European Union

Hungry for Biotechnology

How Europe starves the world's poor


The European Union and fellow traveling anti-biotech activists may well succeed in bottling up the next wave of genetically improved crops that aim directly at helping poor farmers in the developing world. How? Anti-biotech European regulations are spooking the governments of poor countries into preventing their farmers from growing the new genetically enhanced crops. And that's a shame, because researchers in laboratories and plant breeding stations around the world are endowing new biotech crop varieties with traits like disease resistance and improved nutritional value.

For example, researchers are trying to save bananas and plantains from commercial extinction in the coming decade. Bananas and plantains rank fourth as a staple crops after rice, wheat, and maize, providing food for nearly 400 million poor people. Unfortunately, bananas and plantains, are rapidly succumbing to global plagues like black sigatoka and a new variety of Panama disease. As a result, yields have dropped by half in many poor countries.

Bananas and plantains are sterile, and thus generally propagated by farmers as genetically identical clones. If one clone is susceptible to a disease, so are all of the other clones. Sterility also obviously makes it difficult for plant breeders to create new disease-resistant versions of bananas and plantains. This is precisely where biotechnology comes in handy. Researchers are trying to create hardy clones by directly inserting disease resistance genes from rice into banana tissue and coaxing the tissue into producing full grown plants, which can then be propagated.

Then there is golden rice. Golden rice was the first crop developed specifically as a nutritional enhancement for hundreds of millions of vitamin A–deficient poor people whose main staple is rice. In the developing world some 500,000 people per year go blind due to vitamin A deficiency. Conventional rice produces almost no vitamin A. Golden rice has a yellow hue because it has been genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene, the yellow precursor molecule that is turned into vitamin A by the body. The original version of golden rice released in 2000 contained beta-carotene genes from daffodils, and a serving of it provided about 20 percent of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA). A new version released this year, containing genes from corn (maize) has boosted the amount of beta-carotene per serving to 50 percent of the RDA.

The non-profit International Rice Research Institute is working with the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board to crossbreed genetically improved golden rice with local Asian varieties for eventual release to poor farmers.

Finally, there is the case of disease resistant cassava. Researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center near St. Louis, MO, has developed a cassava plant that resists the devastating effects of cassava mosaic virus. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch points out that African subsistence farmers produced 108 million tons of cassava in 2004, more than two-and-a-half times the amount of corn they produced. But African farmers could produce a lot more if it weren't for the cassava mosaic virus. The virus reduces yields across Africa by 30 percent to 40 percent, and caused losses as high as $2.7 billion in 2003.

The Danforth Center researchers ride to the rescue. They inoculate the cassava plant against the disease by inserting a gene for the protein coat of the mosaic virus into the plant's own genome. This poses no health danger to people since they have suffered no ill effects from eating the virus on infected plants for decades. The Danforth Center's genetically improved cassava is now ready for field testing, but because of concerns about the reaction of the European Union and anti-biotech activists, no African nation has had the nerve to approve such tests yet.

Not surprisingly, the constituency of anti-biotech environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth is not poor African and Asian farmers and their families, but affluent and easily frightened European consumers. In response to ferocious pressure ginned up by the misleading campaigns of ideological environmentalists, EU politicians and bureaucrats have built an all but impenetrable wall of anti-biotech regulations around themselves. Wielding these onerous crop biotechnology regulations, the EU, on specious safety grounds, has essentially banned the importation of most biotech crops and foods. But these regulations do not only have consequences for European farmer and consumers

The EU wants to export its regulatory system to the world, and it is offering "capacity building" foreign aid to persuade developing countries to adopt its no-go or go-slow approach to crop biotechnology regulations. Even more tragically, some developing countries are so afraid of the EU's anti-biotech wrath that they are willing to risk the lives of millions of their hungry by rejecting food aid that contains genetically enhanced crops.

Activists usually blame the inaction of rich countries for killing people in poor countries. However, instead of outrage here, we get Greenpeace geneticist Doreen Stabinsky primly quipping in the Post-Dispatch, "Hunger is not solved by producing more food. We're the breadbasket of the world, and we have hungry people in the U.S."

Hunger may not be solved by producing more food, but it sure couldn't hurt.