Food Biotechnology: Promising Havoc or Hope for the Poor? [was: Re: Rain]

E.C.Apling E.C.Apling at
Thu Nov 23 06:50:28 MST 2000

Seeing that my post was too large I must thank Les Schaffer for posting the
original URL; but in case, not too many have followed the link I as
reposting a few further salient paragraphs from the original article:


How “Natural” Is Modern Biotechnology?
Biotechnology is not radically new. Any method that uses life forms to
make or modify a product is biotechnology; brewing beer or making leavened
bread is a “traditional” biotechnology application. In the early 1970s,
however, it became possible to isolate individual genes from organisms and
to transfer them into others without the usual sexual crosses necessary to
combine the genes of two parents (Horsch et al. 1984; Bytebier et al.
1987). This requires the use of natural processes such as those provided
by a common soil bacterium (Agrobacterium tumefaciens) that “inserts” or
“transfers” some of its own genes into the root cells of plants
(Chrispeels & Sadava 1994). This led to what is now termed “modem”
biotechnology, which has opened the door to many helpful applications for
human health, the environment, and agriculture. All insulin produced since
1983, for example, is “transgenic”: a synthetic human gene, inserted into
bacteria, now produces the exact replica of human insulin (Ladisch &
Kohlmann 1992). Before this revolution in production, insulin was only
available from animals at an extremely high cost and was subject to
intolerance problems.

In agriculture, plant breeders have been moving genes from one species to
another for a very long time through sexual crosses, often using
“bridging” species. In wheat and rice, for example, many disease
resistance traits were introduced from “alien” species (Khush &
Toenniessen 1991). Biotechnology significantly broadens the available gene
pool for plant improvement. Although some might object to moving genes
from a bacterium, for example, into a plant on the grounds that this is
not “natural” or ethical, it should be remembered that the similarity
between bacteria and humans, for example, at the molecular or genetic
level is much higher than most people would think. The mitochondria in
each of our cells are most likely bacteria that once entered our cells and
made multicellular organisms possible (Mikelsaar 1987). The genes of the
soil worm Caenorhabditis elegans are 90 percent identical to those of mice
and over 70 percent to those of humans (Karlin & Ladunga 1994). No one can
therefore claim that a few genes out of the 140,000 genes that make up the
human genome (Dickson 1999) contain the essential nature of that species.
The nature of beings is either in the entirety of their genes or must be
well beyond single genes. (See also Krattiger et al. 1994.) In any case,
plant breeders have been moving genes from one species to another and
there have never been any problems with those transfers. Biotechnology
just allows for a larger gene pool for plant improvement.

Using modem biotechnology, plants can be made more resistant to insects,
bacteria, fungi, and viruses, all of which lead to global production
losses of well over 35 percent. The cost of these enormous losses is
estimated at over US$200 billion annually (Krattiger 1997). But modem
biotechnology can do more than simply increase crop yields. Food quality
enhancement also offers great benefits. Reducing certain enzymes in fruits
and perishable vegetables, for example, reduces their perishability and
significantly cuts postharvest losses (Neupane et al. 1998). In addition,
certain naturally occurring substances in plants can be increased such as
anticancer compounds naturally found in soybeans (Wang & Wixon 1999),
vitamin A in rice (Burkhardt et al. 1997), iron content in cereals (Theil
et al. 1997), or more non-saturated fatty acids in canola (Kramer & Sauer
1993), and other oil crops. Plants can also be used to deliver edible
vaccines, which would have a tremendous impact in developing countries
(Arntzen 1996, 1998).

Indeed, all of these technologies are important for developing countries
where farm to market transport systems are grossly inadequate and cooled
storage almost nonexistent and where diets often lack nutritional balance.
Over 100 million people in South and Southeast Asia alone suffer or are at
risk from vitamin A deficiency, which particularly afflicts women and
children (Lotfi et al. 1996). Because rice is a staple food that Asians
depend on for 40 to 70 percent of their total food intake, improving the
nutritional value of rice alone with higher beta carotene content for
Vitamin A, higher levels of iron, higher levels and better quality
proteins would make a bigger difference than any food technology has ever
made (see It is important to stress that all
of these technological applications are proven today and available today.
They could be deployed in the near term if only someone would donate and
invest in their transfer to benefit the poor.

---- and ----

The Green Revolution in the late 1960s and 1970s illustrates how important
agricultural productivity is for rural prosperity, food security, and
environmental protection. A total of 2 billion tons of cereals are
produced worldwide today on 700 million hectares (FAO 1997). Without Green
Revolution technologies, India would need to cultivate another 100 million
hectares to feed itself (calculations by the author). But these 100
million hectares of land are currently used to grow vegetables and fruit,
to produce export commodities (providing important foreign currency), or
they have never been cultivated. This last point is very important since
any additional land would be fragile, marginal land, where the impacts on
biodiversity would be greatest.

With pre 1960s technologies, the world would need another 1.7 billion
hectares of land for cereals alone! Where could that come from? Even with
all technology options, including biotechnology fully deployed, not even
the USA could meet such a challenge. It is critical to continue to invest
in and deploy new technologies to maintain prosperity. The world must
increase agricultural production in an environmentally sound and
sustainable way, but it should also do so in a more equitable way.
Agricultural biotechnology will be a large part of the equation.


Dr. Krattiger, a Swiss citizen, is executive director of ISAAA
(International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications)an
international nonprofit organization with centers in Africa, Southeast
Asia, Europe, and North America. Sponsored by public and private
institutions, ISAAA transfers agricultural biotechnology applications from
industrial countries, particularly proprietary biotechnology from the
private sector, to developing countries for their benefit. Dr. Krattiger
started his career as a farmer in Switzerland before pursuing
undergraduate studies in agronomy. He then earned an M.Phil. in plant
breeding and a Ph.D. in genetics and biochemistry from Cambridge
University, UK. He has served as associate scientist at the International
Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico (CIMMYT) and as an executive
consultant for the creation of ISAAA;


NFHS Member #5594
Mailto:E.C.Apling at

>-----Original Message-----
>From: owner-marxism at
>[mailto:owner-marxism at]On Behalf Of Les Schaffer
>Sent: 22 November 2000 15:44
>To: marxism at
>Subject: Food Biotechnology: Promising Havoc or Hope for the Poor? [was:
>Re: Rain]
>[ bounce (too large) from Paddy Apling, snipped since full article is
>available at the following web address:
>Les ]

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