Biotecnologías Agrícolas
Agricultural Biotechnologies in crops, forestry, livestock, fisheries and agro-industry  Biotech-banner
 

Conference 5 - Background

Can agricultural biotechnology help to reduce hunger and increase food security in developing countries ?

In the public debate about biotechnology in general (and genetically modified food in particular), it has been argued by different parties that biotechnology either will or will not help to reduce hunger and increase food security in developing countries. The aim of this, the 5th conference of the FAO Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture, is to to allow a more detailed and comprehensive discussion of this topic. The aim of this document is to provide some brief background to the subject as well as to mention some of the factors that should be considered in the conference.

The first edition of the State of Food Insecurity in the World, published by FAO in October 1999, provided a recent update on the status regarding hunger in the world. It estimated that in 1995-1997 there were roughly 790 million undernourished people in developing countries (and 34 million in developed countries), i.e. whose food intake was insufficient to meet basic energy requirements on a continuing basis. The majority (524 million) was in Asia, including 204 and 164 million in India and China respectively, while there were 180 million undernourished in sub-Saharan Africa.

The report also examined changes from 1980 to 1996 in the proportion of undernourished people in a selection of countries, to try and understand the factors determining such changes. The analysis highlighted, as other reports have previously done, that many different demographic (e.g. changes in population size or the degree of urbanisation), environmental (e.g. degradation of land), economic (e.g. changes in Gross Domestic Product), social (e.g. road infrastructure, literacy) and political (e.g. war, economic boycotts) factors may affect the degree to which particular population groups are vulnerable to poverty and hunger.

The global population size is currently 6 billion, and it is rising rapidly. By the year 2020, it is expected to reach 7.5 to 8 billion. Where will the food come from to feed these additional mouths ? Can it be provided by ''conventional'' methods of plant, animal or fish production alone ? An important factor to be considered is that much of the land currently used to produce food is being degraded - largely due to overgrazing, poor farming practices and deforestation. To counterbalance this, one might ask whether there is much additional land that can be brought into use for food production. There is some scope for extending the land area used for production in Africa and South America, although this may be at the expense of forestry and wildlife. For Asia there is little scope for extension of the land base. Under these conditions, will it be possible to provide enough food for the additional billions, without using biotechnology in plant, animal and fish production ? Is biotechnology indispensable if we are to successfully meet the challenge of an increasing world population ?

However, the problem of hunger is complex and does not just depend on the amount of food produced. Currently, enough food is produced globally to feed all its inhabitants. Nevertheless, around 15 % of them are undernourished. Is the unequal distribution of resources and food a greater threat to world hunger than the sheer quantity of food produced ? Biotechnology may increase the amount of food produced but will it affect the key problems of unequal access to food ? Is it possible that we may end up in the situation where the amount of food produced globally increases, with the help of biotechnology, but so also does the number and proportion of hungry people ?

Comments from Professor Mazoyer in a recent FAO publication, The State of Food and Agriculture 2000, might be of relevance in this context. He wrote "After 50 years of modernization, world agricultural production today is more than sufficient to feed 6 billion human beings adequately. Cereal production alone, at about 2 billion tonnes or 330 kg of grain per caput/year and representing 3 600 calories per caput/day, could to a large extent cover the energy needs of the whole population if it were well distributed. However, cereal availability varies greatly from one country to another: more than 600 kg per caput/year in the developed countries, where most is in fact used as animal feed, but fewer than 200 kg per caput/year in the poorer countries. Moreover, within each country, access to food or the means to produce food is very uneven among households. Consequently, in many countries, large segments of the population do not have enough food. And the large majority of the 830 million chronically undernourished are in the poor peasant farming community. World food security, therefore, is not an essentially technical, environmental or demographic issue in the short term: it is first and foremost a matter of grossly inadequate means of production of the world's poorest peasant farmers who cannot meet their food needs. It is also a matter of insufficient purchasing power of other poor rural and urban consumers, insofar as the poverty of non-farmers is also a product of rural poverty and migration from the land."

Another factor that might be considered for discussion during the conference is that agricultural biotechnology has primarily been driven by private industry for farmers in developed countries. The products developed so far have, with few exceptions, not been targeted towards poor farmers in developing countries. Will biotechnology, which can potentially increase the efficiency and quality of food production, provide tools to aggravate inequalities in the world ? If trade barriers are progressively reduced, through organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, and export of food from developed to developing countries become easier and more commonplace, is it possible that biotechnology will make this trade more profitable, thus creating or increasing the dependency of developing countries on developed countries for food ?

Discussion in this conference should also address whether particular biotechnologies have especially high (or low) potential to reduce hunger and increase food security in developing countries, or whether the application of biotechnology within specific agricultural and food-related sectors (crop, forestry, animal or fisheries) or within specific regions of the developing world can have greater (or lower) impact on hunger and food security in developing countries.

When submitting messages (which should be no more than 600 words), participants are requested to ensure that their messages address some of the elements mentioned in this document.

For those wishing to get a reminder of the types of biotechnologies currently available in the four sectors, the Background Documents (BD) of the first four conferences may be useful. For the crop sector, brief descriptions of genetic modification, micropropagation and biotechnologies based on molecular markers are provided in BD 1. For the forestry sector, brief descriptions of genetic modification and biotechnologies based on vegetative reproduction or molecular markers are provided in BD 2. For the livestock sector, reproductive biotechnologies (embryo transfer, cloning etc.) and DNA-based technologies in animal health, animal nutrition and growth and animal genetics and breeding are described in BD 3. For the fisheries sector, brief descriptions of molecular marker biotechnologies, induction of polyploidy, sex-reversal and creation of single sex fish groups, hybridisation, selective breeding, freezing of male gametes, genetic modification and DNA-based technologies for fish health are provided in BD4.

