can combat anemia is in the works. Here, geneticist Victor Raboy examines a plant from a new line of corn he developed, which may help the body to better absorb and use iron. The grain from the new corn is designed to be 95 percent lower in phytic acid, a compound that reduces nutrient absoption during human digestion.

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Scientists in Support of Agricultural Biotechnology

This statement was initiated by Dr. Prakash and circulated by the organization AgBioWorld
(http://www.agbioworld.com) in March, to coincide with Bio2000, an international biotechnology conference held in Boston. More than 2,000 scientists have signed the statement.

We, the undersigned members of the scientific community, believe that recombinant DNA techniques constitute powerful and safe means for the modification of organisms and can contribute substantially in enhancing quality of life by improving agriculture, health care, and the environment.

The responsible genetic modification of plants is neither new nor dangerous. Many characteristics, such as pest and disease resistance, have been routinely introduced into crop plants by traditional methods of sexual reproduction or cell culture procedures. The addition of new or different genes into an organism by recombinant DNA techniques does not inherently pose new or heightened risks relative to the modification of organisms by more traditional methods, and the relative safety of marketed products is further ensured by current regulations intended to safeguard the food supply. The novel genetic tools offer greater flexibility and precision in the modification of crop plants.

No food products, whether produced with recombinant DNA techniques or with more traditional methods, are totally without risk. The risks posed by foods are a function of the biological characteristics of those foods and the specific genes that have been used, not of the processes employed in their development. Our goal as scientists is to ensure that any new foods produced from recombinant DNA are as safe or safer than foods already being consumed.

Current methods of regulation and development have worked well. Recombinant DNA techniques have already been used to develop “environmentally-friendly” crop plants with traits that preserve yields and allow farmers to reduce their use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides. The next generation of products promises to provide even greater benefits to consumers, such as enhanced nutrition, healthier oils, enhanced vitamin content, longer shelf life and improved medicines.

Through judicious deployment, biotechnology can also address environmental degradation, hunger, and poverty in the developing world by providing improved agricultural productivity and greater nutritional security. Scientists at the international agricultural centers, universities, public research institutions, and elsewhere are already experimenting with products intended specifically for use in the developing world.

We hereby express our support for the use of recombinant DNA as a potent tool for the achievement of a productive and sustainable agricultural system. We also urge policy makers to use sound scientific principles in the regulation of products produced with recombinant DNA, and to base evaluations of those products upon the characteristics of those products, rather than on the processes used in their development.

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