This is the simple fact that makes genetic modification so attractive in the developing world. Seeds are packages of genes and genes are information-exceedingly valuable and powerful information. Biotech corporations can translate that information into profits. Yet when those same packets of power are developed by public-sector scientists in places like India, they become a tool, not for profit, but for quickly distributing important information. There is no more efficient means of spreading information than a seed.
The above argument built only slowly in my mind in the course of researching a book (Food’s Frontier: The Next Green Revolution) that profiled nine food projects in the developing world, all of which were carried out largely by scientists native to the countries I visited. I expected to encounter low-technology projects appropriate for the primitive conditions of subsistence agriculture in the developing world-and I did. But I also found, in all nine cases, a sophisticated and equally appropriate use of genetic research or genetic engineering.
A lab in Uganda, for example, could not regularly flush its toilets for lack of running water, but could tag DNA. This tagging ability, used in six of the projects I studied, allows researchers to understand and accelerate the breeding of new strains. Typically, an effort to breed a disease- or pest-resistant strain of a crop can involve ten years of testing to verify the trait. Using genetic markers cuts that time in half-a difference that gains urgency in countries where test plots are surrounded by poor farmers whose crops are failing for want of that very trait.
In this manner, by allowing researchers to accelerate the development of new, pest-resistant sources of protein, genetic engineering can help fulfill the decades-old promise of the Green Revolution. Our last revolution created a world awash in grain. But if Uganda is to get better sweet potatoes, Peru better mashua and India better chickpeas, then research on those orphan crops will have to catch up rapidly. Biotechnology can help.
Food researchers in developing countries are understandably worried they will be hampered by the controversy over genetically modified foods. Meanwhile, they have a hard time understanding why genetic engineering is the focus of such concern. The gains of the Green Revolution, after all-and for that matter the gains of 10,000 years of agriculture-have in many cases come from mating unrelated species of plants to create something new and better. Every new strain has brought with it the potential dangers now being ascribed with apparent exclusivity to genetic engineering, such as the creation of superresistant pests. Genetic engineering merely refines the tools.
When viewed from labs surrounded by subsistence farmers, where food research is a matter of life and death rather than an intellectual debate, genetic engineering is a qualified good-not without problems and dangers, but still of great promise. Genetic modification of foods becomes a natural extension of the millennia-old practice of plant breeding, less environmentally damaging than many modern alternatives. In the end, DNA is knowledge, which we can hope will build to wisdom, from which we may one day create an agriculture that both supports our population and coexists peacefully with our planet.
Environmental writer Richard Manning’s six books include Food’s Frontier: The Next Green Revolution and Inside Passage: A Journey Beyond Borders.