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Genetic Engineering and Food Security: Ecological and ... Genetic Engineering and Food Security: Ecological and ... Document Transcript

  • Genetic Engineering and Food Security: Ecological and Livelihood Issues M. S. Swaminathan A s we say goodbye to the 20th century, we • Fourth, there is increasing damage to the eco- can look back with pride and satisfaction logical foundations of agriculture, such as land, on the revolution that our farm men and water, forests, biodiversity, and the atmo- women have brought about in our agricultural sphere, and there are distinct possibilities for history. In 1969 I wrote in the Illustrated Weekly adverse changes in climate and sea level. of India about the role our farm families played • Finally, while dramatic new technological de- in initiating the Wheat Revolution in India: velopments are taking place, particularly in “Brimming with enthusiasm, hard-working, biotechnology, environmental and social im- skilled and determined, the Punjab farmer has plications are yet to be fully understood. been the backbone of the revolution. Revolutions Because land and water for agriculture are are usually associated with the young, but in this diminishing resources, there is no option but revolution, age has been no obstacle to participa- to produce more food and other agricultural com- tion. Farmers, young and old, educated and un- modities from less arable land and irrigation educated, have easily taken to the new agronomy. water. In other words, the need for more food has It has been heart-warming to see young college to be met through higher yields per units of land, graduates, retired officials, ex-armymen, illiter- water, energy and time. We need to examine how ate peasants and small farmers queuing up to get science can be mobilized to raise further the bio- the new seeds. At least in the Punjab, the divorce logical productivity ceiling without associated between intellect and labour, which has been the ecological harm. Scientific progress on the farms, bane of our agriculture, is vanishing.” as an “ever-green revolution,” must emphasize that While we can and should rejoice about the past the productivity advance is sustainable over time achievements of our farmers, scientists, extension since it is rooted in the principles of ecology, eco- workers, and policymakers, there is no room nomics, social and gender equity, and employ- for complacency. We continue to face several ment generation. problems: The dimensions of the challenges faced by • First, increasing population leads to increased those involved in developing scientific strategies demand for food and reduced per capita avail- and public policies for sustainable food security ability of arable land and irrigation water. are best defined in some statistics on India, which • Second, improved purchasing power and in- now has a population of one billion. In global creased urbanization lead to higher per capita terms, India today has 16 percent of human popu- food grain requirements due to an increased lation, 15 percent of farm animal population, 2 consumption of animal products. percent of the geographical area, 1 percent of rain- • Third, marine fish production is becoming fall, 0.5 percent of forests, and 0.5 percent of graz- stagnant. ing land. 37
  • 38 Agricultural Biotechnology and the Poor The Green Revolution has so far helped to keep Just as it took 35 years for biologists to under- the rate of growth in food production above the stand the significance of Mendel’s work, it may population growth rate. The Green Revolution take a couple of decades more to understand fully was, however, the result of public good research, the benefits and risks associated with genetically supported by public funds. The emerging gene improved foods. It would be prudent to apply revolution, by contrast, is spearheaded by pro- scientific and precautionary principles in areas prietary science and can come under monopolis- of human health and environmental safety. tic control. How can we take the fruits of the gene The 1990s have seen dramatic advances in our revolution to the unreached? understanding of how biological organisms func- tion at the molecular level, as well as in our abil- Meeting the Challenges Ahead ity to analyze, understand, and manipulate DNA molecules, the biological material from which the The Gene Revolution genes in all organisms are made. The entire pro- cess has been accelerated by the Human Genome Mendel’s laws of genetics were rediscovered in Project, which has poured substantial resources 1900. Mendel had published his work on inherit- into the development of new technologies to work ance patterns in pea in 1865, but it took 35 years with human genes. The same technologies are for others to grasp their significance. Since 1900, directly applicable to all other organisms, includ- we have witnessed steady progress in our under- ing plants. Thus, the new scientific discipline of standing of the genetic makeup of all living or- genomics has arisen, which has contributed to ganisms ranging from microbes to man. A major powerful new approaches in agriculture and step in human control over genetic traits was medicine, and has helped to promote the biotech- taken in the 1920s when Muller and Stadler dis- nology industry. covered that radiation can induce mutations in Several large corporations in Europe and the animals and plants. United States have made major investments