Poor nations can’t afford debate on gene-altered crops

Published February 1, 2001

Cape Town, South Africa—Recent world conferences on agricultural biotechnology have made it unmistakably clear that if governments foil the growth of this technology, mankind will be denied solutions to a host of problems that plague many nations, particularly in the developing world.

The biotechnology debate in Europe is dominated by cultural and ethical issues, potential food and environmental safety questions, and an underlying skepticism with regard to the role of multinational corporations and “industrialized” agriculture.

Recently, activists have attempted to raise similar issues in the United States and Canada through dramatic, colorful public relations stunts and attention-grabbing headlines.

Yet in developing countries, the case for biotechnology can be made very easily: It is needs-based. Rich countries may engage in lengthy disputes about real or imagined risks. That is largely a luxury debate.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world needs to focus on a rigorous risk-benefit analysis. From the perspective of many developing and newly industrialized countries, agricultural biotechnology’s benefits are very real. They are urgently needed today and indispensable tomorrow.

The developing world cannot afford to let Europe’s homemade problems stunt the future growth in our countries.

In South Africa, small-scale farming still is the norm rather than the exception. Field trials with genetically modified crops have been taking place since the mid-1990s, and commercial planting of crops with insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant traits started in 1998.

The results are extremely encouraging, and the benefits are tremendous, especially in small-scale farming.

Studies in the Makatini Flats in the KwaZulu-Natal province in 1998 showed a 20 percent yield increase in cotton through the use of insect-resistant, genetically modified cotton seed.

In the cases of some commercial farmers, the use of pesticides has decreased considerably. We also observed an increase in beneficial insects in and around the field planted with pest-resistant cotton.

These field results stand in marked contrast to the fears in some industrialized countries that such crops might endanger “non-target” insects, such as the monarch butterfly in the U.S.

Biotechnology offers farmers and consumers in South Africa more than just higher yields and pesticide-free crops.

This nation’s geography and climate regularly bring drought to large areas that otherwise could produce substantial farm crops. Drought-tolerant seed research is making tremendous progress in South African laboratories, promising improved production and economic opportunity.

Halfway around the world, China has more than 20 percent of the world’s population and only 7 percent of the world’s arable land. With its growing population and changing eating habits, as well as an ongoing loss of cultivable land, food security is an imminent concern.

My colleague, Prof. Zhangliang Chen, vice president of Peking University, tells me China first turned to biotechnology in the mid-1980s. According to Dr. Chen, more than 100 laboratories across the country have been involved in the effort. In 1997, China started to commercialize transgenic crops, most of them with such traits as insect and virus resistance.

Roughly 1 million acres of transgenic crops were planted, making China one of the world’s top three countries growing transgenic crops. As Europe hems and haws, China’s research effort is moving forward at a brisk pace.

Scientists are now, or will be, focusing on bacterial, fungus, and virus resistance; salt and drought tolerance; nutritional enrichment; and quality improvement. Additionally, even more advanced applications, such as “biopharming” for edible oral vaccines and recombinant pharmaceuticals, are in the picture.

Given the socioeconomic realities and needs in countries like South Africa and China, it is almost trivial to discuss whether they should use a technology that already has shown its benefits to their populations.

These countries cannot afford to limit themselves to the industrialized world’s narrow interpretation of risk assessment. Likewise, they cannot afford to allow the Western debate to slow developing countries’ access to already existing and expected future benefits of biotechnology.


Jennifer A. Thomson is chairwoman of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. This essay first appeared in the November 13, 2000 issue of the Christian Science Monitor.