Can Genetically Modified Organisms Feed the World?

Article excerpt

The controversy over biotechnologies is raging. Advocates claim they're the only answer to malnutrition, white opponents warn that drought-resistant millet and vaccinated yams will only increase poverty

Near Africa's mighty Niger River, farmers are anxiously waiting for rain to fall before they sow millet or sorghum, then hoe, harvest, feed their families and replenish their granaries. Meanwhile, researchers in Japanese, Chinese, Philippine, European and U.S. laboratories are making strides in sequencing the 12 chromosomes and 50,000 genes composing rice, the matrix of all grains and a staple for three billion human beings. In five to ten years, they hope to know enough to genetically modify not only rice, but millet, sorghum, manioc and sugar cane as well. The aim is to make them "naturally" resistant to drought, soil salinity, viruses, blights and other scourges.

Will these genetically modified organisms (GMOs) really guarantee "food security" in the short term for the world's 826 million undernourished individuals? [1] Will they help the small-scale farmers cultivating the Niger's barren, powdery soil to feed their families? The controversy is raging. In its 2001 report, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says they will, emphasizing GMOs' "unique potential" to feed the world. In 50 years, the Earth's population will have soared to nine billion--three billion more than today. [2] And most of the newcomers will increase the already overwhelming pressure on the southern countries' much-depleted soil. The alarm has already been sounded for sub-Saharan Africa where, unlike India and China, the population growth rate is still sky-high and the number of undernourished people is barely declining. GMO supporters say only a major, revolutionary "technological leap" will enable the planet to feed all its children.

Experimenting with miracle seeds

But others strongly disagree, arguing that low food production is not what causes malnutrition. There is enough to eat in the southern countries, they say. But the world's poorest people, those with neither money nor land, living in disintegrating, war-torn countries, simply have no access to food. They argue that land-use conditions must change, poor people must have access to credit and local markets and small land-owners must be freed from money-lenders. Better use could be made of traditional seeds instead of importing high-risk technology with unpredictable consequences, most of whose patents belong to giant multinationals.

Advocates of the GMO revolution work in biogenetics laboratories, multinational seed and agrochemical companies, genome research, American foundations and some UN agencies, while most skeptics are out in the field. A case in point is Kanayo Nwanze, a Ph.D. in agronomy who heads Adrao (Association for the Development of Rice Growing in West Africa) in Bouake, Cote d'Ivoire. "Are GMOs being developed for the needs of small-scale farmers or multinational corporations?" he asks. "If we manage to negotiate with these patent-holding multinationals a technology that meets the needs of small-scale farmers and that's not under license, then 'Yes!,' GMOs will have a role to play in Africa. But their impact will have to come under careful scrutiny and the region's countries must have safety rules and the means to enforce them."

Adrao researchers have experience with miracle seeds. With international funding, they have developed a revolutionary variety of rice called Nerica. Genetically unmodified, it is the result of a conventional cross between a high-yield but fragile variety of Asian rice and a local variety that has had 35 centuries to adapt to Africa's stressful environment. Nerica offers tremendous possibilities. It reaches maturity in 90 days instead of the usual 120 to 150, resists insects, yields three tonnes per hectare with neither fertilizers nor irrigation--compared with 1.5 tonnes for traditional varieties--and grows like a weed. …