News Column

Why biotechnology sceptics are wrong

June 1, 2014

Calestous Juma -1

Biotechnology sceptics have a right to question the role of the technology in global food security.

But they are wrong to ignore the growing evidence of the potential contributions of biotechnology and new challenges such as climate change that require new technological responses.

Food supply depends on four interrelated factors: quantity, access to food, which is determined both by income levels and quality of infrastructure; nutrition; and overall stability of the food system, such as resilience to shocks.

Genetically Modified (GM) crops or any other breeding methods on their own cannot solve the challenges on food quality, access, nutrition or stability of food systems. But their role cannot be dismissed for ideological reasons.

GM crops already benefit smallholder farmers in several major ways. For example, they help farmers control pests and disease. Let us take the example of pest-resistant GM cotton.

A recent study published by Plos One found that households in India growing GM cotton consumed significantly more calories. Each hectare of GM cotton increased total calorie consumption by 74kcal per adult. Furthermore, a smaller proportion of households are food insecure (7.93 per cent of adopting GM cotton households compared to 19.94 per cent of non-adopting households).

The study also showed that GM cotton adoption led to consumption of more nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables and animal products. The authors estimate that if the households that do not currently grow GM cotton switched, "the proportion of food insecure households would drop by 15-20 per cent."

These studies show that under certain conditions, the technology has the potential to contribute to increasing farm incomes, which, in turn, gives farmers the opportunity to raise their food purchases.

It is, therefore, a mistake to argue for their exclusion without giving farmers a chance to make their own choices.

The ability of farmers to benefit from GM crops is closely linked to their ability to access new technologies. It has often been argued that the control of the global seed industry by a small number of large multinational corporations is a threat to food security.

The problem is not simply the presence of large corporations, but the low level of the development of domestic seed firms. Such local firms can help focus on indigenous crops.

Africa has been a major focus of the concern that foreign firms are likely to undermine food security through their control of seed technology. However, a recent study, Planting the Seed of a New Green Revolution for Africa, shows that the continent's seed sector is dominated by local start-ups, not foreign multinational firms.

In fact, local African scientists are at the forefront of using biotechnology to solve local problems. For example, researchers in Uganda are using biotechnology to control the Xanthomonas banana wilt. By transferring two genes from green peppers, scientists were able to grow highly resistant bananas.

The bacterial disease causes discoloration and early ripening of bananas and costs the Great Lakes region approximately $500m (Sh43.5 billion) annually in losses. There is currently no treatment for the disease.

It is time to follow the growing evidence of the importance of biotechnology rather than cling to ideology. New threats to food security may come from not adopting biotechnology, rather than adopting it.

Professor Juma is chairman, Innovation for Economic Development Programme at the Harvard Kennedy School. This article first appeared in the Guardian, UK.

For more stories covering the world of technology, please see HispanicBusiness' Tech Channel

Source: Nation (Kenya)

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