Summary (short)

Conference 5 of the FAO Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture was entitled "Can agricultural biotechnology help to reduce hunger and increase food security in developing countries ?" and ran from 1 November to 18 December 2000. The conference was quite active, reflecting the wide interest in this topic. Although shorter than those held previously, the numbers of people registered (258) and of messages posted (118) were second only to those in Conference 1, while the level of participation was highest, with 18% of people registered submitting at least one message.

Agricultural biotechnology is available and can play a role in different agricultural and food sectors. However, in the conference, specific applications of biotechnology were discussed only in relation to the crop and, to a much lesser degree, the livestock sectors. There were no specific references to the fisheries or forestry sectors. In addition, although a wide range of biotechnologies is currently available, there was considerable focus on just one biotechnology (genetic modification) and, in particular, on its use for development of a genetically modified (GM) crop variety known as Golden Rice.

As befitting the theme of the conference, participants paid a lot of attention to the causes of hunger and food insecurity in developing countries and the potential impact and relative importance of using biotechnology to alleviate these problems. On many specific areas of debate, divergent viewpoints were exchanged and there was often a strong socio-political dimension to such differences. This is not really surprising, as people's perception of the role or impact of biotechnology on food security and hunger often depends on their vision of how the world is (or should be) and of how food security and hunger problems may be best alleviated.

The many topics covered in the 118 messages can be summarised under the following major themes:

1. Causes of hunger and food insecurity in developing countries

There was wide agreement among participants that hunger and food security are complex issues and that their causes (and, indeed, their potential solutions) were economic, social and political, as well as technical. Participants discussed the contributions of different factors to hunger and food insecurity, such as inequalities in society; inadequate natural resources or skills; poverty or the limited population carrying capacity of the environment.

2. How biotechnology can contribute to reducing hunger and increasing food security in developing countries

Many participants described the potential advantages that biotechnology could offer to different areas of the crop and livestock sectors in developing countries. In general, their comments were quite cautious and measured, without ignoring the many challenges that need to be overcome in these countries. At a wider level, it was also discussed whether food security and hunger problems in developing countries could be alleviated using biotechnology to increase agricultural exports to developed countries (to earn more foreign currency) or to increase exports from developed to developing countries in the future (to feed the growing population in the developing world).

3. Biotechnology is just one of the possible solutions to hunger and food insecurity in developing countries

During the conference, it was commonly argued that many approaches need to be taken to tackle food insecurity and hunger problems, and that biotechnology was just another one that should be tried. A small number of participants disagreed, however, with this "tool box" approach on the basis that funds to fight hunger are being steadily reduced and that prioritisation of approaches is therefore necessary.

4. Biotechnology may increase hunger, food insecurity and social inequalities in developing countries

Some participants suggested that the economic and trade implications of increasing food production, e.g. using biotechnology, could be quite complex and that it might actually exacerbate hunger and food insecurity issues and deepen social problems in developing countries. If resulting in cheaper food, it could increase access to food by the poor, but at the same time the lower prices could also economically weaken farmers in developing countries and contribute to their migration from rural to urban areas.

5. Impact of GM crops on hunger and food security in developing countries

Of the many potential biotechnologies available, and the many different ways in which they could be applied, participants paid most attention to the use of genetic modification in the crop sector. Some of the discussion concerned the potential environmental impact of GM crops and the negative effect it might have on hunger and food security. Much was, however, specifically focused on a single GM variety, known as Golden Rice, which contains three foreign genes so that the rice plants produce provitamin A, from which humans can make Vitamin A. Conflicting opinions were expressed about the potential value of the variety, which is currently in the testing phase, as a tool against Vitamin A deficiency, which affects between 100 and 140 million children worldwide. Some argued that the variety exists and so why not try it. Others, instead, reversed the argument, taking the approach that hunger and nutrition problems exist and asked why Golden Rice should be used compared to other potential solutions, such as improvements in diet or Vitamin A supplementation.

6. Biotechnology is more than GM crops

Because there was a lot of discussion about GM crops during the conference, some participants felt it important to reiterate that biotechnology includes a wide range of tools (such as marker-assisted selection or reproductive technologies for livestock), and not just genetic modification, that may be used to address problems of food security and hunger.

7. Relationship between the biotechnology industry and the issue of hunger and food security in developing countries

In general, participants emphasised the potential negative aspects of the role and impact of the biotechnology companies on food security and hunger in developing countries. Some participants suggested that their interest in malnutrition and hunger in developing countries was primarily for marketing purposes, to increase public acceptance of GM crops. Others emphasised the commercial constraints they face, where crop research and development is expensive and their investors and shareholders need to be satisfied. It was argued that the private industry had a negative impact on food security and hunger by its influence on the biotechnology research agenda, because of the industry's focus on richer clients rather than small-scale farmers or the poor. The need for strong public research programmes was emphasised.

8. Intellectual property rights (IPR) and the ability of developing countries to use biotechnology for their hunger and food security problems

Some participants emphasised the importance of developing countries being able to develop their own biotechnology products to suit their own particular environments, but expressed concerns that IPR on biotechnology products and processes would adversely affect their ability to do so.

9. Role of biotechnology scientists in the debate on hunger and food security

A small number of comments were made about the importance of providing correct information in this debate, that the debate should not be dominated by biotechnology scientists and the private sector and that it was important to have problem-based rather than solution-based thinking in this area.

Summary (long)

This conference, entitled "Can agricultural biotechnology help to reduce hunger and increase food security in developing countries ?" ran from 1 November to 18 December 2000. Coming after the first four conferences, dealing with crops, forestry, animals and fisheries respectively, it was the first conference not dedicated to a single agricultural or food sector. Interest in the theme of the conference was high, which was indicated by the fact that although it lasted for a shorter period than previous conferences, the number of people registered and of messages posted was second only to those in Conference 1 (crop sector). The level of participation was also higher than the other conferences, with 18% of those registered submitting at least one message.

