How do we feed a hungry world? Proponents of the latest food technologies tell us that the answer lies in genetic engineering. In this article, Lee Hall explores their claims.
Genetic Engineers: What They Do
Genetic engineers are scientists who change the DNA of living organisms. DNA is the code of individuality in each living being, and genes are the parts of that code which connect to specific features of the individual. Scientists began to understand the now-famous helix pattern of DNA after a presentation in 1951 at Cambridge University by pioneering virologist Rosalind Elsie Franklin.
Two decades later, biochemist Paul Berg at Stanford University discovered how to join DNA from two different organisms in a single molecule. Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer would use this knowledge to insert DNA from an African clawed toad into the E.coli bacterium. Had Mary Shelley’s vision about Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory come to life?
Some believed the stage was set for catastrophe. In 1974, scientists converged in California for a government-funded international conference to review the state of the field. Reporters gathered as well. In a Rolling Stone article headlined “The Pandora’s Box Congress,” Michael Rogers described the four-day meeting as a “watershed in the evolution of social conscience in the scientific community.” Rogers quoted a scientist as remarking, “Nature does not need to be legislated, but playing God does.” More incisive were Erwin Chargoff’s words in Science in June 1976: “Have we the right to counteract irreversibly the evolutionary wisdom of millions of years, in order to satisfy the ambition and the curiosity of a few scientists?”
Then came the most startling news: The DNA combination technique was mentioned on an application for a U.S. patent.
In 1980, a five-to-four majority of the Supreme Court decided that a living organism is patentable subject matter. The Supreme Court based its decision on the expansive wording of Thomas Jefferson’s original Patent Act of 1793, and the Act’s 1952 update. The Court concluded that the Patent Act’s scope includes “anything under the sun that is made by man.” Practically overnight, the marketing of genes became a multi-billion dollar industry.
Biotech’s Big Promises
Public debate has followed rather than led the technology. Opposition to “Frankenfoods” is often met by the argument that biotech can improve and increase our food supply. For example, if frost shortens the growing season for tomatoes, whereas flounder can survive in very cold water, genetic engineers have thought it entirely sensible that the genes of these hardy fish might cut tomato producers’ losses in frigid weather. And indeed, they identified the gene that enables a fish to survive in cold waters, and they inserted this “anti-freeze” into tomatoes. Other scientists work with companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb to create nonhuman animals whose genes carry human antibodies.
Several companies now breed genetically altered pigs. One is Nextran of Princeton, New Jersey. Nextran, working with scientists at Duke University, recently obtained the government’s blessing to start human trials using engineered pig livers. Nextran’s John Logan concedes that “[t]he ethical issue surrounding the use of animals is a tough question,” but adds: “With pigs, it’s a little clearer. We breed and grow 90 million a year for food… In some sense, society as a whole has made that decision, that the pig can be grown for human uses.” Logan’s reasoning is based on an important truth: As long as social attitudes about consuming animal products remain unchanged, virtually any “useful” manipulation is allowed.
In 2004, Monsanto disclosed that it had bought exclusive access to a pig’s genetic map from the company MetaMorphix. Screening pigs for the genes that “make pork more juicy and flavorful or that improve breeding characteristics” will involve “the expertise Monsanto has brought to bear in its successful hybrid-seed business,” according to Michael Stern, the corporation’s director of technology, chemistry and animal agriculture. The result, expected by 2008, is “a brand of premium pork that consumers can easily identify, just as most people have become familiar with Angus beef.” MetaMorphix also has mapped the cattle genome, and is collaborating with Cargill Inc. to breed the industry’s ideal beef cattle.
Clearly, profits from “premium pork” are not the solution to world hunger, but gene engineers claim they’ll address that problem too.
Few people question the need to feed the world. Every year, 15 million children die of hunger. Yet the amount of food in the world, in relation to the human population, has never been higher. People who go hungry today do so primarily because they are denied access to food.
Biotechnology’s big promises to the world’s poor are bound to be broken. Because the true root cause of hunger is inequality, top-down methods of boosting production fail to reduce it.
Promoting Animal Agriculture
In U.S. commerce, the two main genetically modified (“GM”) crops are soybeans and maize. Most are fed to the animals we domesticate. In 1998, multinational giants Monsanto and Cargill teamed up to develop and promote “new products enhanced through biotechnology” for the animal feed markets.”
And where are the markets for the end result? Profits from flesh foods come mainly from the world’s wealthier areas. In contrast, most human beings on Earth live on a plant-based diet. And if we are serious about addressing hunger, the vegan diet makes the most sense. It’s well known that an acre of land can support, on average, about ten times more value in protein if it’s dedicated to farming beans and other vegetables rather than to made into grazing plots.
In the United States, we feed seven of every ten pounds of grain to the animals we breed into existence as food. Several Asian and South American countries devote vast lands and resources to produce soybeans to feed the cattle in wealthier regions. If we could channel a third of the global grain yield to needy people, hunger would cease instantly.
