Acton Commentary

The Promise of Biotechnology

Biotechnology—the science of genetic engineering that allows the useful traits of one organism to be genetically transferred to another—promises to contribute significant nutritional value and greater yields to the world's current food supply. Agricultural biotechnology, in particular, is an exciting product of human creativity and ingenuity that holds great potential to add to the abundance of God's creation and to improve the human condition—central tenets of a properly understood ethic of environmental stewardship.

Here are a few examples of what agricultural biotechnology may soon contribute to nutrition, hunger, and poverty alleviation in developing countries:

  • Rapidly ripening fruits inhibit fruit growers from shipping their goods far from home, and some fruits cannot be kept fresh for out-of-season consumption. Biotech engineers, however, have found a way to slow the ripening process to allow fruits to be kept fresh longer. This breakthrough can increase crop yields since many goods rot before they reach the market, especially in developing countries. This also allows poorer countries to trade more vigorously—an essential component to poverty alleviation and economic development.
  • One of the developing world's most daunting environmental challenges is topsoil conservation. In the tropics, very thin layers of topsoil deplete rapidly due to deep plowing—a method employed to keep weeds from destroying crops. This technique turns the soil into a porous, concrete-like substance, forcing farmers to abandon the useless land for new land. Herbicides generally kill both the weed and the plant, rendering no-till methods useless. As a result, significant topsoil depletion in the tropics has occurred. In response, genetic engineers have found a way to make no-till practices work by protecting plants from the otherwise deadly herbicide, glyphosate. This would allow farmers to kill the weeds without destroying the soil.
  • Nearly 3 billion people rely on rice as a staple of their diet, but rice does not naturally contain an adequate supply of Vitamin A—a nutrient essential to good health. Consequently, night blindness and other diseases plague millions of people each year. To address this problem, Ingo Potrykus, professor emeritus at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, developed what is popularly known as “golden rice,” which produces Vitamin A in the endosperm. Prof. Potrykus and others are getting set to allow rice breeders in developing nations to introduce this trait into local varieties, free of charge.

Despite these successful and promising breakthroughs, the biotech industry has come under heavy criticism by the radical environmental lobby. Even golden rice, one of the most significant breakthroughs since the agricultural advances of the 1960s and 1970s, has come under fire. It seems that, for the skeptics, the mere fact that biotechnology is a product of science's application to nature, rather than a “natural product,” is reason enough to heap the highest level of criticism on genetically engineered food products. Among the especially clever naysayers, “Frankenfoods” has been the misleading catch phrase of choice.

On one hand, it is not surprising that a cadre of well-known environmental organizations is opposed to biotechnology. Other products of human ingenuity (e.g. chlorinated drinking water and PVC plastics) have been under attack by many of these groups for decades, regardless of the outstanding contributions they have made to public health. In their estimation, technology is often seen as human interference in the earth's natural balance of life. The Cornwall Declaration has something to say about this approach.

On the other hand, as in the case of biotechnology, it is truly amazing that any individual or organization concerned about the environment should oppose biotech advances in a wholesale fashion. Not only does biotechnology hold great promise for the world's hungry, but it leads to environmental improvement by reducing the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides. In Grains of Hope, J. Madeline Nash raises the following question:

“If [biotechnology] can marshal a plant's natural defenses against weeds and viruses, if it can induce crops to flourish with minimal application of chemical fertilizers, if it can make dry land agriculturally more productive without straining local water supplies, then what's wrong with it?”

Of course, a cautious approach to any new technology is certainly necessary. In this regard, biotechnology is no different. Concerns about risks have been prudently raised, and critics of biotechnology have contributed something important by assuring the use of proper safety measures and tests. Although we should proceed with caution, that does not mean we should not proceed at all.

The safety of genetically engineered (GE) products, moreover, is well established. For example, those who oppose biotech are quick to point out that the federal government only mandates a voluntary program of safety testing. They conveniently leave out the fact that every GE corporation has complied with each safety test recommended by the responsible government agencies. Failing to assure the safety of biotech products would be a disastrous business decision, for the market would be sure to react against unproven and unsafe products. In addition, before a GE product can reach the market, it must be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (for pesticides or microorganisms), the Food and Drug Administration (for food additives or drugs), and the Department of Agriculture (for plants and veterinary biologics). Any of these agencies can prohibit the marketing of any product that does not meet the appropriate safety standards. Critics raise concerns that GE foods may cause allergic reactions or have toxic effects, but no corporation has marketed a food product that has had these results.

Some arguments against biotechnology are simply illogical. Take, for example, the article posted on Greenpeace's Web site by Devinder Sharma. In her piece Biotechnology Will Bypass the Hungry, he writes:

“The reality of hunger and malnutrition is too harsh to even be properly understood. Hunger cannot be removed by producing transgenic [i.e. genetically modified] crops with genes from Vitamin A.”

She is referring here to golden rice which, as previously stated, will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the diets of many in the developing world. Of course, she is right in saying that golden rice cannot end world hunger by itself. Biotech foods, along with a host of economic, political, and agricultural reforms, are necessary in addressing the issue of world hunger.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish not to recognize the substantial role that biotechnology can play in fighting hunger and malnutrition throughout the world. Technology develops gradually as scientific understanding progresses. To dismiss agricultural biotechnology simply because we cannot immediately solve all of the world's problems does not seem reasonable. The more resources we bring to bear on the serious problems of human hunger and malnutrition, the better chance we have of improving the standard of living around the world.

Former President Jimmy Carter once said, “Biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is.” Carter makes an important point because he indicates a disturbing disconnect between the arrogant judgement of Western critics of biotech food products and the needs of the poor. The biotech debate is unique to developed nations because most of us already possess the resources to live our lives to the fullest. Others do not have that luxury, as finding the next meal takes priority. If starvation is the enemy, should we not use every possible resource with the hope of conquering it?