The main impetus behind choice of this theme for Conference 5 was to allow more in-depth discussion of one of the factors considered in previous conferences (especially Conference 1) to have an impact on the appropriateness of agricultural biotechnologies, i.e. their potential role in increasing food security and reducing hunger in developing countries. Certain aspects of discussions concerning biotechnology have been quite polarised. One of the most hard-fought debating issues regarding biotechnology, and especially genetically modified (GM) crops, is whether they can be of potential value for food security and hunger in developing countries. Taking two divergent viewpoints, at one end the argument goes that biotechnology has great potential, the world's population is increasing steadily (and almost all growth is in developing countries) and that biotechnology will enable mankind to increase food supplies to feed the world's new inhabitants. At another extreme, it is argued that biotechnology is primarily in the hands of private industry, that the private industry has to make profits and lacks a real interest in the world's poor, but will use any marketing opportunities to promote the use of biotechnology.

In the conference, when discussing specific applications of agricultural biotechnology, participants tended to focus on the crop sector. This even led to some individuals (e.g. Steane, 5/12; Jeggo, ; Donkin 13/12) suggesting that the livestock sector had been wrongfully neglected. Impacts of biotechnologies in the fisheries or forestry sectors were unfortunately not discussed. Although the range of available biotechnologies is quite wide, there tended to be most emphasis on a single biotechnology - genetic modification. In particular, there was considerable discussion of one GM variety, the so-called "golden rice", into which three foreign genes have been introduced so that it produces provitamin A.

On many specific points of debate, considerable differences of opinion were expressed by various parties and there was often a social-political dimension to such differences. For example, Fenning (15/12(1)) referred to messages posted with "dogmatic and strident tones" and wrote that the conference was affected by "unhelpful political rhetoric". Given the theme of the conference, however, it was probably impossible to expect political and ethical concerns to be ignored and as Ashton (12/12) argued "this debate cannot be separated into scientific and political aspects. The two are inseparable".

People's perception of the role or impact of biotechnology on food security and hunger, often depends on their vision of how food security may be achieved and how hunger may be best alleviated. For example, Robert (22/11) argued that there were two main viewpoints concerning the route to food security in developing countries. The first solution involves community access to land, preservation of agricultural diversity and ecologically based land management while the second involves increasing the levels of exports from developing countries so they have the purchasing power to ensure their food security. He suggested that people who believed in the first viewpoint would rank biotechnology as a very low priority while those who believed in the second viewpoint would support the use of biotechnology to increase exports and the efficiency of agricultural production.

A large number of topics were covered in the six and a half weeks that the conference lasted. In addition, some participants provided references in their messages to material published on the World Wide Web so that others (with access to the web) could pursue these topics further. A considerable amount of information directly or indirectly relevant to this debate is freely available on the web.

In Section 1 of this document, we have attempted to summarise the main elements of the discussions under a number of main themes. Specific references to messages posted, giving the participant's surname and the date posted (day/month), are included. In a few cases, where individuals posted more than one message on a single day, they can be differentiated by the order in which they were posted (e.g. Rosset, 10/11(1) indicates the first message posted by Peter Rosset on 10 November). Section 2 provides some information about participation in the conference and Section 3 gives the name and country of the people that sent referenced messages. Section 4 provides an explanation of abbreviations used.

1. Discussions in the conference

As befitting the theme of the conference, participants paid a lot of attention throughout the conference to the causes of hunger and food insecurity in developing countries and the potential impact and relative importance of using biotechnology against these problems.

1.1 The causes of hunger and food insecurity in developing countries

There was wide agreement among participants that hunger and food security are complex issues and that their causes (and potential solutions) were economic, social and political, as well as technical (e.g. Fenning, 6/11; Greyling, 20/11; Glover, 21/11). There seemed, however, to be some differences in the relative importance participants attributed to the various causal factors.

Rusch (8/11) provided a clear description of food security, saying that "food security (in peace time) is about a community's ability to provide its food requirements. This can be done by producing food within the community, or by being able to buy food from outside the community's area". He then argued that the ability to produce food within the community "depends on the level of skills and the natural resources. If either or both of these are not adequate, food security may be low, if food cannot be bought by the community".

Rosset (9/11) suggested that the underlying causes of lagging productivity, hunger and poverty in developing countries were, first and foremost, structural and policy-related in nature rather than due to genetic constraints that could be alleviated by biotechnology. Koudandé (9/11) supported this viewpoint, emphasising the importance of soil and water management. Immonen (23/11) reminded us, however, that in the coming decades there will be a serious need to produce more food, probably through higher productivity per land area unit.

Hongladarom (13/11) emphasised the fact that hunger is linked to other problems, especially poverty, and consequently, to reduce hunger, poverty has to be reduced too. This point was also made by Madalena (5/12), i.e. that "hunger is due to the fact that people do not have the money to buy food". Carvalho (3/11) evoked this very well with his description of the hungry urban dweller, faced with the wide range of foods available in the supermarkets but lacking the money to buy them.

The socio-political context was emphasised by Fakir (11/12) who said that food insecurity was least about good technology and achieving higher yields but instead was "fundamentally, a reflection and symbolism of the inequities that exist in our societies" and that the real issues facing food security were those such as democracy, structures of national economies and land rights (Fakir, 21/11). The potential impact of unequal distribution of resources/food on hunger was also discussed in the Background Document to the conference and this aspect was highlighted by Napier (18/12), who insisted that world hunger was due to problems of food distribution rather than of food production.

Muir (14/12 and 15/12) suggested that a wider view should be taken of the debate and that food security was determined by the population carrying capacity of the environment, i.e. that there are biological and physical limitations to the number of people that the environment can support, which ultimately limits expansion of the human population. Growth of the human population is thus central - if it continues to grow then, even if natural resources are shared equally, the limit will eventually be reached. Fenning (15/12(1)) supported this view and suggested that some people may already be suffering from this limit.

