UN Shocks Neo-Luddites!

A new report concludes that biotech is the best hope for many of the world's poorest.


Reactionary voices from the global anti-biotech campaign are being raised in strident opposition to a breakthrough report on biotechnology. Issued last week, the report favors crop biotech for poor farmers in developing nations.

"It contains frightening echoes of recent biotechnology industry propaganda," declares Robert Vint, National Coordinator of Genetic Food Alert in Britain. "Genetic engineering is just not capable of producing what poor farmers need," insists Peter Rosset, of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First), based in Oakland, California. "Complex problems of hunger and agricultural development will not be solved by technological silver bullets," asserts Von Hernandez of Greenpeace South-East Asia.

Why are these anti-biotechies so provoked? Because the report they are attacking was issued by an organization that activists generally regard as their own, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). In its annual Human Development Report, the UNDP points out what is obvious to anyone but the most ideologically blinkered bioluddites, "Biotechnology offers the only or the best 'tool of choice' for marginal ecological zones—left behind by the Green Revolution but home to more than half the world's poorest people, dependent on agriculture and livestock."

In the sections dealing with biotechnology and the poor, the report stresses the potential for genetically enhancing crops with genes for disease resistance, drought tolerance and better nutrition. "These crops could significantly reduce malnutrition, which still affects more than 800 million people worldwide, and would be especially valuable for poor farmers working marginal lands in sub-Saharan Africa," notes the press release accompanying the report.

Citing recent Japanese biotech research that has produced valuable new rice varieties, UNDP Administrator Mark Malloch Brown, declared, "These varieties have 50 percent higher yields, mature 30 to 50 days earlier, are substantially richer in protein; are far more disease and drought resistant, resist insect pests and can even out-compete weeds. And they will be especially useful because they can be grown without fertilizer or herbicides, which many poor farmers can't afford anyway."

The UNDP report maintains that current debates in Europe and the United States over new biotechnologies mostly ignore the concerns and needs of the developing world. While Westerners focus on such theoretical concerns as potential allergic reactions, poor people in developing countries are more interested in better crop yields, nutrition, or the reduced need to spray costly pesticides that can sicken farmers.

"You and I don't really need a tomato with a longer shelf life. On the other hand, a farmer in Mali facing crop failure every three years really needs better drought resistant that biotechnology can offer," according to UNDP report lead author Sakiko Fakuda-Parr in a recent BBC interview. Actually, even Fakuda-Parr is too dismissive of tomatoes with longer shelf life. Such tomatoes and other biotech fruits would be especially valuable to poor farmers who don't own refrigerators or who lack easy access to distant markets for their produce.

"It is obvious that biotechnology—more often than not—represents the only lifeline of hope for most poor people in Africa," says Florence Wambugu, Director of the African Centre of the International Service for the acquisition of Agribiotechnology Applications in Nairobi, Kenya. "In addition to having a major impact on poverty and hunger, biotechnology has great potential to alleviate environmental degradation." Wambugu and her colleagues have created a virus-resistant sweet potato that could double yields of this mainstay crop in Kenya. "Our position in Kenya is that biotechnology is not a problem. Poverty is," said Shem Adhola, a senior official in the agriculture ministry according to the Environment News Service last year. "The quest to produce nutritious food and agricultural commodities in abundance is our challenge."

It should be noted that the Human Development Report 2001 doesn't just endorse biotechnology. The report ignores the neo-Luddites who perversely claim that technological progress is being imposed by rapacious Western corporations bent on undermining the indigenous cultures of the hapless poor in the developing world. (See Rage Against the Machines.) Instead, the UNDP report broadly embraces the power of technological innovation and globalization to help the poor of the world to live fuller, richer and more secure lives.

According to the report, "Technological innovation is a means to human development because of its impact on economic growth through the productivity gains it generates. It raises the crop yields of farmers, the output of factory workers and the efficiency of service providers and small businesses. It also creates new activities and industries—such as the information and communications technology sector—contributing to economic growth and employment creation." Exactly right.

Finally, crop biotechnology may not be a "silver bullet," but, as the Human Development Report 2001 maintains, it surely will be a vital weapon in humanity's ongoing war against hunger and poverty.