Genetic Engineering and
the Myth of Feeding the World
Vanaja Ramprasad
Keywords:  Genetic engineering; Sustainable agriculture; Biofertilizers; Biopesticides; Biosafety/Foodsafety.
Correct citation: Ramprasad, V. (1998), "Genetic Engineering and the Myth of Feeding the World." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 35, p. 24.

Following the arguments of Nguyen Ngoc Hai (Monitor No. 34), organic agriculture in developing countries is in need of modern biotechnologies, such as genetic engineering. According to Vanaja Ramprasad, the justification emanates from the issue of overpopulation and, therefore, exclusively emphasizes the quantity of food production. A reductionist approach however, based on the modification of organisms on a molecular level is detrimental to ecologically and socially sustainable food production in developing countries.

One of the biggest myths perpetuated by the advocates of modern biotechnologies is that these technologies, and especially genetic engineering, are likely to provide a solution to world hunger. But will they really?
While technology per se is lauded as bringing relief to life’s drudgery, it also carries social, economic and ecological costs. This side effect of technological development has become obvious with the advent of the Green Revolution which has led to a decrease in biodiversity and an increase in pesticide use. As the miracle of stability in food production is fading out, biotechnology and genetic engineering are heralded as chemical free solutions to the problems created by the technology of the Green Revolution.
The long history of fermented foods in various parts of the world prove that biotechnology is not a recent science. The same holds true for the application of microorganisms such as symbiotic nitrogen fixing bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi in biofertilizers. Farmers have been using compost, waste material that is degraded by microorganisms, as fertilizers for centuries. However, one has to distinguish clearly such age old methods that are now classified under biotechnology and the new genetic engineering derived from disciplines such as biology, biochemistry and genetics.
Yet another area in which biotechnology plays a major role is in the selection and breeding of crops. But while the basic need is to conserve and improve hardiness, nutritional value and yield of diverse crops used by the poor, the dominant research focuses on, for instance, gene transfer for pesticide resistance.
Herbicide resistance furthermore excludes the possibility of rotational and mixed cropping that are the basis of sustainable and ecologically balanced forms of agriculture and food security. These traditional cropping patterns have also helped in pest control. Since many of the pests are specific to particular plants, planting different crops in different seasons and different years causes large reductions in pest populations. Such cropping systems require less irrigation, which has been found to prevent the spread of the pests.
Hai talks in his article about drought tolerant varieties which could be developed through biotechnology. On the other hand farmers have contributed to the genetic diversity and the dynamic conservation of land races. The informal system has relied on the skills of farmers in maintaining, enriching and utilizing crop diversity. The main selection criteria are yield and yield stability, risk avoidance, low dependence on external inputs and a range of factors associated with storage, cooking and taste.
There are several more arguments to give evidence to the fact that organic agriculture should be free of genetic engineering. This technology basically changes the genetic make up of plants and animals within the confines of a laboratory. The transgenic experiments involve the transfer of genes from one species to another, which is not the normal process in their natural environment. If genetically engineered food is offered as chemical free and therefore organic, it will pave the way to undermine the very concept of organic agriculture.
One of the several arguments against genetic engineering clearly points out that a gene is not an easily identifiable and tangible object (see also Monitor No. 23). It is not only the DNA sequence which determines its functions in the organism, but also its location in a specific chromosomal, cellular, physiological and evolutionary context. It is therefore difficult to predict the impact of genetic material transfer on the functioning of the extremely tightly controlled, integrated and balanced functioning of all the tens of thousands of structures and processes that make up the body of any complex organism.
With this view one has to take stock of the basic difference in the approach of the old biotechnologies versus the new genetic engineering and the outcome thereof. Understanding the original and the new biotechnologies gives rise to two different paradigms.
The first one is based on the broad and holistic approach to a specific agronomic and socio-economic situation while the latter tends to search for a universal solution down at the molecular level. The fact that the new biotechnologies have taken off from the original is obvious. In trying to answer how the new biotechnology could benefit rural poor, a lot of work needs to be done. Research that is people oriented should strive to enhance multiple cropping and rotation techniques, rationalization of the use of wild plants in local diets and the upgrading of traditional crop protection practices. Using science in general to enhance the sustainable production systems is more important than offering miracle solutions with a reductionist approach.
Vanaja Ramprasad

Vanaja Ramprasad works for the GREEN Foundation, Bangalore, India

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