BIOTECHNOLOGY is surely the most powerful tool ever put in the hands of agricultural research, or medical research, for that matter. Using advanced knowledge of plant genes, it is the same tool that has provided more than 100 medical products including insulin, hepatitis vaccine and products for cardio-vascular disease.
But where scientists and development organizations see better health and nutrition for hundreds of millions, others see danger. There are some genuine concerns about corporate ethics and potential impacts on health and the environment. But many of the fears are imaginary or misplaced.
The announcement last week by Monsanto, the giant American chemical company, that it will disavow use of the "terminator" seed sterility technology is a welcome step toward assuaging some of these concerns, particularly in developing countries.
Terminator technology prevents plants from producing fertile seeds, forcing farmers to buy more seed from a multinational corporation rather than using seed from the previous year's crop.
Storing harvested seed for sowing lay behind the success of the Green Revolution, which increased crop output throughout the Third World. Terminator technology would have threatened our attempts to feed the world in the next century.
But there remains a real danger that these controversies, if they continue, may so polarize consumers, producers, industry and government in both the developed and developing countries that it will become impossible for developing countries to realize substantive benefits from plant biotechnology.
Other concessions must be made by the biotechnology companies. Most important, they need to share their technologies and genetic information with public plant breeders working for poor farmers.
They should also agree to conform to the plant variety protection system, rather than resort to restrictive patents. This would permit public plant breeders to use seed to produce further improvements in a plant variety.
It is also important that those who enjoy the comforts of living in industrialized societies do not act to limit human initiative in an area of research that is so vital to so many people.
Vitamin A and iron deficiencies, maladies practically unknown in the United States and other industrialized countries, could potentially be banished among people in the developing countries whose staple diet is rice, thanks to a new variety of genetically modified rice that dramatically improves the dietary supply of vitamin A and iron.
At least 400 million women of child-bearing age suffer from anemia as a result of iron deficiency. This can lead to physical and mental retardation, premature births and natal mortality.
And more than 100 million children do not get enough vitamin A, the lack of which worsens the course of many infections and is the leading cause of blindness in developing countries. About 2 million children die each year indirectly as a result of vitamin A deficiency.
Following comprehensive tests, the new genetically modified golden rice will be made freely available for use by poor farmers in rice-eating regions within several years. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the European Union, this advance in biotechnology could noticeably reduce childhood and maternal morbidity and mortality rates through much of the developing world.
Yet an even larger challenge looms. In the next two decades, there will be an additional 1.5 billion people to feed. But crop yields have ceased to grow as fast as they did during the Green Revolution, and the availability of arable land in Africa, Asia and Latin America is dwindling. If nothing is done, by the year 2020, the number of undernourished could exceed 1 billion people.
The tools of biotechnology are going to be essential if crop-yield ceilings are to be raised, the environment preserved through reduction of pesticide use, the nutrient value of basic foods increased and farmers on less-favored lands provided with varieties better able to tolerate drought, salinity and lack of soil nutrients.
Let's hope that biotechnology's harvest will be less hunger and greater health for humanity.
Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, wrote this article for Newsday.
Pub Date: 10/19/99