to In the 1930s and 1940s, several new methods adapt these technologies to produce new plant of chromosome and gene manipulation were dis- varieties of agricultural importance for large-scale covered, such as the use of colchicine to achieve commercial agriculture. The same technologies a doubling in chromosome number, commercial have equally important potential applications to exploitation of hybrid vigor in maize and other address food security and poverty of people in crops, use of chemicals such as nitrogen mustard developing countries. and ethyl methane sulphonate to induce muta- Work in India has shown that genetic modifi- tions and techniques like tissue culture and em- cation can do immense good in agriculture and bryo rescue to get viable hybrids from distantly food security. The 21 st century may witness related species. The double helix structure of changes in temperature, precipitation, sea level, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the chemical sub- and ultraviolet b radiation, as a result of global stance of heredity, was discovered in 1953 by warming. These changes in climate are expected James Watson and Francis Crick. This triggered to adversely affect India and sub-Saharan Africa. explosive progress in every field of genetics. All human-induced calamities affect adversely As we approach the end of the 20th century, we the poor nations and the poorest among all na- see a rapid transition from Mendelian to molecu- tions the most. This led us to initiate an anticipa- lar genetic applications in agriculture, medicine, tory research program to breed salt-tolerant and industry. This brief capsule of genetic varieties of rice and other crop plants in coastal progress from 1900 to 1999 adequately stresses areas, in order to prepare for seawater intru- that knowledge and discovery represent a con- sion into farmland as a result of an eventual tinuum, with each generation taking our under- rise in sea level. The donor of salt tolerance was standing of the complex web of life to a higher a mangrove species belonging to the family level. It would therefore be wrong to worship or Rhizophoraceae. Transferring genes for tolerance discard experimental tools or scientific innova- to salinity from mangrove tree species to rice or tions because they are either old or new. tobacco is an impossible task without recourse to
  • Genetic Engineering and Food Security: Ecological and Livelihood Issues 39 recombinant DNA experiments. This demon- It is well known that genetic homogeneity en- strates the immense benefits that can accrue from hances genetic vulnerability to biotic and abiotic genomics and molecular breeding. stresses. Biotechnology companies are therefore recommending resistance management strate- Concerns gies, such as growing 30-40 percent non-Bt (Ba- cillus thuringiensis) corn with Bt-corn (see Gould What then are the principal concerns? In indus- and Cohen this volume). What will happen to the trial countries, the major concerns relate to the livelihood of farm men and women operating impact of genetically improved organisms (GIOs) smallholdings with institutional credit and with on human health and the environment. These no crop insurance, if GM corn, soybean, rice, po- food and environmental safety concerns have tato or other crops are affected by serious diseases been well documented and are widely known. as a result of the breakdown of resistance? Will The food and environmental scientists of devel- the companies agree to compensate them for the oping countries are equally concerned about the loss? This problem could become even more se- food and environmental safety aspects of GIOs. rious if companies incorporate genetic use re- The ethical and social issues relating to GM crops striction mechanisms, known popularly as were dealt with in detail in a report published by “terminator” genes in the new varieties. Small the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in May 1999. farmers could then experience “genetic enslave- What issues concern the public and profession- ment” since their agricultural destiny could be als in developing countries? in the hands of a few companies if they have to The first issue of concern is biosafety. Why are purchase new seeds each year, similar to conven- large biotechnology companies averse to the la- tional hybrid seed. beling of GM foods? In spite of over three years A third issue relates to the potential impact of of intensive discussion in meetings sponsored by GM foods on biodiversity. This has two dimen- the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological sions. The first deals with the replacement of nu- Diversity (CBD), the negotiations broke down at merous local cultivars with one or two new Cartagena, Colombia, in February 1999. Thus, varieties, which could lead to genetic erosion. there is as yet no internationally agreed biosafety Modernization of agriculture has resulted in a protocol, as called for under Article 19 of CBD. narrowing of the base of food security, both in The absence of such a protocol will hurt the pri- terms of the number of species constituting the vate sector the most. food basket and the number of genetic strains There are other issues of concern to the gen- cultivated (see NRC 1989, 1996). Local cultivars eral public in India. First, India is a land of small have often been the donors of many useful traits, farm holdings. There are now 106 million opera- including resistance to pests and