Super Sorghum for the Poor Can Genetic Crops Stop the Food Crisis?
It will take some time before genetically modified crops can help the world's starving people. One reason is that agricultural corporations are developing the wrong types of plants. In emerging economies like Argentina and India, most GM crops are cultivated for use in export products.
A small-time farmer in Malawi: Too little research has gone into locally established varieties of grain.
"Grow it!" the Web site, sponsored by a consortium of the agricultural industry and the scientific community, suggests succinctly. A happy, smiling child underscores the site's intense message: The world is being saved right here, and we're doing it with the help of genetic engineering. The project's scientists are trying to develop new sorghum varieties that would be more nutritious and easier to digest than conventional varieties. The developers promise that their new grain will provide more iron, zinc, essential amino acids and vitamins.
"Super sorghum can sustainably improve the health of millions of Africans," says project director Florence Wambugu of the organization Africa Harvest. The best thing about it, says Wambugu, is that the plant "can thrive in some of the most inhospitable and inaccessible parts of the African continent where food aid struggles to reach."
Is the solution that easy? Could the fruits of genetically modified (GM) plants truly help protect tens of thousands of people every day from dying of starvation?
The fact is that the genetic engineering industry is selling more and more of its seed, and 43 percent of the fields where the seed is now being used are in developing countries and emerging economies, especially Argentina, Brazil, India and China.
A "Roundup Ready" soybean plant developed by the genetic engineering company Monsanto has been especially successful in South America. The plant is resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. Monsanto promises that farmers will only have to spray their GM soybean fields with glyphosate, which can supposedly eliminate almost all types of weeds.
Graphic: The Genetic Technology Revolution
Thanks to Bt cotton, Indian farmers have increased their yields by more than a third, says Terri Raney of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN. They also spent an average of 41 percent less on pesticides and herbicides. Despite high seed prices, their profits increased by close to 70 percent, according to Raney.
Despite these successes, the FAO expert remains skeptical over whether this rapid development truly benefits the poorest of the poor. Only four plants (cotton, corn, rape and soy) and two attributes (insect resistance and herbicide tolerance) that have been introduced using genetic engineering make up more than 99 percent of all GM plants to date. "And these plants are certainly not aimed at small farmers in developing countries," says Raney.
In emerging economies like Argentina and India, the harvests of GM crops end up primarily in the production of export goods. This means that GM plants are mainly of interest to farmers with relatively large plots of arable land. Small farmers, on the other hand, are often left out to dry.
In Argentina, for example, soybean monocultures have disturbed established rural structures, claims the environment organization Friends of the Earth, a development that has led to poverty and migration into cities.
In India, the high costs of patented GM seeds are bankrupting many of the poorest farmers. "The biotech industry is telling us that we need GM crops to tackle the food needs of our population," says Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth Nigeria. "But how can we believe such statements when the majority of GM crops are used to feed the animals of rich countries or to produce industrial products like agrofuels?"
Graphic: Adoption of GM crops
"The developing world needs plants with better nutritional value and greater resistance to drought, salinization and disease," says Janice Jiggins of the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, one of the authors of the IAASTD report. According to Jiggins, local varieties of rice and wheat, black-eyed peas, sorghum and teff are important field crops for the poor. "Many of these varieties are definitely not central to the industry's agenda," she says.
For years now, experts have been calling for publicly funded research into locally established grain varieties. A number of promising projects are already underway. South African scientists, for example, have developed a corn plant that is resistant to the devastating maize stripe virus. Uganda is testing banana plants that are better protected against the Black Sigatoka disease, a fungal infection that can destroy up to 50 percent of the harvest.
Scientists in Africa and Asia are experimenting with GM tomatoes, eggplant, mustard greens and cauliflower plants. Rice, the most important staple food for almost half the world's population, is already being modified in genetic laboratories.
Chinese scientists are testing insect-resistant rice developed in their own country. A similar rice variety is already being farmed commercially in Iran. New field tests with "Golden Rice" began early this month in the Philippines. Through genetic intervention, the yellow rice grains contain beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. The hope is that Golden Rice will eventually prevent vitamin deficiencies that cause blindness in close to a half-million children each year.
Research institutes from seven countries and the Swiss agricultural company Syngenta are involved in the development of Golden Rice, as part of a model that could point to the future of such efforts. In the future, predicts Joachim von Braun of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, "The biotech companies, with their high technology, will form partnerships with biotech institutes in developing countries that provide the local knowledge."
Braun expects GM plants to offset poor harvests caused by droughts or floods in the future, "but it won't happen quickly." Despite the biotech companies' large research budgets, the technology itself also remains a stumbling block.
- Part 1: Can Genetic Crops Stop the Food Crisis?
- Part 2: Can Designer Plants even Work?