Green Revolution 2.0

Frontier / by Maywa Montenegro /

As the global food system reaches its natural limits, it's time to rethink genetic engineering.

International Rice Research Institute

The past six months have brought scenes from a hungry apocalypse, as at least 14 countries have been wracked by food-related violence. By mid-April UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon acknowledged that “the steeply rising price of food has developed into a real global crisis.”
It’s the product, economists say, of multiple factors: high oil prices, prolonged drought, biofuel production, and burgeoning meat consumption. In the short term, food aid will help. In the medium term, market-distorting trade tariffs and farm subsidies must end. But the long-term task is monumentally harder: transcending the limits of today’s global food production.

The Green Revolution of the 20th century more than doubled the global supply of corn, rice, and wheat. Unless crop yields increase again, however, feeding the Earth’s 9.2 billion inhabitants in 2050 will require doubling the amount of land now under cultivation. There’s a gathering consensus that a new Green Revolution is needed — one that in addition to producing higher yields, is environmentally responsible and spurs economic growth in the developing world. Biotechnology, most scientists agree, must play a crucial role. But biotech, and genetic modification (GM) in particular, still faces profound public skepticism. As symptoms of an ailing food economy erupt around the world, breaking this impasse is more vital than ever. Doing so requires reimagining the tools of GM — how, where, and by whom they are invented, implemented, and sold.

GM crops now grow on 114 million hectares of land, with no scientific evidence so far of danger to human health or damage to the environment. Quite the opposite is true: By reducing the amount of pesticides and herbicides farmers spray on their fields and enhancing crop yields, GM varieties have dramatically curbed water pollution, biodiversity loss, and spared much forested land from being turned into farms. In China, for instance, the introduction of insect-resistant GM cotton cut pesticide use by 156 million pounds in just four years, lowering poison-related illness among farmers to a quarter of previous levels.

Yet strong opposition to GM persists, for reasons ranging from a misunderstanding of the science to an increasingly popular slow-food, organic, agro-ecological movement. But there is another, deep-seated antagonism, and it emerged most recently in the tepid report from the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The report’s coauthors argued in Science that GM crops do not solve “the broader socioeconomic dilemmas faced by developing countries.” There’s no doubting that most GM products to date have been developed for prosperous farmers in wealthy countries. “Our seed industry has virtually been turned over to for-profit institutions,” says Pamela Ronald, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis. “But whether you like these multinational corporations or not, technology is just being used by them as it should be used by less-developed countries.”

Indeed, Ronald and others are at the forefront of groundbreaking efforts to take genetic engineering from the private sector into the realm of public good. In 1995 Ronald isolated Xa21, a gene that gives rice tolerance to Xanthomonas oryzae — a bacterium responsible for a devastating crop disease. UC Davis licensed the gene to Monsanto and Pioneer but excluded those companies from developing rice varieties in poor countries. The cloned gene is now being distributed freely to Chinese rice scientists, who are breeding the gene into native hybrid varieties — all with support of publicly funded national research institutes. According to Ronald, “Farmers are going to be given the seed.”

Navigating the thicket of patents and licenses to get to this point, however, is a Byzantine mission. In the high-profile case of “golden rice,” two scientists unwittingly violated more than 70 patents in creating the beta-carotene-enriched seeds. Ultimately, the Rockefeller Foundation devised a way to satisfy all patent holders’ claims, and today — nearly a decade after it was invented — the first major field tests of golden rice have begun. Such experience led the Rockefeller Foundation to partner with the McKnight Foundation and 40 other institutions to establish PIPRA — Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture — an initiative through which plant biology researchers in the US can market their technologies to private firms while retaining rights for humanitarian purposes and subsistence agriculture.

Australian biologist Richard Jefferson has decided to circumvent industry claims altogether. Most plant genetic engineering today depends on the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens to deliver a gene into a new host. It is also, however, a method covered by a slew of patents, so Jefferson and his colleagues have begun tweaking other bacteria to accomplish the same task. These will form the basis for BIOS, a system Jefferson has described as “the kernel of the world’s first open-source biotech toolkit.”

Free distribution and local ownership of bioproperty will be one crucial aspect of the new Green Revolution. Another will be the cultivation of locally adapted varieties. “The second Green Revolution is going to be much more complicated than the first,” says Nina Fedoroff, a plant geneticist at Penn State, and science and technology adviser to the US Secretary of State. This time around, Fedoroff explains, scientists will have to address local needs and local crop varieties. Consider ringspot-virus-resistant GM papaya: “It’s been a wonderful, wonderful accomplishment,” says Fedoroff, “but the transgenic plants that are protected from the virus in Hawaii aren’t going to work in the Philippines.” Building locally focused biotech and training biotech-capable scientists is “a big deal,” says Fedoroff. “It’s a huge investment, and it needs to be done everywhere.”

Experts welcomed World Bank president Paul Zoellick’s recent announcement that the bank would double its lending for agriculture in Africa to $800 million in 2009. But wealthy nations — especially in Europe — must drop opposition to GM food for Africa and other parts of the developing world to fully embrace this technology. Mexico, for instance, will likely begin planting GM papaya because it has a market in the US; Brazil, however, which sells to Europe, will be compelled to plant conventional papaya. Africa presents a more complex picture, says Wellesley College political scientist Robert Paarlberg: Here the obstacles facing wider acceptance of GM technology are not just its European trade partners, but post-colonial European influence that has led African leaders to embrace some of the most stringent anti-GM laws on earth.

Whether changing minds or changing markets will be easier is difficult to say. UC Davis’s Ronald says she thinks “a sea change in acceptance” will come about when people associate GM food with papaya or golden rice, not with Monsanto. And according to her, the current food crisis will completely reshape the discussion on genetic engineering. Then again, China might galvanize global GM acceptance. “If China is genetically engineering rice, there’s going to be less of an inhibition for others,” says Ronald. “Though they’ve not yet distributed GM rice broadly to farmers, there are a lot of rumors that they soon will. Most people think they’re just getting their seeds in order.”

Originally published August 20, 2008

Tags decision making development food policy water

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