Nevertheless, companies keep selling the western image of meat consumption to less affluent regions. No wonder the imposition of animal agriculture often foreshadows calamity. Consider Egypt. For the past quarter-century, encouraged by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Egyptian government invested heavily in animal agriculture. The country now grows more food for domesticated animals than for humans. To feed its people, Egypt has relied on U.S. imports, which has jacked up debt. The consistent beneficiaries of this cycle have been large U.S. companies such as Cargill, which now controls close to half of the entire world’s grain market.
Harming Poor Farmers
University-based researchers and multinational industries, working together, strive both to “fix” nature and to treat it as a commodity, and in the process they make farmers dependent on methods that turn out to be as costly as they are manipulative. Biotech’s proponents pledge to augment food production in harsh climates by offering drought-tolerant crops. But poor farmers don’t tend to fit corporate marketing plans. Private business often ignores crops such as cassava, a staple for 500 million people.
Farmers who do switch to the crops preferred by big business will become dependent on the annual purchase of patented seeds. In regions that lack the infrastructure and low-interest credit necessary to route these products to poor farmers, biotechnology offers scant hope.
But proponents point to the new Golden Rice as proof of the field’s humanitarian leanings. This experimental rice is rich in beta-carotene, an important nutrient for millions of Asian children suffering from Vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A cannot be absorbed, however, without fat in the diet. And the deficiency, which can lead to blindness, is actually exacerbated by the single-crop concept, for it commonly strikes people whose diet has been mainly reduced to rice. Vitamin A and other key nutrients occur in the leafy vegetables that abound at the edges of rice paddies — vegetables that tend to disappear when farmers adopt single-crop systems and weed-killers.
Hiding the Keys
In August of 2000, Nature magazine reported the results of one of the biggest agricultural experiments ever conducted. Chinese scientists tested the modern method of sowing a single, high-tech variety of rice against a much older technique based on biological diversity. They found, much to the surprise of modern farming experts, that returning to biodiversity resulted in spectacular increases in yield. Rice blast, a devastating fungus, decreased by 94%, so that farmers could stop poisoning the fungus with chemicals. As environmental journalist George Monbiot writes, “The truth, so effectively suppressed that it is now almost impossible to believe, is that organic farming is the key to feeding the world.
Is the suppression of this truth on the rise? As this article goes to press, activists and academics worldwide are calling for the University of California at Berkeley to re-hire Professor Ignacio Chapela. The teacher was forced to clean out his desk before New Year’s Day of 2005. Chapela wrote a scientific paper regarding the uncontrolled contamination of irreplaceable native Mexican corn by genetically engineered corn. After Nature printed the work, Professor Chapela was denied his tenure, reportedly due to pressure from the biotechnology industry on the university.
The Risks of Gene-Mixing
One point Professor Chapela was making is that engineered crops, if not contained, can wreak ecological havoc. Evidence already indicates mixes have occurred in crops and wild plants. It is impossible to test for the presence of experimental genes in U.S. food products, because over two-thirds of US experimental GM crops contain genes classified as confidential, so testers wouldn’t know what to look for.
In November of 2004, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a new proposal to allow contamination of human food crops with experimental crops grown on test sites, Juan Lopez from Friends of the Earth International said: “The Bush Administration, with the active support of the biotechnology industry, is about to force their untested genetically modified experiments into the world’s food supply. This proposal should be ringing alarm bells in every consumer, every food company, and every food agency of the planet.”
Meanwhile, U.S. biotech and grain industries urged the administration to “vigorously promote global adoption” of guidelines to that involve filling out papers and performing two tests that the government estimates will take just 20 hours to complete — all voluntary. This, although windblown pollen from GM plots can kill insects on surrounding areas, and endanger small farms that rely on the interactions of predators and parasites who live among mixed crops.
The pollen can endanger other animals as well. A Cornell study showed that pollen from GM corn descended on milkweed plants and threatened Monarch butterfly populations.
A Growing Movement
Monsanto has genetically altered vegetables to make them resistant to the company’s own weed-killer, Roundup. This product may poison fishes, earthworms, spiders, mites, and beetles; and it may increase the cancer risk to farm workers. Although scientists know that the chemical accumulates in fruits and vegetables, more than 37 million pounds of it are now used annually in the United States.
A growing movement believes there are better ways of interacting with the planet and the other animals who inhabit it. There is some irony in the role of new communications technologies, including the Internet, as a means of knowledge-sharing. Activists with varied perspectives and goals are joining together to share knowledge about ideas such as schoolyard gardens. They’re pooling resources to obtain organic produce for communities. And they’re living with conscious regard for the animals who feel the direct effects of their decisions.
And as for the value of organic farming, it might just be the case that the truth is not so effectively suppressed after all. We have proof that these methods can be accessible, healthful, productive in harsh environments, and welcome in any cultural setting.
Examples abound. Two-hundred thousand Brazilian farmers using plant-based manures doubled their maize and wheat yields; 45,000 Guatemalan and Honduran farmers using Mucuna beans as a cover for hillside soil increased maize yields three times over; 100,000 organic coffee producers increased production on small Mexican farms by half; and in Kenya, 200,000 farmers planted beans and used organic methods to double their maize yields.
The way we grow food is indeed a key to feeding the world. It’s up to us to insist that this key is in good hands.