1.2 How biotechnology can contribute to reducing hunger and increasing food security in developing countries

In general, when people in the conference proposed that biotechnology could contribute to reducing food insecurity and hunger in developing countries, they tended to be quite cautious and measured in their statements, without ignoring the many challenges that need to be overcome. For example, Frey (6/12) listed some plant biotechnologies that could improve crop yields and disease diagnosis in developing countries but added "obviously, biotechnology will not solve all the problems in the developing world - it's just one more tool in modern agriculture". Johanson (11/12), while urging that biotechnologists should address the serious technical problems facing agriculture in developing countries, assured that she knows of no responsible scientist naïve or egotistical enough to claim that biotechnology alone can solve hunger and poverty problems.

Participants described the many potential advantages that biotechnology could confer across a wide range of agricultural applications in developing countries, such as in the livestock sector (Donkin, 13/12), for storage of agricultural products (Olutogun, 11/12), for sustaining current crop yields while reducing inputs of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides (Fenning, 6/12) or for crop protection (Giga, 29/11). Steane (5/12) emphasised the potential of biotechnology and made a plea for a concerted action against hunger and poverty, saying that "it is incumbent on us all to try to assist in any way possible within the bounds of sustainability to ensure that food shortage and poverty are eliminated - the challenge is not whether biotechnology can contribute but whether we are smart enough to harness it to do so".

At a wider, national economic level, Robert (22/11) indicated that many politicians, in both developed and developing countries, believed that biotechnology could contribute to food security in developing countries by increasing agricultural output for export from developing countries and thus allowing them to earn more foreign currency.

Again at the wider level, there was a small discussion about how the use of biotechnology in developed countries could be used to reduce hunger in the developing world (note that, this topic apart, discussions in the conference focused (appropriately) on the potential impact of applying biotechnology in developing, and not developed, countries). The argument outlined in the message of Bharathan (13/11) was that increased population growth in the future would be in developing countries and that it would be necessary to use biotechnology in developed countries to increase exports to developing countries in order to keep pace with their rising population numbers and to feed the "new hungry" in the developing world. However, she maintained that the argument was flawed as such a situation, which would enable and consolidate increased import of food from the developed to the developing world, could not lead to food security, a point that was also made by Hongladarom (13/11).

As pointed out by Benbrook (20/11), an equally important, but different, question is whether biotechnology "will" (rather than "can") increase food security. He described a relatively simple method that he suggested could be used to identify policy and institutional factors (e.g. trade, intellectual property rights) that could be changed to narrow the gap between "will" and "can".

1.3 Biotechnology is just one of the possible solutions to hunger and food insecurity in developing countries

During the conference, when confronted with arguments against the potential merits or value of agricultural biotechnology, it was common for some participants to respond that biotechnology was not a panacea for food insecurity and hunger problems but was just one of the possible solutions that could be used (e.g. Gibson, 10/11; Hruska, 11/11; Fenning, 20/11; Kambikambi, 23/11; Frey, 6/12). As Fenning (10/11) expressed it, "many approaches need to be available for dealing with any particular food supply problem (the tool box approach), and those that work best are kept in use. I would never be prescriptive as what will be most appropriate in what circumstances, but the more options on offer the better surely?".

Hongladarom (23/11) underlined that one solution cannot fit all situations and that, as an example, flood-resistant crop varieties, developed using biotechnology, might be crucial in Thailand but inappropriate in sub-Saharan Africa. Madalena (5/12) also pointed out that, of the many biotechnologies available, some might be appropriate and useful and others not.

However, the "tool box" approach, and the exploration of all possible avenues to increasing food quantity/quality, was criticised by some participants on the grounds that efforts and funds to fight hunger are being steadily reduced and that there is an obligation therefore to make choices and to use the little money available in the best possible way (Ferry, 21/11 and 12/12). Rosset (14/11) highlighted, in particular, cutbacks in public sector agricultural research and the fact that since research into GM crops was so expensive it drew scarce resources away from other promising lines of research (such as agroecology or integrated pest management). Boesen (13/12) considered it thus highly relevant that one should look at whether the world's poor can acquire enough food through alternative strategies (e.g. institutional, distributional) to biotechnology and whether investments in research into these alternatives may provide results that are as good and less risky.

1.4 Biotechnology may increase hunger, food insecurity and social inequalities in developing countries

Some participants expressed concerns that increasing production, e.g. using biotechnology, might actually exacerbate hunger and food insecurity issues and deepen social problems in developing countries. This was a topic flavoured with strong social-political elements, which also included the role/evolution that people saw for the rural population in developing countries in the future.

Fakir (5/12) suggested that the economic and trade implications of increasing the amount of food produced, e.g. using biotechnology, could be quite complex. Firstly, food supply exceeds demand so prices fall and access to food by the poor is increased as the food is cheaper. Secondly, however, as prices are lower and farmers in developing countries are not subsidised, they are forced to absorb costs that are higher than the prices they can get for their commodities on the international market, which leads to them producing only for their limited domestic markets or for subsistence use. Governments in developing countries may then find it cheaper to import grain and other staple foods from developed countries than to buy them from their own farmers (Fakir, 5/12). Rosset (23/11(3)) pointed out that in many parts of the developing world today (especially Africa), farmers already produce less than they can because they have no economic incentives to produce more - prices are low and there are few buyers. Ferry (27/11), however, did not believe that this was the case for the poorest farmers as they "do not need any external or market incentives to increase their production: reducing hunger and increasing food security are quite enough". For developing countries that traditionally export food commodities, any drop in world prices and in subsequent foreign exchange income can create further food insecurity as the countries may lack the money required to import the food requirements (Kirk, 13/12).

Rosset (5/12(2)) argued that such drops in world prices can have two negative effects a) poor, indebted farmers may give up farming b) as prices remain low, the minimum farm size needed to maintain a family rises. The end result is that small and poor farmers leave the land while farms become bigger and concentrated in the hands of fewer individuals. Fenning (6/12) argued however that, although it was by no means painless, "it is a classic part of the process of development that people leave small scale agriculture and move to more technologically orientated activities (usually in cities) which are perceived to be better paid, while agriculture is simultaneously mechanized and scaled up". Both Ferry (7/12) and Rosset (8/12), however, highlighted the negative social consequences of poor farmers migrating to cities and to a life of potential urban instability and poverty. Robert (22/11) also questioned whether, with the present system and the rate of consumption in developed countries, all countries could become "developed". Rosset (8/12) emphasised instead the need to create economically sustainable and fulfilling livelihoods in rural areas.

