Biotechnology -- A Solution to Hunger?

World hunger and food insecurity is a recurring problem in most parts of the developing world. Among the many potential biotechnologies that are available, and the different ways in which they can be applied, genetic modification (GM) of crops demands particular attention. Genetically modified crops possessing genes from different species, could possibly relieve global food shortages. Although initial excitement surrounded the use of GM crops -- that they will provide bigger and better harvests for farmers -- there are still questions about the benefits of such crops. In addition, the general public may not welcome the creation of "super plants" as a viable option in solving global hunger.

The environmental impact of GM crops is important with regard to creating food security in developing countries. Genetically modified crops can potentially fail to germinate; kill organisms other than pests that are beneficial to plants and reduce soil fertility; and potentially transfer insecticidal properties or virus resistance to wild relatives of the crop species.

A segment of the scientific community often proposes that export earnings from higher agricultural yields can contribute to reducing food insecurity and hunger in developing countries. However, there are many issues and challenges that beg the practicality of this proposal. A few crop varieties, specially created through biotechnology, can improve yields, but biotechnology alone cannot solve the problem of hunger in the developing world.

Nevertheless, the potential advantages that biotechnology can confer across a wide range of agricultural applications are in areas such as livestock management, storage of agricultural products and sustaining current crop yields, while reducing the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The real challenge is whether we are smart enough to harness the benefits of biotechnological solutions. But what are these solutions?

Biotechnology offers a very promising alternative to synthetic foods and an improvement on conventional plant-breeding technologies. Combined with other advanced agricultural technologies, it offers an exciting and environmentally responsible way to meet consumer demand for sustainable agriculture. When the benefits of GM crops reach small and marginal farmers, more Green Revolutions may become a reality.

Combating Hunger and Malnutrition
Malnutrition is the related term in medicine for hunger. The most recent estimate of the Food and Agriculture Organization says that 854 million people worldwide are undernourished. This is 12.6 per cent of 6.6 billion people in the world. Many of the 854 million that are undernourished, children being the most visible victims, live in developing countries. Undernutrition magnifies the impact of every disease, including measles and malaria.

One example tells us how biotechnology can contribute to combating global hunger and malnutrition.

Golden Rice
Approximately 140 million children in low-income groups in 118 countries, especially in Africa and South-East Asia, are deficient in Vitamin A. This situation has compounded into a public health challenge. The World Health Organization reports that an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 Vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight. Golden Rice, created by researchers in Germany and Switzerland, contains three new genes -- two from the daffodil and one from a bacterium -- that helps it to produce provitamin A. This rice is available as a possible option for mass distribution, in part due to the waiving of patent rights by biotechnology companies. This is just one among the hundreds of new biotech products, which point to the contributions of biotechnology to society.

Intellectual Property and Food Security
There are concerns about a technological landscape controlled almost exclusively by the private sector and defined by patent protection. Patents allow large, private firms substantial control over plant genes, which has worrisome implications. If farmers have to purchase seeds during every sowing season, it affects their income and food security. Although biotech companies such as Monsanto and AstraZeneca have announced that they would not commercialize the so-called "Terminator" or seed-sterilization technology, which is genetically designed to "switch off" a plant's ability to germinate a second time, the biotech industry collectively owns at least three dozen patents that control either seed germination or essential plant germination processes. This privatization of a plant's genetic resources puts not only agricultural research in developing nations at a disadvantage, but might ultimately threaten the livelihoods of a majority of small farmers in Africa, Latin America, and Asia who largely depend on seed saved from one crop to sow in the next.

In developing countries, there may be a potential negative impact from Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) over biotechnological products or the processes used in producing them. IPRs have been held not only by private companies, but also by some public organizations making it impossible to use any aspect of biotechnology for improving major crop species without infringing a patent somewhere in the process. Because of IPRs, it has not always been possible to separate the biotechnology prospects from the business interests involved. A major consequence of IPR in agricultural biotechnology is that many developing countries which have not yet invested in biotechnology may never be able to catch up in the future.

Possibilities
Sound decisions need to be based on diligent research. Biotechnology scientists are often highly specialized and technique-focused and may also need additional competency in handling the complicated issue of hunger and food security in developing countries.

Biotechnology holds tremendous possibilities for the developing world. The use of high-yielding, disease- and pest-resistant crops will have a direct bearing on improved food security, poverty alleviation and environmental conservation. GM crops will hopefully produce more yield on less land. This may increase the overall productivity and may offer developing countries a means to sustain themselves and reduce worldwide hunger. Ninety per cent of the world's 13.3 million "biotech crop farmers" are from developing countries. India, with 7.6 million hectares, is the fourth among the 14 "mega-biotech crop" countries. For instance, five million farmers in India are engaged in planting 7.6 million hectares of Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis, cotton, which protects itself from insects without requiring external pesticide. The shift to Bt cotton has been possible because of the 31 per cent increase in its yield, 39 per cent decrease in insecticide use, and higher profits equivalent to $250 per hectare.

It is now also possible using biotechnological approaches to increase the extraction of oil from a plant source up to 90 per cent. With the depletion of world hydrocarbon reserves, in the future it is probable that plant oils, such as biodiesel, may compete in terms of price and quality with oil, coal and gas.
Final Thoughts
The world's food supply is abundant, not scarce. The world's production of grain and other foods is sufficient to provide at least 4.3 pounds of food per person, per day. The real reason for hunger in the world is poverty, which often strikes women--the nutritional gatekeepers in many families--the hardest. Economists argue that resolving hunger requires political solutions and not just agro-technical solutions. According to them, instead of looking at biotechnology as a yet unproven and non-existent breakthrough, decision makers should look at the full body of research that shows that solutions to eliminate hunger are not technological in nature, but rooted in basic socio-economic realities. This is not to say that technology, including biotechnology, does not play a role in reducing, say, malnutrition, but there is no technology that can override the immediate political and social forces that keep people poor and hungry. The global biotechnology industry has funnelled a vast majority of its investment into a limited range of products that have large, secured markets in the First World -- products which are of little relevance to the needs of the world's hungry. Biotechnology has applications that can significantly solve the problem of world hunger. Green is the colour of agricultural biotechnology, of fertility, self-respect and well-being. In my opinion, policymakers should pragmatically consider modern biotech discoveries and assets as an important tool for solving the problem of global hunger.