Biotech for developing countries – the way forward

A RISE opinion on the link between food security, biotechnology and developing countries...

The RISE Foundation welcomes the news from Le Figaro yesterday which announced that both Pioneer and Monsanto have decided to make the genes of a drought-resistant GM variety of maize available to sub-Saharan African farmers royalty-free within the framework of a five-year development programme –Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. RISE had urged Monsanto last spring to give greater priority to drought-resistant plants as against pesticide-resistant plants, and to make them available – royalty-free - to developing countries, a gesture that would greatly improve agricultural productivity and food security in impoverished regions.

This announcement follows an earlier precedent which had been set by Syngenta, who have made their ‘golden rice’ available royalty-free to African populations who need to take in more vitamin A to fight river blindness. This was a very welcome step in the right direction moving the biotechnology industry closer to its fundamental role of ensuring food security for the world. Here we see another example, in this case with maize, which should help developing countries to improve the productivity of locally cultivated crops. Research shows that this GM maize could improve production by 20- 35% over the next ten years, or the equivalent of 2 million more tonnes. The gene will first be released in water-scarce regions in the US, followed by Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africabetween 2013 and 2017. The technology itself will mean that water losses can be minimised during periods of extreme heat, and that less water can be used to achieve the same yield.

RISE is committed to backing sustainable solutions to the world food security challenge, which along with climate change and natural resource scarcity is shaping up to be one of the defining challenges of this century. Currently, food poverty and shortages as well as the resulting high world food prices, are not only a source of misery, malnutrition and disease in places of low agricultural productivity, but their effects stifle development and create conflict which can keep the world’s poor trapped in a cycle of stagnation at the bottom of the world economic order. This is not only a human tragedy for those directly affected, but the instability it creates also has spill over effects in the rest of the world, in terms of migratory pressures, trade disputes and the increased risk of conflict. Furthermore, as other factors such as climate change and water scarcity combine, the pressure to provide enough food for the increased population will go on rising. For all of these reasons, we believe it is necessary to engage in strategic long-term planning, embracing the existing and emerging technologies which can help alleviate these pressures. It is truly a global problem.

For many months now, the RISE Foundation has listened to the evidence from a vast consensus of scientists who now believe that given the right supporting frameworks, agricultural biotechnologies can provide solutions to the looming food security challenge and at the same time improve the ecological footprint of agriculture – the two biggest challenges facing the agricultural sector today.

This doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind, we must of course be very careful to monitor the effects of GMOs on the environment and biodiversity which are still largely unknown. On the other hand, we must also tackle the question of the environmental risks that GMOs may help to solve in the context of the greater risk of climate change, and the need to find the solutions to facilitate climate change mitigation and adaptation. It is important to proceed on the basis of science, not superstition, and we must be bold in the face of tough challenges which lie ahead.

So far, the biotech industry is chronically underdeveloped in Africa and other developing countries, despite the fact that they are the ones who stand to benefit the most. Consequently, they rely on the developments made in foreign biotech companies and the willingness of those companies to make those technologies available affordably. In the short-term, we must ask - if the technologies exist which can help solve the problems of the world’s poorest and hungriest regions, why should they be denied access to them?

RISE has been arguing that technology suitable for use in many parts of the developing world (particularly drought-resistant varieties), can help to solve some of the most pressing and desperate problems of the world’s poor, and that the policy for its distribution should be reviewed.

This is not only a question of intellectual property within the biotechnology industry itself; ideological question marks from civil society about GMOs have also, in our opinion, stalled the progress and spread of new technologies to the regions where they are most needed. Indeed, it seems that NGO blanket opposition to any form of GMO technology has played a role in this. This is not based on evidence but speculation and an overly cautious approach which refuses to countenance the possible and now tangible benefits that biotechnologies can bring. Now, with this news from Le Figaro, Monsanto has taken a step in the right direction coming from an industry which has long promised solutions for the world’s poor while continuing to use such technologies mainly for the benefit of domestic consumers.

We should of course also work hard to ensure that African countries and other developing countries have the necessary infrastructure, investment conditions, policy frameworks and human capital to support the development of their own seed industries in the future. But in the meantime we must do everything to ensure that the world leaders in biotech invest and make available existing technologies which can solve some of the most chronic food security problems in developing countries. This alone would make an enormous difference and is a very encouraging sign. Let’s keep moving forward. Article by Alison Boyes.


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