Putting GM technology in context

Farmer uprooting cassava in Malawi Copyright: FAO

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Joseph D. DeVries of the Rockefeller Foundation gives a personal account of the potential impacts of biotechnology on the lives of poor people, and argues why developed countries must back research in this area. 

The author is associate director of food security at the Rockefeller Foundation.

As the global debate over the use of genetically modified crops grinds on, it seems increasingly clear that much of the argument is about context. Anti-biotech campaigners in food-secure, developed countries see no reason to take the risks involved in biotechnology in order to make food more abundant. For the billion or so chronically hungry individuals of developing countries, the issue is far from clear-cut.

Consider a visit I recently made to a family farm in Nampula Province of Mozambique. I had come to look at a localised epidemic of cassava brown streak disease — which makes the plant’s leaves turn yellow and splotchy, and destroys its edible roots — and was traveling with several agricultural scientists from a nearby research station.

We were surveying the cassava crop, trying to assess the extent of the disease, and its effects on crop harvests. At the same time, we were trying to gauge whether we could offer farmers something that was both useful in their fields and resistant to the disease. Whereas another viral disease of the crop, cassava mosaic disease, has been extensively studied by breeders, pathologists, and molecular biologists, cassava brown streak is much less well understood.

We finished the day in front of a thatched hut, talking with four or five women farmers. A quick look around was all one needed to realise the quiet drama being lived there. Three of the children in that home were obviously malnourished, with distended bellies, red hair, and the slow-motion movements that are common to the chronically underfed. The youngest child of perhaps two years lay on a rotted mat spread on the bare ground, trying to sleep. Around him the women cheerfully responded to our questions as we tried to piece together a better understanding of how they grow their crops, which varieties they prefer, and why.

Most of the cassava plants around the house had been attacked by brown streak disease. No one knew why there had been this sudden outbreak, but local agriculturalists understood what it meant: a very real possibility of famine. The sandy soils of that remote part of Africa cannot produce maize or other crops reliably — they are too susceptible to drought and too devoid of nutrients.

Take away the cassava, and these farmers have nothing to fall back on: no alternative employment, no social security check, no community food pantry. In that part of Africa, as in many rural areas of the developing world, life is governed by the annual harvest. When harvests fail, people die.

At my feet, I could see that the few maize plants growing around the house were being attacked by Striga, a parasitic weed found throughout Africa that can reduce harvests to nothing. I thought about the biotech research that the Rockefeller Foundation had funded to find a solution to Striga. The cowpea crop growing at the base of the maize plants was infested with pod borers. I thought about the team of researchers we had recently funded to transform cowpea with an insect-resistant Bt gene (a naturally-occurring gene that has already been engineered into maize and cotton, significantly raising yields in many developing countries). Then I thought about what those products could mean to these farmers.

We said our goodbyes and thanked the women for their time and for sharing their knowledge with us. It was valuable knowledge, the kind you can often only get from women farmers, who seem to fully understand the intricacies of the crop varieties they grow.
The fact is that, conventional plant breeding has failed to develop Striga-resistant maize or insect-resistant cowpeas. Conventional breeding is similarly ill-equipped to develop drought-tolerant maize and rice, insect-resistant maize, or weevil-resistant banana.

Last year, in the United States alone, the production of eight biotech crop varieties reduced farmers’ costs by $1.2 billion and reduced pesticide use by over 100 million kilograms. Yet the people who are in greatest need of such benefits are not US farmers, but those who depend for their immediate survival on their own harvest.

In Africa alone, 194 million people are chronically undernourished, 40 million children are severely underweight, 50 million people suffer from vitamin A deficiency, and 65 per cent of women of childbearing age are anaemic. For that farming community in Nampula, and millions like them around the developing world, biotechnology could literally change everything.

We don’t yet know the genetics of resistance to brown streak disease in cassava. Researchers in the region aren’t even sure which varieties are good sources of resistance. Once that’s known, conventional breeding methods might take five years to transfer a resistance trait from breeding lines to cassava varieties that will grow well in Nampula.

But I’d bet that somewhere in the world, perhaps somewhere in Africa, there is a group of biotech researchers who could do it in just two years by transferring a resistance gene directly into the local varieties used by the women I met. Why the rush? I’m thinking about that youngest child, and wondering if we can act before he reaches those critical, developmental years.

The anti-biotech campaigners will have none of it. “Throw this science away,” they say, “it’s dangerous and it’s controlled by big business”. But faced with the plight of those families in Nampula, how can we throw it away? Likewise, how can such promising technical solutions remain locked up by the big biotech companies? Surely, there are ways around these barriers.

To make responsible decisions regarding the use of biotechnology, we have to consider the contexts. For the comfortable and well off, struggling with our waistlines, rationalising our fears might require putting ourselves in someone else’s sandals. But we owe it to the poor farmers of this world to make use of biotechnology to develop the best crops that they can grow.

We, the well-nourished people of the world, can probably get by without pushing the biotech envelope. But so far, no one has found an insect-resistant cowpea or a Striga-resistant maize plant. And the cassava brown streak problem in Mozambique rages on. If solutions to these problems are to be found, we will need to use biotechnology. And if we don’t make use of this opportunity to do it, we further compromise the lives of some of the most vulnerable people on earth.