Dr. Strangelunch

Or: Why we should learn to stop worrying and love genetically modified food.

(Page 4 of 4)

Despite the clear advantages that TPS offers in preventing the gene flow that activists claim to be worried about, the Rural Advancement Foundation International quickly demonized TPS by dubbing it "Terminator Technology." RAFI warned that "if the Terminator Technology is widely utilized, it will give the multinational seed and agrochemical industry an unprecedented and extremely dangerous capacity to control the world's food supply." In 1998 farmers in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, urged on by Shiva and company, ripped up experimental plots of biotech crops owned by Monsanto in the mistaken belief that they were TPS plants. The protests prompted the Indian government to declare that it would not allow TPS crops to enter the country. That same year, 20 African countries declared their opposition to TPS at a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization meeting. In the face of these protests, Monsanto, which had acquired the technology when it bought Delta Pine Land Co., declared that it would not develop TPS.

Even so, researchers have developed another clever technique to prevent transgenes from getting into weeds through crossbreeding. Chloroplasts (the little factories in plant cells that use sunlight to produce energy) have their own small sets of genes. Researchers can introduce the desired genes into chloroplasts instead of into cell nuclei where the majority of a plant's genes reside. The trick is that the pollen in most crop plants don't have chloroplasts, therefore it is impossible for a transgene confined to chloroplasts to be transferred through crossbreeding.

As one tracks the war against green biotech, it becomes ever clearer that its leaders are not primarily concerned about safety. What they really hate is capitalism and globalization. "It is not inevitable that corporations will control our lives and rule the world," writes Shiva in Stolen Harvest. In Genetic Engineering: Dream or Nightmare? (1999), Ho warns, "Genetic engineering biotechnology is an unprecedented intimate alliance between bad science and big business which will spell the end of humanity as we know it, and the world at large." The first nefarious step, according to Ho, will occur when the "food giants of the North" gain "control of the food supply of the South through exclusive rights to genetically engineered seeds."

Accordingly, anti-biotech activists oppose genetic patents. Greenpeace is running a "No Patents on Life" campaign that appeals to inchoate notions about the sacredness of life. Knowing that no patents means no investment, biotech opponents declare that corporations should not be able to "own" genes, since they are created by nature.

The exact rules for patenting biotechnology are still being worked out by international negotiators and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. But without getting into the arcane details, the fact is that discoverers and inventors don't "own" genes. A patent is a license granted for a limited time to encourage inventors and discoverers to disclose publicly their methods and findings. In exchange for disclosure, they get the right to exploit their discoveries for 20 years, after which anyone may use the knowledge and techniques they have produced. Patents aim to encourage an open system of technical knowledge.

"Biopiracy" is another charge that activists level at biotech seed companies. After prospecting for useful genes in indigenous crop varieties from developing countries, says Shiva, companies want to sell seeds incorporating those genes back to poor farmers. Never mind that the useful genes are stuck in inferior crop varieties, which means that poor farmers have no way of optimizing their benefits. Seed companies liberate the useful genes and put them into high-yielding varieties that can boost poor farmers' productivity.

Amusingly, the same woman who inveighs against "biopiracy" proudly claimed at the Congressional Hunger Center seminar that 160 varieties of kidney beans are grown in India. Shiva is obviously unaware that farmers in India are themselves "biopirates." Kidney beans were domesticated by the Aztecs and Incas in the Americas and brought to the Old World via the Spanish explorers. In response to Shiva, C.S. Prakash pointed out that very few of the crops grown in India today are indigenous. "Wheat, peanuts, and apples and everything else-the chiles that the Indians are so proud of," he noted, "came from outside. I say, thank God for the biopirates." Prakash condemned Shiva's efforts to create "a xenophobic type of mentality within our culture" based on the fear that "everybody is stealing all of our genetic material."

If the activists are successful in their war against green biotech, it's the world's poor who will suffer most. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that global food production must increase by 40 percent in the next 20 years to meet the goal of a better and more varied diet for a world population of some 8 billion people. As biologist Richard Flavell concluded in a 1999 report to the IFPRI, "It would be unethical to condemn future generations to hunger by refusing to develop and apply a technology that can build on what our forefathers provided and can help produce adequate food for a world with almost 2 billion more people by 2020."

