The Potential and Politics of Biotechnology
AEI Newsletter

Andrew Natsios
Participants at a June 12 AEI conference described the potential for biotechnology to alleviate malnutrition in the developing world by genetically modifying agricultural products, as well as the political barriers to the use of biotechnology.

"We are facing a major problem in Africa in particular, but also to a lesser degree in central Asia with food security," said U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Andrew Natsios. "A third of Africans-200 million people-are food insecure chronically. . . . Since 1980, 50 percent of the increased productivity in the developing world in agriculture is a result of improved seed technology. . . . One of the answers to the problem of productivity is clearly seed technology, and biotech is a critical part of that."

Biotech food such as golden rice also can have significant health benefits. Patrick Moore of the Canadian environmental group Greenspirit explained that when a daffodil gene is put into golden rice, it helps the plant produce procarotene, the precursor to Vitamin A, which normal rice lacks. "Half a million children go blind every year from Vitamin A deficiency," Moore said. "This one plant could completely eliminate Vitamin A deficiency in people who eat rice as their staple diet and don't have enough money to buy other foods that do have Vitamin A in them."

C. S. Prakash, director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, cited another food-related example. Prakash reported that 50 percent of fruits and vegetables in developing countries do not make it to market because they do not get canned or refrigerated. Because most of the people in the developing world are farmers, enhancing the shelf life of fruits and vegetables would be a boon to these countries. By using biotechnology, scientists in the Philippines have developed "a papaya that instead of rotting in one week, can stay fresh for three months."

Political Opposition

Yet genetically modified (GM) foods remain highly controversial, largely because of the skepticism with which many Europeans greet this new technology. Robert Paarlberg of Wellesely College explained the impact of European attitudes on the developing world: "Official development assistance from Europe is now twice as large as official development assistance from the United States. And this money has bought influence for Europe. European development assistance missions are now busy, especially in Africa, holding workshops, helping governments write regulations, conducting training sessions, sponsoring visits back to Europe, promoting a highly precautionary EU-style regulation towards genetically modified crops."

Not only do governments advance these attitudes, but Western European nongovernmental organizations do so as well. Organizations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Genetic Food Alert, and UK Action Aid also promote a highly cautious view of GM crops. Describing the results of some of their campaigns, Paarlberg said, "In Brazil, in 1998, a lawsuit fueled by the Brazilian office of Greenpeace helped to block what would have been the release of GM soybeans in Brazil, and GM soybeans are still not legal. . . . In India, Greenpeace has just taken credit for blocking government approval of the planting of GM cotton in the northern part of the country."

In addition to Europe's influence through aid, developing countries are eager to conform to EU standards in order to gain access to the lucrative European market. "The EU imports more food and agriculture products from developing countries than the United States, Canada, Japan, and Australia combined," Paarlberg said, "so the EU market is the prize for developing countries . . . and they view it as risky, understandably risky, to approve anything for planting within their country that hasn't yet been approved for import into Europe."

Explaining the transatlantic divergence of opinion on genetically modified foods, Tony Gilland, science and society director of the British Institute of Ideas, said that advocates of GM food have failed to fully demonstrate the potential of this product to the European public. Similarly, Moore insisted that advocates of GM foods need to work on the way they are presented: "We have to show the blind children [on television]. We have to show the farmers spraying pesticides all over themselves and their families. . . . We have to wake the public up to what the policies of the environmental movement and the European community are doing to the people in the developing countries. . . . We need to use strong, hard-edged messaging and we need to put it on television and shock the public into understanding what's going on there now and what the promise is for biotechnology for the future."

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