Science - May 27, 2004

Genetic engineering for the poor

The Green Revolution is deemed a success, despite the fact that eight hundred million people have not benefited and still go hungry. It is time for a revolution in genetic engineering that does reach these eight hundred million, according to the FAO in its recently published The state of food and agriculture. But is this the right way to go about things?

Dr Guido Ruivenkamp of the Technology and Agrarian Development Group:

“The report is intended to break the impasse in the debate on biotechnology in the Third World. That is a good thing, but at present the defenders and opponents are so entrenched that no progress is being made. I am not in favour of the kind of biotechnology that the FAO recommends. The report does recognise that there is more than one kind of technology available, and also that we need biotechnology that works in the countries that have missed the boat as far as the new crops are concerned. Genetic engineers need to start devoting their efforts to crops that are important for the poor. I agree completely with this, but who is going to develop the new crops? That is the key question, and the FAO report gives the wrong answer.

The FAO still assumes that the researchers at the Monsantos of the world can make the new crops. This is a top-down approach to technology, and it’s not the right one. Technology that works is by definition developed within the context where it will be used. That’s what happened in the Green Revolution, and it will be no different for the Genetic Revolution. Why did the Green Revolution fail in so many countries? Why are there still eight hundred million people who do not get enough to eat? Because the technology of the Green Revolution was not developed by the poor for the poor.

I understand the attraction of the current technology model. Look at the success stories reported by the multinationals. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the image of scientific progress is not always correct. In the end it comes down to a couple of companies working with a few gene constructs in a few crops, that are only of interest to a few countries. Is that progress? I call it virtual progress.

The big companies will never develop technology for people who are too poor to pay for it. And even if they did, the new crops would probably not work in those countries because the researchers do not know enough about local conditions. There are increasing numbers of laboratories in India, South America and Africa where local researchers are developing biotechnology solutions that do work well locally, and if they have the opportunities they will also engage in genetic modification. If the introduction of a gene bacteria in a crop can prevent hunger, they are not going to leave it out. It’s not the super-technology of the multinationals that we should be supporting, but the local biotech laboratories in India and Nigeria.”

Willem Koert