In the context of the potential socio-political consequences of applying biotechnology, Fenning (11/12) argued, however, that biotechnology itself is neutral but that it "will tend to play into any already ongoing political or economic developments". Fakir (12/12) however, from another angle, suggested that because biotechnology was being promoted in a solution-oriented, rather than a needs-oriented, approach to the problems in developing countries, it might increase the vulnerability and risk that poor people will have to bear.

1.5 Impact of GM crops on hunger and food security in developing countries

Among the many potential biotechnologies available, and the many different ways in which they could be applied, participants paid most attention to the use of genetic modification in the crop sector. Some of the discussion was general, regarding the potential environmental impact of GM crops and the effect it might have on hunger and food security. Much was, however, specifically focused on a single GM variety, the so-called "golden rice".

a) Golden Rice

Between 100 and 140 million children are affected by Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) in the world. It is a public health problem in 118 countries, especially in Africa and South-East Asia, which affects young children and pregnant women in low-income countries hardest. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 Vitamin A deficient children become blind each year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight (these figures are taken from the World Health Organization website http://www.who.int/nut/vad.htm , visited on 18/5/01).

Rice grain is the world's most important source of food. However, it is a poor source of many essential micronutrients and vitamins. The endosperm, the starchy portion of the grain left after milling, does not contain provitamin A (also known as beta-carotene), from which humans can make Vitamin A. The Golden Rice variety, however, contains three new genes (two from the daffodil and one from a bacteria) so that the rice plants produce provitamin A. The plant variety was produced by researchers collaborating in Switzerland and Germany and their work was reported in the journal Science on 14 January 2000. There is large interest in making the variety available to farmers in developing countries but it is currently in the testing phase and so may not be released publicly until a few years time.

As mentioned in the introduction, discussions on the potential value of biotechnology for food security and hunger in developing countries can be quite polarised. Golden Rice, which has also been the subject of much public and media interest, has allowed this polarisation of viewpoints to become far more specific, as it is a specific biotechnology product directed towards a specific nutritional problem in developing countries.

The issue of how Golden Rice was presented to the public was raised by participants. Ferry (8/11(1)) complained that to get financial and/or political support, biotechnology projects were often presented wrongly, badly or superficially and that Golden Rice was a good example of this (Ferry, 6/11). He maintained that exaggerated claims for Golden Rice came often not from journalists but from public biotechnology laboratories and institutions, using the publicity to promote their work at a time that is difficult for public research (Ferry, 10/11). Regarding private industry, Fakir (20/11) argued that the focus on saving people from malnutrition and blindness was a marketing strategy, a view shared by Ferry (21/11) who maintained that "propaganda is an essential part of the strategy of the companies and the Golden Rice has constituted a golden opportunity". Fenning (20/11), however, insisted that if Golden Rice is at least available as a potential option, it is in part due to biotechnology companies waiving their patent rights over the techniques used to create the plants.

Polarisation on this issue was, to a certain degree, also reflected in the different approaches people took to discussing Golden Rice and its impact on hunger/nutrition. For some, the approach was that the variety exists and so why not try it (e.g. Fenning, 10/11). For others instead, the approach was that hunger and nutrition problems exist and why should Golden Rice be used compared to other potential solutions to the problems (e.g. Carvalho, 7/11; Ferry, 10/11 and 15/11). Benbrook (13/11) expressed the latter clearly, saying that if one imagined a hypothetical situation where a "well balanced team of scientists, policy leaders and agriculture and nutrition practitioners came together, heavily weighted toward people with on-the-ground experience in the countries with Vitamin A problems. They are given $300 million to invest over 10 years in solving the problem, and can pick any paths or partners.", then it would be difficult to imagine that they would invest all the money in Golden Rice.

Rosset (10/11(1)) argued that VAD was not best characterised as a problem, but rather as a symptom of broader dietary inadequacies associated with both poverty and agricultural transition from diverse cropping systems to rice monoculture. He thus stressed the importance of having a more varied diet and concluded that "a magic-bullet solution which places beta-carotene into rice...while leaving poverty, poor diets and extensive monoculture intact, is unlikely to make any durable contribution to well-being". Carvalho (10/11) suggested that if looking for a "magic bullet" solution, then a nutritional supplement could be used. Howell (10/11) reported that studies with Vitamin A supplementation in children had successfully reduced mortality rates. Ferry (10/11) suggested that Golden Rice could have counter-productive impacts on nutritional problems, by curtailing the progress made in educating people to diversify their diet and/or increase the diversification of agriculture production. Fenning (10/11) agreed that the points made about the importance of a good diet to combat VAD were totally valid but emphasised that other options need also to be considered, since the possibility of improving the diet in developing countries has been available for a long time, but without resolving the VAD problems.

Ferry (8/11(1)) raised concerns about two additional aspects of Golden Rice. The first concern was that if only a limited number of varieties were genetically modified and they were widely cultivated, then this would have a negative impact on crop biodiversity. Frey (9/11) suggested that it was unsure whether a range of varieties would be genetically modified but that it was more likely that the Golden Rice variety would be simply crossed with the local adapted varieties and that, by backcrossing, the unique genes of Golden Rice would be retained while eliminating most of the foreign genome. Ferry (10/11) questioned this solution, since crossing with the local varieties would diminish one of the main advantages of developing GM varieties, the time saved compared to traditional breeding techniques.

The second concern Ferry (8/11(1)) raised was the price of seeds of the new varieties, which might lead to them being accessible to only the richest farmers. Frey (9/11), however, replied that the seeds would be given free to farmers in developing countries and that they would be able to earn up to US $ 10,000 profits per year without having to pay any royalties.

