The Big Picture: The biotech debate goes global

ON THE CUSP OF A SECOND GREEN REVOLUTION, THE WORLD DEBATES THE BENEFITS OF BIOTECHNOLOGY

Farmers in north America are no strangers to the debate over transgenic technology. Since the introduction of Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996, the debate has run hot in the press and around kitchen tables. Although the developing world’s acceptance of transgenic technology has not exactly been a focus of this debate in the past, it is certainly gaining more attention in the international media. 

With the world population expected to reach nearly 9 billion by 2050, and the threat of climate change depleting essential resources from water to soil, there is increased public awareness of the need to feed more people with fewer resources.With this awareness, the biotechnology question finds itself in the spotlight again. Increasingly, biotechnology is being named both the saviour and the downfall of agricultural development. 

a history of agricultural development
The original Green Revolution occurred from the late 1940s to the 1970s, and transformed food production in the developing world thanks to the research and advocacy of Norman Borlaug. Innovations like high yielding varieties of maize and rice, and a push to improve management on small farms, doubled production and thwarted famine. The practices introduced by the Green Revolution are credited with saving as many as one billion lives, and earned Borlaug a Nobel Peace Prize. 

Despite the successes of the Green Revolution, one billion people currently live in poverty and three quarters of them rely on farming for both food and income. Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done. Recently there have been calls for a second Green Revolution, or, as Borlaug advised prior to his death earlier this year, a Gene Revolution.   

a genetic solution
Many world leaders are looking to transgenic technology as a key tool to solving the food security issues in the developing world, and the same is true of some influential non-governmental organizations. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently gained a lot of press – both positive and negative – for their strong support of “transgenic approaches” in some of their grant projects.

One Gates Foundation grant that has attracted particular attention is Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), a public-private partnership between Monsanto and five African nations. The focus of this project is to develop drought-tolerant genes that will help farmers increase maize production by two million tons during a year of moderate drought. For its part, Monsanto has donated seed, lent its expertise and granted use of its intellectual property.

The use of transgenic technology in developing world agricultural programs has been met with mixed reviews around the globe. Although many claim the first Green Revolution was a success, there are others who argue that the achievements in increasing production and reducing famine were outweighed by environmental side effects like depleted water tables, soil erosion and a loss of biodiversity. Critics warn that a second Green Revolution will simply make these conditions worse and introduce new problems, leaving us no further ahead. 

In a speech delivered at the 2009 World Food Prize Symposium, Bill Gates offered an alternative view. “The environment also benefits from higher productivity,” he argued. “When productivity is too low, people start farming on grazing land, cutting down forests, using any new acreage they can to grow food. When productivity is high, people can farm on less land.”

He also lambasted opponents who divorce the environment from people and their circumstances, saying that “they have tried to restrict the spread of biotechnology into Sub-Saharan Africa without regard to how much hunger and poverty might be reduced by it, or what the farmers themselves might want.”

The debate over biotechnology is continuing on a very global scale. There is no doubt that it will play a role in agricultural development but the size of that role will continue to be greatly impacted by political will and public opinion. •