Bioengineered crops were grown on nearly 40 million hectares (100 million acres) in twelve countries last year-up from less than two million hectares when they were first introduced in 1996, making biotechnology the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of agriculture. But this phenomenal success has been a double-edged sword. Despite the certified safety of biotechnology-derived foods, opposition by environmental activists has undermined consumer confidence in the new gene technology. Food companies such as McDonald’s and Frito-Lay are now asking their suppliers not to use bioengineered potatoes and corn. Many European countries are avoiding imports of bioengineered corn and soybeans entirely.
Meanwhile, the industry has responded with a public relations campaign of its own. The press releases and TV commercials extol potential benefits of biofoods, such as better nutrition and ameliorating the problem of world hunger. Although biotechnology clearly provides ammunition for improving food production, the fact is that right now there is little industry research on food staples of importance to the developing world. It’s time for the industry to put its money-actually its patents-where its mouth is. Nobody should expect Monsanto to end world hunger. That’s like counting on Microsoft to wipe out illiteracy. The biotech industry has spent billions of dollars developing a powerful technology for redesigning crops to evade pests and diseases, and to improve food quality. But because investment dollars need to be recovered, the target of such research is on commercial crops in Western countries.
So where does that leave the developing world? Poor countries such as Ethiopia or Bangladesh don’t have the funds or scientific talent needed to pursue biotech research on their own. Nevertheless, many public institutions are developing food crops with improved attributes such as “golden rice” rich in provitamin A, which can prevent blindness in children. In my own lab at Tuskegee University, we have created high protein sweet potatoes.
These new crops are designed to be distributed freely to farmers in the developing world. However, industry “ownership” of genes and technologies used to create such varieties represents a serious obstacle. Nearly every core technology used in crop biotechnology is the intellectual property of companies such as Dow, DuPont, Monsanto and Novartis. So if Vietnam or Liberia wants to distribute golden rice seeds to its farmers, it must first negotiate with various companies for the gene transfer, gene promoter and selectable marker technologies that were used in its development. Most poor countries simply do not have the financial resources or the scientific or legal acumen to wade through this complex patent maze. Thus, agricultural biotechnology cannot make inroads into developing nations without a “freedom to operate” license from the owners of these technologies-major life science corporations.