For Ferry (10/11), the Golden Rice issue highlighted the importance of having a research team approach, with scientists of various disciplines, including not just biotechnologists but also dieticians, horticulturists and socio-economists, working together on the question of food security and poverty eradication. Both Rosset (23/11(2)) and Greenberg (8/12) stressed that the farmers themselves should also be included in this process.

b) Effect of environmental impacts of GM crops on hunger and food security

The potential environmental impact of transgenic crops is an important subject in its own right. In this conference, however, it was considered only in respect of its potential effect on hunger and food security. Rosset (23/11(1)) outlined some potential environmental risks that could be relevant to food security in developing countries. These include

i) potential failures of GM crops
ii) potential negative impacts of Bt-crops (i.e. GM crops producing toxins of the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis), such as increased resistance to Bt toxins by the pests; crop losses due to killing non-target biocontrol organisms, and reductions in soil fertility due to Bt toxins remaining in the soil
iii) potential transfer of insecticidal properties or virus resistance to wild relatives of the crop species.

Fakir (23/11(2)) highlighted the fact that the risk for small farmers in developing countries is far higher than for commercial farmers in developed countries, who may be able to afford insurance or who may be assisted by their governments if an environmental crisis occurs.

There seemed to be agreement that developing countries should not be used as inappropriate testing grounds by scientists and companies promoting GM organisms (e.g. Koudandé, 11/11) and that the environmental risks of GM crops should be studied, understood and minimised (Fenning, 10/11; Hruska, 11/11; Rosset, 14/11). Glover (15/12(1)), however, doubted whether detailed field trials or risk assessment studies would be carried out in poor countries as they are both time-consuming and expensive and because private companies would prefer to simplify risk assessment procedures.

1.6 Biotechnology is more than GM crops

Because there was a lot of discussion about GM crops (especially Golden Rice) during the conference, some participants (e.g. Koudandé, 9/11) felt it important to reiterate that biotechnology includes a wide range of tools, and not just genetic modification, that may be used to address problems of food security and hunger. These include detection of genes affecting traits of importance for developing countries, such as drought resistance in Africa, and introgressing them into crops using marker-assisted breeding (Koudandé, 9/11) or the use of disease diagnostic tools or tissue culture to produce healthy planting material (Frey, 6/12), while Ferry (11/12) described one particular project to introduce date palm tissue culture plants in the Sahel.

Donkin (13/12) also underlined the multiple roles and values that livestock represent in developing countries, while complementing crop production, and, like Jeggo (12/12), argued that biotechnology could be used in various ways to increase these values. Steane (5/12) suggested, in particular, that reproductive biotechnologies, involving in-vitro maturation and fertilisation of ova and embryo transfer, could assist poverty alleviation and food security.

1.7 The relationship between the biotechnology industry and the issue of hunger and food security in developing countries

In general, participants emphasised the potential negative aspects of the role and impact of private industry on food security and hunger in developing countries. Some participants reacted strongly to what they saw as the cynical manipulation of the plight of the poor by the private industry in a marketing operation to promote development of transgenic crops (Ferry 6/11 and 30/11; Rosset, 14/11; Fakir, 20/11). Ferry (5/12) also suggested that biotechnology groups were lobbying strongly for the development and acceptance of GM products in developing countries.

Fenning (15/11) argued that at least some companies were guilty of over-hyping the value of biotechnology for developing countries but that, even though the research and development strategies of big companies and wealthier countries were not really aimed at easing the problems of poorer countries, "blaming biotechnology isn't going to change anything". He suggested that over-hyping of the benefits of biotechnology (including to the developing world) had led to some public hostility and distrust of the private companies (Fenning, 4/12). He called, however, for a flexible stance on biotechnology, saying that "I get the impression from much of the debate on this issue (and not just here) that anything that has been touched by big corporations or biotechnology is anathema in certain quarters and will be rejected outright on principle, which seems to be in danger of becoming part of the problem" (Fenning, 22/11(1)).

Glover (21/11) tried to explain, inter alia, why the industry was actively engaged in a public relations exercise to gain acceptance of biotechnology and why most of the crops being developed and marketed by the biotechnology industry have little to do with enhancing food security for the poor in developing countries. He said this was because "the companies must make profits in order to satisfy their shareholders, beat the competition, and stay in business. The biotech firms have invested huge amounts of their investors' and shareholders' money in research and development of biotech crops. By and large, the investors and shareholders themselves are also large institutions with their own shareholders. They are impatient for a handsome return on their stake". Fenning (27/11(2)) also highlighted the expensive nature of crop development and distribution and insisted that if there was not enough profit to be made, then the companies would simply leave the business, which would limit the choice of varieties available. The positive impact of the private sector was emphasised by Freed (23/11) who underlined that it focuses on economic issues and tends to be more efficient than the public sector and that the key to rural development was both a strong private and public sector.

The private industry was also seen to have an impact on food security and hunger by its influence on the biotechnology research agenda. Ferry (6/11) emphasised the importance of decisions regarding which biotechnology research is to be carried out, for whom and with what priority. In his opinion, the private companies had too much power and weight in determining the research agenda. Fakir (22/11) considered a quotation regarding international agricultural research, from a widely-publicised report by scientists from seven science academies published in 2000, to be relevant in this context i.e. "if such research were wholly private, even in a perfectly functioning market, the demands of rich consumers for innovation in their own interests would overwhelm both the needs of and the price signals from poor consumers and small-scale farmers".

