Seeds of hope, kernels of truth

June 4, 1999

Contrary to Prince Charles's protestations, GM crops can reduce world hunger, argues Michael Lipton.

Prince Charles's latest contribution to the debate on genetically modified foods, using the platform of the Daily Mail, condemns as "emotional blackmail" the argument that genetic engineering of crops can help prevent global hunger. He asks: "Is there any serious academic research to substantiate such a sweeping statement?" The short answer is yes. Sadly mass undernourishment is a hard fact and the need for GM crops to tackle it is accepted by almost all serious researchers.

There are three questions on GM plants and developing countries. Can genetically modified plants do much to reduce hunger and malnutrition? Yes,they can. Are there better means to reduce malnutrition, such as better distribution of food or more irrigation, so you do not need GM plants? No, there are not. Is GM plant research and development now organised in such a way that it will help poor people meet their food needs? No, it is not - it will need pretty fundamental changes.

There is a compelling moral imperative to allow GM crops to be available to developing countries, if they want them, in order to feed growing populations, although additional regulatory safeguards are needed to ensure the technology is safe. In developing countries the ability to grow salt-resistant or drought-resistant crops could make a vital impact in combating malnutrition.

Yet, at present, very little effort in GM plant research points towards reducing hunger. Less than 10 per cent of all land sown with GM crops is in developing countries or is sown with crops useful to such countries. But there is enough evidence to show tackling hunger is possible.

If we look at rice - putting genes from just two wild rice varieties into the best performing rice hybrids in China raised their yields by 20 to 40 per cent. A GM variety of rice has been developed that is resistant to one of its main pests, Tungro virus, and there is research going on into Vitamin A-enriched rice. Vitamin A deficiency affects over 200 million people, including 14 million eye-damaged children. So we need to be careful when we ask for restrictions on that sort of research.

Some people say that if you distribute resources such as land better, you will solve the problem of global hunger. But the speed of land reform or international aid,is inevitably slow. It would be cruel to sentence the poor to stay hungry until the rich can be persuaded to act selflessly. The rate of growth of yields of food staple crops since 1983 has been 1.5 per cent per year - far too slow to provide enough food or work for populations of working age, who are increasing at well over 2 per cent a year in the developing world.

Of course irrigation and land reform can help, and no one in their right senses would say that GM plants are the only solution, but given the slow growth in world yields they seem a necessary part of the solution. Just as the world could not feed itself today with the farming methods of the 1940s, so farmers can hardly expect to meet increased global demand for food in 20 years' time using today's crop varieties and agricultural technologies.

So is GM food research organised to help poor people meet foods needs? It is not. It is too heavily concentrated in a small number of very large firms that naturally emphasise the demands that come from their main markets. They look for GM maize that will resist herbicides; what poor people need is high-yield maize.

Britain can contribute to the revival of public sector plant breeding within the international system and can get the pattern of crop research back on track. Whether that is done is going to make a huge difference to the well-being of the world's hungry people.

Michael Lipton is professor of economics, University of Sussex and a working party member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

* Do we need to re-think the kind of GM food research British scientists are doing ? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk.

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