diseases. Un- tional holdings in the country, and about 75 per- der small farm conditions, every farm is a genetic cent of them are one hectare or less. India has 25 garden, comprising several annual and perennial percent of the global farming community, and crops, and several varieties of each crop. The need farming provides a livelihood to nearly 66 per- of the hour is to enlarge the food basket and not cent of the population. There is concern that ex- shrink it further. pansion of proprietary science and shrinking of The second dimension is equity in benefit shar- “public good” research supported from public ing between biotechnologists and the primary funds may lead to a situation where the technolo- conservers of genetic resources and the holders gies of the future remain in the hands of a few of traditional knowledge. The primary conserv- transnational corporations. Only resource-rich ers have so far remained poor, while those who farmers may have access to them, thereby wid- use their knowledge (for example, the medici- ening further the gap between the rich and poor. nal properties of plants) and material become This could accelerate social disintegration. rich. This has resulted in accusations of Second, monopolistic control over crop vari- biopiracy. It is time that genetic engineers and eties could lead to a situation where large areas others promote and find ways to implement are covered by very few genetic strains or hybrids. genuine biopartnerships with the holders of indig-
  • 40 Agricultural Biotechnology and the Poor enous knowledge and traditional conservers of FAO has been a pioneer in the recognition of the genetic variability, based on principles of ethics contributions of farm families in genetic resources and equity in benefit sharing. conservation and enhancement by promoting the Unless R&D efforts on GM foods are based on concept of Farmers’ Rights. Like WIPO, UPOV principles of bioethics, biosafety, biodiversity conser- (Union for the Protection of New Varieties of vation, and biopartnerships, there will be serious Crops) should also undertake the task of prepar- public concern in India, as well as many other ing an integrated concept of breeders’ and farm- developing countries, about the ultimate nutri- ers’ rights and assisting countries in developing tional, social, ecological, and economic conse- equitable and effective sui generis systems for the quences of replacing numerous local varieties protection of new plant varieties, as is required with a few new genetically improved crop vari- for all members of WTO (Barton, 1999; Leisinger, eties. To derive benefits from genetic engineer- 1999). ing without undue risks, every nation should set up a multistakeholder Commission for Genetic Science and Basic Human Needs Modification. The 20th century produced an impressive array The Ecotechnology Revolution of accomplishments in nearly every field of sci- ence and technology. The last part of the century Knowledge is a continuum. There is much to was particularly rich in innovations in biotech- learn from the past in terms of the ecological and nology, and information and space technologies. social sustainability of technologies. At the same Such advances have had a beneficial impact on time, new developments have opened up new human food and health security. The global popu- opportunities to develop technologies that can lation was only 940 million in 1798 when Malthus lead to high productivity without adverse impact expressed his apprehensions about human capac- on the natural resources base. Blending tradi- ity to achieve a balance between food production tional and frontier technologies leads to the birth and population. Human numbers reached 6 bil- of ecotechnologies with combined strength in eco- lion in 1999, and once in every12 years another nomics, ecology, equity, employment, and energy. billion will be added, if current growth rates con- In water harvesting and sustainable use, for tinue in developing countries. Science-based tech- example, there are many lessons to be learned nologies supported by appropriate public policies from the past. In the desert area of Rajasthan, In- are responsible for food famines becoming rare. dia, drinking water is available even in areas with The famine of food at the level of an individual 100 mm annual rainfall, largely because women today is mostly due to inadequate purchasing are continuing to harvest water in simple struc- power arising from a famine of jobs or employ- tures called kunds. In contrast, drinking water is ment opportunities. scarce during summer months in some parts of In spite of an impressive stockpile of scientific northeast India, with an annual rainfall of 15,000 discoveries and technological innovations, pov- mm. There is need therefore to conserve tradi- erty and social and gender inequities are increas- tional wisdom and practices, which are tending ing. According to the World Bank, 1.3 billion to become extinct. The decision of the World In- people lived on less than US$1 per day and an- tellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to ex- other 3 billion lived on less than US$2 per day in plore the intellectual property needs, rights, and 1993. Nearly 1.5 billion of the world population expectations of holders of traditional knowledge, of 6 billion will live in severe poverty at the dawn innovations, and culture is an important step in of the new millennium. Illiteracy, particularly widening the concept of intellectual property among women, is still high in many developing rights (IPR). Principles of ethics and equity de- countries. It is not only in opportunities for edu- mand that this invaluable component of IPR be cation that children of many developing coun- included when the TRIPs (Trade-related Intellec- tries remain handicapped, but even more tual Property Rights) agreement of the World alarming, in opportunities for the full expression Trade Organization (WTO) comes up for review. of their innate genetic potential for physical and