Adams (7/12) argued that the poor can generally be reached quickest through public funding of agricultural research and development, compared to the private sector where the main goal is making profits. He thus concluded that "the fruits of biotechnology can only reach the hungry and the poorest through the continuation of public funded projects in a judicious mix with private capital". Immonen (23/11) also highlighted some important differences between the research carried out by the public and private sectors. She pointed out that the public sector deals with genetic improvement of several crop and animal species that the private sector does not consider and that the public sector also invests in research on traits which "are particularly relevant in difficult production conditions (such as resistance to the parasitic weed Striga) or relevant to poor farmers (such as apomixis). These would seem to be research topics where success would benefit poor producers and consumers". Ferry (11/12) emphasised that if public research institutions choose to prioritise the fight against hunger then their research programmes should be re-oriented and re-evaluated with this objective in mind.

1.8 Intellectual property rights (IPR) and the ability of developing countries to use biotechnology for their hunger and food security problems

Hongladarom (13/11) emphasised the importance of developing countries being able to develop their own biotechnology to suit their own particular environments and that "help from the developed countries should not come in the form of giving away of ready made, ready-to-be-consumed products, but in the form of education and technology transfer". Greenberg (8/12) made a similar point, saying that "biotechnology will never be the answer as long as it is imposed from outside. The agenda has to be driven by the farmers themselves". Some participants (e.g. Fenning, 27/11(2)), however, highlighted the potential negative impacts that IPR over biotechnological products, or the processes used to make them, might have on the ability of developing countries to do this.

Fenning (27/11(2)) noted that IPR were held not only by private companies but also by some public organisations and that "it will soon reach the point where it is nearly impossible to use any aspect of biotechnology for improving any major crop species without infringing a patent somewhere in the process". On this point, Glover (21/11) wrote that today, in contrast to the situation of the "Green Revolution", "the technology (knowledge) is owned and controlled by large, private transnational corporations. Their property rights in the technology are protected by international treaties and enforced by states on their behalf". Greyling (20/11) suggested that the debate on biotechnology would be very different if developing countries developed, managed and applied their own biotechnology rather than having to depend on it being given to them. Fenning (1/12) also suggested that because of IPR issues it was not always possible to separate the biotechnology prospects from the business interests involved.

Traoré (6/12) expressed concern about patents and IPR as he argued that they will determine, to a large degree, access by the poor to GM products. Fenning (27/11(2)) pointed out that a major consequence of IPR in agricultural biotechnology was that countries that had not yet invested in biotechnology, such as most developing countries, would probably never be able to make up the lost ground in the future. Mulvany (18/12) instead emphasised the importance for food security of the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, which seeks to ensure the free flow of plant genetic resources for food production, as it would safeguard these important resources for humanity and guarantee that they remain as a backup to possible breakdown of GM crop varieties in the future.

1.9 Role of biotechnology scientists in the debate on hunger and food security

The debate on solving food security and hunger problems is very important. Gibson (10/11) provided a reminder of the responsibilities involved when considering potential biotechnology applications for the developing world, saying "sound decisions need to be based on good information. Ill informed claims, whether for or against biotechnologies, get in the way of decision taking that will benefit the world's poor. Whether working directly in the field or simply prognosticating, anything we put into the domain of public debate might influence a decision somewhere that impacts people's lives. We all have a duty to seek out the truth and work to correct the misinformation that the popular press all to often promulgates". Ferry (6/11) urged, however, that the debate should not be dominated by biotechnology scientists and private companies. He argued that biotechnology scientists, due to the nature of their work, are often highly specialised and technique-focused and thus are not competent on the complex question of hunger in developing countries. Fenning (6/11) agreed that it was important to have problem-based rather than solution-based thinking and said it was a classical human error, made also by many scientists, to be dazzled into using the latest technology when sometimes a simpler approach might be more successful.

2. Participation in the conference

The conference took place from 1 November to 18 December 2000. A total of 258 Forum members registered, of whom 46 (i.e. 18% - the highest proportion in the Forum conferences so far) submitted a total of 118 messages. Contributions came from 22 different countries, with 43% of messages from developing and 57% from developed countries. Participants in Germany (18 messages), Mexico (17), South Africa (17) and the United States (14) were most active.

Participants in Europe provided the highest proportion (42%) of messages, followed by Africa (21%), Latin America and the Caribbean (19%), North America (14%), Asia (3%) and Oceania (1%). Using the addresses provided by the 46 people that sent messages, it could be seen that 16 worked in universities and 8 in research centres or institutes. There were then 7 from non-governmental organisations, 4 seemed to be from the general public, 3 from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, 2 from the joint FAO/IAEA division, 2 were consultants, one was a patent lawyer while there was one each from research administration, a development agency and a private company.

3. Name and country of participants with referenced messages

Adams, Herman. Barbados
Ashton, Glenn. South Africa
Benbrook, Charles. United States
Bharathan, Geeta. United States
Boesen, Jannik. Denmark
Carvalho, Luiz. Brazil
Donkin, Ned. South Africa
Fakir, Saliem. South Africa
Fenning, Trevor. Germany
Ferry, Michel. Spain
Freed, Russ. United States.
Frey, Petra. United States
Gibson, John. Kenya
Giga, Danash. Zimbabwe
Glover, Dominic. United Kingdom
Greenberg, Stephen. South Africa
Greyling, Ben. South Africa
Hongladarom, Soraj. Thailand
Howell, Bruce. Canada
Hruska, Allan. Nicaragua
Immonen, Sirkka. Italy
Jeggo, Martyn. Austria
Johanson, Andrea. United States
Kambikambi, Tamala. Zambia
Kirk, Jeffrey. United States
Koudandé, Delphin. Netherlands
Madalena, Fernando. Brazil
Muir, Bill. United States
Mulvany, Patrick. United Kingdom
Napier, James. Canada
Olutogun, Sanya. Nigeria
Robert, Stanley. Australia
Rosset, Peter. Mexico
Rusch, Peter. South Africa
Steane, David. Thailand
Traoré, Adama. Mali

4. Abbreviations

Bt = Bacillus thuringiensis; FAO = Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; GM = Genetically modified; IAEA = International Atomic Energy Agency; IPR = Intellectual property rights; VAD = Vitamin A deficiency

Archives

Can agricultural biotechnology help to reduce hunger and increase food security in developing countries?

