Biotech and hunger -- empty promises?

Critics will confront scientists on genetic modification of food.

By Edie Lau -- Bee Science Writer

Published Sunday, June 15, 2003

Since Belinda Martineau stopped manipulating plant genes eight years ago and began pondering agricultural biotechnology's effects on society, nothing has riled her more than the assertion that biotechnology will cure world hunger.

"They're making these claims, and they're just promises. At this point, they look like empty promises," said Martineau, a plant biologist who used to work for Calgene in Davis, where she helped invent the first commercial biotech crop, the "Flavr Savr" tomato.

Martineau's perspective helps explain why an international agricultural meeting coming to the Sacramento Convention Center this month is causing a stir.

The Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology, taking place June 23-25, is billed by the U.S. government as an opportunity to show how technology, including genetic engineering, can help ease world hunger and famine.

While no one argues with the noble goal of feeding hungry people, a fierce difference of opinion exists over the best means to do so.

Thousands of people -- a diverse group of activists, academics and members of nonprofit organizations -- plan to mobilize in Sacramento during the conference to express alternative points of view.

The conference is invitation-only -- dignitaries from 180 nations have been invited -- so demonstrators will speak out from the streets and other public venues. One of their hopes is to deflate the argument that genetic engineering is the key to continued necessary improvements in crop yields.

In the United States, the world leader in farm biotechnology, many growers have welcomed genetically modified crops for their ability to fend off pests, resist disease and survive herbicide treatment. About 75 percent of U.S. soybeans and 34 percent of the country's corn are genetically altered. Proponents say the technology also may be used to produce more nutritious foods, and even medicines.

But how much the technology will contribute to alleviating world hunger is an open question.

Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Teaching Program, summarizes the pro-biotech position this way:

"Human population continues to grow, while arable land is of finite quantity. So unless we will accept starvation or placing parks and the Amazon basin under the plow, there really is no alternative to applying biotechnology to agriculture."

Critics take exception to the notion that no alternative exists.

To them, agricultural biotechnology represents corporate-driven farming methods that depend on intensive uses of synthetic chemicals. They argue the world's environment and societies are better served by lower-tech methods, such as organic farming, that try to work with nature rather than against it, and are more easily practiced by small-scale and family farmers.

They also contend that improved food distribution is more important to alleviating hunger than higher crop yields.

The subject is complex enough to fill a book. In fact, Martineau, the former Calgene scientist who's now an independent researcher, is tackling just that: a book examining whether genetically modified crops truly can contribute to global food security and sustainability.

In researching the topic, Martineau has assumed the rare posture of a fence-walker on a subject in which players typically fall hard on one side or the other.

Martineau maintains that agricultural biotechnology may turn out to be a helpful tool against hunger but that its promoters have yet to demonstrate how.

In 2002, an estimated 145 million acres of farmland around the world were planted with genetically modified crops. The biotech acreage is dominated by four moneymakers: soybean, corn, cotton and canola. None is considered particularly useful for nourishing hungry people in developing countries.

Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, a philanthropic organization interested in applying biotechnology to farming problems in Africa, offered this analysis in a speech last month:

"The field is dominated by ... five very large multinational corporations. For these corporations, there is no profit to investing in expensive research on new products that can only be purchased by subsistence African farmers with little money.

"So quite logically, these companies are not focused on improving the basic crops of the developing world such as millet, sorghum, cowpeas, yams or cassava."

The dominance of big business has complicated the situation further: Corporations control the legal rights to fundamental aspects of plant biotechnology, including the only two tried-and-true methods for introducing foreign genes into plants, according to Larry Fox, director of the Technology Transfer Center at the University of California, Davis.

Broad rights to the "ballistic gun" method, in which a plant is bombarded with tiny balls coated with genetic material, are held by DuPont.

A second method, employing a microbe called Agrobacterium tumefaciens to infect a plant with outside DNA, is entangled in a legal dispute involving Syngenta, Monsanto and other parties.

At UC Davis, the intellectual property thicket effectively has stopped plant biotechnology inventions from leaving the laboratory.

"Because it is such a mess, people have been shying away," said Fox, whose job is to help move campus inventions and discoveries into the hands of the public, usually as commercial products.

In recent years, however, biotech corporations have begun donating intellectual property for humanitarian purposes.

A case in point is "golden rice." The grains are engineered to produce beta carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A. According to the World Health Organization, more than 100 million children are deficient in Vitamin A, a condition that causes between 250,000 and 500,000 to become blind each year.

Golden rice was invented by scientists in Switzerland and Germany with funding from the Swiss government, the European Union and the Rockefeller Foundation.

After the invention was announced publicly in 1999, biotech corporations took interest. By 2002, more than 30 patent holders reportedly had agreed to donate roughly 70 relevant patents to make golden rice available in poor countries.

As with so much in agricultural biotechnology, these acts are viewed by critics with skepticism: a public relations grab on a project that big business had nothing to do with.

There's also a school of thought that says the problem of Vitamin A deficiency would be better solved by helping malnourished people get access to foods that naturally produce beta carotene.

Another important question in the debate over hunger and biotechnology is how much more agricultural productivity is really needed.

In a recent study of food production and hunger, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization concluded, "Globally, there is enough land, soil and water, and enough potential for future growth in yields, to make the necessary production feasible."

And yet, 826 million people in the world are hungry.

Glenn Davis Stone, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, said an underlying problem is that food production today largely is disconnected from human subsistence needs. Instead, he said, it's driven chiefly by economics.

"For instance, a natural gas company wants to sell as much gas to the fertilizer factory as possible, not 'just enough to feed people.' The fertilizer company wants to sell as much fertilizer as possible; the tractor company as many tractors as possible; same for the pesticides, herbicides ... and so on."

The FAO researchers found also that certain regions of the world lack the infrastructure for productive farming -- things such as irrigation systems in semi-arid areas, or credit for farmers of limited means.

So while food production is not a problem globally, in some instances, low farm production does cause food scarcity, the FAO researchers said.

By their analysis, biotechnology "offers promise" as a means of improving food security, provided questions about whether that food is safe to eat and safe for the environment are adequately addressed.

At the same time, organic agriculture and similar methods that emphasize environmental conservation also show promise in offering both increased production and better environmental protection, the FAO researchers said.

If that's the case, then biotechnology may offer some solutions to hunger, but cannot automatically be assumed to be the answer, Martineau said.

"Everything should be (evaluated) on a case by case basis -- every country, every ecosystem, every product," she said. "It's not black and white; there are all kinds of shades of gray."

About the Writer The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or

Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology

When: June 23-25

What is it: U.S. officials bill it as a showcase for technology and know-how aimed at alleviating world hunger; protest organizers say the United States is promoting industrial-style farming and genetically engineered food at the expense of poor countries.

Who's coming: The U.S. government invited more than 180 nations, and conference organizers say they're expecting as many as 1,000 people to attend. Protest organizers say they expect thousands to demonstrate in opposition.

Where: Sacramento Convention Center