Biotechnology Issues for Developing Countries

GMOs and Development

Edgar J. DaSilva
Director, Section of Life Sciences
Division of Basic and Engineering Sciences
UNESCO, Paris, France

Important issues such as the conservation of the environment, the energy crisis, expansion and migration of populations, use of agro-residual resources, ocean agriculture, global warming, water security, biowarfare, and emerging diseases have somehow made it to the top of the agenda of international co-operation. The perennial problems of widespread starvation linked to poverty are now back again in the limelight as a result of globalization, biotechnology and summit meetings. Novel agriculture, genetic modified organisms (GMOs), GM crops and products, and bio-based economies have been spotlighted by governmental attention and public action in recent international forums.

The UN Human Development Report 2001 (HDR) “Making New Technologies Work for Development” identified biotechnology as a key avenue for the socio-economic advancement of the developing countries. Considered as the latest frontier of the corporate world, biotechnology enriching the way we do and teach science is full of entrepreneurial opportunities for networking the technological transformation of the developing world. Such opportunities result from simple yet spectacular research in microbiology and molecular biology that closely intertwine with information technology and nanotechnology—i.e. bionanomatics.

The enzymatic machinery of the invisible microbe and genetic tailoring are being harnessed to design solutions to enhance soil fertility, increase crop yield, and engage in molecular farming for the production of new bio-products and novel crops. Use of GMOs will increase in the future to obtain a variety of bioproducts ranging from biofuels, bioplastics, biodiesel, biodetergents, biolubricants, and biopharmaceuticals to bio-ornamentals reflecting new plant and floral architecture (Box 1).

Growth of the gene-based pharmaceutical market, assessed at US$2.2 billion in 1999, for treatment of diseases not possible in the past, is now projected at $8.2 billion in 2004. Edible vaccines administered through GM-foods, and possibly in the future through breakfast cereals, will conserve more human resources at a fraction of current costs. Simply eating a banana or a potato chip with tomato paste could result in a patient receiving a hepatitis B needle-free vaccine for two cents instead of the usual US$15 for an injectable dose. In fact, GMO technology has spurred economic progress in the technically-advance societies.

Traditional chemical, metallurgy, and pharmaceutical industries already are undergoing rapid assessment and adaptation to accommodate the green component into daily production processes. Starch-based polymers have been used for water-retention in calcareous loamy soils for cultivation of mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) in Saudi Arabia; sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) in India, tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum) in Egypt, and ornamental plants – Rosa cavina, Lotonis bainesii, Indigoferata schimperi, and Hibiscus rosa var. chinensis in Singapore, South Africa and Thailand.

Generally-speaking genetic engineering techniques have been applied to crops of the industrialized world rather than to those on which the world’s hungry depend on. Corporate research activities in agricultural biotechnology, seemingly profit-oriented, should involve resource-poor farmers from least developed countries without adding costs to their meagre household incomes, to better use new knowledge in producing higher yields of pest resistant crops, and in improving local gender and socio-economic conditions. Hunger in these countries, results from a complex situation of interconnected factors –lack of adequate purchasing power, poverty, non-availability of back-up financial facilities, low crop yields, and a deteriorating environment. Some 80 developing countries possess neither the ability to produce sufficient food to feed their own populations nor the foreign-exchange reserves to import food supplies to cover the deficits. President Jimmy Carter said: “Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is. Without adequate food supplies at affordable prices, we cannot expect world health or peace”. Several of these low-income food-deficit countries are poverty-prone or poverty-stricken (Box 2). Poverty in urban areas in coming decades will overtake rural numbers.

The face of agriculture is expected to change in the next two decades. GMOs are widely used in the European Union (EU). At least 27 distinct plant species have been tested in Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK with about 70 field tests per country. Other EU countries conducting field trials were Austria, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Two years ago, a global review by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications of commercialized transgenic crops showed an increase of 21,1 million hectares between 1998 and 1999. Today, almost 45 million hectares of GMO crops are grown worldwide involving especially Argentina, Canada, China and the USA. In China, 13 gene-altered crops (i.e. rice, wheat, beet, potato, tomato, corn, peanut, rapeseed, sweet pepper and cotton) have been released in the agricultural sector, over a 10-year period, since 1986. Currently, some 50 per cent of all crops are engineered genetically.

Introduction of high-yielding, drought tolerant, and early ripening varieties have led to impressive gains in maize production in Central and West Africa. In turn there is development of supplementary and increased food markets in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria and Zaire. Such gains result from local collaboration in the semi-arid food grain research and development project sponsored by the scientific commission of the Organization of African Unity and the US Agency for International Development. Genetically-modified trees, have several important uses, inclusive of landscape development, and are of value in forest ecosystems and plantation use. A potential new tree crop for cultivation in saline soils, naturally occurring in Morocco, is the argan tree-Argania spinosa.

