BIOTECHNOLOGY: A SOLUTION TO WORLD HUNGER?
Mr. Ingo Potrykus is angry, furious, livid. In fact,
the man's mad as hell.
Potrykus, a Swiss biotechnologist, is the co-inventor
of the so-called golden rice, a rice that has been
genetically altered so that its grains contain beta
carotene, a substance that the human body converts
into vitamin A. According to the United Nations, two
million children risk blindness due to vitamin A
deficiency. The World Health Organization estimates
that severe vitamin A deficiency affects 2.8 million
children under the age of five worldwide.
Considering this data, Dr. Potrykus' work seems worthy
of a Nobel prize, no? But not everyone cheers him on.
Activists, like Greenpeace and Vandana Shiva, remain
steadfastly opposed to genetically modified (GM)
crops, including golden rice, claiming that they won't
put an end to world hunger and could actually worsen
it. Potrykus has declared that those who try to stop
his work on golden rice should stand trial in an
international tribunal for crimes against humanity. In
his viewpoint, opponents of GM crops are directly
responsible for millions of unnecessary deaths in the
Third World when they oppose the use of a technology
that could save the lives of starving children.
Potrykus and his allies claim that golden rice
invalidates all the arguments that have been made
against GM crops. The critics say that GM crops are
genetically modified to contain traits that have no
relevance to the quality or nutritional value of the
plant, like for example herbicide resistance. But
that's not the case with golden rice, developed
specifically and explicitly to improve human
Biotech opponents say that GM crops are developed by
agribusiness corporations that are moved solely by
short-term profit and not by the better interests of
humanity. But Potrykus points out that his golden rice
was developed by European public research institutions
with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, a
What about intellectual property rights? Don't they
keep the potential benefits of biotech agriculture
from reaching the poor? To get over this hurdle,
Potrykus worked out agreements with all the
corporations that own the dozens of patents that were
being potentially infringed by his work on golden
rice. Advocates of agricultural biotechnology claim
that these agreements demonstrate that the
intellectual property rights enforced by international
agreements like TRIPs, so intensely criticized by the
anti-globalization movement, are not necessarily an
obstacle to improving human welfare.
Will the cost of golden rice place it beyond the reach
of poor small Third World farmers who need it most?
Will it create new forms of dependence? Not at all,
Potrykus and his philanthropic backers will distribute
it for free.
But the activists remain opposed, alleging that this
GM rice is a public relations trojan horse for the
biotech industry. Why do they say that? Potrykus
cannot fathom why, and supposes that his critics have
no legitimate motivations. He and his supporters
reason that perhaps the opposition responds to some
sinister, cynical ideological agenda against science
Let's suppose for a moment that the industry is right
and that the party-pooper environmentalists are wrong,
that GM products are perfectly safe. Will they help
fight world hunger then? In order to answer this
question we must first discuss what causes people to
go hungry in the first place.
Advocates of industrial agriculture and GM foods base
their views on world hunger on a bizarre form of
mathematics that I like to call Malthusian calculus.
In a nutshell: there's too many people and not enough
food, and in the years to come there will be more and
more people. Therefore, agricultural production must
continuously increase if we are to avert a planetary
But, is food really scarce? Is food scarcity really
the cause of world hunger? Let's look at India, a
country that Malthusian ideologues love to go on and
on about. Listening to their alarmist and
catastrophist rants one would believe that not enough
food is being produced there. But in reality the
country has a grain surplus that ranges in the tens of
millions of tons.
Commenting on the problem of hunger in her country,
world-famous writer Arundhati Roy said in her book
"Power Politics" that India today produces more milk,
sugar and grain than ever before. In recent years,
farmers who planted too much grain found prices
plummeting and the government had to step in and buy
their surplus, which turned out to be more than it
could store or use.
In 2001 the Indian government's warehouses were
bloated with 42 million tons of grain. "While the
grain rots in government warehouses, 350 million
Indian citizens do not have the means to eat a square
meal a day", says Roy. ďAnd yet, in March 2000 the
Indian government lifted import restrictions on 1,400
commodities, including milk, grain, sugar, cotton,
tea, coffee and palm oil. This despite the fact that
there was a glut of these products in the market."
Put bluntly, scarcity is a myth. This is not news.
Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins told us this
three decades ago in their ground-breaking book "Food
First". At the start of the new century Lappe went to
India with her daughter Anna, where they spoke with
the man in charge of the country's food distribution
and fair-price shops (their exchange is narrated in
their recent book "Hope's Edge"). He proudly boasted
to them about India's surpluses, which were the
largest in its history. When they asked him how about
giving this surplus to his starving compatriots, the
poor bureaucrat changed colors and said "Oh no, we
couldn't do that. We already give too many subsidies
to the poor."
But enough about India. Let's talk now about the USA,
the world's breadbasket. If hunger had anything to do
with scarcity, then Americans should be the world's
best fed people, right? Wrongo. According to the
American Journal of Public Health, today 10 million
Americans (4 million of them children) go hungry. In
the world's richest country, one out of every five
children is born in poverty. These statistics are
closely monitored by the Oakland-based Food First, a
food policy research and advocacy organization
inspired by the book with the same title.
As millions of Americans go hungry, overproduction is
a real headache for American farmers. The United
States is burdened with the cost of stockpiling
massive grain and dairy surpluses. As a matter of
fact, the American wheat surplus is enough to make 600
pounds of bread a year for each hungry child in the
If people are hungry and even starve to death in the
midst of absurdly large agricultural surpluses, then
one can understand why anti-biotech activists cannot
possibly conceive GM foods as an even marginally
useful tool in fighting hunger. The solution (or
solutions) to the problem lie squarely within the
realm of politics and economics. Meanwhile, Potrykus
goes about lashing out at his critics.
Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist and
environmental educator. He is a Research Associate of
the Institute for Social Ecology, and a senior fellow
of the Environmental Leadership Program. He is also
the director of the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety
Check out his bilingual blog in issues of ecology,
agriculture, biotechnology and globalization:
Director, Proyecto de Bioseguridad http://www.bioseguridad.blogspot.com
Research Associate, Institute for Social Ecology http://www.social-ecology.org/
Senior Fellow, Environmental Leadership Program http://www.elpnet.org/
Do you Yahoo!?
Read only the mail you want - Yahoo! Mail SpamGuard.