  • Genetic Engineering and Food Security: Ecological and Livelihood Issues 41 mental development. Between 25 and 50 percent agement, integrated nutrient supply, and efficient of children born in South Asian countries are char- postharvest management. Ecotechnology-based acterized by low birth weight (LBW), caused by precision farming can help to cut costs, enhance maternal and fetal undernutrition and malnutri- marketable surplus, and eliminate ecological tion. The UN Commission on Nutrition in a re- risks. This is the pathway to an ever-green revo- cent report has warned about the serious lution in small-farm agriculture. This is why in- consequences of LBW for both brain development creased public support to both the CGIAR and in the child, as well as the level of health in later NARS is important for strengthening health and life. food security. New technologies supported by appropriate services and public policies have helped to prove Conclusion doomsday predictions wrong, and have led to the agricultural revolution (the Green Revolution) The industrial revolution in Europe marked the becoming one of the most significant of the sci- transition to a world where technology became a entific and socially meaningful events of the 20th major causal factor in the prosperity gap between century. Four thousand years of wheat cultiva- developing and industrial nations. How can we tion led to Indian farmers producing 6 million now enlist technology as an ally in the movement metric tons of wheat in 1947. The Green Revolu- for social, gender and economic equity in an era tion in wheat helped to surpass in 4 years the of expanding proprietary science? Obviously, production accomplishments of the preceding public good research supported from public 4000 years, thus illustrating the power of synergy funds must be stepped up. The following indica- between science and public policy. tor of measuring the value of development efforts There are uncommon opportunities now to proposed by Mahatma Gandhi is the most mean- harness the power of such synergy to address ingful yardstick for determining priorities in sci- contemporary development issues such as the entific research designed to help in meeting basic growing rich-poor divide, feminization of pov- human needs: “Recall the face of the poorest and the erty, famine of jobs, human numbers exceeding weakest man whom you have seen, and ask yourself, the population-supporting capacity of ecosys- if the steps you contemplate are going to be of any use tems, climate change, and loss of forests and to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore to biodiversity. Whether in economics or in ecology, him control over his own life and destiny?” experience has shown that a trickle-down ap- If biotechnology research can be promoted proach does not work. Fortunately, modern in- keeping in mind the guideline Gandhi gave, it formation technology provides opportunities to will become a powerful tool in ensuring sustain- reach the unreached. Virtual colleges, computer- able food security in the world. aided and internet-connected, linking scientists and women and men living in poverty can be References established at local, national, and global levels to launch a knowledge and skill revolution. This will Barton, J. 1999. Intellectual property management. help to create better awareness of the benefits and Brief 7 of 10 in: Focus 2: Biotechnology for Developing risks associated with genetically improved organ- Country Agriculture (ed. G.J. Persley). International isms, so that both farmers and consumers will Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C., October 1999. 2 p get better insights into the processes leading to Leisinger, K. 1999. Disentangling Risk Issues. Brief 5 the creation of novel genetic combinations. of 10 in: Focus 2: Biotechnology for Developing Coun- The future of small farm families will depend try Agriculture (ed. G.J. Persley). International Food on precision agriculture, which involves the use of Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C., Octo- the right inputs at the right time and in the right ber 1999. 2 p. way. Biotechnology will play an important role Nuffield Council on Bioethics. 1999. Genetically Modi- in the major components of precision farming: fied Crops: The Ethical and Social Issues. Nuffield integrated gene management, soil health care, Council on Bioethics, London, U.K. NRC. 1989. Lost Crops of Incas: Little Known Plants efficient water management, integrated pest man- of the Andes with Promise forWorld Wide Cultiva-
  • 42 Agricultural Biotechnology and the Poor tion. National Research Council, U.S. Board on Sci- NRC. 1996. Lost Crops of Africa. National Research ence and Technology for International Develop- Council, U.S. Board on Science and Technology for ment, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. International Development, National Academy 415 p. Press, Washington, D.C. 383 p.