In developing countries there is widespread use of GMOs. Approximately 150 releases of GMOs have been conducted in these countries. Ten countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Chile, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru) were engaged in field trials with 7 transgenic crops (cotton, maize, potato, soyabean, tomato, banana and sugarcane); and countries expected to follow with such trials are Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. Three countries in Africa and the Arab States (Egypt, South Africa and Zimbabwe), and five countries in Asia (China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand) are engaged with 5 transgenic crops (cotton, corn, potato, soyabean and tomato). And, in Africa, field trials are expected to get underway in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda.

The beneficial aspects of GMO crops and foods for developing countries are: improved nutritional quality and health benefits; an improvement in the quantity and quality of meat, milk and livestock production; enhanced market possibilities and agronomic traits; clean and safe methods for production of edible vaccines and drugs; wider environmental impact through development of clean technologies; reduction in dependence on costly fertilizers and herbicides resulting in valuable savings for poor-resource farmers; and no evidence that commercial transgenic crops contain new allergens other than those in normal foods nor have a negative impact on human health.

Allied to such advancement are the issues of biosafety and biosecurity. GMOs have actually been one of the first beneficiaries of biosafety assessment. Guidelines and directives issued by several international and UN agencies, inclusive of the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission the universally accepted authority that sets the necessary standards, have been of great help. Nevertheless, the negative rather than the positive aspects have been retained, as is typical of human wont, in the public mind. Loss, of plant biodiversity resulting from economic reliance on a GM species for production of fruit juice; and of landscape diversity arising from demands for more land for public housing and transportation, have little to do with GMO ill effects on human health. As President Carter said: “By increasing crop yields, genetically modified organisms reduce the constant need to clear more land for growing food”.

A World Bank report on Bioengineering of Crops, in 1998, indicated the value of bioengineering in an improvement of 25% in food crop yields in developing countries. A year later the Bank, through a report on Agricultural Biotechnology and the Poor, drew attention to biosafety and ethical issues. In July 2000, a report on Transgenic Plants and Agriculture prepared by the Royal Society of London, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the Mexican Academy of Sciences, and the Third World Academy of Sciences also emphasized the importance of GMO technology enhancing agricultural benefits in developing countries.

On the other hand, genetically-produced cocoa and vanilla flavours developed elsewhere are eroding export markets in Côte d’Ivoire and Madagascar, and adding to unemployment levels. Sugar biosubstitutes are affecting the export earnings of Mauritius, Cuba, Grenada, and the Windward Islands. Also, the indiscriminate appropriation of the indigenous peoples’ knowledge, and the exploitation of native intellectual property resources without adequate compensation are other negative aspects of the globalizing use of GMOs which are obtained from parent animals, plants and microorganisms. Focus of attention has been primarily with the latter two groups of organisms. In summary, the negative features of use of GMOs are: loss of crop genetic diversity; economic loss of evaluated biodiversity and crop genetic diversity; threat to use of generic medicinal products, inadequate compensation costs, alteration in nutritional quality of foods; prevalence of religious, cultural, ethical issues (i.e. with vaccines and single-cell protein (SCP); and concerns of monopolistic ownership of the 15 major food and non-food crops.

The case of fermented foods in relation to GMOs is of interest. A wide category and range of fermented foods which may contain whole or parts of natural organisms, are prepared and conserved in near-to-safe hygienic conditions. Yet, they are widely ingested world-wide without fear or reluctance in contrast to the doubts and prejudices experienced with release of GM foods into public markets.

Significant promotional, permissive, precautionary and preventive choices; and, policy stances in the areas of biosafety, food safety, consumer choice, public research and trade have been featured for developing countries in the HDR. Public concern and debate in industrialized societies on environmental uncertainties and health risks of use of GMO technology should not discourage the developing world from reaping benefits from using GM crops and GMOs to solve their pressing problems of hunger and malnutrition. Much needed public education and understanding of GM food science through appropriate popularization programmes could help do away with vocabulary like “Frankenstein foods”, monster bugs and genetic pollution which only fuel fear and adverse reaction to GMOs. After all, humankind, unwittingly, has been eating genetically-modified foods since the dawn of agriculture as exemplified in wheat, which from the early days of wild wheat, then through einkorn and emmer wheat, and then through spaghetti wheat and bread wheat has finally resulted in biotech wheat. Controversial or not, GMOs could be the breakthrough technology for economic progress in developing countries.


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