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Hungry for Biotech

Life sciences companies say agricultural biotechnology will feed the world. So why are they standing in the way?

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.

If companies really want to combat global poverty and hunger, they must make their technology available for use on select food crops such as rice, cassava and millet by developing countries on a royalty-free basis. Not only will this provide a tremendous boost to world food production, but it also makes good business sense. Acceptance of biotech food crops in the developing world would create market opportunities for commercial crops such as cotton, and would also give the industry a much-needed human face. Would anyone oppose such a plan? Although there’s much willingness among corporate scientists to share technology, their lawyers cannot see beyond the issue of liability. Activists are also to blame. Their opposition to using new technologies in the Third World puts industry in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” position.

Clearly, we need an independent middleman to take charge. Catherine Ives of the Agricultural Biotechnology Sustainability Project at Michigan State University believes that a new international agency should be set up to act as a “technology trust” that can assume responsibility for transferring biotechnology to developing countries. A central agency would not only help indemnify companies from liability suits, but would also help negotiate the labyrinth of patent laws and intellectual property claims.

The benefits of agricultural biotechnology are as real as the problems we face. In my native India, every third child is underweight due to malnutrition and 400 million people go to bed hungry every night. In a country where 70 percent of people are associated with farming, technological innovation in agriculture is critical not only to produce more food but also to improve living standards. It’s time for the agricultural biotechnology industry to show a social conscience and clear the way for the harnessing of their newfound knowledge to combat global hunger and malnutrition.

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