Moderated log files from the email discussions are available here, by subject or by date. They can also be retrieved by email, as well as by month: November and December.

Archives November 2000

01

02

03

04

05

06

07

08

09

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

Archives December 2000

01

02

03

04

05

06

07

08

09

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

 

Posted messages by subject :

1.First contribution to Conference 5 // Nigeria
2.Debate on biotech, hunger
3.Food at the corner
4.Third World hunger: an alibi for GMO development
5.A view from a Biotechnologist
6.Third World hunger: an alibi for GMO development
7.Re: Third World hunger: an alibi for GMO development
8.A general note regarding third world agriculture
9.Re: A general note regarding third world agriculture
10.Food security // technology transfer
11.Vitamin A deficiency // GM rice
12.Re: A general note regarding third world agriculture
13.Re: Vitamin A deficiency // GM rice
14.Pros and Cons of GE for the poor
15.Vitamin A deficiency // GM rice
16.Biotechnology and hunger/food security
17.GM rice and reasoned debate
18.Re: Vitamin A deficiency // GM rice
19.Re: Biotechnology and hunger/food security
20.Re: Vitamin A deficiency // GM rice
21.Re: Vitamin A deficiency // GM rice
22.When and why to use Biotech ?
23.Politics and science
24.Re: Biotechnology and hunger/food security
25.Re: Vitamin A deficiency // GM rice

 

26.Re: Biotechnology and hunger/food security
27.GMOs- potential negative effects in developing countries
28.Six points about transgenic crops
29.GM technology in developed world to feed developing countries
30.Re: Biotechnology and hunger/food security
31.Developing countries to develop their own biotechnology
32.Transfer of knowledge behind biotechnology
33.Golden Rice and "silver bullets"
34.Re: Six points about transgenic crops
35.Re: Six points about transgenic crops
36.Why try biotechnology products in fight against hunger ?
37.Private industry and the poorer countries
38.Re: Private industry and the poorer countries
39.Re: Private industry and the poorer countries
40.Hunger/poverty biotech debate - Mixed feelings
41.Re: Private industry and the poorer countries
42.Economic problems in general
43.Can biotech (versus Will biotech) help food security
44.Re: Private industry and the poorer countries
45.Re: Economic problems in general
46.Re: Private industry and the poorer countries
47.Re: Economic problems in general
48.Two solutions on route to food security
49.Re: Private industry and the poorer countries
50.Re: Two solutions on route to food security

 

51.The role of genetic improvement
52.Environmental risks are important for third world food security too
53.Priority setting
54.Sub-Saharan Africa
55.Re: Economic problems in general
56.Re: Private industry and the poorer countries
57.Re: Two solutions on route to food security
58.Re: Environmental risks are important for.....
59.Re: Environmental risks are important for.....
60.What are the causes of lagging productivity ?
61.Re: Environmental risks are important for.....
62.Re: Environmental risks are important for.....
63.Re: What are the causes of lagging productivity ?
64.The value of new genotypes
65.Availability, Access and Patents
66.Can biotechnology overcome major constraints ?
67.Re: Availability, Access and Patents
68.Re: Can biotechnology overcome major constraints ?
69.Hunger and GMO development propaganda
70.of Propaganda and Patents
71.Re: of Propaganda and Patents
72.Re: of Propaganda and Patents
73.An attempt at consensus among participants
74.Re: An attempt at consensus among participants
75.Reducing hunger ?

 

76.Inventory of Biotechnology for Eastern and Central Africa
77.Re: of Propaganda and Patents
78.GM sweet potatoes in Kenya
79.Private sector help to institutes in developing countries
80.Economic/trade implications of increasing yield
81.Livestock biotechnologies and poverty alleviation
82.Re: Economic/trade implications of increasing yield
83.Many biotechnology methods
84.Biotechnology's uses
85.An attempt at consensus among participants
86.Re: Many biotechnology methods
87.Re: Many biotechnology methods
88.Public funding of agricultural R&D
89.Re: Many biotechnology methods
90.Re: Many biotechnology methods
91.Re: Many biotechnology methods
92.Re: Livestock biotechnologies and poverty alleviation
93.2 Approaches to development
94.Re: Many biotechnology methods
95.Public institutions and the fight against hunger
96.Re: Public institutions and the fight against hunger
97.Re: Public institutions and the fight against hunger
98.Re: Public institutions and the fight against hunger
99Biotechnology in food
100.Agbiotech in Africa

 

101.An overview
102.The use of biotechnology in livestock
103.Re: The use of biotechnology in livestock
104.Re: 2 Approaches to development
105.unknowns/uncertainties
106.Re: The use of biotechnology in livestock
107.Limitations to Food Security and Biotechnology
108.Re: Biotechnology in food
109.Re: Limitations to Food Security and Biotechnology
110.General Points
111.Risk assessment // Biotechnology and sustainability
112.Re: Limitations to Food Security and Biotechnology
113.Technical issues
114.Isn't the answer yes ?
115.Food Security, the answer is yes and maybe
116.Re: Risk assessment // Biotechnology and sustainability
117.Access, IPRs and the IU
118.Some closing thoughts
119.End of Biotech Conference 5

Email Archives:

All messages posted during the two month-long conference will be stored and can be retrieved. The messages are stored in monthly files. To retrieve them, follow instructions below. The log files will be sent to you in return as a single e-mail message. Note: you must have joined the Forum and subscribed to Conference 5 to access the e-mail archives.

To get all messages posted in the conference during November 2000, send an e-mail message to mailserv@mailserv.fao.org leaving the subject blank and entering the one-line text message as follows:

send listlog/biotech-room1.nov2000

Note: lower case letters as shown here, and not upper case letters, must be used. No other text should be added to the message (e.g., mail signature).

To get the messages posted in the conference during December 2000, do the same except writing
send listlog/biotech-room1.dec2000

Conferences

Agricultural Biotechnologies in Developing Countries (ABDC-10) Conference