Craving that agro-bio fix

Another day, another biotechnological solution to global malnutrition.

Published June 19, 2006 10:43PM (EDT)

Some 2 to 3 billion people, mostly in developing countries, suffer from dietary mineral deficiency. But a note today in SciDev.Net suggests that help could be on the way. Researchers at the Danish Institute of Agricultural Science have created a genetically modified wheat in which a key nutritional enzyme survives the cooking process without losing its effectiveness.

The enzyme is phytase, which helps people absorb zinc and iron. According to SciDev.Net, in wheat, phytase potency peters out at 63 degrees Celsius. But by inserting a phytase gene from a species of fungus, the researchers came up with a new form of wheat in which the phytase can survive temperatures up to 80 degrees Celsius.

Similar reports of agricultural biotechnology innovations that aim to address problems in the developing world routinely emerge from laboratories and research institutions. Last December, German researchers announced a genetically modified corn that could increase iron consumption. In March, the director of the International Rice Research Institute called for new strains of rice that would thrive under conditions of climate change. In years to come, building on the extraodinary advances in genetic science of the past couple of decades, there will no doubt be a flood of new biotechnological possibilities.

The application of technology to conditions of povery and public health poses a doozy of an ethical question. In the absence of hard evidence that genetically modified organisms harm the environment or are themselves unhealthy for humans, are we ethically required to explore their potential to boost food production in poor nations or otherwise address chronic health problems, such as iron deficiency? I went looking for a nuanced take on this question today, one that would avoide the stark Monsanto + GM = Great Satan equation that is popular with the hard-line anti-GM faction.

I can't say I found that. But I did spend several hours today reading "The Use of Genetically Modified Crops in Developing Countries," a long report published in 2003 by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics as a follow-up to a much anticipated 1993 report on GM crops that was later excoriated by some environmentalists. And it too, has come under criticism for being too "complacent" about potential dangers of GM technology.

However, flawed as it may be, the Nuffield report makes a couple of useful points that. One is that current research in boosting food yields or coming up with other "improved" strains of crops is dominated by a very small group of corporations who enforce tight control over relevant intellectual property. Just as is true in a world where drug development is dominated by Big Pharma, that means that research into problems faced by farmers in developing nations does not receive priority. Thus, the Nuffield report called for a massive increase in public funding of agro-biotechnology research.

But more to the point: While trying to support its argument that we have an ethical obligation not to stop GM crops but to push their development, the Nuffield authors set forth the following mandate: "We therefore recommend that in considering whether GM crops should be used or not, it is essential to focus on the specific situation in a particular country, asking the question: How does the use of a GM crop compare to other alternatives? All possible paths of action must be compared, including inaction, in respect of improving, in a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way, human health, nutrition, and the ability to afford an adequate diet."

Who could argue with that? Of course, the implicit answer that lies behind every sentence of the 144-page Nuffield report assumes that having made that comparison, GM crops come out ahead. That case has yet to be proved, much as I would like to believe in a new generation of supercrops that eliminate malnutrition from the globe.

I read that sentence fresh from a conversation with two people who work on recycling issues in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had been enthusing to them about new technology for converting landfill waste to diesel fuel. But instead of matching my enthusiasm, they scoffed. Better to design for reuse, to work on life-cycles that do not result in landfill waste in the first place, than to place one's hope on techno-fixes.

I don't know if we will be successful in finding sustainable, organic solutions to adequately feeding the 9 billion people expected to be on this planet by the middle of this century, without coming up with some dramatic technological innovations. But I'm definitely coming around to the point of view that more technology isn't always the best option.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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