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Balancing the benefits of biotechnology

By Per Pinstrup-Andersen - posted Thursday, 15 March 2001

For the world's poor, GM crops are not a lifestyle choice, but potential salvation.

Bissrat Ghebru, a plant biologist from Eritrea, was conducting research at the University of California on sorghum, the main food source of her native land. The East African nation is afflicted by frequent droughts. Her mission was to use genetic engineering to develop a drought-resistant variety of sorghum. She failed. She didn't fail because her approach was faulty. She failed because anti-biotech vandals destroyed her plants. Although an extreme example, this incident demonstrates how polarised the debate on genetically modified organisms has become. Environmental activists often overstate the threat posed by GMOs, while they disregard the potential benefits. Nevertheless, the use of biotechnology presents potential risks GMO advocates cannot ignore.

What you see depends a lot on where you sit. While the majority of the population in the European Union opposes genetically modified food in both production and consumption, opposition is less prevalent in Australia, whose economy depends more on agriculture exports. Developing nations, with highly rural economies and widespread malnutrition, are much more favourable to GMOs.


In Eritrea, one child in nine dies before their fifth birthday. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the developing world, poverty and malnutrition are the leading contributors to child mortality. Drought-resistant sorghum could help feed the people of Eritrea, prevent malnutrition and reduce poverty. In most developing nations, the majority of people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. If biotechnology can increase crop yields, farmers' incomes will increase even as the cost of food goes down, making food more affordable. Low-income people in developing countries often spend 50 per cent to 80 per cent of their disposable income on food. By contrast Europeans, Americans and Australians on the average spend 10 per cent to 15 per cent. For this reason, higher yields and lower food prices matter a lot more to people in developing nations.

The attitudes and policies of industrialised nations toward GMOs can have serious consequences for poor countries.

First, most developing countries will be unable to undertake the necessary agricultural research to develop the technology needed by their farmers and consumers without research collaboration and financial support from wealthy nations.

Second, developing countries would lose the ability to export genetically modified foods to countries where they are banned.

There are risks to GMO technology, as well. The transfer of genes from one species to another may also transfer characteristics that cause allergic reactions. Breeding plants to generate toxins to pests may encourage resistance in pests or harm beneficial species. GM plants may cross-pollinate with weeds or other native plants.

The most widely publicised example of an environmental threat concerns Bt corn, a variety of corn genetically engineered to produce bacteria deadly to pests but harmless to humans. Despite the accusation of anti-GMO activists that Bt corn could devastate monarch butterfly populations, there is no conclusive evidence. In fact, according to a recent article in The New York Times, there is no scientific consensus on any of the potential environmental threats posed by GMOs. Nevertheless, these environmental risks must be taken seriously, and developing countries must be able to enact and enforce effective regulations to protect human health and the environment.


The risks are not merely environmental. Without enlightened adaptation, continued expansion of GM crops in developed countries may have a negative impact on small farmers, as imported GM grain and feed crops undercut local production. Growing concentration among companies engaged in agricultural biotechnology research may lead to reduced competition, monopoly profits and exploitation of small farmers and consumers. Modern biotechnology is not a silver bullet for achieving food security but, used in conjunction with traditional knowledge and conventional agricultural research methods, it may be a powerful tool in the fight against poverty that should be made available to poor farmers and consumers.

It has the potential to help enhance agricultural productivity in developing countries in a way that further reduces poverty, improves food security and nutrition and promotes sustainable use of natural resources. As with conventional breeding, the challenge is to shift the focus of research toward the needs of poor farmers and consumers in developing countries. To accomplish this, the governments of industrialised nations must invest more public funding in agricultural research.

The biggest risk of modern biotechnology for developing countries is that technological development might bypass poor people, and cutting-edge science might become oriented exclusively toward industrial countries and large-scale farming.

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This article was first published in The Australian on January 23, 2001.

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About the Author

Dr Per Pinstrup-Andersen is director-general of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute.

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