One way biotech crops can help poor farmers grow more food is by controlling parasitic weeds, an enormous problem in tropical countries. Cultivation cannot get rid of them, and farmers must abandon fields infested with them after a few growing seasons. Herbicide-resistant crops, which would make it possible to kill the weeds without damaging the cultivated plants, would be a great boon to such farmers.

By incorporating genes for proteins from viruses and bacteria, crops can be immunized against infectious diseases. The papaya mosaic virus had wiped out papaya farmers in Hawaii, but a new biotech variety of papaya incorporating a protein from the virus is immune to the disease. As a result, Hawaiian papaya orchards are producing again, and the virus-resistant variety is being made available to developing countries. Similarly, scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis are at work on a cassava variety that is immune to cassava mosaic virus, which killed half of Africa's cassava crop two years ago.

Another recent advance with enormous potential is the development of biotech crops that can thrive in acidic soils, a large proportion of which are located in the tropics. Aluminum toxicity in acidic soils reduces crop productivity by as much as 80 percent. Progress is even being made toward the Holy Grail of plant breeding, transferring the ability to fix nitrogen from legumes to grains. That achievement would greatly reduce the need for fertilizer. Biotech crops with genes for drought and salinity tolerance are also being developed. Further down the road, biologist Martina McGloughlin predicts, "we will be able to enhance other characteristics, such as growing seasons, stress tolerance, yields, geographic distribution, disease resistance, [and] shelf life."

Biotech crops can provide medicine as well as food. Biologists at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University recently reported success in preliminary tests with biotech potatoes that would immunize people against diseases. One protects against Norwalk virus, which causes diarrhea, and another might protect against the hepatitis B virus which afflicts 2 billion people. Plant-based vaccines would be especially useful for poor countries, which could manufacture and distribute medicines simply by having local farmers grow them.

Shiva and Ho rightly point to the inequities found in developing countries. They make the valid point that there is enough food today to provide an adequate diet for everyone if it were more equally distributed. They advocate land reform and microcredit to help poor farmers, improved infrastructure so farmers can get their crops to market, and an end to agricultural subsidies in rich countries that undercut the prices that poor farmers can demand.

Addressing these issues is important, but they are not arguments against green biotech. McGloughlin agrees that "the real issue is inequity in food distribution. Politics, culture, regional conflicts all contribute to the problem. Biotechnology isn't going to be a panacea for all the world's ills, but it can go a long way toward addressing the issues of inadequate nutrition and crop losses." Kenyan biologist Florence Wambugu argues that crop biotechnology has great potential to increase agricultural productivity in Africa without demanding big changes in local practices: A drought-tolerant seed will benefit farmers whether they live in Kansas or Kenya.

Yet opponents of crop biotechnology can't stand the fact that it will help developed countries first. New technologies, whether reaping machines in the 19th century or computers today, are always adopted by the rich before they become available to the poor. The fastest way to get a new technology to poor people is to speed up the product cycle so the technology can spread quickly. Slowing it down only means the poor will have to wait longer. If biotech crops catch on in the developed countries, the techniques to make them will become available throughout the world, and more researchers and companies will offer crops that appeal to farmers in developing countries.

Activists like Shiva subscribe to the candlemaker fallacy: If people begin to use electric lights, the candlemakers will go out of business, and they and their families will starve. This is a supremely condescending view of poor people. In order not to exacerbate inequality, Shiva and her allies want to stop technological progress. They romanticize the backbreaking lives that hundreds of millions of people are forced to live as they eke out a meager living off the land.

Per Pinstrup-Andersen of the International Food Policy Research Institute asked participants in the Congressional Hunger Center seminar to think about biotechnology from the perspective of people in developing countries: "We need to talk about the low-income farmer in West Africa who, on half an acre, maybe an acre of land, is trying to feed her five children in the face of recurrent droughts, recurrent insect attacks, recurrent plant diseases. For her, losing a crop may mean losing a child. Now, how can we sit here debating whether she should have access to a drought-tolerant crop variety? None of us at this table or in this room [has] the ethical right to force a particular technology upon anybody, but neither do we have the ethical right to block access to it. The poor farmer in West Africa doesn't have any time for philosophical arguments as to whether it should be organic farming or fertilizers or GM food. She is trying to feed her children. Let's help her by giving her access to all of the options. Let's make the choices available to the people who have to take the consequences."

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